Sunday, 13 September 2015

A brief history of nonsense - Flarf poetry

 As a self confessed lover of all things pretentious I have a soft spot for Flarf poetry. Chances are you do not. Flarf poetry is as unloved as it is unknown, lost in the fog of the internet (ironically so vital in its creation) and the sheer volume of poets and poetry coming out of the wires nowadays. Those who have heard of it, or even read some of it, almost universally hate it.

 To be fair, it is easy to see why. But before we castigate it and push it to one side as nonsense for nonsense sake, we should have a look at where it came from.

Flarf was born in New York at the turn of the century, and its creation can be attributed to one man. Gary Sullivan created a nonsense poem to send into a scam poetry competition (no names here, we all know who they are!) and Flarf was born. The poem, the first lines of which are shown below, is meaningless and has no context or poetical merit, but was of course included in the poetry competitions winners;

Yeah mm-hmm, it's true
big birds make
big doo! i got fire inside
my huppa chimp (tm)

Gary sent this masterpiece off to his friends, and pretty soon they were all involved in sending poems around the group. Flarf became a serious poetic consideration soon after, with people taking Google-search snippets and forming them into humorous/disturbing verses. This took Flarf from nonsense to something more, injecting it with a dash of pop/meta culture and meaning it started to mean.

You can read a lot more in-depth history on Flarf if you so wish, but to me that is missing the point. Flarf wouldn’t want you too. Flarf is only concerned with the now, the hyper-real and the nonsensical. In its brief history, it has grown only in one area. Now a few of the poems are good, whereas once they were uniformly awful.

If you love your hog of a oneself
grinding up against a dirty guitar
kung fu-style
in negative space
then you are cocked up with lollipops,
doggie style.
Expect toy ATM's next.

The lines above are taken from Sharon Mesmer’s ‘I am cocked up from overpower’. This is a great example of Flarf starting to mean something rather than just be something. The poem is satirising the very culture and saturation it was born from, a key element of Flarf. Flarfist’s know how ridiculous the fact their poetry is seen as art is and have integrated that in to their poems.

awe yea I open a photo album I found under my bed 
uhhuh, The dusty, leather cover decaying and smelling of the years 

awe yea baby Regrets mingling with my tears 

The above is an exerpt from Drew Gardner’s ‘As Dolphins Langour’. Using the same technique as other Flarfist’s, Drew has constructed something with actual emotional heft. Not easy to do, in fact I would argue it is the more difficult task. Flarf poets limit their palettes (maybe I should write poetry with lines like that) and therefore making something worthwhile becomes more difficult.

The writing of Flarf poetry is not solely down to Google searches. Another popular method is to take a phrase and run it through translators until it takes on other meanings entirely. This juxtaposition allows for some interesting creations but also can have a subtext. What happens, for example, when we run ‘I shatter into a thousand porcelain shards’ through translate a few times, we get ‘I own a piece of cloth decomposition’ as highlighted in the fantastic (and free) E-Book ‘Ten poems ruthlessly mangled by Google Translate’ by Ari Eckols.

But is Flarf something that requires anyone’s interest, or is it just tripe for tripe’s sake. Does it have any meaning? Does it have any place in serious literary circles?

Yes. Yes it does. Flarf is the trip-hop of poetry. It’s the pop-art of the Meta-age. Taking samples and pasting them together to become more relevant is practiced in all art forms. Forming something beautiful from otherwise unrelated snippets. Flarf is this generation’s Beat poetry. When Kerouac wrote How to Meditate, I am sure people reacted in the same way as they do when they read Flarf.

the gland inside of my brain discharging
the good glad fluid (Holy Fluid) as
i hap-down and hold all my body parts
down to a deadstop trance-Healing
all my sicknesses-erasing all-not
even the shred of a 'I-hope-you' or a
Loony Balloon left in it, but the mind

Not that different is it? Just as beat poetry was taken in and adored by those ‘hyper-intellectual’ enough to instruct the rest of us in what to enjoy, so Flarf was/should and will be heralded as a harbinger of cultural nirvana.

But what do you guys think? Is Flarf purely an attempt to cash in on meta-culture and not real poetry? Or, like me, do you love Flarf with all your heart!

Yours Nonsensically

Stuart Buck



  1. I must confess this genre is a new one on me. It has a touch of the Emperor's New Clothes about it.

  2. I sit on the fence here. It seems that Flarf poetry could adequately represent the society we live in, as snippets of noise and conversation. But on the other hand it is annoying to read. We reach a point where poetry actually does something, either eke an emotion, make a point, describe something and apply it to something else. The list is endless. Flarf poetry seems to be a quick way of undermining that.

    :) But this is a great blog and an interesting argument.