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THE RESISTANCE OF MEDIUM

Republished from Louis Armand, The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avant-Garde (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2013) 59-72.*

 

Before the publication of his selected poems, Theremin, in 2011 (spanning work gathered over a twenty-year period),[1] Vincent Farnsworth’s reputation as a poet rested on only two small volumes and occasional publications in magazines like Idiot Tooth, Exquisite Corpse, Mike & Dale’s that, even when in print, were often difficult to find. Nevertheless it was a reputation that had, already in the ’90s, and despite the poet’s frequent reclusiveness, spread widely among writers who championed his cause both locally in Prague (where Farnsworth lived for fifteen years) and abroad, including notably Andrei Codrescu, Pam Brown, Bill Berkson and Tom Clark (the latter once referring to Farnsworth as “brute sage of destiny”).

Farnsworth first arrived in Prague with his long-term partner Gwendolyn Hubka Albert in 1995 after spending a year in the South Bohemian town of Tábor. He and Albert had established a magazine two years previous in Oakland, California – Jejune: america eats its young – which appeared biannually and continued until 1999, becoming an important vehicle of the post-revolution Prague Renaissance, publishing a mix of writers like Alva Svoboda, William Talcott, Spencer Selby, Alexander Zaitchik, Jenny Smith, Theo Schwinke, Robert Bly, Jules Mann, Robert Bové, Eileen Myles, Lydia Lunch and Ed Mycue. As often focused on issues of civil rights as it was on new writing, Jejune published articles and interviews dealing with the rise in neo-fascism and the plight of the Czech Republic’s Roma community. Number 8, for example, carried an interview with Nazi-hunter Lubomír Zubák, about the cover-up over Lety concentration camp (a camp for the internment of Roma and other ethnic and political undesirables, exclusively operated by the Czech collaborationist authorities throughout World War II),[2] along with an interview with Petr Uhl, former dissident and (at that time) Czech Commissioner for Human Rights. Jejune was avowedly grungy in its aesthetic and outwardly anti-establishment in its political orientation. Tim Rogers, reviewing Jejune for the Prague Post, compared it to the mimeographed zines produced out of New York’s Lower East Side in the ’70s – Ted Berrigan’s C, Ed Sanders’s Fuck You, and Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh’s Angel Hair.[3] Farnsworth, the journal’s managing editor, divided his time with being a sound-installation artist (founding the Pazvuky Noise Project with Ukrainian musicians Vitalii Sevcuk and Serge Dalek) and, beginning in the late ’90s under the stage name Reverend Feedback, front-man for the cult band Blaq Mummy (“a little up the Ocean in Prague,” Codrescu wrote in a 2003 opinion piece, “Vincent Farnsworth makes the cacophony of the band-rehearsal next door into a manual for gracefully aging…”).[4] Throughout the latter half of the 90s he also organised a string of reading series around Prague.

vf2Farnsworth’s first collection of poetry, Little Twirly Things, was published by Ed Mycue’s Norton Coker Press (San Francisco) in 1992. In the poet’s words, it attempted to map a concept of “deep poetics,” fusing “the contemporarily relevant and political with perennial truths.”[5] In 2001 he published a second collection, Immortal Whistle Blower, with Bill Lavender’s lavender ink press in New Orleans. Both collections were short and gave little indication to outsiders of the scope of Farnsworth’s activities, either as poet, organiser and publicist of the Prague scene, as musician and sometimes screenwriter (Tesla Electric, for Czech director David Ondříček, and Monster Movie), or as an underground curator (throughout the nineties, Farnsworth collaborated with locally-based artists like Karl Bielik and Igor Tschai, and was instrumental in setting up shows of emerging artist’s work). Farnsworth’s “deep poetics,” strongly communitarian on all points, logically extended to his work as a human rights activist and advocate for the Roma community in the Czech Republic and in Kosovo. To rephrase Harold Rosenberg, poetry in Farnsworth’s view has always been a medium in which the poet acts.

In a world ruled by cosmic terror (as Ortega y Gasset once put it), the question arises as to the socalled political function of poetry. There’s no doubt that in important respects Farnsworth considers poetry as a social act and as an act of engagement, not as glib pre-/post-millennial agitprop, but as engagement with the medium itself: to realise the metaphor, the res poetica, in a critical stance that always holds language, discourse, to account, upsetting the tendency to a status quo (poetic entropy). In conversation with Jim Carroll, Ted Berrigan once risked the claim that “there’s no such thing as a dilettante poet”[6] (contrary to what currently passes as the norm in the US poetry industry and its various franchises / “male american poets with predictable fears” [“poem to look out”]).

