POETRY WILL BE DEAD IN 15 MINUTES: OR, ARE MODERNISTS, PO-MOS, AND FLARFISTS JUST A BUNCH OF ASSHOLES?

Vanessa Place: the Mona Lisa of Flarf?

We never met a Flarfist, but we’re beginning to wonder if Flarf simply belongs to the 20th century avant-garde art & poetry tradition of Asshole-ism.

Paul Fussell (1924-2012), author of The Great War and Modern Memory;  Purple Heart in WW II; PhD, Harvard ’52; essayist who taught at U. Penn, Germany, and London, wrote

Would it be going too far to consider what Modernism derived from the European political atmosphere of its time (I am thinking both of Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933) as a way of suggesting that Modernism in its way is an artistic refraction of totalitarianism?

In our humble opinion, no, it would not be going too far.  We’re talking T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, here, and it goes deeper than just Germany and Russia; British poets (Hulme, Thomas, Brooke) were swept up in male war-mongering before the Great War—Pound associate Ford Madox Ford (who would later rub shoulders with the right-wing Southern Agrarian/New Critics in the US) worked for the War Propaganda Bureau during WW I.

Scarriet has already exposed Modernism as a reactionary Men’s Club that bought low and sold high in the art market.  There was nothing freeing or broadening or insightful or revolutionary happening with the 20th century avant-garde.  It was never about freeing the world of capitalism and Edgar Guest.  It was just mean-spirited snaffling. The shabby treatment of Edna Millay by Hugh Kenner and the Pound circle is just one example.  So let’s look at this interesting quote from Amy King’s recent piece in The Rumpus where she talks about one of the critic Edgar Poe’s favorite topics: cliques.  King calls them ” intentional groups:”

First, let me back up to my graduate school days at SUNY Buffalo. I was naïve. I used to wonder why Susan Howe would declare that she “is not a Language Poet.” I didn’t understand why, in each class I took with Charles Bernstein, a certain core of “po-mo” boys were permitted to dominate discussions every semester while new female students would populate the room’s fringes, dropping away after the first week or so. I didn’t understand how intentional groups premised on exploring poetics intent on engaging politically as the “avant-garde,” presumably to destabilize power, might also be complicit in reifying the overall capitalist structure in the process of their empire building, er, institutionalization.

Not until the Flarf Collective came on the scene did I begin to think a bit more consciously about intentional groups. That is, my gut registered aversion to their private, invite-only email listserv, where some poets I knew abandoned ship with sideways notes of exclusivity and pretension, and others I know and like very much remained. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and numerous poets exploring its use value through various means of engagement, I thought about the similarities of Gary Sullivan heading up a group that was collecting poetic techniques and André Breton gathering his all-male cast of Dada members to compose his manifestos. I realized that, akin to Breton’s aims, the Flarf Collective was formulating a list of techniques and engagements that would ‘liberate’ us from the lyric, as they defined it. They were going to show us the error of our lyrical ways.

When I engaged them on my blog regarding some cursory problematics of exclusive membership, specifically in the case of Jennifer Knox who was not a Flarf Collective member but was before-their-manifestation employing techniques now claimed by Flarf, as were others, I was distractedly schooled on my own susceptibility to falling victim to emotional conditioning via a poem penned for me by Sullivan about my grandma’s labia. I am easily distracted. But I still wondered, since many poets were and continue to respond to the Internet and its impact, why did one group, a Flarf Collective, try to own that?

The similarities, and limitations, of Breton’s Dada-cum-Surrealism are worth a side note here for they speak to the risks of supporting and advancing intentional groups of this ilk. In a move towards recruiting additional worthwhile artists for his coterie, Breton laid claim to painters like Frida Kahlo (“’I didn’t know I was a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore . . . I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”), Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Leonor Fini (“Breton seemed to expect devotion, like a pope, and wanted me to become ‘a sheep in his gang’… I refused the label Surrealist.”). None became official members, and only by association are their paintings now read through the framework of Surrealism, often rendering limited, simplistic interpretations & even preventing the deeper engagement they deserve.

Beautiful.  Amy King is going to get in trouble, because she gets it.  We wish we could give her a hug.

The Flarf Collective think they’re special because they use overhead projectors and do stuff in museums and they can claim to care and not care about poetry as they turn it into conceptual art.

King is right to see Flarf as nothing more than a market ploy to advance a few careers, and this cynical view of hers unfortunately plays right into the hands of the cynical Flarfists.

The madder Amy King gets, the more fun the Flarfists have.

Forget it, Amy King.  They’re assholes.  Let them be.  Shit, they can’t be worse than Ezra Pound.  Let them have their fun.

And Amy will essentially agree with us.  As she puts it towards the end of her 2 part essay, “Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz:”

I’m not out to deny anyone institutional participation or access to resources; rather, I want to call attention to the claim these groups purport to block capitalism while intentionally employing capitalist techniques (i.e. media-style sensationalism to garner notice, sound-bite saturation, prolific self-referencing, reducing all other modes of subjective expression to exchangeable equivalences, etc.) to achieve and secure status within the capitalist structure.

We personally think it self-defeating to set oneself up as so anti-capitalist that it backs you into a dour corner seething with both resentments and contradictions; but putting that aside, it’s clear that Amy King, in her critique of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Marjorie Perloff and their Flarfist/Conceptualist mentality? behavior? stupidity? has got these clowns pegged.

We like the remark by Amy King’s friend.  When he heard that Goldsmith read poetry at the White House (with Billy Collins and others) and bragged that his (Goldsmith’s) exaggerated paisley suit was “subversive” because the suit maker was the same worn by the president, who opined he wouldn’t dare wear such a suit, Amy’s friend said, “Whether you’re an American president or an avant-garde poet, Brooks Brothers has a suit for you.”

