In America, changes in aesthetic commitments are sometimes like forest fires—parts of the forest are torched while others are left untouched. They are unplanned and sometimes messy, causing collateral damage and erosion. Yet, fires can also be good for forests. New trees replace the old, increasingly stagnant ones, which, in turn, provide the seeds and fuel for future growth.
There is little doubt that the current forest of poetry is burning. This forest, as numerous critics have argued, is the fractured, “elliptical” lyric that developed out of the materialist theories of the Language poets. Beginning in the 1970s, poets such as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman argued in the short-lived but influential magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, that the purpose of poetic form was to reveal the constructed nature of the self and confront capitalistic “oppression” by creating fragmented poems that supposedly could not be assimilated into a market economy. Instead of writing about feelings and emotions, which presumes a continuous self that can feel (and own property), Bernstein, Silliman and others suggested that poets use fragmentation, ellipses, parataxis, and formal randomness in order to free the reader from the false consciousness of selfhood.
There are a number of problems with this theory of poetic form, but the principal, artistic one is that it has, almost without fail, led to bad, boring poems. Yet, despite its dullness, it was nevertheless imitated—partly out of shared ideological commitments and partly out of an interest in seeming to participate in some sort of late 20th-century American avant-garde, which, ironically, has proven to be rewarding monetarily and socially. While Bernstein and those that have followed him have never sold very many books of poems (at least not as many as Billy Collins has), seeming to be a part of an avant-garde is lucrative for poets in terms of academic appointments and grants.
Now, however, the current elliptical lyric—a trendy, superficial version of Language poetry—is rightfully, slowly burning to the ground. And if poetry is to regain its cultural purchase, it must excavate the ideological roots of the elliptical lyric and return to an understanding of poetic form as a reflection of the natural order.
Adam Roberts’ recent series on poetry at The Atlantic is a case in point. While I appreciate Roberts’ effort to avoid writing a blanket eulogy for contemporary poetry, his suggestion that “Flarf” has the potential to reconnect with readers following the demise of “elliptical” poetry is deeply flawed.
Flarf is poetry composed from the results of Google and Twitter searches. And unlike “elliptical” poetry, Flarf is accessible and “fun.” Roberts writes:
A flarf poem might use a Google search (say, “Kitty” + “Pizza”) and collage the results to form a poem; a flarf poem isn’t afraid (mimicking our other popular and news media) to go to the lowest common denominator (see Sharon Mesmer’s “Annoying Diabetic Bitch,” “Jake Gyllenhall’s dog”); a flarf poem rejects over-seriousness!, tossing out tired notions of epiphany (poem-as-discloser-of-elevated-wisdom) and New-Critical (or Poundian) “formal tightness.” These aren’t poems in search of greatness; in flarfist terms: these poems suck!
And for this reason, I think, we’re more likely to trust them. In the age of “fair and balanced” media, Flarf is the Jon Stewart of the poetry world. When William Carlos Williams lamented, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found in there,” maybe he should have thought of throwing in a couple of poop jokes.
While Roberts correctly identifies the importance of “accessibility,” he wrongly attaches it to technology and “poop jokes.” Furthermore, he fails to recognize the ideological view of form that Flarf poets espouse; thus he misses the fact that Flarf poets repeat the error of the Language poets in superimposing an unnatural form.
Indeed, while Flarf poets often understand themselves to be breaking poetic rules, they are simply refusing to follow certain ones in favor of others. No verse is “free,” as Eliot rightly recognized—it is always constrained, even if it is the constraint of not using end-rhyme and meter. Rod Smith makes the ideological constraints of Flarf clear in a recent Poets and Writers article: “Aesthetic judgments,” he states “about what’s bad in a very hierarchal society are usually serving upper-class people with a certain amount of privilege.” Thus, Flarf poets write bad poems to challenge such hierarchies. Flarf, it turns out, is of a piece with “elliptical” poetry.
What is needed is a return to the natural constraint of complex form. Form makes a poem accessible in terms of its subject matter without which there can be no perception, recognition or emotional attachment.
In his excellent essay, “The Shape of Poetry,” Paul Lake argues that sound, meter and typography are natural to the medium of poetry, and, when used by the poet, function to order the poem.