Like Berrigan, Farnsworth adopts a stance and employs a language that constantly evades expectations of easy resolution, recuperates the marginal and unpoetic, exhibits a “spare, reductive intensity” while disabling conventional sign systems founded upon a whole era’s somatic clichés. This isn’t political poetry in any straightforward sense, engaging high pathos, moral outrage, inspirational facetiousness or hectoring vigilantism. Farnsworth assumes in his poetry a stance that’s always critical by virtue of riding the edge of a discourse that always threatens to collapse (has already collapsed) into the degree zero of farce. Again Ortega comes to mind: “to be a farce may be precisely the mission and virtue of art,”[7] holding up a cracked mirror, so to speak, to History. Echoes also of what Tom Clark, referring to the work of John Wieners and Jim Carroll, called “the romance of damage.”[8] Farnsworth:

lies allowed; in love and war

and         unreasonable         demands

in fact if     you pursue     love

                       you might get war, or

           if the fascists shoot tear gas

we will cry (softly) anyways

[“amerika’s top forty”]

While Farnsworth’s early poetry has its roots in the Bay Area scene of the late 1980s and owes a debt to the social vision (if not stylistics) of Lucille Clifton, there are difficulties in figuring Farnsworth as an “American” poet, even an expatriate-American poet. In 1996, Andrei Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal had wanted to include Farnsworth in their anthology American Poets Say Goodbye to the 20th Century, but like partner Gwendolyn Albert (also a poet) there’s a strong resistance in much of Farnsworth’s writing to the seductions of national identity and the prescriptions of an “American” poetics (the American Tree syndrome), especially in the post-Cold War environment of the nineties, defined as it was by successive US foreign policy misadventures.

While equally not a “Central European” poet, Farnsworth’s radical urban-cosmopolitan stance (his work veering at times between the grotesqueries of Švankmajer and the techno-poetism of Karel Teige: the urban here signifying a zone, a nexus of cross-cultural encounters defined on a daily and personal basis, not a geography therefore but a kind of praxis) puts him in close company with Pierre Joris, the long-time proponent of a “nomadic poetics.” Like Joris, though in different ways, Farnsworth détournes the exclusionary/singular logic of the state-political as handed down from Plato to Stalin and a raft of lesser emissaries. The political, for Farnsworth, is always a dimension of the poetic, of poiēsis. Which is also to say, of a social praxis (the two terms are interdetermined: praxis here is always already a poiēsis, and vice versa).

It’s important, in any case, to recognise that a social dimension of poetry in no way corresponds, for Farnsworth, to a compliance with (or mere antithetical rejection of) norms and expectations – even those norms and expectations of cultural criticism that are trademarked property of liberal America.

pigeons shit all over everything

people curse in many languages

yell guano bravo author

the world becomes coated

and hidden with words

the terrible mistake of language

the only thing worse is fluency

[“dalek bird poem”]

Simply put, poetry as Farnsworth sees it affects a social dimension by virtue of what it is, not by what it obliges itself to become in service to any kind of formalised thought (“fluency”), even of “revolutionary” thought. Here one is reminded of that famous (and opportune) pronouncement of Trotsky, published in the August 1938 issue of Partisan Review:

art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very existence, cannot tolerate them. Artistic essence has its laws – even when it serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only insofar as it remains faithful to itself.

Farnsworth’s preferred register (deflationary, ironic, trivial, unpoetic) in any case throws into doubt the conventional resources of socalled engaged poetics (endlessly anthologised in step with each latest catastrophe).[9]

…little bits of the bikini atoll

finally come down to demand justice…

[“particulate matter that my job is to arrange”]

 

…war is a crime so i only bleed for peace…

[“spring”]

 

…i read a CIA psych warfare manual

while listening to bootlegs…

[“she wants me”]

But Farnsworth goes beyond the fraught position of an irony assumed as a mode of understanding, in the direction of that seemingly most non-political of poetics espoused by Frank O’Hara, in whom Sartre’s “austere personal morality” of the artist (“the chosen poverty, the refusal of early success, the constant state of dissatisfaction and that permanent revolution which he wages against others and against himself”)[10] is transfigured into a diminutive and apparently off-handed “Personism.” But this transfiguration isn’t a contradiction: the permanent revolution waged by the artist/poet is bound to fail (and this is perhaps the perennial truth of which Farnsworth speaks vis-à-vis his “deep poetics”). The task isn’t for poetry to legislate by decree, but, as it were, by example – to paraphrase Beckett: to fail, to fail better. (It’s not for nothing that for many years Farnsworth’s work-in-progress was, precisely in this spirit, entitled Appointment to Fall.) And yet, note well, this poetic temperament is one that’s in tension with the alienation of contemporary mass culture, not its product (no tragic view of history).

