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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

POETRY Magazine: "unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards"

Someone named "Freewill Applicator" recently blogged up a less-than-enthusiastic review of a recent issue of POETRY Magazine. In response, the editor of that magazine, Don Share, posted a link to Applicator's hostile review. I commented:

Why is Applicator wrong? [Applicator had critiqued -- in a way that turns out to have been much more favorable than I had at first inferred -- this stanza by a writer named Nada Gordon:] "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend’s / house and we couldn’t stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn /and Hitler stay warm on a cold night." ...Anybody wanna defend that? Just what subtlety is Applicator missing in dismissing these lines of Nada Gordon [quoted here in pink ...meantime, Applicator has reached out to let me know that in fact he likes these lines... somehow I was unable to detect that fact in his initial post, probably because my own lenses were clouded by my own resentment of POETRY's prestige, which I, like millions of others, lack the fortitude to dismiss, continuing instead to covet it while trying to talk myself out of doing so]? ...just wondering.>>

But Mr. Share said: "I didn't say whether I thought he was wrong!"

So I said: "Don, if you were to agree with Freewill Applicator, that would be strange, wouldn't it? I would need help understanding how you could hold his position and yet publish the poem he despised. If you disagree with him, I wonder why that is. I feel I can learn something here, so I hope you'll comment."

He had also said: "I think I'll blog about the fact that one can take a phrase or some lines from any poem in the world to make it look bad." Following through, he wrote this, on the blog of POETRY Magazine (called Harriett after their founder of a century ago): The Line's for Real, where he claims that Blake's "Tyger, Tyger" is one of the few poems that can hold up to unfavorable excerpting. There, my own moderate response is awaiting moderation by the moderate moderator. Meanwhile, here it is:

"Maybe you are referring to the stanza recently discussed by one Freewill Applicator (it ain’t me & I do not know the person) at the seemingly genderless blog:
http://nonprovocativeurl.blogspot.com/2009/06/review-of-poetry-magazine-julyaugust.html, in a less-than-enthusiastic review of a particular issue of POETRY Magazine?
"If so, I think defending your choice (which you seem to be interested in doing, here in the current post) would require posting the entire poem, since you suggest that it only seems to suck because it was quoted “out of context.” By all means, let’s see the context. Will that change our perception? If context was the missing thing, we should have quite a different experience once it is restored. On the other hand, if the poem is part of a literary “movement” that deliberately spurns context and narrative in the belief that these are somehow primitive, or somehow have been discredited by WWI or the Internet, then “context” is irrelevant, right? Can one have it both ways?"
While that awaits a response, let's do like the Zap, and consider an example from the wacky world of painting: Imagine being shown a "detail" excerpt from a Jackson Pollock, say, the lower left quarter of "Full Fathom Five":



That's the whole painting. Here's the detail:


You might claim that incompleteness did the excerpt an injustice, but the complete painting is no more representational than the excerpt was. You can bring terms like "rhythm" and even "narrative" to a Pollock, but if you go claiming to see figure and ground in it, or linear perspective, you're on your own, though if you are a gate-keeping gallerist many artists will agree with you in exchange for a show of their own work, or a few column inches in the next catalogue of the gallery, or even some free Chardonnay. I am not above such things. 
See Plato's Phaedrus, 275e.

In 1959 Frank O'Hara, whose robust imagination and discerning musical ear are much harder to emulate than his penchant for found objects and free association, wrote this about Pollock: "
...new painting does have qualities of passion and lyrical desperation, unmasked and uninhibited, not found in other recorded eras; it is not surprising that faced with universal destruction, as we are told, our art should at last speak with unimpeded force and unveiled honesty to a future which may well be non-existent..." Yep. As Cubism was a response to the wreckage of other structures (bodies and buildings, mostly) in the First World War, which apparently turned both public architecture and soldier-boy heroism into a single losing proposition, so the advent of the nuclear bomb, in turn, did a larger version of the same thing, stabbing a pair of ironic quotation marks into the poor Oedipal face of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see..." Allen Grossman taught us all about this in a great 1990 essay called "Nuclear Violence, the Institutions of Holiness, and the Structures of Poetry."

