Gary Lehmann - Author

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Is Flarf Real?

The word has come up in poetry discussions for the last few years, but nobody seems to have a very good idea of what Flarf means. Flarf sounds like a cross between fluff and barf, which doesn’t exactly give the term the gravitas of words such as sonnet or sestina. When you seek out a definition from standard sources, they come up with contradictory definitions.

In a recent issue of Poetry, the editors say, “Flarf is quasi-procedural and improvisatory.” That’s not very helpful. Procedural is generally considered the opposite of improvisatory, but they go on. “This new poetry [is]...reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there.” Isn’t that pretty much what poets have been doing for centuries, sculpting poetic language from the great mass of free-floating language? But there’s more. “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.” This definition doesn’t tie things down very tightly. How can we readers tell a word that occurs in the poet’s mind from one that pops up on an Internet search? Why should we care about its source? Isn’t poetry about the impact words make, not their ancestry? For clarification, I guess, the editors add, Flarf is more Dionysian than Apollonian. OK. There it is then.

If you are still a bit confused, you might go to the web sources to get a definition. Flarf by all accounts appears to have been fathered by the Internet. Wikipedia defines Flarf as “an avant garde poetry movement” [That’s safe enough.] dedicated to the aesthetic “exploration of the inappropriate in all of its guises.” This definition doesn’t exactly tell you where to put the rhymed lines and how many stanzas maketh a Flarf. But it goes on. Wikipedia says that Flarf is a “hodge-podge assortment” of words taken from miscellaneous Internet searches offered up with all their grammatical inaccuracies, and is therefore not to be taken seriously. I think I can go along with that idea at least.

So what is this thing anyway? According to both sources, Flarf was a term coined by a poet named Gary Sullivan who says that Flarf is not to be taken seriously, because it was originally intended as “an in-joke among an elite clique, a marketing strategy, and as offering a new way of reading creative writing.” All right now that’s enough. If it’s an in-joke how can it be of interest to the general public? It’s either one or the other. And how does an in-joke turn into a marketing strategy? One looks inward; the other outward. It doesn’t make any sense. Other critics have called it Spam poetry after the junk mail that comes with an e-mail address. That might be true, but how does Spam become poetry exactly? There’s something missing in all these definitions.

Reading the poems that have been labeled as Flarf does not clarify the problem. Poems by Gary Sullivan appear on the page as the words to a cartoon narrative but without a connective story line. Poems in Poetry by self-styled Flarf poet Jordon Davis range from what I call short joke poems, complete with a punch line, to poems that reframe cultural icons like Bugs Bunny as a thug. Mel Nichol’s “I Google Myself” is a more traditional modernist poem about the self-absorption that occurs in the cyber-arena when people look at their own reflection too often. Sharon Mesmer’s Flarf poem “The Swiss Just Do Whatever” shows no sign of flarfliness that I can discern, no assortment of miscellaneous Internet words, not even a reframed icon. Instead it focuses our attention on shockingly lewd statements offered pretty much for their own sake. If there’s a common thread, here, I’m not finding it. I’m back where I started. What is Flarf poetry anyway? Some kind of joke?

If it’s a joke, it’s one that has traveled at Internet speed. The poetry world has been going Flarf crazy. Self-styled Flarf poets were invited to read at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City sponsored a Flarf poetry reading. Edge Books is planning to release the first Flarf anthology very soon. And the Poetry Club in Manhattan has sponsored its third three-day Flarf festival complete with flarfy music to accompany the general mayhem. So, it must mean something to somebody. Doesn’t it? Surely Flarf must mean something to somebody, even if Flarf’s proponents haven’t bothered to tell us common folk about it just yet. Can a whole movement in poetry just come along before it gets any real definition of itself?

Of course, part of Flarf’s definition is the counter-cultural effort to mock poetic conventions. Gary Sullivan says he wrote his first Flarf poem as a mock out of’s perpetual poetry “contest” which was widely advertised in the poetry press. For a fee, your poem would be included in an upcoming poetry book. Sullivan consciously tried to write a poem so bad that the editors of would be forced to reject it, but he couldn’t stoop low enough to exceed their low standards. The worst poems he could imagine could not solicit a rejection, but the effort to write consciously bad poetry became addictive. One of Sullivan’s early works was entitled “Flarf Balonacy Swingles.” The typos are intentional. Flarf has been associated with intentional typos and offensive language from the very first. Self-mockery is part of the Flarf culture, but does Flarf have legs? When we get past the initial joke, is there enough substance to Flarf to cause it to actually become the twenty-first century’s first literary movement, as advertised, or is Flarf just a silly lark which will die out when the joke wears off?