I’ve seen
Lux Interior come
out in
gold with a bottle down
the front of his
lamé and yanking
the almost-empty
accidentally pry out his
dick saying
Love Me, Love Me

What else Jello
Biafra, a nylon stocking
stretched over his face
bleating about the toast
of Reaganism buttered with
dead rock stars and the
legendary stench
of their bipartisan recording studios
before a riot at the Democratic
convention in San Francisco
set off
by the very plainclothes police
he had just identified
by their tie dye

[“twenty years of No Future”]

While Farnsworth’s work doesn’t invite sentimental intervention it also exhibits impatience with many of the critical normativities of our times, in particular with those poetries which remain shut up in the old forms of conscientious neo-avant-gardism and are, as Ortega complained a generation ago, exhausted and the worse for wear – above all in their hankering after a sense of moment.

…political American poet stands up in the back

call for hungerisation of english literature

a communitarian steps over a body

mumbling family values and decline of morality…

[“poem to look out of”]

The close affinity that exists between Farnsworth and writers like O’Hara, Berrigan, but also Tom Clark and Pam Brown, is in part reflected in their common rejection of the self-fetishising of an institutional neo-avant-gardism (that herd of independent minds) that shares with the resurgence of Anglo-American lyric egoism an utter vapidity of purpose. There’s a sense of writing against the altered and depleted meaning of the “social” and the “subjective” which characterises much of what passes for poetry today and represents, in essence, a static continuation of the mass-cultural kitsch-mentality decried by Greenberg and excoriated by Marcuse in his critique of “one-dimensional man” (Farnsworth: “but MTV is public television”). Kitsch, in Greenberg’s argument, “is all that is spurious in the life of our time.”[11] And if we allow this statement to resonate as Greenberg intended, we can appreciate how the open engagement with kitsch by O’Hara, Berrigan and others, represented a political action – a type of re-expropriation and détournement (to realise dead metaphors) – which resonates equally in the work of Farnsworth where “emotions stretch between two people” like “rubber frying; on the stove” [“amerika’s top forty”]. Consider the following:

a “loner” and a “loser,” fbi stakeout

took him out. his own rod and

home in the comedy. someday comes

the photo with his smile, local page one

hot mile of speculation, could’ve

been healed with neurolinguistics,

dianetics, selected buddhist olios.

a sanctioned and normal-common

american way out: barricaded condo

helicopter loudspeaker come

to the door with a gun

refuse to put it down.

 

son, I’m calling to say

when I get home I’m going

to punish you.

[“downtrodden downloaded down”]

What comes out in Farnsworth’s performance of these texts, and which is evident throughout them, is a particular intonational quality which is at once idiosyncratic and flat. If this sounds like a contradiction, it is. Indeed, Farnsworth’s poetics is built upon a type of affective contradiction, between poetico-political engagement on the one hand, and the resources of boredom and entropy held up as a mirror to the great disillusionment stemming from the politics and poetics of the 1980s and only reinforced during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Farnsworth’s writing arrives at a point of symbiotic tension between Rosenbergian action and Greenbergian flatness, while at the same time eschewing the claims of either subjectivism or formal purity. It’s as if Farnsworth had set out to demonstrate that a poetics which rejects illusion of depth, so to speak, respecting (in Greenberg’s terms) the flatness of language, is thereby able to surmount the limitations of a poetics preoccupied with the political signified.

descending the here of the hole

filling with the there of the sea

as found in the oxford english dictionary

[“not long (after creeley)”]

 

  1. wrong way

 

went the wrong way

carrying the wrong sign

and the natives are not friendly.

they want to buy your hat

for the high price

of your head.

maybe they’re only kidding.

you didn’t ask to be here,

but it’s rude to say so.

hopefully they won’t notice

that your same silhouette

now means you’re leaving

bringing your absurd tool

to another uncomprehending land.