Back to our story:

I admire poetry by "talk poets" like Mark Halliday and David Kirby, who put aside conventions of poetic form because they want to be socially informal while they talk about interesting things that happen to real people, using language that sometimes becomes memorable, even wonderfully so. I also enjoy much of the clever prose-like poetry of Stephen Paul Miller, who is not my kind of poet but whose intelligence and genuine Buddhist detachment has him writing some very interesting things of intermittent beauty and grace. And I really like the playful poetry of Brendan Constantine, whose speakers are usually inanimate objects, because his inanimate objects engage each other in relationships of desire, loss, pain and joy and so on. I mention these guys (and I know they're all guys) because much of their work is less grave than Homer,
Dickinson, Shelley or Yeats, the heavy hitting early Robert Lowell of the Quaker Graveyard, and yet I get joy and/or insight from it. I could mention another fifty or sixty (maybe 35% of them women, btw) currently writing poets whose work I love. Big-deal serious lyric poetry of public import is my favorite thing, which is why I try to write that kind. I do, however, love some lighter poetry and some even goofy-ass poetry. But as for "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend's / house and we couldn't stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn / and Hitler stay warm on a cold night." , there is an awful lot of it about, these days.

I thought,
If only there were a word for just what it is that I dislike so much... and then it happened! Using the information superhighway, I discovered I don't have to spell it out anymore. They call it FLARF! As its name suggests, Flarf poetry is other people's mental flatulence: if you analyze it as if it were literary, you are their beloved dupe; if you hate it, you are a philistine; if you love it, you are a blessed, ludic, less-deceived soul whose indifference to serious business (such as other people, their suffering, the past, our shared fate, America's troubles, etc.) shows you have been saved.

Here is critic Josh Corey on the matter:

"I'm no flarfist, but I admire the subversive energy of the project, the daring of setting out to write deliberately bad poetry so as to put our received ideas of "the poetic" into question. It's become a genuine movement, and the evidence of this is that critics (like Dan Hoy and Jane) and assorted flarfists are now struggling to control its reception. This is the final gesture by which a movement or poet or technique becomes canonical, I think: after this it's all consolidation and textbooks. Which does not necessarily negate flarf's subversive potential; but I think the energy behind flarf, the desire to upset the apple-cart, is bound to move on toward something else now."
A few years back someone at a certain bastion of Ivy League gate-keeping set out to "make a splash" (his words) in the publishing world by commissioning translators for a new set of Greek Dramas. What was the splashy part? He chose people who did not know Greek (one of whom told an assembled audience of over 200 MLA attendees [might've been the then-newly formed ALSC, I don't remember, but I was there] that he had accepted awards for his translations from the Hungarian without really knowing any Hungarian either, and that his graduate students had done most of the work --- asked [not by me] whether any ethical issue arose for him, he shook his head as if the questioner were, well ...speaking Hungarian).

Now, the good-ole American craving for fame may be sick, but it is a disease we inhale with each breath, passively consuming its memes and values like estrogen precursors in our tap water or radioactivity in our tobacco. Unless you had a perfect allotment of good-enough motherlove, you will be like Hart Crane in craving "an improved infancy" and perhaps hoping (as I confess I do) that literary fame will amount to one. That's a pathogenic idea, amazingly resistant to sensible critique because of its deeply emotional false promise, but it is rooted in real feeling and sometimes tethered to both an actual artistic gift and the decades of work it takes to learn a craft and produce real work.
But the desire to "make a splash" with bad translations, or upset the applecart with bad poetry (remember, the Flarfist is likely to embrace "bad" as a badge of liberation from the merely conventional rigors of "good") is something different. It is postmodern aestheticism, the precious, effete, winkingly decorative art of whimsy and camp that has nothing to do with what people actually go through, male or female, gay or straight. It is narcissism without the deadly earnest candor of the writer's heart to pay the price; it is the later Anne Carson of lists and acronyms, not the early Anne Carson of pain; it is a heap of broken, context-free toys that a grown-up is trying to want because they are what s/he has.

