Monday, June 16, 2008

This is only going to get me into trouble, but…

I was thinking about the debate, to call it that, between flarf & conceptual writing, and specifically thinking that such a debate was in many respects the healthiest single phenomenon I’ve seen regarding poetry in several decades, because it meant that there were two contending (contesting) approaches to the new, and that you can actually feel the discourse getting off the dime finally of what to do after langpo and just doing it. And that feels so long overdue, frankly.¹

Then I had the thought, what if this were the 1950s? There are some interesting parallels. Flarf & conceptual writing appear literally decades after the last collective literary tendency, not unlike how the New Americans showed up 20 years after the rise of Objectivism. And there are already different voices & formations, again as in the 1950s. So the question occurred to me: if these are the new 1950s, just who are flarf & conceptualism. And then suddenly it was as clear as sunlight in spring:

Flarf is Projective Verse
Conceptual Poetry is the
New York School

Flarf, precisely by its interest in “deliberately awful” writing, is amazingly writerly. Its first notable device, Google sculpting, is not unlike way Olson et al reconceived the use of the linebreak & its relationship to speech so as to completely redefine how everyone (not just the Projectivists) would think about poetry. In this scenario, Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson is For Love for its generation. K. Silem Mohammad’s Dear Head Nation is what – the first Maximus? I don’t want to carry this analogy too far – Nada Gordon & Katie Degentesh don’t have to fight over who gets to be Denise Levertov (both are considerably more interesting in the long run, anyway). It would be valuable to note the differences between these formations as well – flarf is far more democratic, small d, for one. One doesn’t see Gary Sullivan pulling a “Reading at Berkeley” number any time soon. And is Rod Smith the Duncan, the Blackburn, the Edward Dorn?

Conceptual Poetry, like the NY School, borrows importantly on concepts from the New York visual arts world. Like Personism, it’s not about individual works of great art. It doesn’t overvalue personal creativity. It opts for fun. And it’s nostalgic for traditional forms – Kenny Goldsmith & Christian Bök, to name two, are deeply retro in terms of the projects they choose. Their relationship to fluxus & dada are as direct as Ashbery’s are to Stevens & Auden. All they’ve done is to switch the nameplates.

So where are the new Beats? Is that what slam or def jam poetics are about? I doubt it, actually, given just how completely the key early Beats were into form & literary history, but the whole valorization of the street poet, especially by the numbskulls who confuse Bukowski for a beat, has a deeply anti-intellectual strain one finds at a lot of slams.

And what would be the new SF Renaissance? One senses that the New Brutalist phenomenon really has not borne a distinct literary sensibility (one doesn’t hear anyone speaking of the New Yipes series as the foundation for a new poetics, for example, tho maybe I’m just hard of hearing). Is there a distinct aesthetic perceptible in Bay Poetics? Or are Bay Poetics as much of a fiction as was the first SF Renaissance? Maybe what that scene needs is a Jack Spicer, but is there anyone just plain grumpy enough?

It will, I think, be obvious that such an analogy as this does a lot of violence to all those named, for which I apologize, sort of. Sort of, because I don’t think my gut feel here is wrong. What we are seeing is the resurrection of some very basic tendencies active within poetry for over half a century, seeing them coalescing once again into shapely coalitions we can actually name. From my perspective, old collectivist that I am, this can only be a good thing for moving poetry forward.


¹ From my perspective the great “tragedy” of langpo is that there were no other seriously contesting approaches to poetry. Actualism, which I’ve written about before, dissipated after the death-by-alcoholism of Darrell Gray, and the NY School, gen 3, was never interested in working out its relationship to other poetics, period. Everyone else was pursuing the isolato mode of individualism, still the most popular (and futile) option.