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Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing is Apollo.

An introduction to the 21st Century's most controversial poetry movements.
Introduction

The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building.

Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry. Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we’re delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?

Our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the Internet age? These two movements, Flarf and Conceptual Writing, each formed over the past five years, are direct investigations to that end. And as different as they are, they have surprisingly come up with a set of similar solutions. Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well. Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seems to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean. Disposability, fluidity, and recycling: there’s a sense that these words aren’t meant for forever. Today they’re glued to a page but tomorrow they could re-emerge as a Facebook meme. Fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, these strategies propose an expanded field for twenty-first-century poetry. This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book; it continually morphs from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs. It is a poetics of flux, celebrating instability and uncertainty.

Yet for as much as the two movements have in common, they are very different. Unlike Conceptual Writing, where procedure may have as much to do with meaning as the form and content, Flarf is quasi-procedural and improvisatory. Many of the poems are “sculpted” from the results of Internet searches, often using words and phrases that the poet has gleaned from poems posted by other poets to the Flarflist e-mail listserv. By contrast Conceptual Writers try to emulate the workings and processes of the machine, feeling that the results will be good if the concept and execution of the poetic machine are good; there is no tolerance for improvisation or spontaneity.

Flarf plays Dionysus to Conceptual Writing’s Apollo. Flarf uses traditional poetic tropes (“taste” and “subjectivity”) and forms (stanza and verse) to turn these conventions inside out. Conceptual Writing rarely “looks” like poetry and uses its own subjectivity to construct a linguistic machine that words may be poured into; it cares little for the outcome. Flarf is hilarious. Conceptual Writing is dry. Flarf is the Land O’Lakes butter squaw; Conceptual Writing is the government’s nutritional label on the box. Flarf is Larry Rivers. Conceptual Writing is Andy Warhol. No matter. They’re two sides of the same coin. Choose your poison and embrace your guilty pleasure.KG


  FLARF & CONCEPTUAL WRITING
Jordan Davis Three Poems on Demand
Mel Nichols I Google Myself
Sharon Mesmer The Swiss Just Do Whatever
K. Silem Mohammad Poems About Trees
Nada Gordon Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas
Drew Gardner Why do I hate Flarf so much?
Gary Sullivan Am I Emo?
A poetry comic.
Caroline Bergvall The Not Tale (Funeral)
Christian Bök The Great Order of the Universe
Robert Fitterman Directory
Kenneth Goldsmith Two Poems from “The Day”
Craig Dworkin Fact
Vanessa Place Miss Scarlett

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. Goldsmith is the author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb (http://ubu.com), and the editor I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing is Apollo.

An introduction to the 21st Century's most controversial poetry movements.
  • Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. Goldsmith is the author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb (http://ubu.com), and the editor I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol...

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