In Memoriam David Antin (1932–2016)

Marjorie Perloff

            Summer 1975: I was attending the first annual Ezra Pound conference in Orono, Maine. Among such prominent conference speakers as Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie was a former Davie PhD student from Stanford, now teaching at Indiana University at Bloomington, named Barry Alpert. Barry was a true radical—so radical that he was soon dismissed from Bloomington and has led a peripatetic life as free-lance poet, critic, and book dealer; for a time he owned a bookshop in Washington D. C. that burned to the ground one dark night. But in the 1970s, he was editing and publishing an important literary journal called VORT, which had just brought out the Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin issue. Barry gave me a copy, which I read cover to cover, ordered earlier issues (there was one on Jackson Mac Low, another on Guy Davenport), and began studying David’s provocative ideas about the “new American poetry,” as well as his curious “talk poems”—transcribed oral performances, avoiding all punctuation and capital letters and leaving plenty of white space between phrases so as to simulate actual talk. I was hooked and was soon reviewing Talking at the Boundaries for the New Republic (1978).  Ironically, then, it was via Ezra Pound that I came to Antin. My 1981 book The Poetics of Indeterminacy contains chapters on both.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to take up a position at the University of Sothern Claifornia, I introduced myself to David, then already living in Del Mar; both he and his wife, Eleanor, soon to be a famous artist, were professors at UC San Diego. Soon we began to pay visits back and forth—in those days, one could drive from Del Mar to LA in about one and a half hours, whereas today it can be three or four—and we also had countless long phone conversations, during which David would educate me on issues like Wittgenstein’s numbering system, Diderot’s dialogism in Rameau’s Nephew (one of his favorite books and a model for his own monologues), the use of narrative in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and Gertrude Stein’s syntax. Once he was on track, David could talk on and on, and I wish I had recorded what in retrospect were quasi-talk poems. I also remember the excitement of going to conferences with David. One time in 1978, he and I and Charles Altieri (another great talker) were at a conference on postmodernism held at Stanford. In the afternoon, I went up to my room for a nap; when I woke an hour later I could hear, below my window in the motel courtyard, David and Charlie still going on and on about the meaning or (nonmeaning) of the term postmodernism. The conversation never let up for an instant!

I shall forever be in David’s debt for these conversations, which taught me how to think about American poetry in the larger context of European modernism as well as the Platonic dialogue. It was David who first made clear to me that, at a time when Pound was still writing rather romantic stylized dramatic monologues of Personae, Blaise Cendrars (for whom David’s son Blaise is named) was already completing “La Prose du Transsibérien,” with its artful simulation of actual speech and its colloquial free verse. And it was David who introduced me to the collage texts and paintings of Kurt Schwitters.

David’s talk poems, written in the short phrasal units of what Northop Frye defined as the “associative rhythm,” use repetition and metonymy to produce complex meditations that look nothing if not “natural” but are in fact carefully constructed and shaped. In their emphasis on the actual thought processes that lead to certain conclusions, they look ahead to the conceptual poetics of our own moment. But David was also a leading literary and art critic, and in 2016 it may be useful to remind younger readers of what a difference that criticism made to those of us who came of (literary) age in the 1970s.

In his two essays on modernism and postmodernism—the first for the inaugural issue of boundary 2 in 1972, the second in Occident 1974, and both reprinted in the Chicago volume Radical Coherency (2011), David stages a stinging attack against what he took to be the neomodernist symbolist poetry of the post-World War II period. It was a time when W. D.

Snodgrass was considered a major new voice. Antin takes as a specimen the lines:

The green catalpa tree has turned

All white; the cherry blooms once more.

In one whole year I haven’t learned

A blessed thing they pay you for.

Of which David remarks: “The comparison between this updated version of A Shropshire Lad . . . and the poetry of the Cantos or The Waste Land seems so aberrant as to verge on the pathological.” Here, as in the case of Delmore Schwartz, or Allen Tate, or early Robert Lowell, Antin insisted, the “originating styles” of modernism seemed to have lost all their energy. We were witnessing, in establishment poetry, a giant step backwards, even as the poets Donald Allen had introduced in his New American Poetry, beginning with Charles Olson, were doing exciting new work. And, anyway, David argued, none of these poets, whether “raw” (Allen Ginsberg) or “cooked (Lowell), were as brilliant as such Europeans as Schwitters and Cendrars, not to mention that unique expatriate Stein, who was the most innovative of them all.

