Thursday, February 05, 2009

Jordan Davis in The Nation on Kevin Davies

Jordan Davis reviews Kevin Davies' thrillingly great The Golden Age of Paraphernalia (Edge Books, 2008) in The Nation.


Joe Safdie said...

The Ambiguity of Humor

I’ve just seen the latest Keith Olbermann “Special Comment” on Dick Chaney’s recent interview, and I highly recommend it – I’m sure it’ll be on You Tube soon. I say that because Jordan’s really interesting review of Kevin’s book at last provides me a chance to write about a book as well as a review of it, and I’d like to do so in that context.

First, this is a seriously great book of poetry, and everyone should read it. I agree with Jordan that its highlight is the one “uninterrupted” poem at its core, called “Lateral Argument” -- Jordan glosses its title as “shorthand” for “the desperation-inducing corporate career phrase ‘lateral move’,” and he would know.

In this brief note, though, I want to focus on the “desperation-inducing” element (which might account for the presence of this review in The Nation, even if Peter Gizzi wasn’t its new poetry editor). Jordan is clear about this: we live in an “unstable environment,” a combination of “the perennial duplicity of authority and the waste to which our psychosocial landscape has been laid.” And Davies’ poems, in the book under review, while hilarious (I guarantee a few great belly laughs), are also “dry,” marked by “alienation and self-loathing” and “a gift for finding bad news.” In fact, at the end of his review, Jordan makes clear that one of the book’s great virtues is its social commentary.

Which is why I mention Keith Olbermann. And this paragraph, from a recent essay by Mark Slouka, which I wish I would have written: “I like a party as much as the next man, and I still have moments when I realize that the bastards are really, truly out and think that maybe, this time, it really is morning in America, but a voice from outside the ether cone keeps whispering that we haven’t changed at all, that we’re as dangerous to ourselves as we’ve ever been, and that the relative closeness of the popular vote in this last election (given the almost embarrassing superiority of the winning ticket and the parade of catastrophes visited on the nation by the outgoing party) proves it. Go ahead and bask, this voice says, but that rumble you hear above the drums and the party-makers is real, and it’s coming our way.”

Kevin Davies is NOT a party-maker, but he does have an undeniable gift at pointing out the absurdity of our current social arrangements, and the language that attends them . . . which constitutes a party for readers and writer of poetry. And here, again, Jordan’s review is instructive: “For all its proclaimed devotion to negativity, the poetic avant-garde has until now had no curmudgeon with the charm or persistence of a Philip Larkin or Dorothy Parker.” Why is this? Partially because “genial surrealism” – a “consistent and recognizable style – a brand” – “has gradually replaced grand mania as the period style” (the latter being represented by Pound, Olson and the Lang-Pos!)

In other words, Jordan, in this review, has written the death sentence of Flarf (at least in its cheery history documented by Gary Sullivan in his article below), consigning it to a minor place in literary gossip, and pointed a useful flashlight at the work of someone who will move us on. Good show, my virtual friend.

Jordan said...

Joe - thanks for the kind words for my piece, and more than that, for speaking up for Kevin's book.

But as to your conclusion, not to mention your conflation of the age of Ashbery with Pound, Olson and the langpos, I hope it won't appear obtuse of me to ask: Oh really?

Joe Safdie said...

Not at all obtuse of you for asking, Jordan, but the answer is "Yes."

Jordan said...

If you say so. Have you read Drew's piece in the Project Newsletter about the book? He makes a strong case for Paraphernalia as flarf.

You bring up a theme I've been hearing a lot lately, or rather, since Ron Silliman took up flarf as a cudgel: what comes next. I wonder where exactly everyone wants to move on beyond to. There's a lot still to clean up and make fun of in this degraded present moment. Magic and scolding aren't getting the job done, are they.

Dale said...

"Making fun of" is just the problem: dead end street. We need to imagine into the situation--transform it--say something. Easy to sit back and laugh, smug and smart...

Did anyone see John Latta's post today. Flarf, what happened?

Jordan said...

Hi Dale. You will note, I hope, that "make fun of" comes after "clean up and." You probably won't.

How did the ever-inverted Mr. Latta put it, "Note how quickly he jumps to list any miserable Flarf bits on what passes for a blog these days"? Note indeed.

wv: humbone

Dale said...

Ever the artful dodger, uh, Jordan?

Jordan said...

Rove tactics, Dale? Classy.

Mo said...


Are you against (all) fun in poetry, and for a more serious, political, brow beating poetics? I've been reading your essays against flarf, and I'm just wondering what is really at stake here? What is poetry doing now or has done historically that flarf poses a threat against? And is posing a threat ever really a bad thing? Isn't the history of poetry all about shake-ups?

It also seems like the flarf-ists have taken up the old, "I'm rubber and you're glue" stance. So how do you fight that?

Why can't we all just get along, Dale?

Dale said...

