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David Antin, TALKING (Dalkey Archive, 2001).
Introduction by MARJORIE PERLOFF

Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e. the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.

Wittgenstein, Culture and Value


In the Antin canon, which now ranges from the spare lineated riddle poems of the early sixties through decades of talk pieces, art essays, literary reviews, audiotapes, films, and even a foray into sky writing, to the forthcoming Conversation (Granary 2001), a dialogue with Antin’s younger alter-ego Charles Bernstein, Talking marks what is probably the key transition in the poet’s career: it takes us from a set of Wittgensteinian exercises on meaning-making and its vagaries ("The November Exercises"), still in the mode of the earlier Meditations, to the first of the "talk poems," "talking at pomona," the text that sets the stage for the talk pieces which were to make Antin famous as well as controversial. Mainstream critics were quick to pronounce these pieces "not poetry" (and hence evidently dismissable?) even as, in avant-garde circles from Florida to France, Bucharest to Buffalo, new audiences were responding to these "not-poetry" works with delight and awe.

Indeed, rereading Talking in 2001, the main thing that strikes me is how avant-garde a book this is. I know that avant-garde is now a suspect term, that we have to surmount the barrage of commentary, whether on the Left or the Right, that tells us there is no avant-garde (if there ever was one!), that as Antin puts it so wittily in "what it means to be avant-garde" (published as the title piece of his third volume talk pieces in 1993), there is only "the consolatory sense of the increasing belatedness and progressively more / attenuated virtues of each successive generation of poets / from blake and wordsworth to the present." This is, of course, a reference to Harold Bloom’s theory of the "anxiety of influence," which Antin characterizes as an "inverted" idea of the avant-garde as

a notion of first comers whose

achievements were new and blocked the way to further

achievements along the same path an idea of patented

inventions each one acting as a roadblock and the

tradition as a series of bitterly fought retreats till the last

"strong" poet finds himself like kafkas rodent or a beckett

character backed into the last corner of the room

"maybe I’m such a poor avant-gardist," Antin responds, to this and similar decline-and-fall arguments like Richard Schechner’s, "because i’m mainly concerned with the present which / if i can find it might let me know what to do and as for / the future it will find us all by itself." And he goes on, as is his practice, to tell a seemingly irrelevant story about his mother, unhappy in a California retirement facility, and his Uncle Irving, who wants her to come to Florida and "live the life of Reilly" with him, only to be hit by a car and killed, unbeknownst to the poet, soon after having made this offer. It is a story that brings home to us with a vengeance the Wittgensteinian precept that "Everything we see could always be otherwise." Being avant-garde, Antin suggests comically (and also sadly) means knowing how to deal in the present with a future one cannot imagine, much less anticipate.

It is this concern for the future latent in the present that makes Talking, now thirty years old, look so avant-garde today. For even as the early seventies bred moral parables about the Vietnam War and Nixon era as well as earnest, didactic anti-war poetry— works most of which now seem quite dated-- Antin’s Talking tracks the process of actually living through the war years in what was the beginning of the poet’s own self-imposed exile years in Southern California. Perhaps the distance of viewing the discourses of war and the art world from his new family outpost in the town of Solana Beach, CA. helped Antin invent the improvisatory forms of Talking that, in various guises, have become familiar to readers of journals featuring "experimental" writing.

Take "The November Exercises," which Antin himself calls in the Afterword "a kind of a cross between calisthenics and spiritual exercises," using as found text the daily papers as well as a handbook for foreigners called Essential Idioms of English. Here is the opening of the first entry for Sunday, November 1:

(10:35 PM) A pair of herons look at each other. Their pupils do not move and

impregnation takes place. A male cicada emits a buzzing sound in the air

above and the female responds from the air below. Impregnation takes

place. Ravens hatch their young. Fishes drop their milt. Small waisted

wasps metamorphose. There are footprints on the ground. Did shoes

make them?

(11:15 PM) Last month they laid off several thousand men.

The sound of their voices gradually died out.

(11.21 PM) A star came by and asked some person, who will remain nameless, what

should be done to make world government. The nameless person said, "Go

away, you’re a provincial!"

