Friday, February 4, 2011
by David Antin
Introduction by Marjorie Perloff
Poetry is parsed incrementally. We come to sense via the unit - how it is delineated, how it is twisted, how it harkens back to itself and its parts. This is the holographic sense of poetry, where each unit refracts and reflects the whole. Poetry then becomes a mechanism for referring to its own parts in a cogent and expansive fashion. The poem is a machine that manifests itself; it becomes a worker demon. David Antin's poetry constantly loops back upon itself in a series of games - his poetry is one at play. This play takes Antin's work to esoteric arenas most poetry shies away from. His talk poems just don't look like poems, but then, what are poems supposed to look like? Still, David Antin's talk poems are poems. They just don't look like what some people expect, that is demand, poems to look like. "Talking," his landmark 1972 book opens with the question, "If someone came up and started talking a poem at you how would you know it was a poem?" You would know because it's a poem. But Antin helps the reader along. Antin is known for his talk poems, but it would be more beneficial if we identify him and his work as Wittgensteinian. By looking at Antin within those perimeters, "Talking" becomes a bridge from the early work, such as "Meditations" and the mature talk poems. We then find that a bridge isn't necessary, as both facets of Antin's work form an integrated whole. There is a profound Wittgensteinian sense to all of the work, but the manner in which it manifests allows an entry-point. We find fractal units which accrue significance through repetition. The poem becomes an event.
When a poet privileges incident and occurrence to the degree David Antin does, the book, the published object, is also brought into focus. The book becomes an occurrence. The dimensions of the Dalkey Archive edition are wider than your average book, it feels like a musical score or a collected folio or facsimile sheet. The book is large and unwieldy in your hands - it's difficult to forget you're holding a book, and that vitalizes the reading experience. "Talking" only takes a single sitting to read. This brevity only accentuates the small dramas of the book. The first three pieces in "Talking" are "the november exercises," "in place of a lecture: 3 musics for 2 voices," and "the london march." All three can also be found in their entirety in Sun & Moon's collection of Antin's early writing. To reencounter them in the Dalkey edition of "Talking" is to discover new poems using the old words. The wider page dimensions suggest the words as notation, each phrase becomes a musical site. This is a score - recognize the themes repeating, enriching themselves and each other through that selfsame repetition. Marjorie Perloff, in her introduction to "Talking," points us to a revealing passage in "Culture and Value" where Wittgenstein states, "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." Compare this to science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany's similar idea of the text as a hologram seen in such short fiction as 'High Weir' - what a Wittgensteinian notion!
Both "in place of a lecture" and "the london march" pivot on the interplay of voices. The rolling of voice throughout "in place of a lecture" allows for comedy in its collisions. How does power relate to voice? Is hierarchy inevitable? The piece revolves around a dry scientific experiment investigating a farmer's claim that a whalebone "..was an extremely powerful instrument capable of detecting the existence of even small quantities of water." The scientific text is dry and authoritative. It is read by David Antin's wife, the filmmaker and performance artist Eleanor Antin. The authority of this voice is supplanted by David Antin himself and his wife as they respond to a recording of the above-described text. The interjections are mischievous, as Antin tends to be. There is a disregard for decorum and a stubborn iconoclasm. Both David Antin and his wife react to the first voice, but let us not forget that David Antin's voice is the first interruption - he is the one who asks "What was the farmer's name?" and initiates this interrogation. It is Antin the author who orchestrates the entire affair, not his wife. He is the author of "in place of a lecture" because of his authority over the text, not necessarily because he generated it. The scientific text was in all likelihood found by Antin. It is the very fact that he sabotages and deconstructs this text that we acknowledge him as the author of it. Antin attacks the lazy assumptions of the source voice, introducing indeterminacy and doubt through detail - what is the farmer's name, what is he wearing, how old is the doctor who supervises the experiment?
Specificity leads to complexity, and complexity invites ambiguity. He activates the piece. The scientific voice intones that "the statistical test indicates only the probability of a particular set of results upon the basis of the statistical hypothesis tested, namely that chance alone is determining the outcome." Antin makes the proceedings that much stickier. Generalizations must come from specificities. Antin's interrogative voice supplants the scientific voice as the guiding narrative. The story of "in place of a lecture" is not that of a farmer tested for clairvoyance, but of narrative being upturned, or perhaps the correct word would be sidelined. The interruption of narrative becomes the story of the piece.
