Monday, July 6, 2009

Flarf and Conceptual Poetry: by children, for children

Welcome, Sillimites! Don't forget to read these too!

The good people at the Poetry Foundation have lost their minds.

This month’s issue gives lip to the ALL-CONCEPTUAL ALL-THE-TIME crowd, which leads me to believe that Christian Wiman & Co. must have dusted off some old copies of BLAST and thought the 1910s still had some interesting poetry left to be squeezed out of them.

Beginning things is an introduction by Kenneth Goldsmith, whose “essay” starts off with the falsest of propositions:

“Start making sense. Disjunction is dead.”

I’m calling bullshit. Straw man argument is straw man. Perhaps in the avant-garde world that led directly from the most unintelligible lines of the post-war modernist poems to the disjointed madness of l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e “poetry,” the refuse that is flarf and conceptual poetry counts as making sense.

Here in non-navel-gazing-land, however, it doesn’t. Yes, yes, Mr. Goldsmith, we can see in your poetic examples that “whole units of plain English with normative syntax, [have] returned.” However, as Noam Chomsky so wonderfully pointed out, “plain English with normative syntax” doesn’t always make sense.

Nor can this poetry in any sense be said to be “juncted” (I suppose “coherent” is the word here). Mohammad’s “Poems About Trees” makes as much sense as an R.E.M. song crossed with a Pollack painting. Seriously, folks. Why are you kidding yourselves?

Let’s find out.

Goldsmith goes on to talk about “[feeling] language again” and the “delight” and “joy” it brings. He compares C/F poets to children wrecking things. Well perhaps he does know who he’s kidding. A “movement” which can produce such beauties as “I Google Myself” (I thought it would be impossible to do worse than the original; color me incorrect on that count) is nothing more than a bunch of children playing at poetry.

When I saw Mohammad speak at AWP this year, he went on and on about how he made “sonnets” out of nothing but anagrams of Shakespeare’s originals. My question now, as then, is “what’s the point?” By his own admission they were not good poems. Why waste the time?

Because Goldsmith has here committed a Kinsley gaffe. These poets are, in effect, children running around the island, doing as they please. It explains a lot, especially that heated, “we’ve got sharp sticks” look whenever you bring up reality or getting off the island or why we got here in the first place and isn’t that a boat right over there?

So in his first paragraph, Goldsmith does get at some truth: conceptual/flarf poets are children. Considering 1) that I’m a grown-up writing for folks who’ve little interest in living in Neverland and 2) Uncle Shelby’s books have the corner on the “kids’ poetry” market, I’m tempted to just point this out and let well-enough alone.

Except Goldsmith opens his next paragraph with this doozy:

our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers.”

The hell it does. Perhaps Mr. Goldsmith has never put down his Adorno and McLuhan. I neither know nor care. What is nails-down-the-chalkboard (is there a German word for that?) infuriating, however, is that Goldsmith continues, saying that C/F poetry is attempting to solve the problem of “what it means to be a poet in the Internet age” and answer the question “why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s.”

Perhaps the irony is too deep for me. Maybe all these poets understand that they’re aping Ezra Pound in 1914. Or maybe they know they’re following in Duchamp’s footsteps, somehow pissing on new ground.

If not, however, let me answer these questions without having to resort to Conceptual and Flarf poetry. Question the first: “what it means to be a poet in the Internet age.” It means what it has always “meant” to be a poet – that you communicate through verse while at the same time “purifying the dialect of the tribe.” To use appraisal language, poetry is the “highest and best use” of language. We are its creators.

Answering the second question is even easier. You are always using someone else’s words. Admitting that, rather – being deferential to that, simply means you are an immature poet. Of course, we’ve already covered that, thanks to Mr. Goldsmith.

The real question is what does “this” mean in a world of 4chan memes and instant distribution? “This” of course, being the whole of writing and publishing and reading poetry. According to the current issue of Poetry, it means that hack writers can get their work and mini-manifestos published in a canonical rag. If all you’re interested is wrecking and playing, I suppose that’s enough.

What this new technology really means, however, what these Conceptual/Flarf people continually miss, is that there is now nothing between the poem and the audience.

There’s that nasty word I keep employing. That’s correct, y’all. What it means to be a poet in the internet age is not that you can more rapidly act like Burroughs and do cut-up poems, but that your poems have instant access to readers. To an audience.

You don’t have to be friends with the king, or the rich guy down the lane. You don’t have to blow your poetry professor. You don’t have to get a publisher drunk at a poetry conference.

You just set up a booth and go. No cost.

Now obviously this has worked in the favor of those crazy Conceptual/Flarf/Avant Garde/whatever Ron is calling them this week poets. I mean someone has to be going to those websites, right?