Drawing on chaos theory, Lake argues that a poem is a “strange attractor”—”a high-order, emergent phenomenon” that is formed when it comes into contact with “a simple set of rules.” Rhyme and meter are two such rules in poetry. They function as “feedback” devices. They are produced by the phonemes of the poem that, in turn, shape those same phonemes as the poet reads the poem back to himself, cutting a word here, extending a line there.
A third rule, Lake argues, is self-similarity and fractal scaling. Citing Frederick Turner, Lake notes that “the most remarkable use of self-similarity in all of literature” is found in Dante’s use of the three line stanza in The Divine Comedy, which is “echoed in the Trinitarian theology of its middle-level organization and in the tripartite structure of the whole poem.” Self-similarity and fractal scaling are things, Lake argues, that poetry shares with other complex forms in nature, such as the human circulatory system and identical paisley patterns.
Yet, while Lake is right about the naturalness of rule-governed, complex systems such as poems, he wrongly argues, in my view, that such rules derive organically from content alone. Content—no matter how simple—is a constituent of form. It follows, therefore, that content cannot, in the first instance at least, produce the very rules that shape it. Those rules must be, to some degree, independent of content, even if they are, in turn, reflected or reproduced everywhere in it.
Lake provides an analogy of how rules determine form at the beginning of the essay that illustrates this very problem. He refers to how Craig Reynolds simulated the flocking behavior of birds by introducing a few simple rules to a number of “autonomous, bird-like agents,” as recounted by M. Mitchell Waldrop in his well-known Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Of course, a flock was formed, seemingly organically. Yet, it seems to me, it was not formed organically. The rules did not sprout from the “autonomous, bird-like agents” in the program. Reynolds himself introduced a few simple rules, which, in turn, shaped a flock in response to those rules. In fact, Reynolds’ experiment, if anything, proved the need for an external, rule-making agent for “form” to be created.
While not without its own problems, Jacques Maritain’s work is helpful here. In Art and Scholasticism, Maritain notes that the proper end of all art is the perfection of the artifact. This, of course, does not mean that art has no didactic value—far from it. It simply means that art’s first commitment is always the formal perfection of the statue, painting or poem being created.
Unlike Lake, Maritain argues that the rules of art and of poetry exist independent of their respective mediums, even if they are inextricably intertwined with them. These rules are the very rules of God, reflected in the material world and existing independently of matter only in God himself. Rather than “usurping” the rules of God found in nature and superimposing his own rules on form (like Language poets), the true poet, according to Maritain, studies his art to discover the rules reflected in the medium, which, in turn, mirror the rules of his own mind. This is the distinction between the Marxist practice of method and habitus.
Furthermore, while Maritain compares arts such as medicine that “apply themselves to their matter in order to serve it, and to help it to attain a form or a perfection which can be acquired only through the activity of an interior principle” to the fine arts, he goes on to note that because the “interior principle” discovered in the medium of art is “the beautiful,” the rules, or variations of rules, are far greater—perhaps even infinite—than the rules discovered for the healing of the body. The beautiful for Maritain did not simply refer to the aural and visual beauty of symmetry and proportion, but there is an intellectual property to beauty as well—clarity and radiance. Thus, seemingly distorted works can also possess a certain beauty, even if many distorted works do not express clarity or radiance, but are intended to merely debunk the notion of order or beauty itself.
Maritain also provides a helpful explanation of why the fine arts, unlike other arts (such as carpentry) are in need of constant renewal. Once “a new adaptation of the fundamental and perennial rules” of art and poetry are applied mechanically to the medium via “pure technique,” “the rules formerly living and spiritual become materialized,” and a “renewal,” a new discovery, “will be necessary.” The fine arts are natural, intellectual, and spiritual.
What is needed now is not more ideological poetry but a new discovery of the “fundamental and perennial rules” of poetry. Without rules, there is no order and, therefore, no recognition. In the end, it is this recognition that makes experiencing art worthwhile. Via complex forms, we recognize the paradoxes of our present existence, or our fractured, conflicting selves, our yearning for coherence, transcendence, and closure, and the infinite beauty of the Creator.
If poetry is ever to regain an audience, it must stop resisting—because of dubious egalitarian, ideological reasons—the hierarchies of complex form. Only then can it again become relevant.