Thursday, July 9, 2009

On the Flarf & Conceptual Writing Feature in the July/ August 2009 issue of Poetry

I don’t really know what to make of the July/August issue of Poetry Magazine. I mean, I could just go ahead and commend the Kenneth Goldsmith-edited Flarf & Conceptual Writing feature. Or, I could take to task the bland and occasionally awkward poems found elsewhere in this issue. I guess I probably ended up doing just that in this post, but I hope I've avoided any overt snarkiness or smugness. What’s more interesting to me here is trying to find out exactly what’s going on in this issue. What does it mean? I wish I knew some of the back-stage preparation that went into the current issue, because reserving a feature for the two leading progressive traditions in contemporary American poetry in a magazine more likely to dedicate further space to Tony Hoagland and Charles Simic is indeed a shock comparable to the 1931 ‘Objectivist’ issue, edited by a then-young and untested Louis Zukofsky. And that was, what, eighty or so years ago? Therefore, despite any reservations I hold concerning the issue’s actual execution, I’m excited to think of the many readers getting their first taste of Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad or Christian Bok. That’s a big deal, irregardless of any odious politics haunting the margins.

But then, let’s not pack it in and call it a victory just yet. It’s disorienting to finish the Goldsmith-edited feature and find one’s self glaring at ‘the Necessary Minimum,’ a Clive James-penned article that begins, “At a time when almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem, it is hard not to wish for a return to some less accommodating era, when the status of “poet” was not so easily aspired to, and the only hankering was to get something said in memorable form.” What? Now, I’m not naïve enough to have assumed this issue would lead to a gentle ‘softening’ of Poetry’s general aesthetic close-mindedness, but I can’t help detect a certain haughtiness here, not just on the part of James, but perhaps on the editorship of Poetry Magazine itself.

For literally the very first sentence following the Flarf & Conceptual Writing feature to be one in such staunch aesthetic opposition to Goldsmith et al. cannot be chalked up to coincidence. Clive James then praises the unconventional turns in the late work of poet James Merrill, explaining “…the best reason for trying to follow what he was up to was that he had proved he could actually do what he was no longer doing.” Now, this application of that old hoary dictum “Learn the rules before you break them,” is yet another slap in the face of Goldsmith’s selections. Even later, James praises Michael Donaghy’s poetry because he “…future-proofed the poem by cutting back on its context.”

Hmm, one wonders, then, what Clive James would make of the end of Mesmer’s ‘The Swiss Just Do Whatever,’ where she writes, “Why don’t you and Hannibal Lecter/ just kick out the jams?”/ ‘Cause you know you got the chamber, / the chair, / and Fear Factor.”? Or even better, Robert Fitterman’s ‘Directory:’ ‘Macy’s/Circuit City/ Payless ShoeSource/ Sears/ Kay Jewelers/ GNC/ LensCrafters/ Coach/ H&M/ RadioShack/ Gymboree.” I think James would be disturbed, and not just because that mall directory doesn’t even list a WaldenBooks. James would fail to note, then, how Fitterman’s ‘Directory’ assumes a form appropriate to critique millennial commericialism in a way Tony Hoagland’s far more conventional “At the Galleria Shopping Mall” fails to - exactly on account on the aptness of form in the face of the contemporary moment.

The segregation of the Flarf & Conceptual Writing feature has its advantages and its disadvantages. Now, the feature does serve to solidify the twin movements, if they even needed any further assurance. But then, this separation also lessens the potentially seismic effect of this feature. Goldsmith, at least, is as always a charismatic and articulate spokesman. He gleefully declares, “Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building… With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material.” Goldsmith also stresses the movement of the poem off the page, as “This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book: it continually morphs from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs. It is a poetics of flux, celebrating instability and uncertainty.” This, mind you, being the same issue where Charles Simic writes, “ There was a melon fresh from the garden/ so ripe the knife slurped/ as it cut it into six slices. / The children were going back to school. / Their mother, passing out paper plates, / Would not live to see the leaves fall.”

But then, the Flarfists actively engage their setting, even if the prevailing mood threatens to neuter their provocative vitality. Believe it or not, but the intentional crudity and ‘poor form’ of the Flarfists does occasionally pale in comparison to the repugnance of the standard Poetry Magazine fare included elsewhere in this issue. Nada Gordon’s “unicorn hardcore soft-porn abortion e-cards” fails to match the crass machismo of John Hodgen’s “For the man with the erection lasting more than four hours.” I was also struck by the downright archaic nature of many of Poetry Magazine’s selections. Tony Hoagland paints a quaint picture of “Summer in a Small Town” that begs one to ask whether such a charming scene actually even exists in 2009, while elsewhere we see clumsy “joy-buzzer buzzes” reminding the reader of nothing less than 1950s gag toys. The pop cultural and information rich appropriation of the Flarfists and Conceptual Writers integrate their poems in the midst of our late-Capitalist culture, and actually amount to a nightmarish realism - they are of our contemporary moment. But elsewhere, Derek Sheffield’s “…big, wild woodpecker” gives way to “a boy/ waiting for the bus and laughing/ at the cartoon bird laughing like crazy.” Though, wouldn’t the boy more likely be watching Pokemon, or something even more current, than old reruns of Woody Woodpecker? When was this poem written?

Drew Gardner’s zombie-killing heroines, K. Silem Mohammad’s police who are “90% Khalil Gibran, 10% carved wooden men,” and Gary Sullivan’s petitions to “Help me how do I look goth/emo without my mom noticing?” simply belong to, and actively engage our contemporary moment. The terror of Kenneth Goldsmith “Metropolitan Forecast” is, along with the ending of Noah Eli Gordon’s ‘Inbox,’ a book discussed elsewhere on this blog, one of the strongest artistic investigations yet made into 9/11. The sad arrogance of Goldsmith’s “Islam” is shocking, as he appropriates a New York Time interview with French literary ‘bad boy’ Michel Houellebecq, who notes that “Islam is a dangerous religion,” he said it was condemned to disappear, not only because God does not exist but also because it was being undermined by capitalism.” Hmm.

The flair and vitality of the Flarfists and Conceptual Writers simply displays a greater verve and beauty than the WS Merwins and Bob Hicoks who usually frequent Poetry Magazine. Take Jordan Davis’ “Turtles Generate Poems:” “No wonder they move so slowly-/ Somebody in there is/ Trying to write.” or Caroline Bergvall’s “The Not Tale (Funeral):” “The great labour of appearance/ Served the making of the pyre./ But how/ Nor how/ How also/ How they/ Shal nat be toold/ Shall not be told.” These are beautiful poems, with or without all the critical scree about their intentional ‘bad writing’ and offensiveness.

Can we honestly expect to see a greater tolerance for progressive poetry in established bastions of conservative writing like Poetry Magazine? I doubt it, but it would be nice to actually see a Christian Bok or Nada Gordon poem integrated every once and a while into the general selection of the magazine, where it can thrive in absurd juxtaposition to the Philip Levines and Charles Simics of the print world. We can only hope.

1 comment:

Meg said...


We are not talking about things that have political, social or religious contexts in which a person must choose to "tolerate" something.

It's more of the same old thing...obscenity versus content versus content which typically utilizes obscenity to sensationalize otherwise ordinary concepts that can be said to be on the spectrum of 1-10 in terms of conscience applied to demonstrable morality.

You don't tolerate something....and to say so is to impose on readers and critics alike a false notion of their own particular bias even if that bias is actually, a dislike a crappy poetry.