But all those folks have done is found themselves. Conceptual/Flarf poetry is the Rule 34 of literature. If you like amputees and gore, well, there’s an audience for you full of other folks who also have a disjointed sense of what writing is.

But what about that untapped audience for poetry? Is it 30 million Americans? 100 million? We don’t know. My guess is one-half to one-third of current American readers. Certainly it’s more than the 3 million we’ve got today. But one thing is sure – we aren’t reaching them and no one knows how to.

Why don’t we know? Because we’ve been given the most powerful publishing tool since Gutenberg and all we’re doing with it is turning walnuts into pigeons.

We should be ashamed.

Or, rather, we should be changed.

We must find what people like – what they’re “buying” if you can call it that – and make it for them. And make it in the most brilliant way possible – and when they buy it, they can find all the subversive, artistic things we’ve done. This is art, folks. Impenetrability and flash never make art. Expertly created work can. Art is work, not play.

When Mr. Goldsmith and his lost children understand this, maybe their work will grow up too.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I have a few blogs of my own and I always look at other people’s blogs for great ideas. In fact, not to sound like an advertisement, but if I were you, I would submit this blot to and let thousands of others see it for free. I get a lot of traffic and readers from them for my blogs. Anyways, I have added this blog to my social bookmark and I look forward to all the updates.


G. M. Palmer said...

Boy thanks, Jessica!
I fully support robots reading my blog -- doing my part to bring about the Singularity and all. . .

Geoffrey Philp said...

GM, once again a remarkable post about the state of poetry.


Anonymous said...

Dude yr a fuckin idiot

G. M. Palmer said...

No, Dudenonymous,

I can both spell and refrain from hiding under the invisibility cloak of anonymity.

However, thanks for letting us know about yourself.

G. M. Palmer said...

Geoffrey --

Thanks! What did you (or Campbell for that matter) think of my review of Shannon?

Geoffrey Philp said...

GM, I thought it was one of the best reviews of Campbell's work that I've seen: "Giving himself, he has given us a text, a poem that points the way towards a poetry that does not serve its master, a poetry that is not trapped in thought and academia, but a poetry for the people."

We should all aim for that kind of poetry

Moira said...

"Dude," good read. I feel your pain.

Jeff said...


Not sure if that's actually what a native speaker would say. The components of the compound word are translated literally. And if I do say so myself, it has a nice ring to it. Hehe.

Marinela said...

This is a great read,
"Art is work"very beautifully said :)keep it up

Anonymous said...

"R.E.M. song crossed with a Pollack painting"

You mean Murmur-era R.E.M., yes?

Nice! Sounds good to me- they're both classics.

KSM, though, is maybe more like Captain Beefheart crossed with Philip Guston, don't you think?

G. M. Palmer said...

Or Jefferson Starship crossed with Thomas Kincaid.

Anonymous said...

or Thomas Gray fused with Bob Ross (on acid?)

Geoffrey Philp said...

GM, to add to your arsenal here and elsewhere:

“For every Scott Fitzgerald concerned with the precise word and the selection of relevant incident, there are a hundred American writers, many well regarded, who appear to believe that one word is just as good as another, and that anything that pops into the head is worth putting down. It is an attitude unique to us and deriving, I would suspect, from a corrupted idea of democracy: if everyone and everything is of equal value, then any word is as good as any other to express a meaning. Or to put it another way, if everyone is equally valuable, then anything the writer (who is valuable) writes must be valuable, so why attempt another selection?”

Gore Vidal in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972 (Random House, 1972).

Ed Baker said...

you, my friend, are a breath of fresh aire!

and yes not only "work" but a craft.... art AND poem-writing...

do you know the true story of Duchamps urinal?

the one that is now celebrated isa the s e c o n d version.

Elsa von Freitag "what's her name" Baroness Elsa found the first urinal on the street and took it over to Duchamp's place where she set it up it got somehow maybe intentionally broke..

so he did a second version as if the idea was his... Duchamp and them other Dada-ist got lots of their "Art" from the women around them

then drove most of them nutz!

a phun read: Irene Gammel's Baroness Elsa

Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity

chapter 10 is "a gas":

The Poetic Feud of William Crlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and the Baroness

Anonymous said...

flarf bad. you good.

Matt Walker said...

wow...clueless on about 12 different levels.

G. M. Palmer said...

Ed and Cononycise,



I agree, the Children of Flarf are operating on a clueless level normally approached only by Scientologists.

ADRegan said...

I choose to avoid any discussion involving the legitimacy of flarf or conceptually poetry (it's not worth it, and the discourse is usually exhausting). Instead, I'd like to follow another line:

"No cost."
"...we’ve been given the most powerful publishing tool since Gutenberg"

As a publishing tool, the internet is severely limited compared to more robust analog forms, and its limitations are the cost (not to mention actual costs of websites that allow a better display of work than free blogs).