Guess who else likes to "admire the subversive energy" of aimless whimsy? Langley, folks! Because if you're going to be subverting things, your friends at The Congress for Cultural Freedom prefer that you subvert THE PICTURE PLANE or THE FICTION OF THE AUTHORIAL EGO or THE DISCREDITED IMPERIAL FRAMEWORK OF THE SONNET FORM, rather than, say, their own high-maintainence, well-lubricated, tax-free interest-free ever-liquid narco cash machine: http://www.fromthewilderness.com/members/092206_caracas_washington.shtml

Left to their own devices, some artists will write in the tradition of great Hollywood pinko movies like "On The Waterfront," with its unions and its workers and its real physical objects like food and bricks; they might even write about things like the CIA's own election fraud and political murders of leftists in Italy. Instead, try to have them write something more.... um,
subversive, like this: "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend's / house and we couldn't stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn / and Hitler stay warm on a cold night."

Now, I'm not saying that the person who wrote those aimless, centerless, shapeless lines -- or the editor who decided to publish them -- is in the pay of The Man. Some people will do this sort of thing for free.


Left to their own devices, some artists will write in the tradition of great Hollywood pinko movies like "On The Waterfront," with its unions and its workers and its real physical objects like food and bricks; they might even write about things like the CIA's own election fraud and political murders of leftists in Italy. Instead, try to have them write something more.... um,
subversive, like this: "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend's / house and we couldn't stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn / and Hitler stay warm on a cold night."

Now, I'm not saying that the person who wrote those aimless, centerless, shapeless lines -- or the editor who decided to publish them -- is in the pay of The Man. Some people will do this sort of thing for free.

http://www.fromthewilderness.com/members/092206_caracas_washington.shtml

Left to their own devices, some artists will write in the tradition of great Hollywood pinko movies like "On The Waterfront," with its unions and its workers and its real physical objects like food and bricks; they might even write about things like the CIA's own election fraud and political murders of leftists in Italy. Instead, try to have them write something more.... um,
subversive, like this: "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend's / house and we couldn't stop watching / unicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards / containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn / and Hitler stay warm on a cold night."

Now, I'm not saying that the person who wrote those aimless, centerless, shapeless lines -- or the editor who decided to publish them -- is in the pay of The Man. Some people will do this sort of thing for free.

8 comments:

  1. I've got nothing to say but that I loved reading this blog post, and will read it twice again. You should be famous.

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  2. Hi, this is Stan Apps. I do the Freewill applicator blog. I just wanted to note that I like the lines you quote by Nada Gordon very much. I don't understand why you think I don't, though perhaps it has something to do with how Mr. Share contextualized them?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi, Stan. Teach me to love them, too, please. What am I missing?

    I don't think it has anything to do with non-original context, since none was ever provided.

    Why do you like these lines? They strike me as empty, shallow, aimless, not to mention laced with playful mentions of Adolph Hitler (perhaps she meant some other person of that name?). I see repressed hostility posing as nonchalance, which is great if you're 15 years old, but I'm not. Again, how can I love these lines? Teach, if you will.

    "Pain comes in the night and we call it wisdom. It is pain." --Randall Jarrell, 1965

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Ok guys, thanks for the clarification. I have revised my post accordingly. In the meanwhile, I look forward to the fresh perspective that will allow me to appreciate the merit of the lines quoted in pink, which so far, several people have published or republished, praised or repraised, but nobody has defended.

    "Call it not patience, Gaunt. It is despair." -- Richard II

    ReplyDelete
  6. um, because it's hilarious?

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  7. That explains why they were published in National Lampoon. Oh, wait---

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  8. when i was in high school my friend and i were punks and we were joking around and i said i was going to write some ridiculously meaningless poem and pass it off as real. i wrote it and ended up reading it in front of speech class and the teacher was totally wowed and kept saying how beautiful the poem was. i thought that was the funniest thing in the world.

    i wish i still had a copy of that retarded poem!

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