Antin, David

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ANTIN, David

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1 February 1932. Education: City College, New York, B.A. 1955; New York University (Lehman Fellow), 1964–66, M.A. in linguistics 1966. Family: Married Eleanor Fineman in 1960; one son. Career: Freelance editor and translator, 1956–57; chief editor and scientific director, Research Information Service, New York, 1958–60; freelance editor and consultant, Dover Press, New York, 1959–64; curator, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 1967; director of the University Art Gallery and assistant professor, 1968–72, and since 1972 professor of visual arts, University of California, San Diego. Former editor, with Jerome Rothenberg, Some/Thing, New York; contributing editor, Alcheringa, New York, 1972–80. Awards: Longview award, 1960; University of California Creative Arts award, 1972; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1983; P.E.N. award for poetry, 1984, for tuning.Member: Editorial board, University of California Press, San Diego, 1972–76, and since 1979, New Wilderness.Address: P.O. Box 1147, Del Mar, California 92014, U.S.A.



Definitions. New York, Caterpillar Press, 1967.

autobiography. New York, Something Else Press, 1967.

Code of Flag Behavior. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1968.

Meditations. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1971.

Talking. New York, Kulchur, 1972.

After the War (A Long Novel with Few Words). Santa Barbara, Black Sparrow Press, 1973.

Talking at the Boundaries. New York, New Directions, 1976.

Who's Listening Out There? College Park, Maryland, Sun and Moon Press, 1980.

tuning. New York, New Directions, 1984.

Poèmes Parlés. Paris, Les Cahiers des Brisants, 1984.

Selected Poems 1963–73. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon, 1991.

what it means to be avant-garde. New York, New Directions, 1993.

Recordings: The Principle of Fit, 2, Watershed, 1980; The Archeology of Home, Astro Artz, 1987.


Translator, 100 Great Problems of Elementary Mathematics: Their History and Solution, by Heinrich Doerrie. New York, Dover, 1965.

Translator, The Physics of Modern Electronics, by W.A. Guenther.

New York, Dover, 1967.


Critical Studies: "John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and David Antin" by Barry Alpert, "Some Notes toward a Discussion of the New Oral Poetry" by George Economou, and "A Correspondence between the Editors Robert Kroetsch and William Spanos and David Antin," all in Boundary 2 (Binghamton, New York), Spring 1975; interview with Barry Alpert, and articles by Gilbert Sorrentino, Hugh Kenner, Toby Olson, and David Bromige, in Vort (Silver Spring, Maryland), Winter 1975; The Poetics of Indeterminacy by Marjorie Perloff, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1982; So to Speak: Rereading David Antin, London, Binnacle, 1982, and In Search of the Primitive, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1986, both by Sherman Paul; "David Antin and the Oral Poetics Movement," in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), Fall 1982, and The Object of Performance, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1989, both by Henry Sayre; The Poet's Prose, Cambridge, University Press, 1983, revised edition, 1991, both by Stephen Fredman; "Professing the Pastoral" by Charles Altieri, in American Literary History, 1(4), Winter 1989; The Jazz Text, Voice and Improvisation in Poetry, Jazz, and Song by Charles O. Hartman, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1991; by Marjorie Perloff, in American Book Review, 13(5), December 1991–92; "Austin and Antin about 'About'" by Rei Terada, in Sub Stance (Madison, Wisconsin), 24(3), 1995; "Thinking Made in the Mouth: The Cultural Poetics of David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg" by Hank Lazer, in Picturing Cultural Values in Postmodern America, edited by William G. Doty, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1995; interview, in Some Other Fluency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors, edited by Larry McCaffery, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

*  *  *

The extraordinary improvisations collected in David Antin's Talking at the Boundaries, tuning, and what it means to be avantgarde and appearing in a spate of periodicals ranging from Representations ("The Price") to Dialog ("The Messenger") have often been greeted with hostility by readers accustomed to the more traditional lyric modes. Antin's "talk poems" are improvised for particular occasions in particular places, recorded on tape, and only later transcribed on the typewriter. The written texts are described by Antin as "the notations of scores of oral poems with margins consequently unjustified." As scores of actual talks, the texts obviously lack verse form; they do away not only with meter but even with lineation, that last stronghold of free verse. To make matters worse, Antin has expressed a "distrust of ideas of interiority and the whole rhetorical ensemble of notions about 'feelings and emotions.'" Rather, he regards the "art of talking" as essentially the language art, and he is less interested in ethos or pathos than in dianoia, which Aristotle defines as "all the thought that is expressed or effected by the words" or, again, as "the ability to say what is possible and appropriate."

Does this mean that an Antin composition is "merely" prose? On the contrary. "Prose," says Antin, "is an image of the authority of 'right thinking,' conveyed primarily through right printing—justified margins, conventional punctuation, and regularized spelling." The distinction between Antin's talking and prose was established in the early 1960s by Northrop Frye in The Well-Tempered Critic:

One can see in ordinary speech … a unit of rhythm peculiar to it, a short phrase that contains the central word or idea aimed at, but is largely innocent of syntax. It is much more repetitive than prose, as it is in the process of working out an idea, and the repetitions are largely rhythmical filler.

