Flarf and the Prospect of Open Source Poetry

Before we had a word for copypasta , there was a poetics of copypasta. Flarf was invented to explore the possibilities of digital text, copying, pasting, collaborating, and changing, to create new writings.

In poetry, open source is not a new thing at all. Rather, it’s a very old thing. The oldest and one of the most important poems in human history, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was created by more than one author whose identities are now unknown. The Finnish epic The Kalevala, though it was compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the early 19th century, was composed by perhaps hundreds of nameless authors, over centuries of oral transmission. The most heartrending Irish love poem, “Donal Og,” is unattributed. In English, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and “The Dream of the Rood” both lack attribution, and both are considered canonical–culturally indispensable. All of the above are available in the public domain.

Neither is collaboration a new thing. The French Surrealists embraced it with such exercises as cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), a collective writing technique that sometimes produced provocative results. It’s being practiced even now in web-based publications such as like Starlings. But collaboration itself is not quite the same as open, unattributed, dynamically generated poetry. The question as we move forward is, can true, open source poetics be accomplished? Can a poem’s quality, beauty, value to its community be its most important features, rather than the famous name of its author?

Flarf and the prospect of open source poetry