The Anger Scale

My new friend Jennifer, who majored in poetry in college, lent me a book of poems called The Anger Scale. She’d previously lent me one called Annoying Diabetic Bitch, which I did not enjoy as much as this one.  Both books are part of a genre of poetry previously unknown to me called Flarf. Yes, I know, but bear with me a little. So Flarf is basically (at least according to how Jennifer explained it to me) a form of “found” poetry is which authors make poems with phrases from Google search results. The poems in The Anger Scale, for example, are made by googling lists of statements from the Minnesota Multiphasic Persoanlity Inventory, “a psychological test consisting of 566 true/false questions that has been the benchmark for determining people’s mental pathologies as well as their fitness for court trials and military service since the 1930s.”  Thus all the titles of the poems in The Anger Scale consist of the original statements from the test, which contain increasing degrees of creepiness such as “There Seems to be a Lump In My Throat Most of the Time,” “It Does Not Bother Me Particularly To See Animals Suffer,” “I Very Much Like Hunting” and “Often I Feel As If There Were A Tight Band About My Head.” The author thus wrote the poems by ““by feeding phrases from the statements into internet search engines and piecing the poems together from the results pages.”

I don’t really want to get into an argument or a discussion right now about whether or not poetry generated from Google can really be considered “creative” work or or whatever. (I already went through that with my dad the other day when I gave him the book to read while I ran inside to the post office. When I came back, he said “I did appreciate that this book was the first time I ever saw a poem use the words “agricultural economist, but that’s basically it.”) So without discussing the merits of Flarf of a literary movement (because I guess that’s what it apparently is, at least among New School MFA teachers and graduates), let me just say I found these poems hilarious. I found them very readable, and they had just the most killer, quotable lines. I’ll quote from some that Jennifer went ahead and underlined: “I feel as if I am being plotted against / and the only real way out of it for me / would be pregnancy, / and that may not even save me.” (from “I Believe I Am Being Plotted Against.”) “I loved my father and I loved Jesus. / What was I to do? / I felt like a canoe / that was being pulled apart by two strong men.”  (“I Loved My Father.”) “I am a ghost maniac boy who doesn’t like work. / I am an animal with a halo.” “”Have you ever been guilty of pre-judging someone – / say, an expert in blood splatter patterns – / then found out that she was dating you only to “save your soul”???” (both from “I See Things Or Animals Or People Around Me That Others Do Not See,” a personal favorite of mine.) Pretty weird and trippy, but honestly not as weird as some of the stuff I read in my Avant-Gardes Spanish class, most of which was written in the beginning of the 20th-Century. These poems made me think of a Werner Herzog quote, about how we are compelled to find new images, or else we are destined to die out like dinosaurs. That was the main thing I guess I liked about these poems: they were unlike anything I had ever read before, they were funny, they were fun to read. So much poetry is just so serious, you know? Without going into a whole debate about it, I just really appreciated the playful quality of this book.

The other thing I thought was interesting was the use of the Google search engine. I don’t know much about found poetry as a genre (hey, I don’t know much about poetry at all!), but obviously it’s something that’s been going on for a while in the long ago days of pre Internet (if only because I remember doing it myself, looking through magazines and cutting out words to make found poetry in my 10th grade English class). It’s a technique that makes a lot of sense for me, as a young 20-something who came of age during the Internet. Why not use the Google search engine to write poetry?

I don’t remember the first time I used the Internet, but it probably had something to do with Titanic and Leonardo DiCaprio. I remember the first song I downloaded from Napster (Tori Amos’ “Spark”) and how Napster solved the insane problem my sister and I suffered from for years, that of not being able to hear the new Tori Amos album for months and months and months until my father would travel to the U.S. and buy us her album. (I’ll always remember the time he came home from Washington D.C. and said gravely, “I’m sorry girls, but I forgot to get it,” and the wordless way in which my sister flopped belly-down on the bed, her hands on her head as we resigned ourselves to the grief of another tw0-three-four months of waiting.) I remember when my first boyfriend in college logged onto his facebook page and explained to me what it was. And now I’m working with kids who are better at using photobooth on the Macs in the school library than me (I’ve never even used photobooth!).

Speaking of the devil, I saw The Social Network last night and while it was a very well-made movie, it also left me feeling extremely depressed and empty-feeling. I don’t think this was just because I found all the characters to be odious sexist jerks, or the way in a Harvard education’s value was portrayed to be solely that of social networking. The scene that most depressed me was when Justin Timberlake’s character was giving a speech on what he saw to be the future of facebook to a bunch of interns high on cocaine at party: “We lived in farms, then we lived in the cities, and now we’re gonna live on the internet!” It depressed me because it felt so true. And then my depression in turn makes me think of the monks in The Name of the Rose, freaking out about this brand new fandangled technology called “printing,” which they were convinced was going to squash people’s attention spans and intellectual life, because it would take books and reading out of the hallowed sphere of the libraries and the abbeys. I want to see the Internet as something good, something that unifies and connects us and brings us knowledge and so on. I don’t want to be an old fart fogey. But at the same time I also feel like those lines in that Phillip Larkin poem: “It seems, just now, / To be happening so very fast; / Despite all the land left free / For the first time I feel somehow / That it isn’t going to last.”

Anyway… here’s one of the most interesting poems (IMHO) from The Anger Scale in full, just to give you a better idea of the language:

Life Is A Strain For Me Most of the Time

This planet has–or rather had–a problem
it simply feels that way most of the time
the way a few very rich people do now

they leave off the breathing Americans
in solitary confinement
in the arctic winter, when the sky
has a lot of energy
and the mosquitoes are not in full force
(think pill bugs of the sea
involved in bloody feudal wars)

Some were shoddier than others
Some were taught to play on the violin
Some were nobles who had upset the king
Some were actively connected to the actual events

an old lantern lit in the men’s faces
the mud was at least ankle deep

It was the constant darkness more than the cold
the standard average-student mold

Just as your heart goes out to the man
when you learn that he was abusive and miserable,
sometimes it seems odd that topless bathing isn’t allowed

when we give away use of roads
we get too much cheese

five of the six dioramas show
you can trust the federal government
to be cheaper than coal

even the smart kids
burned the good food in front of us
in favor of the articulation of existing paradigms
It is cleaner when burned.

The naive reader may believe that you feel uncomfortable
because of the appearance of your eye and eyelid
But the real problem is that
alcohol was the primary agent for the development of Western civilization
around a large quantity of dog poop

And now I’m going to watch scenes The Adventures of Huck Finn on youtube, a classic movie from my childhood, before taking a shower and going to bed. Tomorrow I start reading The Brothers K.

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Filed under books, modernity, poetry, technology

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