"Relevance" is a concept that's coming up frequently in recent discussions of poetic value [such as this one from back in June by Mark Wallace (thanks for the comment, Mark), which addresses so many of the same points as mine that I feel like I unconsciously plagiarized large portions of it.]. Case in point: Kenneth Goldsmith's recent claim at the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog in his post of June 6th, 2008:
Today, we have immense information-moving capabilities at our fingertips and new movements like Conceptual Writing or Flarf are the correct responses for our time. If writing is not taking these new conditions into its poetics, it simply cannot be considered contemporary.
Responses by Michael Robbins, Mark Ducharme, and others in the long string of comments (52 at last count) following the post containing this claim are particularly relevant to the question of relevance, bound up as it is here with the notion of the "contemporary."
In one of his own responses, Goldsmith asks, "Can one write an earnest poem about how the sunlight is hitting one's writing desk today? Certainly. Whether that gesture is contemporary--or even relevant--is another matter." Most of us are familiar with the terms of the argument being rehearsed here: an argument in which it is posited that certain forms of expression (or anti-expression) are more appropriate than others to the particularity of the postmodern present, by virtue of their capacity for acknowledging certain material facts of existence--especially facts related to the massive technologico-consumerist apparatus whose mechanisms, illusions, and tangible effects pervade our every waking moment. In this case, Goldsmith invokes the "immense information-moving capabilities" of the internet and related digital technologies.
There are a number of directions one could take in responding to Goldsmith's provocations. Although this is not my major concern in this post, I will point out quickly that he appears to assume a direct correspondence between the technological nature of the information-moving forces in question and the actual writing being produced by Flarf and Conceptualism: a correspondence, that is, in which the contemporary "relevance" of the compositional instrument is automatically carried over to the work as such. This is for me a problematic assumption, and not all that different in many ways from the assumptions informing Dan Hoy's April 2006 article in Jacket, an article accusing Flarf of internalizing the insidious corporate ethics of Google by using its search results as material for poetic collage. There seems to me to be a kind of magical thinking involved here. By the same logic, one might argue that Bruce Andrews' use of a paper-cutter in constructing his poetry (the example that launches Goldsmith's blogpost) infuses that poetry with some essential quality inherent in the paper-cutter's mechanicalness, a quality that reaches all the way into the complex labyrinth of factors involved in the paper-cutter's design, manufacture, marketing, and distribution, etc. All of this may be very interesting and even useful as a metaphoric mode of thought, but I hesitate to assign it any substantiality as a rigorous analysis of the way in which poetry transfers relevance from its means of production to its finished product.
In fact, if I were asked to point to an important difference between Flarf and Conceptualism, it might be Flarf's explicit consciousness--and implicit critique--of such magical thinking (that is, when technology like Google is even involved in Flarf, which it is not always), in comparison to Conceptualism's tendency to encourage the figural transposition of medium and message. This is, of course, debatable. But I am more concerned here today with the criterion of relevance itself: with its relation to technology, for example, or even more importantly, with the force of aesthetic necessity it insists on for itself. What is so relevant about relevance? Is there a compelling counterargument for poetic irrelevance? Does such an argument inevitably become another argument for relevance, albeit in a negative form?
Off the top of my head, here are a few of the criteria I'm used to seeing for what makes poetry "relevant," depending on whom you ask:
* social thematics: does the poetry involve issues which are judged to be of immediate importance in the lives of actual people (war, economics, human rights, sexual politics, race, etc.)?
* formal innovativeness: does the poetry signal its departure from past traditions of prosody, formatting, etc., so as to stimulate reader response in significant ways (note that "significant" here is subject to the same sort of interrogation as "relevant")?
* positioning within a given tradition or traditions: does the poetry situate itself in relation to other poetry or aesthetic practices that have for whatever reason been deemed "relevant" in such a way as to generate interested response (from a given readership, one that is perhaps taken for granted in advance)?
I could go on, but what these criteria have in common is that they all appeal to some relevance-imparting factor whose relevance is in turn dependent on some always-contingent judgment--a judgment which cannot be reduced and limited to a capacity on the part of the poetry itself to demonstrate its relevance autonomously. What would a capacity like this look like? And is Flarf or Conceptual Writing or any other "movement" specially qualified to exhibit such a capacity--more so, say, than confessional poetry, or protest poetry, or cowboy poetry? If so, why?