[“Poems written to the temporary statues

on Mánes Bridge in Prague”]

“Deep poetics,” as Farnsworth has it, isn’t an illusionism, and consequently not a mimēsis in any simplistic sense. It’s the sensation, the intonality of language-as-surface-effect and not of a secondary signified, that concerns us here: the resistance of medium. As in Cézanne, flatness exacerbates depth, becomes a critical-analytic action: flatness at high volume.

this is light
rays, rage against the
t-shirt machine,
a chuckle at the
poison –

corporate, governmental
voluntary, human natural
church sponsored, music videoed
computer enhanced
alternative
for sale
for free
force-fed
unavoidable

[“twenty years of No Future”]

karam_1This is perhaps nowhere more evident in Farnsworth’s work than in his seventeen-part serial meditation (quoted in-part above) on the biomorphic installations of Lebanese artist Nadim Karam and Atelier Hephastis. Karam’s “Prague Project,” a homage to Kandinsky and Kafka comprising temporary large-scale sculptural installations on Prague’s Mánes Bridge in 1997 (“in dialogue with the baroque sculptures on the historic Charles Bridge”) shares elements of Farnsworth’s concern with the tension between action and flatness.

  1. looking for fabled stability

 

the youth of today are doomed

Socrates said

for they read too much…

[“Poems written to the temporary statues

on Mánes Bridge in Prague”]

Karam’s figures, constructed from prefabricated interlocking mesh, are at once non-naturalistic and yet formally allusive, in the way Kandinsky himself spoke of as “literary” in the appeal of non-representational art to fable.[12] For Farnsworth, it’s this fabulous aspect of the medium itself which is both most disturbing and most resistant, in that it evokes a social dimension of language which isn’t that of a communication. The flatness of Farnsworth’s text at times almost seems in itself to resist communication, yet without ever succumbing to the appeals of pure abstraction (“a rubberband man frying on the stove” [“amerika’s top forty”]).

cb757114The difficulty of the work is similar to the difficulty of reconciling the fabulous and non-naturalistic elements of Karam’s biomorphic figures, mirrored in the difficulty of visually locating the sculptural object itself within or against (as in a picture surface) its environment. In the case of Karam’s “Prague Project,” there‘s the additional moiré-effect produced by the interlocking mesh construction, when perceived by a viewer in motion, for example. The whole work in a sense becomes an installation piece, not because it‘s physically situated within an existing locality (Mánes Bridge), but because it acts as a type of matrix by means of which a perceptual environment is brought about – in an evanescent yet also incisive, generative and critical way. Existent situations are reconstituted, the banal gives rise to the fabulous, not by a surrealistic sleight-of-hand, but by a structural possibility realised through perceptual metamorphosis: just as in the social sphere, the tyranny of paradigms is most threatened by hitherto unrealised possibilities of seeing things otherwise.

 

  1. formerly extinct combinations

 

the amazing success of

creatures once thought extinct

to fill the room you’re sleeping in

screech at you with a giant tongue

as long as the mastodon

of the body’s trunk would be

out of the dodo bird alertness head

signifies how despite the potshot

attempts at eternal destruction

taken by those already

counting their wrinkles,

forms of life, rows of eyes

and even imagination

spring up on the edges of the crater.

[“Poems written to the temporary statues

on Mánes Bridge in Prague”]

Like Kandinsky and Miró, form (biomorphism) describes a clinamen, a swerve. In a nod to Rosenberg, we might say here that attitude becomes structure. And in the associational and permissive stance of Farnsworth’s language (as opposed to the formal rigour of a pure abstraction) we can see how the ironic, farcical and kitsch describes a stricture, since in each of these modes the work’s flatness achieves, or actualises, a heightened intensity (as it does, for example, in Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing”).

  1. birdjoy

 

joyous is the hummingbird

on its visit to europe,

prague, and sad is

prague, europe,

that does not know hummingbird.

or it’s a new attempt at

bat, again looking for table scrap,

or the beginning of singing

by flying mammals, or

and vestigial wings

by singing ones.

