*To mark the recent passing of David Antin, and in anticipation of his obituary (to be posted here shortly), Equus Press reprints Lou Rowan’s 2001 homage essay on Antin’s “talk pieces” (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 21 No. 1, April 2001). Reprint courtesy of author.
David Antin’s four books of talk pieces afford us a richness demanding and rewarding the fullest engagement of our minds and senses. Antin’s work is continuously find sincerely experimental, and accepts the traditional challenges of experiments in science and philosophy: how to build on the work of one’s epoch to answer questions and re-solve problems with which the basic phenomena of existence confront us.
Antin’s discourses, a singular oral tradition developed over the last four decades, present a “problem of Homer” in reverse–we know how he produces them, but we hesitate to specify their genre. So let’s begin with a working hypothesis: he produces narratives whose units of structure are breaths corresponding in turn to the units and sequences of his thoughts. And if we assume that narrative is “projective story,” then we can see Charles Olson’s repositioning of literature in us–in our ears, mouths, minds, breath–as an exact and fitting preface to Antin’s enterprise (Olson 240-43). Robert Kelly once told me, “Olson is not a son of a bitch but the father of many bastards.” The legitimacy of Antin’s genre–its “proper” category –becomes academic when we respond to the energy of a narrative tradition beginning “Call me Ishmael.”
“the price” begins with a Babe Ruthian gesture. Antin points us to the far–or maybe the near–bleachers:
i always thought the idea of the self was surrounded by questions and in fact what i was interested in were precisely those questions which were questions i spent a lot of time asking because i didn't know the answers for if i knew the answers i wouldnt have any reason to ask the questions and one of the questions im interested in asking is what is the locus of the source or ground of the self (what it means 93)
We can hear echoes of Gertrude Stein in this diction: the verbal repetitions with syntactical changes, the absence of periodic syntax, and the absence of figurative language. Here is Stein announcing her ambition for The Making of Americans: “To begin with, I seem always to be do the talking when I am anywhere but in spite of that I do listen. I always listen. I have always listened. I always have listened to the way everybody has to tell what they have to say. In other words I always have listened in my way of listening until they have told me and told me until I really know it, that is know what they are” (Stein 241).
The act of composition before an audience, Antin tells us, brings urgency, immediacy, weight to his work. The repetitions in his verbal units (for they are not necessarily sentences) have their evident origins in speech, as Stein implies of hers, but their import is deeper than style. Particulate, akin to the words of scientific formulas, of philosophic investigation, they roll and bounce like balls on the inclining planes of their generators’ intent. They capture direct observation, creating simple subdivisions of phenomena, so that we can apprehend them directly, without emotional miscues. Like Buster Keaton’s deadpan purity, they accumulate action by action to a new way of seeing–the difference of effect, say, between the repeated physics-lab bombardment of The Bridegroom and the conventional liberal-critical jargon of “And now, young man, you will progress from matrimonial humiliation to enduring a deliciously convoluted storm of ladies.”
Antin’s theme–“what is the locus and ground of the self?”–is announced clearly and emphatically, and we’re off and running through breathtaking variations. He addresses deconstruction’s circumscription of itself; he provides his definitions of narrative and story, retells and comments on a Homeric and a biblical narrative in the light of his definition, retells three stories from his family’s lore, taking us back to its roots in Russia, plus a noncommittal Soviet journalist’s story–and shows how all these recent stories embody the crucial interactions between stories and the implicit or explicit personal narratives of their tellers. Then he redismisses deconstruction for its stated irrelevance to his concerns and concludes telling a tale from his mother-in-law’s declining years that meets with stunning poignancy the challenge implicit in this intellectual chase: so show me a story that matters. All this and more, as they say, in twenty-six pages!
Antin explains the importance of story and narrative to his purpose: “i always thought the idea of the self was surrounded by questions.” He proposes that we cannot “maintain a continuous consciousness and have a sense of its boundaries unless its tested against something that opposes and isnt it” (94). The self “is entirely constructed out of the collision of the sense of identity with the issues of narrative…. story is a configuration of events or parts of events that shape some transformation but narrative or so it seems to me is a sort of psychic function part of the human psychic economy and probably a human universal” (95). And he rounds out this dynamic definition of the self: “now my sense is that the center of narrative is the confrontation of experience an experiencing subject with the possibility of transformation the threat of transformation or the promise of transformation …” (93-95). This is a definition that makes fiction and story matter as much as we do and that gives them, at core, a vitality toward which we struggle in our daily doings, a vitality surging through Antin’s work, enlightening his artistic stance: I’ll do it if it really matters, and I’ll do it in an arena and in a format that tests whether it really matters.