There are only 18 web safe fonts--three of those are wingdings--and the horrible Arial and Comic Sans are among them.

There is a lack of simple characters

It would be exponentially more difficult to code the Clairvoyant Journals than it was for Hannah Weiner to simply turn the page.

There is a great difficulty in experimenting with text's physical forms (outside of images, PDF, or Flash, which limit accessibility) but there is also an erosion of the reader's right to free or fair use because of the internet.

With that said, I think the internet is a great tool for distribution (not publication), and I think all poets should (and could) learn to code and get their work off the free blogs in order to control the method of distribution--and create contexts that don't begin with calendars, archives, and news feeds.

G. M. Palmer said...

AD --

It certainly is a great tool for distribution.

But it's also perfect for poetry publication.

If you're concerning yourself with "text's physical forms" then you're leaving poetry and working towards 2d or even 3d art.

That's fine (and there are certainly some great projects done along these lines, tangental to poetry but different nonetheless) but when you're talking about poetry as words and sound (not fonts and paper) then teh internetz are prime territory.

And really, you can do about anything in a .pdf or do what Anny Ballardini does and just make everything a .jpg. Every browser can read a .jpg and most of them read .pdfs (and Adobe reader is free anyway).

I think distribution is almost more of a sticky widget than publication since most places one would try to get some word of mouth on, like forums (that is, gatherings of like-minded folks) generally refer to such practices as spamming.

You can buy space on their pages, generally, but if your art sales will afford you that option, you likely don't need to advertise anyway.

So without advertising you're looking at distributing into the dark -- what's the quote? Shooting snakes in a drain with a shotgun?

ADRegan said...

On displaying poetry: While you can offer poems as a pdf or jpg, it is restrictive and alters the experience of the web environment. We want poetry to exist within the new medium rather than be translated (or placed on top of) for the medium.

I hope we don't approach a discussion of "what is or isn't poetry"


"If you're concerning yourself with 'text's physical forms' then you're leaving poetry and working towards 2d or even 3d art."

Working towards doesn't mean leaving.
b.p. Nichol, in Zygal, has no choice but approach 2D art in his poetry as he considers written language.
Additionally, once poetry is written down it has no choice but approach 2D art. Further complicating matters:letter forms have inherent value, and the text you write inherits the value of the type you use.

Language has a visual history that travels along with spoken word. A richer history than publication through the internet will allow. We're not replacing the printing press here, but the publishers.

ADRegan said...

That wasn't the version I wanted to post. Here's the scan from I'm glad I did miss post as the two digital versions of the same book illustrates how internet publishing lags behind print publishing (especially aesthetically), but it also demonstrates an awkward reading experience. My reading of the PDF is mediated by print experience regardless of the fact that it is a digital representation. This is poetry translated for the internet and stacked on top.

G. M. Palmer said...

AD --

Nichol's work certainly could be made to work better electronically.

A lot of these pieces fit not into poetry but between the written word and visual images -- like comics or certain kinds of pop art.

That doesn't mean they aren't interesting works -- just that you have to go outside of the discourse of poetry to properly engage them.

A few years ago I tried to make a term for this third sort of literature, but "propago" just isn't very catchy.

I know a lot of people get their dander up when I say this or that isn't poetry -- but I'm not calling it crap (unlike the work KG showed us in Poetry this month which is crap [even if flarf is just supposed to be funny crap, it could have been done better]), what I'm saying is that it needs its own discursive language, keeping it shackled in poetry does service neither to poetry or to "propago" (or whatever we want to call it).

Anonymous said...

Once again, your wisdom and dedication to the truth are exemplary. It's posts like these that remind me how luck we are to have the technology so that people can express themselves so candidly. Imagine how impoverished our discourse would be without contributions such as these. Excellent work Mr.Palmer. You should be very proud of yourself. I know I am!

Anonymous said...

I just don't see Kobe dropping $21000 on jello shots.

G. M. Palmer said...

Nonseqinonymous --

Um, I don't either?


Glad to be of service!

Speaking of discourse, I was hoping to talk more with ADR. Perhaps tomorrow?

G. M. Palmer said...

Also, Marinela -- thanks and keep up the good work and keep growing!

Max said...

You've got a point.

Unfortunately I had to wade through your hostility to get to it. Even more unfortunately you end with a paragraph that basically sums up everything that I think sucks about any art form.

I don't think art should be catered to what people are buying or what people like, mainly because then it's not an artistic expression, it's coldly calculated marketing. That's not what I call art. I don't think progress can reasonably be made that way.

Sure, people should be able to understand it, but if it's just going to tell them what they already know then why bother?

If people are making shit that makes sense only to them then yeah, they shouldn't bother releasing it. No one reads that, it's just an ego trip.