My personal reading is that it’s just too early to tell. As far as I can tell, Gary Sullivan and his fellow Flarfists are just spitting in the eye of high poetic culture for now, making fun of our poetic conventions and daring us to take them seriously. Sullivan is just a remake of Salvatore Dali, custom-designed for our day. Still, it’s too early to count Flarf out either. It may yet find a Dionysian niche and prosper there. A more settled idea of what Flarf represents still has time to emerge. What started out as pure silliness in Andy Warhol’s New York studios turned into a real artistic movement, called Pop Art. Maybe Flarf will be the Pop Art of this decade. It’s possible.

So, in the general spirit of the thing, here is my first Flarf poem. Although it appears to be against the grain of Flarf culture, I will justify it as a true Flarf poem, thus showing my contempt for even counter-cultural Flarf conventions. First, the poem is lifted from words written by another hand. Second, it is capable of multiple levels of reading and Third, it makes little sense outside its natural context and even there it’s full of useless advice. I take the poem to have sufficient self-mockery in it to qualify it as vintage Flarf. See if you don’t agree.

Pool Rules

Gary Lehmann

1. NO swimming without an adult present.

2. NO diving in the shallow end.

3. NO dunking or pushing.

4. NO running on the pool deck.

5. WAIT for the person in front to be
out of the way before diving.

6. NO glass on the pool deck.

7. NO peeing in the pool.

Flarf on dudes and dudettes.

1270 words



Blogger K. Silem Mohammad said...

[Truman Capote voice:] That's not Flarf, that's just Conceptualism.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Side said...

It is an interesting question: What is the significance of Flarf? With no disrespect to Flarf practitioners, I think that it has none. It is difficult to argue with the fact that Flarf is simply a technological reworking of High Modernist collagist techniques. Nothing wrong with that at all, but at least let’s be honest about it.

Incidentally, I no longer think innovation in poetry is possible or, dare I say it, desirable. I think that there has been no substantial shift forward since High Modernism. Most avant-garde poetry since has been mainly a rehashing of this under different labels.

4:19 AM  
Blogger Iain said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Iain said...


Am I reading you wrong, or did you just say that flarf can't be significant because it isn't innovative, and then go on to say that innovation in poetry isn't even desirable?

8:01 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Side said...

Yes, Iain, Flarf can't be significant in an innovative sense because its "innovations" are old hat. And because I believe that no poetry since High Modernism had been as innovative, and that the innovations that High Modernism gave us have still to be exhausted, then innovation at this current time is unnecessary.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Iain said...

Given that "innovative" is a modernist way of judging poetry significance though, it's a pretty recursive statement.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Side said...

Which statement of the two are you referring to?

2:03 PM  
Blogger Iain said...

seems recursive to judge how much a poetry has "moved forward" from modernism by how much it conforms to a modernist value ("innovation").

like saying "proof that islam is a false religion is that muslims don't accept jesus as their personal lord and savior".

not to be too confrontational. it's possible that i'm projecting past arguments against flarf's "significance" onto what you're actually saying.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Side said...

I don’t know if I was evaluating Flarf in the way you describe. I don’t assume Flarf to be “innovative” in the first place (I did use speech marks for this word in my earlier post), so given this I am hardly likely to evaluate it in terms of how far advanced or otherwise it stands in relation to the writing practices of High Modernism. I was just stating that its methodologies were modernist, and, as such, are not new, original, innovative, pioneering or any other adjective along these lines.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Iain said...

you say that you are

"hardly likely to evaluate it in terms of how far advanced or otherwise it stands in relation to the writing practices of High Modernism."

and yet to talk about how flarf isn't doing anything innovative, or isn't "significant" as you say "in an innovative sense" (a modernist evaluative measure) is to do exactly that.

am i still not making any sense?

5:36 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Side said...

I don’t know how you can suggest that a refusal to evaluate something is doing the opposite. I think you are just playing semantics now, and obfuscating.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Iain said...

really wasn't trying to, sorry.

7:21 AM  

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