The story concluding “the price,” and affording its title, combines for me William Gaddis’s satiric comprehension of our economy with Douglas Woolf’s droll, inclusive sympathies for its victims. Antin may seem austere in his refusal to create conventional forms eliciting conventional rewards, but he is highly enjoyable to read and to hear. His art is as far-reaching in matter as Musil’s in The Man without Qualities–another work combining essays with narrative structures and another narrative artist calling himself a poet. And Antin’s mini-Kakanias, ranging from Apaches to the State Department, to Harlem, to midlevel AT&T execs, to poets on stage, to professional classes in southern California with redwood escutcheons, are rendered with agile satire and clear-eyed absence of righteousness.
Taking them as a whole, we can compare Antin’s four talking books to modern personal epics–an inventor’s hybrid, say, between “Song of Myself” and “A”–after all, the flower-pun which concludes the latter, “are but us,” grounds it in the self (Zukofsky 563). But it’s maybe better in this context to see the books as a large novel, developing at a pace as eccentric as any of our lives, whose plot and plottings are the doings and the intellectual enterprisings of its dominant character, David Antin. The artistic discipline of this narrator eschews easy satisfaction, bridles at the emotional/lyrical. He concludes, “is this the right place?”
how do you know youre through with something? you know because the phone rang... why not? now i might say of this particular discourse that theres no place at which i can end it without producing a kind of profoundly pornographic poetic effect which i assure you i can do i could produce a vast symphonic conclusion and you might walk out feeling benefited but i wont do it (talking at the boundaries 49)
In fact his art pulls up short to question any received way of apprehending phenomena or of reacting to them. Social customs, maps, sexual issues, academic disciplines, vernacular locutions, genres, literary terms, feelings, vocations–all conventions are hypotheses to be tested. This systematic frustration and reconnection of our expectations is the price we pay for the rewards, the surprise, the insight thrown at us by these experiments. I see the talking books as an intellectually and emotionally stable Tristram Shandy–Antin’s punctuational pauses indicative of a serenity, a pacing of the breath seeking the clarity of rootedness in our physical and psychic being, while Sterne’s dashes signal breathless sallies of avoidance, frantic and funny escapes from the style and from the many meanings of gravity in a world newly circumscribed by “laws” of physics that impress themselves upon our brains and bodies in the wars of nation-states and in our interpersonal jostlings.
We can apply Sterne’s cosmological self-felicitation and self-categorization to the talking books:
In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, –and at the same time.
This, Sir, is a very different story from that of the earth’s moving round her axis, in her diurnal rotation, with her progress in her elliptick orbit which brings about the year, and constitutes that variety and vicissitude of seasons we enjoy;–though I own it suggested the thought,–as I believe the greatest of our boasted improvements and discoveries have come from such trifling hints.
Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;–they are the life, the soul of reading;–take them out of this book for instance,–you might as well take the book along with them;—one cold winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;–he steps forth like a bridegroom;–and bids All hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail. (Sterne 73)
In “the price” Antin’s lovers engage the capitalist system, combat the frailties of their aging bodies, stretching the rules of their old folks’ facility, blazoning the intertwinings of their hearts and bodies as, in the oblivion of Alzheimers, they don each others’ clothing–a pinch and a pull for a tall man and a small woman. The glorious comedy of their affair, its warm detailed eccentricity, recalls Uncle Toby besieged by the Widow Wadman.
And eloquence unites Antin with Sterne. If Antin purges language of what Zukofsky liked to call afflatus (drawing out the word, as if it were an elephant lumbering by), he uses the medium to its fullest, achieving polished, elaborate effects:
because working at language is a lot like working at sculpture theres a kind of stubborn material to it the language thats only so ductile or tensile or strong and a poet doesnt create it though it may seem that he does but being a poet and working with language is a lot like being a spider and working with silk because the language comes out of your mouth much the way thread comes out of a spider so it looks like youve made it but only in a way for as far as the silk goes you havent got a choice the threads are made of exactly the same stuff for each spider of yr kind and though you can choose to bring them out singly or doubled or plaited into cable the choices are the same for all spiders of your family and there are only a limited number of structures you can employ for the web whose elegant grammar belongs equally to all of you and while one poet spider may be more precise or more casual in stretching the radii or unwinding a logarithmic spiral of the chords and this may be a matter of personal acuity or taste its still the same web with the structural limitations of its type like english or french so the epeira has a sticky thread that the labrynth spider hasnt got and the epeira family can lay out a stark geometric web in a single plane perpendicular to the ground confident that a flying insect will stick while the labyrinth spider has to lay out a three dimensional maze to entangle insects in a web like spiders we poets are all beneficiaries and victims of our language there are limits to what we can do with it as we move around in it picking up the thread of a discourse laying out others adding adjusting and winding around old ones ... (what it means 163,164)
The graceful insouciant modulation to upper-middlebrow figurative vernacular, “thread of discourse,” is the move of a collage or jazz artist at his “digressive progressive” finest. We can describe this passage (quoted in part) as akin simultaneously to a “Homeric simile” (noting its elaborate factuality) and a “metaphysical conceit” (noting its elaborated wit), and we can see it as an extrapolation of Whitman’s “Noiseless, Patient Spider.”