Hi, Mo, contrary to their engineered histories (I just saw Gary Sullivan and Drew Gardner’s pieces in the Poetry Project Newsletter), Flarf did not invent, nor does it maintain a monopoly, on fun and humor. What’s at stake is this: is poetry going to be something that offers some strategy for life (variously defined), say—to readers connected to the symbiotic, back-n-forth between symbolization and reality (it’s our predicament in language and images—symbols is what we work with in and out of poetry). Or is poetry going to be a place of no consequence, where any claim can be made along the food chain of prosperity, an utter break between the word and the real, dig?

Flarf doesn’t “shake” anything up: it prepares a safe haven for those in bad conscience to perform their inanities and in so doing distract a lot of attention away from other pursuits. And given the “rubber and glue” rhetorical artful dodge they employ, you’re right to ask, Rodney King-style, why we can’t all just “get along.”

This sounds high minded and everything but I respect poetry, its history, and how we imagine and engage the world through it too much to “get along” with any old Bernard Madoff-schemer who comes along with the newest sound-bite promises and revisionist prejudices. In light of this, in fact, the next step is absolute Intolerance. Just make the scene as uncomfortable as possible, exert maximum pressure. Did you fail to miss John Latta today? He nails it. Shut.


Bryan Coffelt said...


I don't know what you mean when you say "I respect poetry, its history..." Do you mean you respect the idea of an unchanging, rigid poetry with its roots dug firmly in quiet, Christian ideology? As I understand the history of poetry, it *invites* jarring new movements. And, um, doesn't it go without saying that there is an inherent REAL "break" between the word and the real? An infinite distance between signifier and signified?

btw, nice stack of books.


Dale said...

Bryan, show me the "jarring new movement."

Where is this Xtian ideology stuff coming from. I neva sed such a thing.

Is poetry going to accomplish anything or is it going to be put to the service of particular in-groups to reinforce a collective ideology?

What is the radical new submission of flarf? It doesn't further anything but itself. At least, that's the history I read today in the poetry project newsletter.

Thanks for noticing my stack!


Bryan Coffelt said...

I don't think Flarf is just reinforcing an "in-group's ideology." I honestly just think people are sick of reading fucking boring poetry. (About morning dew on leaves and shit like that.)



Dale said...

Gee, there are lots of other ways to be boring, too, besides writing about dew on leaves. This whole symbolic efficiency thing I keep getting at might help prevent the "self satisfied mediocrity" that so much flarf becomes....

Mo said...


That whole "can't we get along" was a little facetious.

I guess this just argument breaks into an ideological rift between how we think poetry should or does acts in regard to society/politics and it's interaction with "the big other" (i.e. facing it or not, and what that implies/accomplishes).

Poetry, through a number of twisting corridors, is constantly changing my views on society and world and I would hardly say that I read overtly or even subtly political works. So I think there is something else there, hard to articulate, but still worth mentioning that drives the readers mind forward.

I'd really be interested in examples of poets you think are "doing the right thing" in poetry. People who, I assume, are enacting social/political/culture change through their poetry.

And it's interesting you don't find that being a poet, in and of itself, is an act of resistance to the dominant hegemony, which finds no value in poetry (besides greeting cards). I mean, wasn't punk just kids saying, fuck you. I don't think we have to elegant overtly political to spark action.

Sometimes it sounds like you would have the same negative reaction (and maybe you do) to people like Stein as being self-centered, incomprehensible, too-obtuse, just words for words sake, having no political ambition. The way language affects seems a little more complicated than you give it credit for, at times. As if there are static rules for how people interact and draw meaning from a text. Maybe flarf is asking you to interact with a text in a way foreign to you.

I can't help but get the impression you are rallying for a blunt, slogan-like poetry, stating "fight the power," but who, in this day and age, would take something like that seriously?

Dale said...

Mo, thanks for the thoughtful note. I'm cooking dinner, but just want to say, quickly, since you bring her up, I like Stein tremendously. Her commitment is something to look up to, to strive for: someone who presented genuine challenges of thought.

I just finished a book chapter on poets who I think are doing terrific work, too (since you ask)--poets who are socially engaged and not at all drawing a lot of attention to themselves accept through their practice.

The Poetry Is Public Art (PIPA) folks Kristin Prevallet documents in "Shadow Evidence Intelligence" comes to mind immediately, as well as Kristin's own work in poetry and performance.

Laura Elrick is another person along these lines doing tremendous work. Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand document other contemporary practice in "Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry & Public Space (Palm Press, 2008). PACE (Poet Activist Community Extension) goes out on the streets with poems and images to share with passersby--actually bringing poetry to a non-poetry reading audience. Linh Dinh, CA Conrad, Frank Sherlock, Mytili Jagannathan and others are part of this group and their work together and individually is, I think, interesting and doing more than reinforcing group dynamics for an audience of poets--people who are already persuaded in advance of the key issues.

It takes real guts to bring poetry and performance out onto the street or into diverse public spaces. The documentation of these events are important too.

Rodrigo Toscano's recent work also seems important to note. And there are so many others. What angers me about flarf is that in its rewriting of literary history it abuses the facts, distorts recorded events in order to fulfill its own prejudices. Without making a lot of fuss, these other folks are really thinking about what it means to be a public poet and how to use language, image, elocution, etc in various contexts.

phaneronoemikon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stan Apps said...

Amen to Wowie.