This "associative rhythm," as Frye calls the rhythm of speech, may be conventionalized in two ways:

One way is to impose a pattern of recurrence on it; the other is to impose the logical and semantic pattern of the sentence. We have verse when the arrangement of words is dominated by recurrent rhythm and sound, prose when it is dominated by the syntactical relation of subject and predicate.

The interchange between the three basic rhythmic modes provides the combinations that give literature its variety and complexity. When, for example, the associative rhythm is influenced, but not quite organized, by the sentence, we get what Frye calls "free prose," a form that developed much earlier than free verse. Witness the associative monologue found in the personal letter, the diary, in Swift's Journal to Stella and in Sterne's Tristam Shandy. Beckett's The Unnamable is an important modern example.

Antin's talk poems fall into this latter category. Indeed, there is a sense in which Antin is a perfectly traditional writer, his tradition being that not of the romantic or symbolist lyric but of the eighteenth century, particularly the mode of Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, which Antin cites as one of his key models. The associative rhythm, Frye remarks, "represents the process of bringing ideas into articulation in contrast to prose or verse, which normally represent a finished product." Just so, Antin's "poetry," even his earlier, more conventionally lineated poems like the elegy "Definitions for Mendy" and "trip through a landscape" (Selected Poems: 1963–1973) is a process-oriented art. But this notion of a poem as process must also be qualified. In its written version, which is, of course, the version of the talk poem the reader confronts, one meets a peculiar—and quite postmodern—oscillation between the natural and the artificial, a recognition that writing, no matter how closely it claims to mime speech, is always other. Indeed, the paradox of the talk poem is that it is a formalized text that calls talk itself into question.

In practice the talk poem works in accordance with certain implicit rules. First, just as there are no margins, so there are no complete sentences. The trick is to "keep it moving," in Charles Olson's words, as, for instance, in this passage about cross-country jet travel:

          when i got on the plane i had the feeling    i started
      out early in the day it was 12 oclock    to be on a
        plane 12 oclock on a plane is in some ways the worst
   possible time to get on a plane because  what happens is
      you start out in the daylight and you wind up in the
   night and there never was any day and its odd you feel
      that youre travelling into the past

The first "when" clause is never completed by a main clause, for the speaker immediately interests himself in what it was like when he got on. The proposition "it was 12 oclock" leads not to the expected account of what happened at twelve o'clock but to a comic sequence about the peculiar feelings attendant upon boarding an eastbound flight at noon. So it goes, with rapid-fire shifts from one image or idea to another. The text is a transcription, not of a character's speech as one might find it, say, in a novel, but of Antin's talk.

But if it is just talk, what makes it art? Here three other rules come in. The first of these is that the talk poem incorporates as many different threads as possible while retaining its improvisatory quality, yet the threads are all relational. The analogy is to a juggling act; as we watch Antin juggle the balls, we gradually realize that they will—or at least should—all be caught. Thus, in "Real Estate" the inquiry into the meaning of the words "real estate" and "currency" seems to get lost as we are given a series of comic narratives about various Antin relatives who did or did not own real estate. These stories are fun in themselves, but, in considering in what sense, if any, a little hotel in the Catskills bought by his eccentric uncle is a "real" estate, Antin leads us right back to the possible meanings of his title.

The second rule is that narrative, but not a "story" in the conventional sense of the term, is an integral part of the talk poem. Pure exposition, rumination, meditation—these undercut the poet's emphasis on the ongoing process of discovery in which one creates the self. Antin's narratives function as parodic examples. They illustrate the points the speaker is making but only because he wants them to, not because they have any sort of objective validity.

Third, the generation of a particular voice is the one fictional element Antin allows himself. If, for example, one were to become ill while visiting San Diego and phoned Antin for advice and help, he would undoubtedly be able to give you practical information as to emergency rooms and so forth. In a talk poem, however, a term like "medical center" is deconstructed. Here is Antin's account of what happened when he and his family first arrived in southern California and found that his then little boy was sick:

            and i said to somebody in a shoestore "what do you do
       if somebody gets sick during lunch?" and they said
   "there's a medical center  right up the hill" and i drove
   to the medical center     and there was a medical center
   in california a medical center is unlike anything youve
   ever seen  unless youre a californian  medical centers
   depend on redwood trees      because theyre made out of
   redwood trees and iceplant   because what they do is level off
   an area  whatever was there they take a bulldozer
   and level it off  if there were eucalyptus trees they knock
   them down they push things out of the way  and then what they
   don't cover with redwood and blacktop they cover with
   iceplant  wherever you go there's iceplant

By this time the reader has all but lost sight of the ostensible purpose of this particular trip, which is to find a hospital, the real focus being a defamiliarized southern California landscape as seen for the first time by an urban poet fresh from the East Coast.

The refusal to claim knowledge either of himself or of his characters has suggested to some readers that Antin is unfeeling, that he refuses to take life "seriously." This is to misunderstand the nature of the talk poems completely. In adopting the stance of a puzzled observer, of the unhabituated eye that sees persons and places as if for the first time, Antin gives us a graphic image of how the mind actually experiences the outside world. He can, moreover, embed such general questions as he wishes to raise—for example, to what extent is the photograph a true reproduction of visual reality? what is the nature of narrative? or what does it mean to be an artist "on the fringe"?—in a set of images or story contexts so that the audience shares his own process of discovery. Antin's "tuning" thus become ours. As he says, "now if you freeze life it's like frozen food," but "when you translate something it changes."

—Marjorie Perloff