For if Antin is avant-garde, it is from amplitude; it is because he has deployed fully and energetically the resources of all literary traditions to hand, married them to an omnivorous erudition and curiosity, grown his art to a nonjudgmental, an unpinched unprejudiced fullness, and exercised the elegant courage to let these resources carry him and speak through him.
Elegance: the busy spiders adorn the expository beginning of “the structuralist,” the tale of a modern hero’s epic adventures of discovery. The adventures take us below the surface and to the frontiers of the meaning of language, and this passage projects and illuminates the theme about which and with which the whole piece, one of Antin’s longest, plays its narrative and intellectual variations.
The hero–and he is one–Anastasius or Nasi is “a small man or a large dwarf.” The quality of his career illustrates Creeley’s proposition beginning “Mr. Blue”–“That dwarfs, gnomes, midgets are, by the fact of their SIZE, intense …” (Creeley 20). Nasi is an expert linguist, translator; he is an original and accomplished painter; he is an athlete; and he’s a conversationalist of passion, cogency, and endurance. Nasi endures neither the grotesquery of Creeley’s dwarf, of Poe’s Hop-Frog, of West’s Honest Abe Kusich, nor the broad symbolic weight of the screaming German drumstick. His one impish move is a leap to a party table to give Oscar Williams a well-deserved champagne-dousing. For Nasi would lead his select audience of scholars and poets to understand the ground of language, which is God, and the ground of visual perspective, to which his muse and model leads his painting. In late-night sessions at the Waldorf Cafeteria in Greenwich Village we see the “best minds of my generation” passionately sleep-deprived on Sixth Avenue under fluorescent lighting–scholars of language accompanying Nasi partway on his quest.
For the longing these minds express with ready learning–to wield their academic skills to address, even resolve, issues of weight (like the promotion of peace through a commonality of language)–this longing breaks itself upon the facts of history they know and witness, breaks itself upon the limits and contradictions of their academic formulations, and is broken by the very fragility of its beauty, like the Professor’s Babel-like structure of spoons, knifes, forks, saucers topped by minarets of cups, or like Nasi’s minimalist Jell-O readymades. For a profundity of “the structuralist” is how fully, with what articulate detail it captures these extra-academic exercises in their brilliance and their knowing world-weariness.
But Nasi, whom we meet climbing ropes and doing flips like a master gymnast, will not relinquish his quest for the essence of language, and he is armed not only with his ready grasp of modern linguistics but also his fluency in twenty-six languages. Nasi brushes aside the dictum of modern academic linguistics that questions about the origins of words are meaningless, that is, outside the game. He writes an epic in the ur-language (“sub-morphemic sememes”) through which (he is convinced) we can connect as humans and through which God presents himself. Nothing less than an epic poem will do. He declares to David Antin, an interlocutor with the academic training and the Stein-like passion to listen while talking–and ready to “know what they are”–that his preparation for the epic is “scientific”:
"i am collecting and studying all the possible submorphic sememes from all the languages of the world the ones that i know and many that i do not know i am studying them and testing them to see if they are really so and i am doing this scientifically and stucturally but because i do not wish to persuade by mere rhetoric merely to convince the minds and not the hearts...." (what it means 198)
Nasi cannot proceed toward his masterpiece without “science,” which appeals to the “heart,” leaving mere rhetoric to the head. Nasi, the ultimate “projective” scholar, is an objectivist (or “objectist” as Olson has it) in his conviction that only the power of facts, of the units of sound-experience, can lead through the discipline of linguistic science to the amplitude and truth of epic. Like most heroes, Nasi must fail, but Antin, an accomplished medievalist, takes us on a noble quest.