[“Poems written to the temporary statues

on Mánes Bridge in Prague”]

Like Rauschenberg, Farnsworth treats narrative not as an element of illusionism, but as a textual surface-effect, its flatness corresponding to a resistance (e.g. of affect) which is the medium itself. As in Rauschenberg, we see that subjectivism is nothing more than a type of proscriptive grammar, whose conventional signs ultimately point nowhere than to stereotypes – emotional kitsch – which are already détourned. In other words, subjectivism is, of course, already a formalism. Like Rauschenberg’s “combine” paintings, Farnsworth’s poetry exposes the surface quality of affect, its arbitrary character, its narrative sleights-of-hand in the promise of interior lives (of its various fetish-objects and fetish-words). At the same time there’s a resistance to any reduction of poetry – by way of a counter-movement – to a set of formal (socalled abstract) procedures which would seek in a sense to grammaticise poetry as a system – even as an anti-system – and thus re-inscribe the historical bracketing-off (or incarceration) of poetry as a catalogue of exceptions or deviations from the rule (i.e. of reason, communicability, the translucency of language, etc.).

Poetry, of course, has always haunted the margins (and not only the margins) of the regularisable, even when its proponents have – at various times – sought to yoke it to one formalism or another, one task or another. The lesson of poetry, however, is that it’s not a matter of choosing, as between one dogma or another, formalism or subjectivism, for the simple reason that poetry, poiēsis, is the subjective in language – not the voice of some transcendental ego or deus ex machina, or the Coca-Cola sentimentality for a sustaining “real” behind the veil of sign-system commoditisation (O’Hara’s “most dreary of practical exigencies”) – but the subjectivity of the medium itself… “Not just resemblance, but” as O’Hara says, with a gently ironic stammer, “the magnetic otherness / that that that stands erect in the spirit’s glare / and waits for the joining of an opposite force’s breath.”[13]

If poetry names the subjective in language, it also – by virtue of this – names the mode par excellence of a resistance at the heart of the socalled political (for Farnsworth, poetics as social praxis is a praxis formed and articulated through the inner convulsions of a discourse in continuous re-evolution). Poiēsis, in its fullest sense, is an undisclosed dynamism, counterpart of that entropic movement which is on the one hand called Literature and on the other Politics. It’s the work of generative idiosyncrasy, iteration and permutation; it’s the originary inassimilable element, the contrary of all that claims to be definitive or once-and-for-all, or what O’Hara called “downright forgery” [“Les Luths”]. It exceeds and contradicts the bonds of kinship between the academies and the avant-gardes, as if (but of course only as if) it alone were the “conscience of our time”: not the voice of a moral rectitude society periodically avows belief in, but of everything at odds with a desire to impose-upon, like an imp of the perverse. It’s the unruliness of the polis. It’s the programme that succeeds only by failing…

the microscopic orbiter

he injected to fix his consciousness

with a little psycho-surgery

went bad, started strafing vehicles

on neural highways and

he had to poke into that blue vein

something even smaller

that will also have its own plan

so he programmed the NSA’s/NSC’s

(nth degree) stratospheric

broadcasting computer to

randomly shuffle out words

and it generated sonnets,

erroneous theories and recipes

for plaster of paris,

the words        immortal whistleblower

forty thousand times

[“they have arrived (to the music of Andrew Swartz)”]

  [1]   Vincent Farnsworth, Theremin: Selected Poems (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2011).

  [2]   See Black Silence: The Lety Survivors Speak, Paul Polansky (Prague: G+G, 1998).

  [3]   Tim Rogers, “Jejune: Angel Heir or Devil’s Advocate?” The Prague Post, 16 December, 1998.

  [4]   Andrei Codrescu, “The Penny Post,” Gambit Weekly, 29 July 2003: 13.

  [5]   Qtd in Bill Lavender and Dave Brinks (eds.), “Death Interrupted: A Colloquy of Words from New Orleans,” Big Bridge 14 (2006): http://www.bigbridge.org/BB14/.

  [6]   Ted Berrigan, “Discussion apropos ‘Songwriting and Poetry’ with Jim Carroll, On the Level Everyday: Selected Talks on Poetry and the Art of Living, ed. Joel Lewis (Jersey City: Talisman House, 1997) 106.

  [7]   José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanisation of Art, trans. Helen Weyl (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968) 47.

  [8]   Tom Clark, “The Romance of Damage,” The Poetry Beat (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1990) 133.

  [9]   Reminding us, if ever we needed reminding, that violence and caricature are complimentary attitudes.

[10]   Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Artist and his Conscience,” Situations, trans. Benita Eisler (New York: George Braziller, 1965) 215.

[11]   Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961) 9ff.

[12]   Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M.T.H. Sadler (New York: Dover, 1977) 49.

[13]   Frank O’Hara, “In Favor of One’s Time,” The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Random House, 1974).

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