Thursday, April 29, 2010

In order for there to be some chance of catching up on my April reading posts, I’m limiting each to a maximum of ten sentences. Here, then are ten sentences on

David Larsen, The Thorn (Faux Press, 2005)

Where the utterly absurd and ironic, especially as they relate to our contemporary political milieu, generally produce poetry that places its author and its reader at a safe distance from danger, damage, risk, and involvement (as in, generally, Flarf), David Larsen uses them as motivating energies to set off chain reactions of thoughts and feelings whose earnestness is bound up with their self-sabotage, itself in turn a far cry from the safety of the earnest political poetry of liberal acknowledgement of one’s own complicity.

When Larsen begins “Portrait of Gerard Malanga” with “Osama Bin Laden is the most beautiful / man I have ever seen,” later claims that “he is in daily communication with angels,” and in-between asks, “BUT SHALL I TELL YOU / WHAT BEFELL THE PANCAKE VENDOR, / ON HIS FINAL VISIT TO OSAMA’S / MOUNTAIN PRECINCT?,” it certainly doesn’t seem as if we’re to take him seriously.

The whole poem, however, never seems to slide entirely into kitsch—I think I’m being asked to feel what these thoughts would be like to genuinely think—and it seems pretty serious when it throws off a series of other poems, ranging from the promised account of the pancake vendor’s execution (itself linked to a frightening story about the vendor’s wife’s encounter with Bin Laden’s followers) to genuinely informative meditations on religion and to the presence in other (less directly related) poems of parodic prayer language, considerations of masculinity, devotion and idolatry, and mourning.

The book forms a loosening and tightening serial set in which such systems of relationships activate each other retroactively, so that the poem before “Portrait” (its title scratched out) appears in a different light by virtue of the cultural associations of its proper name:

with nothing to lose
can be able to want to
will over the dam
a feeling to let spatter and
turn no wheel.
He throws the shells of the nuts he eats.
Alawi, turn a friend of mine.
How did you wind up

Through such resonances the wide stylistic variety of the book, which initially makes it seem like a series of pleasurably all-over-the-place independent works, comes to seem like a wild, unstoppable energy carrying important material in all kinds of directions.

This energy is expressed in the handwriting in which many of the poems are presented, in the use of obscenities, and in the surprising swerves between lines in a great number of the works, like “My Star is Rye:”

Plants and I
look back on it.
We’re fucking choking it, and
I’m poured all over the lawn in broths,
steaming. My star is rye
and forearms at the edge
of dampness, straining
in the math scores of
the state in which I am visiting.
Eighth graders, and Krishna in his bower
also did well on the test, and that is when
I decided to become a
Toronto Blue Jays fan

Among the book’s themes are friendship and death, and they state the argument of the book’s mode in an amazing way in a handwritten poem consisting of a numbered list of items like:



FOR ANN SIMON (1968-2003)

The ridiculousness of the listed items, it seems to me, embodies an intensity that is as appropriate as any, maybe more appropriate than anything more emotionally intuitive, to commemorate and protest against the loss of a beloved human being.

This intensity reaches its apex in the amazing “Wild Speech” (the fulcrum of Dana Ward’s Typing Wild Speech, the subject of my previous post), which activates nearly all the tendencies of the book and amplifies them to a degree that takes my breath away.

The Thorn should be absolutely required reading for anyone interested in poetry that engages with our contemporary worlds of pop culture, religion, politics, humor, education, interpersonal relationships, and the irony that plunges into an acknowledgment of the messes we’re in while all too rarely exhausting its many strengths in an attempt to live through and in spite of them.


  • At April 29, 2010 at 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "Where the utterly absurd and ironic, especially as they relate to our contemporary political milieu, generally produce poetry that places its author and its reader at a safe distance from danger, damage, risk, and involvement (as in, generally, Flarf), "

    I don't understand this statement. Flarf seems much closer to danger, damage, risk, AND involvement than any current poetry out there. The read safe poetry tends to blend average, acceptable post-avant tendencies and using a kind of pervasive but mild self-abnegation.

  • At April 29, 2010 at 10:45 AM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Hi, Anon (who are ya?)--

    I feel like Flarf (with exceptions) generally only generates the discomfort of bad taste. Its attitude toward the awfulness it employs as material (without restraint, which is good) seems to me to be a safe one, in which reader and writer are placed at an ironized distance from culture (the implied message being "you and I both know that nothing is meanthere--we're better than this"--or, if we aren't, that fact of implication is accepted, or even celebrated, and the situation is left there). Larsen's book features some of the same kinds of uncomfortable, "rotten" language I find in Flarf, but it heightens the discomfort of that language by letting the thought in it be what it is, rather than containing it in what (in Flarf) always seems like a very consistent mode. Instead of that flatness, the rot expands to contact other material that's uncomfortable in very different ways--because of its seriousness (which also, sometimes, shows up as icky, rotten) or simply the friction of the language. It's affectively complex and contradictory, instead of dramatizing the collapse of affective variety into one undesirable mode--and its contradictions, I think (and maybe you have to read the whole book to get this sense), reflect contemporary social contradictions in a richer way than Flarf generally manages. Does that make any sense?