Having said that, although you claim in this post that you're "a grown up" I think the overall tone suggests otherwise. It makes it really hard to even partially agree with you. It just presents you as someone equally immature to those you're criticising.

G. M. Palmer said...


Point taken, though even-handed, calmly-stated rebuttals rarely make for good reading.

But again, point taken -- I'll do my best to present my argument in a less polemic form in one of the upcoming posts.

Anonymous said...


"good reading"=will be read, commented on, discussed=poorly constructed over eager frothing

"good art"=appeals to X% of the American consumer population

consumerism=an appeal to folks most infantile notions of constant gratification

"bad poetry"=doesn't appeal to the golden ratio of American consumers=childish

childish poetry=something that is worthy of making an [outdated & contrived] stance about

because over eager frothing re: fllarf all but guarentees the eyeballs of the "sillimanites"

so much dissonance so little time

G. M. Palmer said...

Honestly folks, is it so hard to come up with a handle? I have to let people post anonymously because I don't want to force folks to log in -- but for order's sake can you please at least sign your anonymous ravings with some sort of handle?


"good reading"=will be read, commented on, discussed

Um, yeah -- pretty much my point 'n' goal. If I didn't want people reading & discussing me scribblins I'd be writing a diary not a blog.

=poorly constructed over eager frothing

Jeez. Where's the eyerolling emoticon when you need it? If you're going to accuse me of "poorly constructed" writing point out where. Same goes for "over-eager."

"good art"=appeals to X% of the American consumer population

Que? Ideally "good art" would appeal to a nontrivial percentage of the American consumer population. Right now what is frequently lauded as "good art" doesn't even appeal to a nontrivial percentage of the American art-consuming population. We can and should be doing better.

consumerism=an appeal to folks most infantile notions of constant gratification

First of all, "consumerism" is your word, not mine. 2ndly, I'm not advocating for a consumerist model of poetry, I don't need to. Poetry (and all art, really) has always catered to its patrons. Unfortunately, poetry's current patron is academic, establishment poets. Ergo the art has become incestuous, masturbatory, and childish. Again, we can and should do better.

"bad poetry"=doesn't appeal to the golden ratio of American consumers=childish

I would say, rather, that bad poetry is poetry that is not useful -- and to be useful poetry has to first have a significant (or should I use nontrivial again?) audience.

childish poetry=something that is worthy of making an [outdated & contrived] stance about

Again with the attacks on style (I suppose because you can't attack on substance?). . .

and it's worth making a stance about because we as poets need to be reminded who our patrons ought to be. Not ourselves or other poets, but those who cannot write but can consume poetry.

because over eager frothing re: flarf all but guarentees the eyeballs of the "sillimanites"

Oh come on now, use "Sillimite." It has the proper thrust.

Donny Duke said...

I understand your charge of emotion directed at Poetry magazine in particular and contemporary literary poetry in general. What our poetry is about we're about, and at the moment - and this is getting to be a long moment - we are about what an animal would wear to survive, one at the cutting edge of fashion and agnostic to any real meaning. But I challenge you to go about your crusade? mission? endeavor? without the rant and the rave, with consideration and understanding, able to see yourself a robot as well. Believe me, you're not the prime example of our species, not yet at any rate. If you were even approaching such a realness you'd be able to challenge the literary establishment in verse, verse so compellingly poetic that even they would have to publish it.

Anonymous said...

You better not be bad mouthin' Burroughs.

Donny Duke said...

From a recent poem of mine:

Is my rifle here?
What dense energy is that?
It’s what shoots answers,
Will not let us see the way out.
Go ask people.
And they figure it out:
If we do get up there,
Anything, anything at all,
I have to do it.
I’ve got to get my courage out.
I’m about the idea change.
A body without a beard,
Without one iota of fashion together wrong,
If I’m rewriting I’m writing to version fad.
We are so swayed by our opinions.
Well man,
Your opinion,
No matter how sharpened,
Might be more narrow than life.
Can you average that?
Bout time you come in.
It’s actually better
To let the truth unfold
Instead of proclaiming it.
We evolve here.
You have my answer.
Now that’s actually what it is,
Truth evolving.
You’re welcome.

Adam Farcus said...

I think there could be some middle ground between your point of view and Goldsmith's intro. I liked the conceptual (and to a lesser extent the flarf stuff). I am a visual artist (and writer) and I can read some of the processes and forms used by these poets as related to and borrowing from conceptual, fluxus, and populist art. For me the thought process to understand this work is familiar, and honestly, new. My beef with some of the works in this section are that the form/process is all that is there...they're missing the personal, or emotional, or the viewer. This is why I say 'middle ground'.

I think some extra peeps that I would have curated into C/F would be:

[sorry for the 4 month delay]