The combination of precision (the exact time of writing ) and absurdity of these mini-narratives—part Zen koan, part tall tale, part grammar-book exercise—was to make its way into the Language poetry of the eighties and nineties. But Antin’s are unique in their surprising variations. In the extract above, for example, the mode is not anything as simple as Dada nonsequitur. The account of the impregnation habits of birds, insects, and fish is perfectly sober description, and the supposition that footprints on the ground were made by shoes makes good sense—so good, in fact, that one wonders why it deserves mention. But the second unit is quite different. The layoff of several thousand men would be registered by the pain of the individuals concerned , not by the sound of their voices dying out as perceived by others, although, strictly speaking, the emptied factory yard could conceivably be the scene of such a dying fall. As for the third item, the joke is on the narrator who imagines—we might say, provincially-- that a "star" (star what?) has expertise on "world government." And besides, lofty ideals always become the source of someone else’s derision ("Go away, you’re a provincial! )

Antin, as he reminds us in the dialogue with Bernstein, was a child of the Depression. But his way of dealing with the world as he found it , has been, above all else, Wittgensteinian. In a recent essay on Wittgenstein for Modernism / Modernity (1998), Antin remarks

All of Philosophical Investigations can be said to consist of a thinking-while-writing that was in all likelihood based on Wittgenstein’s own thinking-while-talking. For whatever else Wittgenstein may have been, he was an improvising, talking philosopher, whether he was talking to colleagues and friends in colloquia, or to students in lectures, or to himself while he was writing. His lectures were legendary. . . . His commitment to improvisation was absolute and quite self-conscious. He told [Norman] Malcolm that "once he had tried to lecture from notes . . . but was disgusted with the result; the thoughts that came out were ‘stale,’ or, as he put it to another friend, the words looked like ‘corpses’ when he began to read them."

Here is the key to Antin’s own method, which makes its first appearance in Talking. In both "in place of a lecture: three musics for two voices" and "the london march," he experiments with controlled improvisation, recorded directly on tape, using both his own voice and that of his wife Elly (the conceptual artist Eleonor Antin). In "three musics," the occasion is provided by a "scientific" experimental design text about a farmer who claims to use a carved whalebone as an instrument to detect the presence of underground water. Within a few pages, this sober narrative, read by Elly, gives way to a series of practical questions on the part of the unnamed interlocutor (David in his speaking voice) as well as a third set (Elly again, but this time in her speaking voice) that questions those questions. The story cannot, it seems, be "told" in any straightforward manner, the questions, which is to say the noise in the information channel, soon overwhelming all linear communication. The act of telling the tale transforms it in a very wittily rendered piece of "thinking-while-talking."

"the london march" uses improvisation for more serious purposes. Set up as a radio play, with Elly "playing solitaire for various whimsical wishes," it conveys a terrible sense of anxiety on the part of a husband and wife used to being at the center of things (in this case, the anti-war activity in downtown New York in the late sixties), who are now thousands of miles away in a little beach town where, for all anyone would know, the world is perfectly peaceful and pleasant. Their baby son Blaise is asleep in the next room. From the periphery (here emblematized by the not quite organized London demonstrators to whom both David and Elly refer), they try to talk about the war and Washington politics, only to find themselves reminiscing about their college friends, lovers, early days of courtship—all the things that bring to life their former selves. It is necessary to do this, the improvisation implies, in order to try to make sense of the present. And even then, it doesn’t quite work.

When more conventional lyric poets and their readers accuse Antin of being unemotional, I wonder if they have read "the london march," which is surely one of the most painful poems written in these years—a kind of slapstick version of Coleridge’s "Frost at Midnight," where the talkers try to cheer themselves up by remembering what childrens’ books were their respective favorites or whether natasha was in love with charlie or letch. Again, this is a process work in which the thinking-while-talking becomes meaningful only in the course of the slowly evolving narrative.

In this context, the first talk poem, "talking at pomona" is not so much a departure as a Wittgensteinian improvisation that, this time, develops Wittgensteinian language theory as well. The word "theory" must be qualified: like Wittgenstein, who scoffed at all metalanguage, insisting that "Ordinary language is all right," Antin, as he tells Bernstein, has "a thorough distrust of the uses of expert language." "The vernacular," as he puts it, "is pretty permeable and admits new technical vocabulary when you really need it." But if "theory" –or more properly philosophy--is understood as "the pursuit of fundamental questions," says Antin, "I do the best I can at this in the vernacular."

The theoretical issue, in "talking at pomona" is what "art making" means in the late twentieth century and why anyone should value it. This "subject which probably doesn’t have a name," as Antin announces at the beginning of the poem, can’t be approached by putting forward a series of generalizations or abstractions. Rather, the poet’s improvisation—his thinking-while-talking, which is later revised and adjusted for the print medium of the book, can only proceed by circling round and round the topic. What is a painting anyway? Is it a painting of something and why do we need it? Why does a particular person like a particular painting? What do "painting relators" (art critics, connoisseurs, dealers, and so forth) do when they relate paintings to one another and relate to others about paintings? What is sculpture and are sculpture relators the same as painting relators? And how do these relate to those who buy these objects?

