Flarf: Poetry Meme-Surfs With Kanye West and the LOLCats


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Twitter, LOLcats, SadKeanu, Old Spice

This is the third in a five-part series about the value of verse in the 21st century. Read the first two installments here and here.

My friend and fellow graduate student David, often taken to coining ridiculous academic terms to help us talk about poetry, has come up with "the economy of attention" to address the following situation: how can a poem stake its claim to you, the reader (read: consumer), when a) there are so many cultural objects already in circulation, and b) there are so many poems? Because in the economy of attention, there is only so much space.

In this post, I'll examine a movement (and cluster of writers) that tackles (intentionally or not) the problem head on: flarf.

What is flarf? Well, as a movement that defines itself, in the dadaist tradition, as "something it's not," I'd be smart to approach this obliquely. Read here and here if you want some background. In the meantime, I'll try to ease into a provisional definition through one of the things flarf does: meme-surfing. WTF? Exactly.

Take the memes with which we're assaulted (and pleasured) daily, spit them back in even more (is it possible?) ridiculous forms, and slap on a wacked-out, attention grabbing title--now you've got a flarf. Okay--but it's more complicated. A flarf poem might use a Google search (say, "Kitty" + "Pizza") and collage the results to form a poem; a flarf poem isn't afraid (mimicking our other popular and news media) to go to the lowest common denominator (see Sharon Mesmer's "Annoying Diabetic Bitch", "Jake Gyllenhall's dog"); a flarf poem rejects poetic over-seriousness!, tossing out tired notions of epiphany (poem-as-discloser-of-elevated-wisdom) and New-Critical (or Poundian) "formal tightness." These aren't poems in search of greatness; in flarfist terms: these poems suck!

And for this reason, I think, we're more likely trust them. In the age of "fair and balanced" media, Flarf is the Jon Stewart of the poetry world. When William Carlos Williams lamented, "It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there"...maybe he should have thought of throwing in a couple poop jokes.

And in fact, like the Daily Show, flarf's meme-surfing often takes the form of social critique, as in, to circle back to my last post, Drew Gardner's "Chicks Dig War."

Now, it's my thought here that this poem is at least as accessible--i.e. able to draw in and hold the attention of contemporary (esp. younger) readers--as Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese." And not without complication: in "Chicks Dig War," there are plenty of formal shenanigans and obscure references (Phallocentric chicks: / they dig guys with big wars). But it's charming, ridiculous, and, perhaps, harder to tune out from.

It's so romantic.
chicks dig war (especially chicks on the pill).
The experience is just magical.
Oh, and you can get a really awesome war on.
Chicks like a nice war.

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Adam Roberts is a poet, educator, and post-graduate fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. More

Adam Roberts is a poet, educator, and post-graduate fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He encourages you to check out 350 Poems, part of 350.org's 2009 day of climate action. More of his writing can be found online at The Beagle, The Bee, And The Sea.
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