The topic of flarf came up, and Justin and I were talking about how we liked certain types of flarf poems but not others. He mentioned K. Silem Mohammad, who I had never heard of, so I googled him and found this article from Poets & Writers, entitled “Can Flarf Ever Be Taken Seriously?”
The poet Rod Smith is quoted as saying:
Aesthetic judgments about what’s bad in a very hierarchal society are usually serving upper-class people with a certain amount of privilege,” he says. “So for a bunch of poets who are very well schooled in a variety of traditions of American poetry to take what’s considered bad and throw that at people is a very interesting maneuver. It’s not simply bad poetry; it’s quote-unquote bad poetry written by people who know how to write poetry.
A few things:
- What exactly does he mean when he says aesthetic judgments are “serving” a certain class of people? Seems like maybe these privileged upper class people are the ones making the judgments on what is “good” in poetry or otherwise, and therefore what’s deemed good reflects those people’s preferences, standards, moral system, etc. But if that’s true, what’s really more interesting is not what those judgments mean for the upper class and privileged who make them, but for those who are creating and consuming poetry. As for the former, the creators of poetry: what would it mean for flarf, which according to the article has been marginalized by the Poetry Gods, to be judged as aesthetically sound by those at the top of the hierarchy? Is flarf’s position on the margins of the poetry world an essential part of its character and appeal? Do flarfists even want their work to be more widely accepted, and if so by who? As for the consumers of poetry: how much do aesthetic judgments actually impact upon “common people”? I guess actually a fair amount: thinking back on what I’ve been taught is good poetry, it’s worlds away from flarfy stuff. But then we get back to the appeal of flarf: it’s a breath of fresh air, it’s authentic, it’s human, it’s not stilted. What does it do to flarf to be taken seriously by The Establishment; as writers and readers, what do we want for flarf? Seems like what’s more essential is not that a privileged cohort sees aesthetic value in flarf, which judgment then filters from the top down, but that flarf achieves more widespread acceptance from the bottom up. I want my friends to see that flarf has merit as poetry, especially those—the many—who have been put off by more traditional poetry.
- I winced at Smith’s assertion that flarfists are “well schooled in a variety of traditions of American poetry” and “people who know how to write poetry.” Even though Smith’s a fan of flarf, his own words exemplify some of the problems with the Poetic Establishment that he himself picks out. He disdains those making aesthetic judgments—or rather, a system in which those people serve as aesthetic arbiters—but he lauds the well-educated flarfists who know how to write. I think Smith is missing the mark here. Take Steve Roggenbuck’s Poetry By Emily Dickinson project, for example. What’s so great about it is its democratic aspect. Anyone can be a writer or an editor, regardless of how well-schooled they are in the poetic or any other tradition. It opens up poetry to everyone, kind of analogous to how in both material and subject, flarf itself draws upon spheres of life traditionally untouched by poetry. It’s almost dispiriting when Smith makes it sound like flarf is limited to “people who know how to write poetry,” particularly when he’s just come off scorning the arrangement where a privileged cohort makes aesthetic judgments. Granted, I pulled this quote out of context; Smith seems to be referring specifically to the group of people who established flarf at the very beginning. But the potential of flarf to democratize and spread poetry—in both a creative and consumptive role, as writers and readers—deserves to be looked at too. It’s fantastic that Edge Books, under the auspices of Smith, is publishing an anthology of flarf and presumably, as per the article’s title, helping flarf be taken more seriously. That’s top-down. It’d be even better to get poetry, flarf or otherwise, to the millions of people who, unlike the authors in and likely readers of the anthology, aren’t likely to be literate in “a variety of traditions of American poetry.” That would be a bottom-up effort, and I think a more essential one at that.
- If Smith’s correct that the original flarfists are educated in the art of poetry, maybe he’s helped get at why I favor some flarf poetry and not other. A friend lent me the book “The Anger Scale” by Kate Degentesh. Degentesh googled lines from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (a personality test for mental health) and composed the various results into poems. Even though she flarfed her base of material, I found that the poems were too similar to what I grew up reading and disliking. It was too mechanistic, highfalutin, unnatural. It didn’t go far enough with turning traditional poetry on its head. In contrast, what Steve Roggenbuck and other boykittens are doing with flarf and otherwise is warm, unconstrained, more human, and miles away from what I thought poetry was, in the best way possible. Instead of formulaically googling strings and grabbing what looks interesting, they’re pulling from IM chat logs, making image macro poems, spreading poetry guerrilla-style, and it’s more relevant to me as a person. Sorry, Establishment, poetry that’s obscure or way scholarly in both style and substance isn’t instantly meaningful. That’s certainly not to say that all such traditional poetry is worthless. But take a poem that declares “i dont care about reading a poem/who do you think i am, robert frost?” That’s something I would say. I might even say it lowercase. And it makes more sense to me. I’m not saying that poetry like this is good because it’s “easier” than traditional poetry. It’s good because in the way it’s written, in the mode of delivery, and in the subject matter, it’s closer to (at least my own) human experience. The flarf and other poetry that speaks to me does so kind of in the way that David Foster Wallace gets at what it is to be human (for me as for countless other twenty-somethings burdened with their own education). It hits me in a way that, all too often, traditional poetry doesn’t.
Also, let’s look at this quote at the end of the article, from the poet Douglas Rothschild, talking about flarf:
It’s all geared toward entertainment and punch lines and maybe a teeny little insight thrown in at the end. Poetry isn’t on my list of entertainment, it’s more important than that.
- Is the goal of poetry to provide insight? Does poetry maybe have various, sometimes-contradictory goals?
- Why isn’t entertainment important?
- Can’t poetry be both entertaining and serve some other, “higher” purpose?
- Why is poetry important to you, Mr. Rothschild? Does it bother you that poetry isn’t important to 99.99% of Americans? Or is part of poetry’s appeal its exclusiveness, as with underground music; do you feel you’re part of a select in-crowd, one of the few literati with the chops to write poetry and make value judgments on it?
- Do you think the flarf movement might be helping to shift poetry in from the margins towards the mainstream? Isn’t this a good thing?*
*For me the answer is yes on both counts. I wouldn’t be writing this essay and thinking about poetry if it weren’t for flarf.