I would suggest (and I think I am on a similar train of thought here with Goldsmith) that the only way any poetry has ever exhibited its "relevance" is by entering a measurably wide arena of circulation and reception. Put simply, poetry becomes relevant by getting acknowledged and discussed by a great number of readers. Originally, I typed "read" instead of "acknowledged," but it really isn't even required that someone actually read the poetry; it simply needs to become visible, to assert its presence.
I would further suggest that there are currently two chief strategies for generating poetic relevance as here defined. One is quite familiar, and is authorized by most of the "legitimate" literary establishments in existence. That is the conferral of distinction upon poetry and poets in the form of honors: awards, publication, institutional appointment, and so forth. Relevance in this case is a pure, self-sustaining condition--for as long as the honor is in effect. That is, until the award money runs out, or the book gets remaindered, or the appointment is terminated. In every case, the degree of relevance is directly proportionate to the degree of publicity and acknowledgment attending the honor. At its outer reaches, the honor may undermine its own power to confer relevance: being Poet Laureate, for instance, is in many ways less relevant than having a solid contract with a medium-size press, because the press has at least some level of guaranteed readership sharing a common range of attention, whereas being a Laureate simply means occupying a position in which there are suddenly a hell of a lot more people who have absolutely no idea who you are.
The main cultural mechanism which attempts to train poets in acquiring this sort of relevance is the MFA program. Its success is either considerable or pitiful, depending on how much one can imagine being at stake within the terms as set therein.
The other chief strategy is more nebulous and unstable. Like the first strategy, it involves the manipulation of cultural capital, and the invention of categories of value where they may not have previously existed. Its primary difference from the first strategy is its attempt to draw authoritative force from a model based on "cult" status rather than "official" status. In some (most?) cases, however, it involves a good deal of piggy-backing on the first strategy--having an academic position that supports one's writing and research, for example, or accepting funds from the insanely well-endowed Poetry Foundation to write a blog column. This strategy often adopts a posture of antagonism toward the institutions which in part enable it. Like the first strategy, it often includes antagonism as well toward competitors, an antagonism which in both cases takes the illusory form of solidarity within one's own camp when in fact the competition is spread fairly equally between camps. One can see where this line of description is heading: toward the proposition that there is really very little difference between these two strategies.
Where does that leave us, then? We have outlined thus far two main paradigms of poetic relevance: one based on an external network of reference and topicality, and another based on an internal network of self-promotion. Omitted in both paradigms is any consideration of what might make poetry per se a unique conductor of relevance, one that does things which cannot be done in journalism or corporate branding or ice skating or origami. To return to Goldsmith's example, what is there in a poem about the sunlight hitting a writing desk that either is or is not relevant, and why? The question gets asked a lot, but rarely answered: relevant to what?
My hunch is that any useful account of poetic relevance must involve both the internal and external axes discussed above. Reference and/or formal markers must interact dynamically with whatever system of social circulation they are inserted into. If a poem about sunlight on a desk is to be relevant, it must have a context for reception among a set of readers who are appreciably qualified to gauge its effectiveness on any number of thematic or structural levels, and to situate that effectiveness in relation to some additional evaluative factor based on the poem's usefulness in sustaining a social aesthetic. That is, it must succeed for these readers both as a more or less isolated signifying construct and as an instrumental playing piece in some larger, more abstract cultural game.
And even this inches us toward the conclusion that relevance, as an index of poetic value, is a red herring--or, more accurately, a MacGuffin. It is a motivating concern, but not one that can reliably be retrieved at the end of the poetic process. What finally emerges is not any one definition of relevance, but simply the requirement that at some point along the line, someone was invested in the idea of relevance.
Flarf and Conceptualism tend to share one standard of relevance at least: that the writing should exist in a particular relation to the contemporary--specifically, the late capitalist contemporary as experienced by those who have some stake in the privileges conferred by that contemporary at the same time that they are exploited by it (i.e., by far the majority of people who will ever read this post). Perhaps both movements provide a way for this bourgeoisie to write consciously and honestly within this condition. This form of honest consciousness is monstrous, of course, and many on either side might wish, for different but equally understandable reasons, that the bourgeoisie would either write less honestly and consciously, or that they would not write at all. For those who would wish the former, the only appropriate response is contemptuous pity. For those who would wish the latter, one can only declare one's selfish unwillingness to step off the cliff one second sooner than they are forced to do so by the angry, swarming masses.
Where, then, do Flarf and Conceptualism part ways? Which is the more relevant, more "correct" choice? Flarf, of course. Flarf and Conceptualism have the same admirers and detractors, by and large, and in most cases the detractors are the best evidence in either movement's favor. But even Marjorie Perloff doesn't get Flarf. It must be ahead of its time.