If "in place of a lecture" is a farce, "the london march" is a comedy fighting against tragedy. David Antin interrupts his wife's humming with the question, or invitation, "ready to play?" Eleanor responds, "what shall we play for?" This is the central question, of course, of "Talking." Why, it's a central question of Antin's poetry. The stakes, ultimately, are not "...to play for a great crowd tomorrow? in London?" at an anti-war rally, or to play for "...natasha to be married so that charlie doesn't have to pay her alimony." Playing solitaire cannot directly effect events on either side of the spectrum - the political or the personal. No, the question is to determine what the playing is for. The interrogative act creates power, the power to recognize and cognate. "What are we playing for," is the question that allows Antin to supplant the scientific voice throughout "in place of a lecture," it's the question at the heart of "talking at pomona." The irony is that "the london march" is also about inefficiency and the lack of power, just as the poem is in some ways an empowering act. The piece is a transcription of the conversation Eleanor and David have while Eleanor "plays" solitaire for various stakes - how many people will turn up at the anti-war protest of the title. The piece isn't even the solitaire game in question, but only the shadows of the act - not even the recordings, but transcriptions of faded voice.
And the truth of the matter is that a solitaire game doesn't resolve anything other than a solitaire game. And the truth of the matter is that an anti-war march is not going to end the Vietnam War. Eleanor and David Antin's anxiety at their inability to move the center of history is a universal anxiety. Even if a center can be found, no single person could be found to move it. What Eleanor and David are playing for is some recognition of the thing. This is done by talking around a dilemma, as Antin does in regard to "the question of art" in "Talking at Pomona." A game of solitaire consists of the same repetitive act of accumulation, as each successive act redefines the limits of the whole. The intrusion of personal reminiscence into a piece ostentatiously "about" the war does the same thing the Antins' questions about details does in "in place of a lecture."
Interjections bring about a necessary wholeness. Antin's approach in "Talking at Pomona" is more elliptical than in the previously discussed poems. His very first statement is evasive - "what i would like to talk about/really/ is a subject that probably doesn't have a name...how you think about making art... how can you talk about it such a way/ that/ it will lead to making more art." And while Antin is directly engaging subject, he does so through expansive rumination. He talks about art, he talks about sculpture and what he doesn't want to say or address about sculpture, but what is Antin really saying? He dwells on a piece by performance artist Doug Huebler where the artist "...proposes that you apprehend a criminal and he offers the closed system/ if the work is bought/ if the criminal is apprehended the buyer pays for the apprehension..." How does this scenario, that of a performance artist in the 1970s, relate to anything previously discussed. Antin also describes how "...dennis oppenheim did a piece of work in which he managed to get some things harvested in a field...he arranged the field in such a manner as to correspond to the route between there and the place he was shipping the/ grain to..." Antin's response to the Oppenheim is polite, but nonplussed. It doesn't carry the same frisson as the Huebler piece.
Why does Antin praise the Huebler and criticize the Oppenheim? The Huebler performance piece "...verges on obscenity and triviality and/ the huebler is a very violent piece...," intimating that the Oppenheim isn't as violent, and therefore isn't as interesting. The Huebler piece is about pornography in art, about "...art as it [is] opportunizing over social/ human activities/ now it seems one of the problems here that's raised is the kind of conflict that exists between human value and the idea of art making itself as a career." AH! Now we're getting somewhere! More intrusions! The question isn't of art about art, but the dilemma of the intrusion of life into art and art into life. It is this collision that brings the absurdity and obscenity to the Huebler. This dilemma of intrusion is what makes Antin's poetry so exciting.
Consider the cover of "Talking," designed by David Antin. A series of photographs taken by the poet wrap around the book. In each photo, we see newspaper dispensers outside of storefronts. "Talking" was written during wartime, as made explicit in "the london march." The book is also written in the wake of the Antins' relocation from New York City to a sleepy California town outside San Diego where the only way you could tell a war was going on "...was by walking down the hill to check out the headlines in the newspaper dispenser in front of the post office or the local market."
The comedy of the world's upheavals as it tiptoes into our lives