In “the sociology of art” Antin evokes an oral society’s discourse on pottery-making: “if they say anything at all which they may not they say something like ‘this is the way to make this kind of pot first you get ready and you sit down sit down here no youre not ready go away youre not ready yet go think about the clay heres some clay take it go for a walk feel the clay go feel the clay'” (talking at the boundaries 192-93). The prose poems of autobiography, which preceded the talking books, show Antin doing something like this handling, walking from, and inviting his narrative material. The book is a discrete series of unrelated mini-narratives, like:
looking into the dark oblong mirror into which a triangle of light had fallen through partially open doors as into a pool of water I somehow became convinced of my identity with that luminous figure. We were both completely empty, devoid of properties and totally lucid. In this state I began to believe I was unreal, and this conviction was confirmed by the fact that I was unable to feel anything at all. It occurred to me that I might get dressed go down to the bar at the corner and get into a quarrel in which I might get hurt and feel pain. But the bar was closed--it was half past three. So I went up to the viaduct overlooking Tiemann Place and looked down over the street below. I thought I might lean over the parapet and place myself in some danger of falling in order to feel fear. This was unsuccessful. I couldn't succeed in feeling anything except the damp cold of the stone I held in my hands. Gradually I eased out further and further till I hung over the street without succeeding in feeling anything when I heard the distant sound of laughing voices further down the Drive. I started to laugh myself choking and coughing and scrambled back over the parapet. (Selected Poems 98)
To Antin the “modern” or “post” commonplaces of alienation and psychic displacement are as obvious and as malleable as the potter’s clay and can be dealt with in a paragraph–a paragraph epitomizing Musil’s Ulrich, whose lucidity and absence of qualities drag him across ranges of mental and physical experiments. There is no rhetoric in the last sentence about what the speaker “realized,” but there is indeed a transformation occasioned by “voices and laughter.” An actual transformation, unlike the verbal glow superimposed on another Upper West Side event, an occasion of tawdry sameness: “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (Fitzgerald 40).
But if we cannot readily “understand” the transformation in Antin’s piece, other than registering that hearing voices and laughter-stimulated laughter and the fact of return–this unwillingness to glaze the facts with rhetorical apercus, this generosity leaving each of our “senses(s) of identity” free to “collide” as we will with the “configuration of events”–this is an experimental discipline opening the way to the fullness of the talking pieces, where real inquiry and precise thought combine with stories.
And what is the transformation these talk pieces shape? What can they, in fact, mean to the lives of their readers? How can we use them? What happens to us here if indeed, “the center of narrative is the confrontation of experience an experiencing subject with the possibility of transformation the threat of transformation or the promise of transformation”? These questions take us happily (I hope) beyond the norms of criticism, as Nasi discarded the norms of linguistics: but let’s see.
As he introduces Nasi, Antin avows, “i have a deep distrust of the plausible and i suspect that what we have most in common is the profound singularity and implausible detail of our generally common lives” (what it means 166). The title piece to tuning shows an alternative to the plausible misconceptions implicit in “understanding,” developing a perceptual and communicative process called “tuning” that allows us a “common going,” versus a “common standing.” Common going impels us to work at shucking our preconceptions of each other. Common going discovers “discontinuities,” that is, surprises, in the seeming commonplace or “plausible” (tuning 125-31).
And if we admit that the very commonplaces of our lives–Antin discusses breathing and walking–seem continuous but are repetitiously discontinuous, eccentric, then have we not an agenda, the possible grounds, for an appreciation of our common and singular experience–that is, its growth? The OED makes explicit what we learn in high school French, that there’s a semantic intertwining of experiment and experience and includes these definitions of experience: “To make trial or experiment of; to put to the test … to meet with; to feel, suffer, undergo.” And further, “The state of having been occupied in any department of study or practice, in affairs generally, or in the intercourse of life.” I can hear a modern Sterne galloping with that last phrase, the intercourse of life.
A utility of Antin’s work, the transformation we suffer experiencing it, is the emptying, draining, shrinking of the preconceptions and prejudices with which we destroy our own–and, worse, others’ –experiences. If we can be open to, move with, these speaking episodes of a vitality crucial to our literature, then can we be the better for it? Is that implausible possibility here for us? In the words of Lotto, the instrument of civic and personal financial planning in Antin’s native Empire State, “Hey, you never know.”
Antin, David. Selected Poems 1963-1973. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1991.
–. talking at the boundaries. New York: New Directions, 1976.
–. tuning. New York: New Directions, 1984.
–. what it means to be avant-garde. New York: New Directions, 1993.
Creeley, Robert. The Collected Prose of Robert Creeley. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner’s, 1995.
Olson, Charles. Collected Prose. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.
Stein, Gertrude. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. New York: Vintage, 1962.
Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. New York: Odyssey Press, 1940.
Zukofsky, Louis. “A.” Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.