John Quinn, the modern art collector who made the 1913 Armory Show a reality (Quinn gave the opening address at the show) was Eliot and Pound’s attorney, and negotiated the book deal for Eliot’s The Waste Land.  Walter Arensberg, another modern art collector, funded not only Duchamp but Williams and Stevens.   20th century avant-garde painting and poetry were boiled in the same stew.  The poets are late to the game, as far as conceptualism goes, but that’s only if poetry turns into its cousin, art.  Which really has poetry heading backwards, not forwards.

Perloff, et al, is just a continuation of the Romanticism-hating of Pound and Eliot.

Found Poetry has been around a long, long time, hasn’t it?   And was it really that interesting the first time around?

Originality has always been something to be aimed for in poetry, and it is never entirely achieved.   By definition, the less original a poem is, the less poetic it is.   How original is it?  The question can be maddening, obviously.  And to be entirely mad, one simply gives in to the madness and becomes Kenneth Goldsmith.  He is the monkey in the cage of the problem.

Goldsmith is stupid enough to think that “plagiarism and theft” will “erase the ego.”  But last time I checked, the ego of the criminal is the biggest ego of all.

Flarf is nothing more than Duchamp all over again, except now instead of calling Duchamp-ism “art,” the Flarfists call Duchamp-ism “poetry.”

And that, my conceptualist friends, is the only difference.

“BEFORE THERE WAS BILLY COLLINS & TED KOOSER, THERE WAS EDGAR GUEST” –RON SILLIMAN

 

Billy Collins: hated by the Olson-ites.

Ron Silliman knows that Billy Collins does not write like this:

And I can live my life on earth
Contented to the end,
If but a few shall know my worth
And proudly call me friend.

–Edgar Guest (1881–1959)

Every poet knows Billy Collins is nothing like Edgar Guest.

Silliman’s remark is nothing but a rankle: he and his friends are not popular, and he fears they never will be popular.   How sad, then, that Ron feels it necessary to equate a witty, free-verse writer like Billy Collins with a hack doggerelist who happened to be popular for a time.

Dorothy Parker (another popular poet like Collins) wrote of Edgar Guest:

I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test
Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest

We ought to pause here and ask a simple question: what is the popular?

The answer is simple: the popular is neither good nor bad in itself, though all want it; the popular may be vain—but it is also human.

A popular poet, as instanced by Edgar Guest, may not be original or intricate or profound and it’s true that popularity and sentimentality go hand in hand.

But if Silliman and his friends are to ever have the popularity Billy Collins enjoys, and that they so obviously want, they will need to reach out to the public.  The public is sentimental—sentimentality is the stuff of which the  public’s interest in poetry is made.  There are levels of sentimentality, of course, but the trick for the poet is to be sentimental artistically, or artful sentimentally.  The sentimental is human and the human is popular and none of this can be avoided, not even in the hearts of the Language Poets. 

Did Charles Bernstein have Edgar Guest in mind when he coined the term ‘official verse culture?’ Does Bernstein feel personally oppressed by the aesthetic failure of doggerel? Is there an official culture of doggerel? 

When Gerald Stern asked Bernstein to “name names” at a 1984 poetry conference in Alabama, Bernstein was rather tongue-tied; when pressed to name names of poets who belonged to this official verse culture of Bernstein’s, he could only name one poet: T.S. Eliot. The reasons we might entertain for such a choice are obviously complex, but Bernstein has wanted critics to be included as poets; include the theoretical, not just the pretty, is the real issue, quite obviously, for Bernstein.

But sentiment, the key to the public, to popularity, can certainly co-exist with intellectuality and theory. That’s what the genius is able to do. That defines the artistic genius.  If you asked the Language Poets to point to specific elements in their poetry that cannot be popular, would they be able to point to such elements? And if they couldn’t, the question then must be asked, ‘Why aren’t they popular?’

If the public expects certain attributes in their poetry, should the Language Poets refuse them? I shouldn’t be speaking of the Language Poets as a group, since they don’t compose as a group, except to include them in that large group of poets who have no popular poems.

It will not do to pretend that sentiment can be avoided (in poetry it can’t), or to pretend sentiment cannot be avoided except when one is making jokes at its expense—one will never be popular if one persists in either of these two approaches. Sentiment is the clay, and how it is shaped makes all the difference; but when one attempts to deny the clay itself, one will inevitably be obscure. Without sentiment, you lie under sediment.

It is not that Guest or Collins are more sentimental than the poetry of the Language poets, than the poetry of Silliman and Bernstein and Armantrout; Billy Collins shapes sentiment into more interesting shapes than the Language Poets do, and thus Collins enjoys and deserves more popularity. If repeated successes in publishing and award-giving finally push the Language poets, all pushing 70 now, onto a threshold of potential popularity, the only thing that will push them over the threshold into real popularity will be a sincere appeal to the public and its sentimental nature.  There is no other way. If the other elements in the Language poetry agenda are crucial to mankind’s well-being, all the more reason for that poetry to be popular and reach as many people as possible.

No excuses, such as I am not Edgar Guest, are allowed.  

Silliman and his Language Poet friends are a self-enclosed tribe whose secret handshake is: ‘do not write like Edgar Guest.’  They learned this from their forerunners, the Modernists. Successful, these poets all, in killing the ant, Edgar Guest, but meanwhile the real dragon, Obscurity, wounds them. The Olson-ites are pleased to have killed all the villagers of Guest-town and they are looking for thanks and applause, but the villagers of Guest-town are all who might have loved them, and now they are dead.

Silliman and his friends oppose themselves to the “Quietists.”

But they are so quiet themselves.

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