by Wilbur Dee Case
As T. S. Eliot once noted in an essay of his, which I am merely paraphrasing from memory, the poet approaches literary criticism from a different vantage point than the scholar. Now that might have had more significance in the Modernist period, when perhaps there were more serious literary scholars than we have today; for I am acutely aware of a shortage of them in this New Millennial period; but it is perhaps even rarer to find poets who are themselves sustained critics of their art. At least among the formalists, one can occasionally find a Dana Gioia or a William Baer; but unfortunately their poetry does not rise to the level of a Dryden, Pope, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge or a Poe, to warrant interest in their work.
Of New Millennialist poetic critics, one looks in vain for a poet whose critical work takes the field of World literature as his demesne and wracks his poetic art against it. Be that as it may, just the other day, I came across a recent piece: Where Something Beautiful Should Be, by Victor D. Infante. Not really an essay, it was less than eight paragraphs, it was a delightful piece of critical prose.
He begins in a bar in New York City discussing slam and flarf (which he metaphorically refers to as “redheaded stepchildren of contemporary poetry, both of which have had convulsive histories”) with an academician. The former [slam], he says “has had a long slog from the fringes to carve a place for itself in contemporary poetry”; while the latter [flarf] has “faced derision and…backlash.” I have to admit that I have peripherally denigrated both of these stepchildren, as the following two poems show where I stand now.
By Wilbur Dee Case
Poetic slams are all the rage. The people rise
up, yes, to let it all out — Pentacostally.
Perhaps they grab a mike with fire in their eyes,
and then proceed t’ orate, o, so passionately.
Like lovers giving lovers kisses, they begin
to let fly words. A hundred at a time, words flee
from out round mouths, o, hundreds at a time they spin.
And then it all starts to add up to thousands, yow,
so that one cannot count them all in such a din.
They go at it, like wolves out in the night — and howl —
intoxicated, soaring on linguistic cries
and verbal acrobatics, slamming, whamming, zow.
Another Literary (Bowel) Movement
By Wilbur Dee Case
“No poet…has his complete meaning alone.”
—T. S. Eliot, Tradition and Individual Talent
If flarf is only so much avante-garde rehashed,
a cutting up of texts, bizarre trajectories,
then it is nothing more than bloviating, mashed-
montage junkspeech, a splash of crashing nectarines.
If flarf is only so much fluff without dream’s stuff,
its reject glories but reshuffled errancies,
a googol Google-goggles gone up in a guff,
then it’s damn yadda dada data dayadhvam.
If flarf is only one technique, a stylized puff,
a sweep of e. e. cummings going o’er the dam
of jetsam/flotsam/get-some/got-some crashflash smashed,
without tradition, it is individu’l spam.
In his second paragraph Infante, calling them genres, goes on to delineate their separate histories, flarf from surrealism, dada, and Modernists, like T. S. Eliot, and slam from Beats and African American poetry of the”60s and ’70s. In his next paragraph , his says “this sort of game” can be played out through “any of poetry’s myriad threads…” like, “confessionalism or new formalism.” And in his fourth paragraph, he states, “They did not spring wholly formed like Athena from the head of Zeus,” which got me thinking about my own poetic practice, which is what, I suppose, a good literary essay should do.
Although I have such a negative gut reaction to both slam and flarf, I realize that in my younger years of experimentation, I went through both of them, when they as yet had their present nomenclature. In my early practice of poetry, in the 1970s, I made page after page of disembodied words and phrases — myriad passed through my mind. I made preposterous poem after poem in the incoherent style of writers such as Wallace Stevens or John Ashbury. In addition, I remember writing a stilted poem, Cicadas’ Voices, of a hundred or so lines, modeled after T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. I guess I was flarfing when flarfing wasn’t cool. As for slamming, how often did I not in the late 1950s and early 1960s get on my bike and go round and round upon Olson Road and relate adventure stories to the wind…
By Wilbur Dee Case
“Each person has a window on the world.”
—Lew Icarus Bede
When I was young I used to ride my bike
around and around in an oval loop
along a straight stretch of an asphalt road;
and I would relate varied stories like
they were being listened to by some group;
though along this stretch there was no abode.
Still, I’m so thankful for that distant time,
because without it, in these present days,
I’d lack a reference to the sublime.
I am so thankful for that sunny phase.
…or cry out in oratorial proclamations to the universe in the late 1960s through the mid-’70s. I vividly remember getting up at the light of day at the University of Washington in Seattle, and going around in choral squawk; or in the evenings, walking for hours on end, into the night, and singing the most horrible songs, even if they were genuine soundings. I have since fled those early embarrassing forays, though how often do I not still continue to sing and make songs on my way to work and back?
That is what time and history do — they blur one’s memories.
In the next paragraph, he mentions the recent deaths of many poets, including Seamus Heaney; but there was one figure I had not heard of — Hashem Shabani. And so I looked him up on the Internet, and found this poem by Abdul Serecewi, which showed me I am still involved with flarf.
By Abdul Serecewi
He had to die for waging war on Allah, yes;
and after all he was an Arab in Iran as well,
who came from Ahvaz. It is so. Confess, confess.
And then, of course, he was a member of this hell
called Earth. He mocked the sacred revolution too.
How could he ever do that willingly? Tell, tell.
And then he tried to raise his voice for others, who
were beaten, eaten by the state. Relate, relate.
Why even President Hassan Rouhani knew
he needed to be hung, and fast. How could one wait
to clear corruption’s body from this bloody mess?
Come clean, come clean, and bring this bard upon a plate.
One place where flarf strikes me as particularly interesting is in the Ern Malley episode in Australian literature; and for me flarf has some of those same qualities, humorous foolery, explosive dynamism, and fraudulence.
Finally, Infante concludes his piece with the rather obvious point that our “art form is better for … there being a multitude of styles and voices to echo off each other,” which I do agree with; yet, at the same time, it is also important to develop a voice that is unique, genuine, and true, without being overwhelmed by everybody else, and sometimes it requires a bit of barking (slamming) and flim-flamming (flarfing).
Wilbur Dee Case is a nondescript poet and literary critic of the normal and the bland, influenced by movement poets, such as Larkin, minimalist poets, such as Buson, reticent poets such as Dickinson, and hermetic poets, such as Sabo and Montale. He loves the middle of the road, from flat Nebraska to ordinary New Jersey — his gasoline choice is regular — and a mind that’s clear and free of the exotic.