    What you call the "read safe poetry" is, indeed pretty boring, and I mention that as well in my post (the "liberal guilt" model)--although I do often admire the effort of those writers, the fact that they try to set up a situation of genuine vulnerability in writing political poetry (when they do try), even when that attempt fails.



  • At April 29, 2010 at 12:00 PM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Another way of putting it: Flarf’s irreverence seems to me to simply mimic or reproduce the irreverence that characterizes a lot of U.S. culture in general—the lack of care for, or about, much of anything, that snide defusing of significance, that social status-mongering—and when its destructive forces are turned towards something (like nationalism) that usually doesn’t become a topic in the cultural areas it draws from, the irreverence is still of the same nature. It doesn’t break its targets apart from the inside, but rather dismisses them, bashing them from an exterior. This is why Flarf never actually offends me, even though I can tell that it’s “offensive.” Its attitude is too close to ubiquitous attitudes, and so it amounts to a conformist irreverence. Larsen’s book examines the places where devotion (to friendship, to ethics, etc.) can blur into reverence (for country, religion, heroes), and its irreverence is a set of major disturbances made in that complex of relations, truly facing up to the risks of its own sincerities and the risks of its ironies. Its attitude toward and use of irreverence is just much more complex.

    This wasn’t supposed to be about bashing Flarf, though—it was supposed to be about lauding Larsen’s work, which I do think satisfies some of the desires Flarf satisfies. I wouldn’t want to stop anybody from reading or writing Flarf, even if I could. This is a problem with negative criticism, I guess—that, when it’s not the main point, it sounds so much louder than the main point that it drowns it out.

    (On the other hand, I think Flarf has a good deal of unactualized potential, and if I see it held back by its stylistic assumptions, why not critique it for the sake of what it could do?)

  • At April 30, 2010 at 1:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I think Larson actually is a Flarfist isn't he? Who knows if it's even useful to mark ins and outs of groups, but I read he was part of the group, or a close associate, like Ward. Larson's work in that book is absurd, and it's sincere, and it's ironic and it's noisy and it's lyrical. That odd bundle of contradictions is actually true of many of these writers. What they do is critique the culture using the cultures own materials, and they make pretty risky, pretty great poems out of those materials- but those materials are transformed, and I think if anything the flafists are too engaged with the culture and with risky uncomfortable topics for some poets, who want poetry to be an ideal exception to the larger culture and risk being unengaged with reality. But I see what you're saying about safe now - you mean safe from the risks of self disclosure. Maybe there's some truth to that, but there's so much risk they take on that other poets wouldn't that it seems a odd way of talking out risk and safety. And much of this work has a good deal of self-exploration, just in a tortured way. And for the things you're seeing in Larson, which are quite good observations, you can see many of the same things in the more lyrics flarfists like Rodney Koeneke, Nada Gordon, Drew Gardner, Michael Magee. Why create these artificial binaries?

  • At May 4, 2010 at 4:56 PM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Ah. I obviously haven't been clear. I'm definitely not demanding "self-disclosure," or the presence of a self in the work at all. What I don't like is twofold:

    1) the general mode of irony that distances by belittling. Where a Brechtian irony provides a distance that makes care for, investment of, condemnation of, evaluation of the matter at hand possible in a way that can be emotionally and intellectually invested without being so close to us that we can't see it clearly, our current, predominant form of irony simply separates us from the world--we are safe from the maleficent influence of what we ironize. This gets worse when an aesthetic treatment of a hyper-ironized world is ironic in a way that is not distinct from the forms of irony it confronts.

    2) extreme consistency--lack of complex affect, of surprise, of shifts in discourse. For instance, one claim frequently made about a lot of Flarf (whoever writes it--you're right, there's no need to make stringent identifications, and there are "Flarfists" whose work is full of exceptions to anything I've written here) is that it fragments the "I"--but, to me, it presents a multiplicity of "I's" that are basically identical--they're all un-whole in the same way. What's revealed is a greater unity, a stronger identity, than was ever present in an "I"-centered poetry.

  • At July 5, 2010 at 5:56 PM, Blogger Curtis Faville said…


    I'm happy to see you're back posting again, after that long hiatus.

    I depend on you to render usable opinions about books I don't have the time to read for myself.


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