Some Hells Are Real: Postmodern American Poetry, 2nd Edition

I must admit I am ambivalent about “experimental poetry” (call it Postmodern, Conceptualist, Flarf or Metamodern — or going back, Language, Concrete, or Dada).

On the one hand, I find Gertrude Stein, Rae Armantrout, and works like Ron Silliman’s “BART” (not exactly a “poem”) and Christopher Bök’s “Eunoia” (winner of the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize) interesting AND worth reading.

On the other hand, John Cage’s mesostics are neat (that’s a technical term) but I ultimately find them unsatisfying as poems. And while I have no desire to slug my way through any of them, I do think Kenneth Goldsmith’s book concepts are intriguing, for example: a transcript of every move his body made during a thirteen-hour period (Fidget, 1999); everything he said for a week (Soliloquy, 2001); the September 1, 2000 issue of The New York Times, transcribed (Day, 2003), and a year of transcribed weather reports (The Weather, 2005).


(Kenneth Goldsmith in his sartorial splendor).

But much closer to poetry (or not, if one thinks about it), I have not met a “Flarf” poem I didn’t dislike.

Enter Ange Mlinko:

On the syllabus is a poem from the second edition of Postmodern American Poetry (Norton; Paper $39.95), Sharon Mesmer’s “I Never Knew an Orgy Could Be So Much Work”:

In our orgy, the Mole Person took Saddam down to Moleopolis,
which is a gigantic ass vagina in the suburbs.
I got lots of noir work out of that one.
I got to orgy with a little monkey in a Mel Gibson movie.

In a solemn touch, an author’s note identifies the provenance of this poem as “Flarf.” According to the anthology’s editor, Paul Hoover, Flarf is a cyberpoetry practice that involves using search engines as phrase generators and assembling the results into poems: “With each copy and paste comes the cultural stain of the Web. This explains the tone of Flarf, a cyberpoetry noted for the outrageousness of its content.”

The distance between the Flarf mind and Gary Snyder’s “Riprap” is immeasurable:

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
straying planets,
These poems, people…

The distance is immeasurable because there is a mind at work in “Riprap”—finding metaphor and metonymy between rocks, words, and the arrangement of them by men and cosmic forces. But both texts are forced to occupy the same poetic universe called “postmodern,” a contested notion that Hoover, in his almost thirty-page introduction, is at pains to define in terms made famous by the theorist Frederic Jameson: “It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” What a claim to make in a poetry anthology that starts with 1953 and trumpets Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Any notion of history has been leveled by the internet”! What was it Keats wrote to Shelley: “Load every rift of your subject with irony”?

Ange Mlinko’s review of Paul Hoover’s Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, 2nd Edition (The Nation).



  1. Hiya Rojas,

    When did Modern begin? Eliot?

    What is post-modern; the Beats? I love Ginsberg, but not Bukowski. – he’s too obscene. It all depends on your sensibilities.

    Who knows, but I think the organ that best tests a poem is the ear, not the eye. I don’t agree with over-emphasis of the visual metaphor. As Baudelaire said “Poetry is a disease of the ear”.

    As the Father of a Daughter, studying English, I’m appalled at the level of analysis and the absence of creative writing: they never get to write a poem or a novella. So of course I wrote a poem…

    Professional poets

    Paid by Oxford,
    Coin technical terms .

    ‘Caesura’: a pause within a line, implied by punctuation.

    ‘Enjambment’: There’s a line break
    in the ‘line’.

    I don’t say the wise are wrong
    But sense the insecurity
    Implicit in their

    The only organ is the Ear…


    Apologies if this post is inappropriate


    1. “It all depends on your sensibilities.”

      I think you got that absolutely right. And I agree with you that “poetry”
      has to have music; it must affect the ear in some way.

      A long time ago I defined a great poem as a poem that had something you could think about, something you could feel, and something you could hear.


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