'Maximus' through Flarf

Updated Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry updates updates updates

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marke@sfbg.com

LIT Mm-hmm

Yeah, mm-hmm, it's true

Big birds make

Big doo! I got fire inside

My "huppa"-chimpTM

Gonna be agreesive, greasy aw yeah god ...

In 2000, Gary Sullivan's grandfather fell victim to a then-familiar poetry.com scam. ("You've won a poetry contest! Order the book with your poem in it now!") In revenge, he went on the scam site and wrote what he thought was the worst, most offensive poem ever — which of course won its own scam contest. Then a curious thing happened:

"When Sullivan sent his poem to friends online, they decided to write their own purposely bad poems," editor Paul Hoover tells the tale in the introduction to his updated Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, released last month. Soon a whole listserv of sniggering poets were randomly Googling phrases from bad poems (this was when Google was brand new, mind you) and "plugging in" the random juxtapositions to create new, worse ones — which incidentally also captured the logorrheic splooge, misfired proto-snark, corrosive cuteness, pornographic troll-holes, and manic self-hype of the Internet itself.

Thus a new poetic movement called Flarf was born.

A lot has changed since the first edition of NAPAP came out, in 1994. Back then, hyperacademic multicultural poetics and practitioners of the Language school, which sought to "scatter attention" over the poem with discursive overload and deliberate (yet often hilarious) difficulty, were riding high. In the color-saturated days before the Internet, the first edition was a revelation. Hoover, a San Francisco-based poet and teacher with a knack for highlighting the emotional resonance in abstract practices, served as a perfect guide to postmodern poetry, or at least a certain exciting type, which he broadly defines as "an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the sentimentality and self-expressiveness of its life in writing." In other words: "truth" is out, truthiness in. And enough weeping over your dead great-grandmother's recipe book, already.

I met with the tall, calm Hoover in his frighteningly humble San Francisco State office, where he'd been "locked up for months" working on the second edition (see my full interview this week at www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision). "We called the anthology 'post-modern' rather than 'experimental' or 'avant-garde' mostly because those terms are problematic, and have enough cultural baggage to really turn people off. So we started with the poet Charles Olson, who was the first poet to label himself postmodern and attempt to break with the grand modernist past. 'And had we not ourselves (I mean postmodern man) better just leave such things behind us — and not so much trash of discourse, & gods?' he wrote to fellow poet Robert Creeley. And he put this into practice in his 'Maximus' poems."

The anthology is chronological: after Olson, in almost 1000 pages, we get almost all the big avant-garde-y names like John Cage, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Jack Spicer, Allen Ginsberg ... Uncontroversially, Hoover takes his lodestars to be the Black Mountain School, the New York School, and (somewhat shakily to me, in terms of intellectual rigor, yet still charming) the Beats. Then come the Language poets, near where the first volume ended, and afterward a multitude of newbies — Vanessa Place, G.C. Waldrep, Noelle Kocot, Ben Lerner — begin.

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