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


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.

You could feel buried in irony, here, if it weren't for the fact that we are surrounded by these shifting "moods" daily.* The traditionally Romantic goals of the poem are abandoned--or diverted--in the context of a media-culture that undergirds continual war-making. The poem relies instead on the language of advertisement and youtube comment and bro-speak ("Chicks like a nice war"); redundancy ("Oh, and you can really get an awesome war on"). But it's in no way, I would argue, unmagical. Rather, poems like Gardner's are like double agents, infiltrating the potions we're fed (or slipped) to try to unrender them (and hijack their powers!). Instead of doing this from some vast and insulated moral distance, they are instead a kind of jewelweed, treatments growing near the (more ubiquitous) ivy. **

For another, albeit very different example of meme-surfing, listen to K. Silem Mohammed surf memes through his "Sonnograms"—anagrams of Shakespeare's sonnets, and some of my absolute favorite poems to come out recently.

Amazing, right? With "Sonnograms," as with much of this work, it's the wacky premise that grabs you, too. Ditto for Justin Katko's "opera," "Death of Pringle" ... in which our poet is a kind of demented Homer (and the Pringle his Odysseus).

"Death of Pringle" is as much script-to-early-90's-video-game as it is epic, as much music video as "contemporary poetry." For both it and the "Sonnograms," it's the daringness (and absurdity) of the frame itself (exact anagrams of all of Shakespeare's sonnets? a one-man opera chronicling the life and death of a Pringle?) that grabs us and sucks us in. This game of WTF one-upsmanship--long familiar in the art world since Duchamps' original "potty joke"--is quickly becoming a recognizable phenomena in everywhere from YouTube to advertising to mainstream news coverage. Sometimes we call it lowest common denominator--but other times, it's something different. Poems, and poets, can learn from it. To quote the opening of "Death of Pringle":

It is thus that the Fate of the Commons and Autonomy itself is an Imperative Function of the Efficacy of the Poets' Song. Will their Lyrics be well enough Advanced to Hijack the Technoitopian Scheming of the Imperial Regime? Can a Pringle really DIE?

What next? So, "meme-surfing" and "WTF one-upmanship"--these are ways I'm suggesting poetry can mimic, and stay relevant within, the cultural logic of global capitalism. Can they compete with a Kanye West twitter explosion? Maybe not. But I'm not sure those aren't "flarf" too--all it would take is a respected-figure-of-the-poetry-world copy-and-pasting some of them into a word document. Or wait--not even? Flarf itself, as a decade-old movement in the art world, is probably already opening onto newer conceptions of what gets, and should get, called poetry. Are celebrity tweeting, blogging, and the like--armed to both succeed within and complicate the economy of attention--the new frontiers of poetry?

Maybe. (Really--I'm not sure I'd lament this.) But it seems, also, not enough for us all on its lonesome. What if we also read poetry to help us opt out of this funhouse-mirror world of accelerating (capital-flooded) cultural production? Are there alternate networks (read: economies of attention) that we can help build? What are their Lyric technologies?

This is where slow poetry comes in.

Next week: Adam discusses the "slow poetry" movement.

* See Ryan Trecartin's video art here for another example of this. I think also of Ginsberg's "America": "America, how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?"

** From Wikipedia: "An oft-repeated folk saying, "Wherever poison ivy is found, jewelweed grows close by", is not true. Poison ivy grows in a wide variety of habitats, while jewelweeds are restricted to moist bottomlands and valleys with rich soil. The reverse is often true on the other hand: wherever jewelweed is found, poison ivy is usually close by." The analogy only grows stronger...