Monday, April 13, 2009

Flarf All Who May

Kevin and Melissa,

I will address Melissa’s point about Flarf’s failure viz. its very own private descent into chaos first, and then address Kevin’s concerns.

I understand Sewell’s comments as being the desire to be understood and the desire to manipulate the understandable so that it “stretches” its meaning to include everything. Since that which is epic, mythic, monolithic and immensely universal can only be said in one way, we need to stretch what we say to encompass this universal, or at least what we attempt to reach. Though in an attempt to approach this chaos, we risk becoming chaotic too. So through inclusion we become more chaotic, and through exclusion we become more silent, which seems true to me, and obviously to Sewell, and apparently to those in this conversation as well.

I have several objections, the first and second to Sewell’s binary of language, and in regards to language used to potentially manipulate.
When I communicate I wish you to gain the same message I intend to send inasmuch as if I lie my goal is corroded and this counterproductively causes a communication breakdown. You wouldn’t understand what I understand, nor would you be able to respond, since I would be thinking one thing and you'd be responding with another in answering what you assumed I had said. The intention to do this is called doublespeak, and it’s this doublespeak that represents my first objection to the possibility of Sewell’s binary being the only way to understand language.

I want to clarify before continuing that I don’t assume that Flarf or any poetry (school) seeks to intentionally manipulate since I don’t think poetry’s main goal is to communicate in the above manner at all, but rather to convey image and impression, to disrupt cliche, and finally, to put disreputable language on the chopping block. In poetry, if you interpret my (in this case, the writer's) words differently from how I "meant" them, so be it.

So, primarily, the meaning that we look for in prose isn’t delivered in the same way in poetry, and in many cases meaning isn't delivered at all, unless you're missing the subtext. For example, if you read “The Road Less Traveled” as a poem, you realize that the poem is discussing the imagery associated with decisions and choices while telling about a decision the narrator made to take a path that most hadn't taken. On the other hand, if you read “The Road Less Traveled” as having meaning -- since meaning is something we all should only understand as proceeding from authorial command sent directly to readers (praying, and assuming readers don't misconstrue the author's language and since we assume that our prose communicates one thing and one thing only -- then we’d take the words to be only about a narrator lost in the woods and who then chooses a path that isn’t well-worn, which if you’re really lost in the woods is a really stupid choice. If Frost were a journalist, to write an article entitled, "How to Find Your Way Out of the Big Bad Jungle," would be manipulative and misleading but yet he would then be communicating meaning. If Frost wanted to communicate a reality, then he would be manipulating his reader into assuming that he is referring to woods and paths and that he's actually been in the woods rather than what he’s actually referring to, e.g., choosing to leave his wife or to kill himself, or to buy X toothpaste over Y, etc. If he wants to tell us to leave our wives or kill ourselves or buy the sensitive brand paste, but he says something different then Frost is being obtuse and obscures meaning through manipulation (subterfuge as manipulation). So it is this doublespeak, or doubletalk, that in literature might pose a threat to the idea that we’re conflicted between inclusion and exclusion.

[I also object to Sewell's binary simply because life isn't a binary: good/evil, black/white, Yankees/Red Sox aren't really the only options...but this is another discussion]

My third/next objection is to the claim that Flarf fails by becoming too chaotic in it’s own language and is based on a historical objection: we cannot possibly understand Flarf outside of the historical event that shaped it (at least that which made it the flower that most claim to hate currently), 9/11. This isn’t to say that if we haven’t lived through 9/11, we cannot possibly understand Flarf, but rather that for a more thorough understanding of Flarf we need to look at when and why (to the best of our ability, at least) it came about.

In the time period following 9/11, Flarf was seen as largely a reaction to the type of doublespeak that threatened to end Sewell’s binary above. The reason why the post-9/11 political climate threatened to end the inclusion/exclusion conflict is because politics in this era excluded through inclusion and included through exclusion. When you include through exclusion it’s called deceit. A perfect example of how politics deceived the public was by positing a theory, “Bin Laden did it,” and then passively encouraging that theory to spread while failing to provide sufficient evidence. Regardless of the truth, what follows is a vacuum: people assume that Bin Laden did it because “the TV said so,” and that there are “those in government who know the real truth even though we don’t.” The exclusion of truth here by media, government, and just about every talking head from here to Warsaw meant that the public then supplied it’s own interpretation (since we need answers and hate doubt and ambiguity). Flarf acted as one way (not THE way) within the poetry community (if there is one, that is) that poets were moving to counteract this attempt to turn the irrational into the dominant political philosophy (whether this worked is a different story, since as you might expect, not many people in power read poetry…). Flarf's stance seemed to be 1) listen to Bush's bullshit, 2) in disbelief, withdraw from a logical parry of said bullshit, since "if you're not with us you're against us," 3) engage in action whose message might be: your lack of logic means nothing, we know you're being illogical and we're going to create even more uncomfortable messages that expose the soft-authoritarian-cum-aggressive authoritarian bent of the current regime as specious and mere doublespeak, perhaps by flooding academic communities/poetry readings/culture with messages that muddy the regime's message (a message which claims it communicates but that actually doesn't, we should note again). If our message means nothing, more are likely to realize that in this heightened political climate, NO message serves to communicate, but rather to cause confusion, chaos and fear through labeling and sliding definitions of foreign policy, who's good and bad, and to hide the truth, this truth being that solving any problem isn't as easy as invading another country.

As to the accusation that Flarf is merely hipster irony, I ask: is Flarf even ironic? How can anything nonsensical be ironic at the same time? Irony requires understanding. And because Flarf seems to me to be not ironic but circuitous and a way to circumvent understanding (and misunderstanding, in that if there’s no assumed understanding, the expectation to “understand” doesn’t exist; the same works with Flarf's relationship with meaning). And so, Flarf circumvents “meaning,” as all poetry does. What a poem means to me is different from what it means to you. And this should be so, for things would be boring if it were any different.

I just received Rodney Koeneke’s RULES FOR DRINKING FORTIES. Koeneke is a very sharp writer, and I highly admire and recommend his work. Anyhow, I figured I’d best illustrate the problems with searching for meaning by quoting from Koeneke’s book, specifically, the poetic epigraph by Hannah Weiner:

details submit for
who ma

[Here I should note that there's about TAB's worth of space between details and submit that Blogger won't let me format...]

Ok, now: what does this MEAN? Anyone? (And when we're talking meaning here, we mean "what one message is there to be taken from this? What does this communicate?"

How does meaning have anything to do with poetry? How can it, since language is immense and this world is fractured and made up of 6 billion+ different interpretations?

I think the problem here is that we haven’t read enough Flarf, we haven’t read enough poetry, and we’re too lazy to assume that Flarf isn’t just one thing. Flarf is bathos, creepy, eerie, fun, boring, lazy, ironic, pat, provocative, smelly, corny, lame and trite. But this doesn’t mean that all Flarf has all of these characteristics, nor does it mean that all Flarf “poets” (I’m using scare quotes here because most writers of Flarf also write other types and styles of poetry as well) are only these things. To oversimplify and say that all Flarf is irony or hipstery or sucky or meaningless really does a disservice to all poetry, since Flarf is poetry and shares some of other poetic school’s characteristics, it insinuates that the harsh judge of Flarf is also willing to censor other poetry once it becomes “too much.”

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