K. Silem Mohammad has suggested in his talk at the AWP Conference in Denver that, if avant-gardes in the present merely recycle the tactics of avant-gardes from our history, such movements do so because "the first times, they didn’t take,” and thus such movements as Flarf and Conceptual Writing must do “the opposite of damage control”—“they [must] try to do the damage that didn’t get done enough before.” According to Mohammad, the current, literary culture of humanist lyricism has become a kind of “pseudoreligion,” subservient to an unspoken, literary maxim: “[o]nly write things that you yourself would want to read if someone else wrote them”—and he implies that, in a modern milieu where such normative expression has prevailed, we can only expect to get what we deserve: an avant-garde that lampoons writers who make a spectacle of their own honest sincerity rather than pose a challenge to their own poetic artifices. I might contribute to such a spirit of critique by concluding with the last installment of my “Flarf-based review” (in which I use the Internet to call up the ghosts of celebrities, who respond to an essay by Kenneth Goldsmith)—and if you feel so inclined, you can easily watch a video of my unsegmented performance (courtesy of Teresa Carmody at Les Figues Press…):


First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Never memorize what you can look up in a book. Never forget that certain clues at a crime scene do not lend themselves, by their very nature, to being collected or examined—for how does one collect love or hate? There is, between them, a Great Wall of China with armed sentries, posted every twenty feet. Where then is good English to be found? Not among those who might be expected to write well. I do not hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room. I do not date the lumberjack. I am, in fact, a software engineer, striving to build an idiot-proof program, bigger and better than the one before, but the universe is striving to build bigger and better idiots—and so far, the universe is winning. A creature low in intellect may conceive of thoughts, so long as it can recognize the same experience over and over again, and thus even a polyp might be a conceptual thinker if a feeling darts through its mind, saying: “Hello again, thingumabob!” If most of those who have taken part in this one-dimensional debate are really honest with themselves, they must admit that they do not, in principle, believe that any of us can do any good for anyone overseas. I know that this tree is a part of our history, if not the backbone of our economy, so we must get the tree back—or choke their rivers with our dead. I know that the most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s, and the most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s, and the most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s—but Peking and Moscow do not yet have anything beautiful. I have tried here to groan, “Help! Help!”—but the tone that has come out is that of polite conversation. I have put in a long, hard day at work, and I finally get to go home, to go to bed, where I close my eyes—and immediately I wake up and realize that my whole day at work has in fact been a dream, in which you sell all your waking life for minimum wage, while they get your dreams for free. Take sides! Take sides! You may sometimes be wrong—but the poet who refuses to take sides must always be wrong….

Originally Published: April 14th, 2010

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...