Antin could be excessively dismissive and arrogant about his likes and dislikes, but the fact is that his boundary 2 article and its postscript in Occident changed the map of postwar twentieth-century poetry, as it was being studied and understood in American universities. Students had to ask themselves whether the metaphoric mode of, say, Richard Wilbur really was a valuable successor to the modernists or why the “history collage” of Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle often seemed merely tepid vis-à-vis Pound’s “history” Cantos.  Meanwhile, his bon mots like “From the modernism that you want, you get the postmodernism you deserve,” and “Anthologies are to poets as the zoo is to animals,” were widely cited and repeated by a growing circle of disciples.

Part of David’s appeal was what T. S. Eliot, talking of Andrew Marvell, called “the tough reasonableness behind the slight lyric grace.”   Writing of avant-garde poets and artists, David always began reasonably with the literal. In “Duchamp: the Meal and the Remainder,” David’s focus was on Duchamp’s use of language, on the erotic puns and double entendres that made the work what it is as well as of the significance of calling The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” a “delay” in glass. Again, David wrote what is still considered the best essay on the all-black paintings of the Rothko Chapel in Houston—on the power of this “uncompromising difficult and secular work” to produce in the observer “a sense of your human fallibility,” by evoking such things as the early promise of nuclear energy as a “kind of glowing in the dark that’s still part of the metaphoric system we have to engage in.”

In this essay—“The Existential Allegory of the Rothko Chapel,”—framed not as a conventional essay, but as a talk piece, micronarrative intrudes so as to “thicken the plot,” to use Cage’s term. There are shaggy dog stories, speculations about remembering faces like the poet’s father’s, who died when David was two, conversations with other art critics, and so on. But the seeming diversions and parenthetical stories are all related: in the end an Antin talk poem has a curious way of coming full circle and tying up the loose knots. Only when the poet stops talking (or in the transcribed version, writing) do we see that the threads that have come together were there all along.

Many of David’s talk poems and art essays, now in the J. Paul Getty Trust archive, have yet to be transcribed; one of my favorites is called “The Poetry of Ideas and the Idea of Poetry,” and compares Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writing to Bertolt Brecht’s verse version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, arguing that Wittgenstein’s “prose” is, finally, much more poetic than Brecht’s hexameter version of Marx. David performed this piece at a conference on poetry and philosophy at Berkeley, and it was not well received by many of the academic philosophers, who found its treatment of “serious” ideas frivolous. But I predict that, as generic boundaries become less important, the Wittgenstein piece will be recognized for its profundity, its understanding of what poetry is and can be and where poetry and philosophy meet.

Most great critics have their blind spots; think of Samuel Johnson dismissing John Milton’s Lycidas or Virginia Woolf deploring the scatological language of James Joyce’s Ulysses. David had little interest in the novel—I never heard him say anything interesting—indeed, anything at all— on Leo Tolstoy or Marcel Proust or William Faulkner. He paid little attention to the work of younger poets, although he was, of course, an early proponent of feminist performance art, of which Eleanor was a key exemplar. He admired theorists like Michel de Certeau, whose work on the everyday was backed by thorough scholarship, but had little use for Jacques Derrida or Jacques Lacan, or even Theodor Adorno, whom he regarded with bemused skepticism. Despite his love of French and Russian avant-garde poetry—Maria Tsvetaeva was a great favorite—when it came to theory and criticism, he was an American pragmatist. Does it work? Is it useful? What can you do with it? These are the questions that interested him. But perhaps because he was so unabashedly American—with a Brooklyn accent to boot—it was in the France whose theorists he dismissed that he was especially popular. Most of his books have been translated into French and the Oulipo poet Jacques Roubaud was an early kindred spirit.

In the decades to come, I am convinced, David will be recognized for the transformative critic and poetician he was. Close to so many of the artists and poets of his day, beginning with his best friend and fellow innovator Jerome Rothenberg, whom he had first met in his undergraduate years at City College, he was, finally, entirely his own person—a bracing, provocative, and entirely original voice in the wilderness of what is considered the poetry scene.

Here an anecdote may be apposite. In 1980 or so, I invited David to give a poetry reading—that is, a talk—at USC. The auditorium was reassuringly full. But about ten minutes into the piece—I think it was “Who’s Listening Out There?”—David was interrupted by a woman’s voice from the audience. “When,” she asked impatiently, “does the poetry reading begin?” Everyone laughed. “You’re not going to hear anything you’re not hearing now,” David responded calmly, “so feel free to leave. There is nothing else coming.” She stayed.


[Visit the CI website to read some of David Antin’s work—Ed.]


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Filed under Arts, Humanities, Interdisciplinarity, Theory

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