Thursday, May 14, 2009

Flarf- Conceptual Poetry and CNBC

Since so many people around the world are going through the Great Recession with me it has become a kind of group experience. No matter what happens in my day the reality of the Great Recession is right there like a muscle pull always reminding you of what might be.

I have had time however to think about the situation we as a world find ourselves in and something has become clear to me. The reason we are in this situation is because of elites and their domination of the conversation.

I often watch CNBC during the day. This is just to avoid TV shows with Depends ads. As you listen to the business leaders on the screen it becomes very clear that none of them are in danger of losing anything. They all went to the best schools, they all come from the best places and when this is over they will still be on top. It is kind of like watching a poetry panel with Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten and Michael Palmer their place is secure and they have no fear.

The result is that the realities of life and the fear of many of us are abstractions to them. All of the TV personalities also live in a dream world. They all speak the same language and talk about the same things. The millions of people who have lost so much are simply not real to them. The result of all of this is that when this is over the Elites will be on top and the rest of us will be left with the scraps on the floor.

One respite in this sea of stress and vexation for me are pod casts. I especially like New York’s WNYC they have great conversations especially the Leonard Lopate show. I downloaded a poetry reading the other day that was held at the Whitney- advertised as a “poetry war” between Flarfists and Conceptualists.

Here is the URL to listen to the reading

I was interested because most podcasts about poetry suck. So I put this one on my ipod and went to the gym. I thought perhaps it would motivate me to write? The poets who read were Christian Bök, Nada Gordon, Kenneth Goldsmith, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, Kim Rosenfield, Gary Sullivan, and Darren Wershler

Kenneth Goldsmith who was the empresario of this event at the very fancy NY Whitney Museum set up some faux war between the Conceptualists and the Flarfists which is as relevant to our current world situation about as much as a war between Dungeons and Dragons Devotees and those who prefer Mist on Playstation.

It became clear as this podcast played on that what caused the economic meltdown- the elites serving elites and ignoring the effects of their work on society as a whole-- is also true in poetry. Goldsmith talked about ‘that in poetry there still is an avant garde’ and that these two groups are totally separate from the ‘mainstream’ poets who are getting published in the New Yorker.

Is he really serious?

Do people still worry about that? The way I look at it at least the New Yorker Poet gets a check with which he or she can buy some beer.

The reading began with someone bleating sounds then Christian Bok read his elitist drivel. Nada Gordon’s poem on why she loves men is sort of funny at the beginning but then you begin to think if a man wrote that poem using the same tone about women he would probably be called violent and misogynistic.

K Silem Mohammed’s reworked Sonnets are clever but he lost me when he said that he was the smartest man in the room. The poetry does not sound that different than many other experimental poets work? It must be the marketing that makes it better? Or am I missing something? Or is it because allot of it comes from New York and San Francisco?

The Podcast played and it became interesting to see how close its tone was to CNBC and the talking heads there. You had all the inside jokes and special words, which are also central to the elites on CNBC and secret codes (Flarf, NASDAQ). The separation from reality and the affinity with fine things and aversion to the ordinary the sense of being set apart from the masses. The elitism in this poetry reading oozed over the airwaves. This group of poets- who are mostly college professors- continued to ply their elitism not realizing how cliché they have become.

I have been spending allot of time lately reading through the 1930’s. In the Autumn of 2006 issue of Chicago Review Kenneth Rexroth was profiled and I have come to appreciate him more and more. In a letter to Jonathan Williams in 1951 he said that following about poets that I think applies

“keep away from dilettantes, potters and weavers, get your nose in the sweaty armpits of real people”

Maybe these folks need to get out of the Whitney....


Bureau of Public Secrets said...

You can find lots of Rexroth's writings at


Guillermo Parra said...

"... some faux war between the Conceptualists and the Flarfists which is as relevant to our current world situation about as much as a war between Dungeons and Dragons Devotees and those who prefer Mist on Playstation."

Wonderful critique. I found some of Goldsmith's comments at the Whitney interesting, as with some of his work. But his desire to proselytize his own greatness is dull.

I still can't believe how mediocre Flarf is as an avant-garde project. I suppose we can say they're good at marketing themselves.