The very posing of these fundamental questions is, of course, a form of defamiliarization. In the course of his meditation, Antin exposes such contemporary truisms as the popular sixties axiom that "sculpture articulates space." "Sculpture relators are interested in relations in real space in three-dimensional space / and painting relators are involved in in non-real space whatever they are involved in is / involved on a surface that is imagined to be separated from the space you walk into" (151). Now suppose a given painting is placed in a doorway and "you smash the / painting in half and go through." Is that, then, also the articulation of space and, if so, how does sculpture differ from painting? And the piece continues, pressing hard on such issues. In the course of "talking at pomona," everything we ever knew or thought we knew about the "art object" is called into question. Whose painting is it? The owner’s (as in the Bob Rhinestone anecdote that comes up about half-way through) or the dealer’s or the painter’s? What is the painting worth? Can we quantify and say "brush strokes fifteen hundred color" (161)? And what does it mean to say that Cézanne was "intoxicated with what sunlight seems to do to volume"? "in the late painting by cezanne," Antin observes, ‘theres no mass no / sense of mass because by the time he got through rendering volume and luminosity he has no / room for mass that is the characteristic that he has to sacrifice" (163).

In considering, one by one, the meaning of such words as "cube" and "slab," Antin adapts the Wittgensteinian language game so as to show how silly most of what was said about minimalist and conceptual art in 1970 really was. Not because he has anything against the artworks in question—works by Doug Huebler and Dennis Oppenheim and Vito Acconci. Rather, he wants the audience to question their most basic assumptions and recognize the fallacy of this or that current fashionable art theory. For, as he comes to discover in the course of the talk, "human space is experiential space" (175), space that can’t treated to abstract theorems about "art is…." In the end, as in Wittgenstein’s Investigations, we cannot say what the "value" of a given artwork is, but we can delimit its parameters and say what it isn’t. "it is possible," the piece concludes, "to construct make our art out of something more meaningful than the arbitrary rules of / knot making out of the character of human experience in our world."

When the Antins played the tape of "talking at pomona" on the drive home from Pomona, Elly, as David tells it, declared without a moment’s hesitation, "thats a poem." What makes it a poem? To read the piece a second time is to note its status as a highly structured set of permutations on a few terms, in the vein of Gertrude Stein’s permutations in The Making of Americans or A Long Gay Book. Words like "painting" or "sculpture" or "art" and their analogues and subsets are repeated again and again with a slight shift in context that makes them resonate. Like Wittgenstein, who once declared that "one can only do philosophy as a form of poetry," Antin is a literalist poet—a poet of denotation. He is not, that is to say, interested in shades of meaning or the subtle connotations of words, much less in their metaphoric or allegoric resonance. Nor is he interested in linear rhythm and the regulated chiming of rhyme or consonance. Rather his is poetry at the structural and syntactic level, with the syntactic units, as I have suggested elsewhere, rendered visually on the page with great intricacy.

And this brings me to the larger question of the book. Critics, myself included, have paid insufficient attention to Antin’s bookmaking practice. Just as phrases and clauses are structured in the individual talk poem, so the book is, for him, always a woven verbal texture, a planned structure. In Talking, narrative, which will become much more central to his practice in Talking at the Boundaries and Tuning, is not yet fully operative. Rather, the four pieces are united by their concern for serial definition. And here the cover of the book comes in. In the original, the inside and outside covers was a series of contact prints in which the standard glass-faced newspaper dispensers, placed in front of the local supermarket or post office, bank or branch library in the small beach towns near San Diego, are viewed in their everyday surroundings. For what fascinates Antin is the contrast between the headlines, with their stories of disaster in Europe or Asia or Africa, and the setting of the newspaper dispensers on bland suburban streets, where men in shorts happen to be walking by or cars happen to be idling at the curb. It’s all very idyllic—or is it?

The photo grid Antin made for the front and back outside and inside covers of Talking thus gives us a visual equivalent to the discrepancies that are the thread running through the "November Exercises," the two improvisatory dialogues in the book’s center, and "talking at pomona." Talking is not a collection of poems, not a volume from which to extract a putative Selected or Collected. Conceived and designed as a book, it prefigures such works as Joan Retallack’s Afterrimages, Steve McCaffery’s Theory of Sediment, or Charles Bernstein’s With Strings. An anomaly thirty years ago when it was first published, Talking makes perfect sense in the art/poetry book world of 2001.

And that’s what it means to be avant-garde.

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