Pretend that you’re driving


by Allen Mozek

Selected Poems: 1963-1973,
David Antin,
Sun & Moon Classics, 431 pp.

Not thought, but thinking.

We spend so much time grappling with thought itself that we often shortchange the process of thinking. An impenetrability congeals somewhere in that interzone between the noun and verb. Thought becomes a hardened pit of matter – an indigestible irritant that potentially stands in the way of fluent thinking. We become tangled in the physicality. Poet David Antin’s career walks towards the boundaries of thought as he privileges the act of thinking. He breaks up the ice and facilitates the splendor of motion. Action. Antin is best known for his talk-poems, an engagement with performance-poetry that spans the majority of his career. These performances are suffused with charismatic arrogance, easy erudition and musicality as Antin talks his way around any variety of subjects. His art is one of approaching a subject. The emphasis of these performances are on poetry as event, rather than the physical sanctity of the book. Occurrence. While a great many of these talk-poems have been subsequently transcribed, the book remains a thing apart in Antin’s career- the performance retains its time and site specificity. Some of his talk-poems have indeed been published in books like ‘talking at the boundaries’ and ‘tuning,’ but a great majority of them have not. Sun & Moon’s collection, ‘Selected Poems: 1963-1973,’ is a surprising pleasure as the early books aren’t so much alternate routes as preliminary soundings towards the later work. That they are books remain a primary distinction.

Antin tells us he “…doesn’t usually reread [his] past work once it’s published…,” probably for much the same reason he moved away from poetry readings towards poetry talking. If poetry readings remind him too much of returning to the scene of the crime, then what of the book? And what is the poem? A murder? A body? Or the murder weapon? In this early work Antin attacks the book as the site of occurrence. We see a clear conflict between process and thingness in these first couple books. Antin offers that “books have a very definitive appearance. My books anyway. Because I tried to make them that way. And i spite of the fact that there is a sense in which the work of poetry is an ongoing process, a book is a self sufficient object, obdurate even, as it gives decisive shape through selection and ordering to a cluster of attitudes and ideas, enclosing them in a definite space and time.” The later performances create a more specific space and time, while these early works allow a modular space and time configuration. The collection ends with the majority of 1972’s ‘Talking,’ providing an organic bridge between the early and the mature work.

But let us start at the beginning. At the very least let us start at the beginning of this collection. So many of these poems are about beginning – the very start of the process and how even that moment is an ambiguous, or is it arbitrary, one. Antin writes “this is probably the beginning/ don’t you think it was the right place to begin?/ well what would have been a better time?/ if you can tell when it’s about to begin how can it be the beginning?” The poem is encircling questions of perception and of boundaries. Beginning is something we do, and someplace we are. As Antin’s later poetry ‘talks’ the space, this early poetry writes the space in comparable fashion. Distinctions blur as we fail to conclusively grid the question.

In ‘Code of Flag Behavior’ Antin sheds the vestiges of the image-centric lyricism he explored alongside peers such as Jerome Rothenberg and Robert Kelly. The earlier image-poems were, at Antin’s own admission, “…more decorative than meaningful and incapable of addressing the kinds to things that were coming insistently to [his] mind then.” These things coming to his mind were language and politics – not necessarily two separate subjects, but a braided reality Antin wanted to directly engage, not through the writing, but through the act of writing. But the act of his writing pushes Antin out to the poetic boundaries. Science and technical writing is utilized, as is a warm vernacular, a speaking grammar, untouched by most literary writing. An acrobatic pragmatism is always at play, as Antin works through words in a thrilling praxis.

David Antin once said that if Robert Frost was a poet, he didn’t want anything to do with poetry, but if Socrates was a poet, and if Wittgenstein was a poet, then we would consider it. By calling Socarates and Wittgenstein poets, we safely move poetry away from the static thingness earlier mentioned in regard to ‘thought.’ Poetry is an action, not a codified litany of verse and meter, it is how we think, not what someone thinks it has to be. Antin’s writing moves away from stasis and ornament and towards motion and investigative thinking – “a few facts are better than much rhetoric.” Writing becomes a conversation of means. He writes, “…they brought their problems to him and he always decided both sides were exactly half right.” We are now in the terrain of process as revelation, perhaps more appropriately a constant revealing, as “… the main thing was to make them a ritual.” That it is ritual acknowledges process, but there is something more at play – ritual predisposes a certain formality.

A scientific praxis, as noted above, becomes apparent. Antin collapses the perceived divide between scientific thinking and poetic, that is artistic, thinking. Scientific terminology and found detritus, such as an alphabetical list of the words most commonly misspelled by high school students, provide startling passageways owards poetic thinking, rather than away from. The narrative of these poems is totalizing – rolling and continuous as thought. “Everything is relation to a days work/ should be written up/ copied down/ fractionally and ideas.” Thought introduces arbitrary boundaries to concepts; thought leads to a gridded reality. But an overlap is natural to thinking. Scientific modes of thinking are related to aesthetic modes, but both are only metaphorical aids as the act remains amorphous.

Part III of Antin’s book ‘Definitions’ is “…pretty much an arrangement of words taken from a translation of Wittgenstein’s ‘Philosophical Investigations.’ About the words – nobody owns them – not Wittgenstein, or the translator, or me – and anyone who wants them is welcome to use them again.” Antin is not only saying that words are not owned, but that words are meant to be used. An unused word is a dead thing – a word is defined by its use, and is not some inert sculpture. Antin asks, borrowing the question from Wittgenstein, “how do words refer to sensation.” We use imprecise, overlapping terminology to allow some sort of communication of sensation via language. By saying “…observing your own grief… what do you use to observe it? a special sense? is it one that feels grief? do you feel different when you observe it? and what is this grief you are observing is it a grief that is there only while you observe it?” In ‘Novel Poem,’ Antin writes “…it was part of his intention to rob words of their power…” The words themselves give way to Antin’s wording, as he creates a continuous space. Antin is placing these words, one’s he acknowledges were once positioned by Wittgenstein, in addition to an unnamed translator and by Antin himself, within the specified body of the book. They were used in Wittgenstein’s ‘Philosophical Investigations,’ but that does not make them off-limits. The words are also used in ‘Definitions.’ Antin is inviting the reader to use them as well – use them anywhere they see fit. Anywhere the words fit, and words can fit anywhere.

A process is utilized to generate much of the work in David Antin’s early book – the act of the writing remains privileged. We read a piece like ‘the November Exercises’ as the afterimage of the writing exercise used to create it. ‘The November Exercises’ were an activity initiated by Antin and the words are only what you are reading as a result of that act. But this leads to subsequent acts, since “to hear about it is to cause it to happen.” The text of ‘the Separation Meditations’ was created as Antin read through a history book, “…reading and writing quickly through the footnotes and continuing forward, taking a phrase here and a phrase, sometimes a word, there, working swiftly to make my kind of sense.”This allows a roughness, which in turn resists the completeness of a piece. As with Antin’s use of Wittgenstein, the reader is a participant in a layering of language. We are reading ‘the Separation Mediations,’ but we are also reading the footnotes to the book Antin was reading, and yes, we are reading Antin’s reading. Which is, after all what you are doing if you visit my blog – reading my readings of different books, rather than the book itself; criticism of a fashion, but readings more importantly. “The point,” Antin writes, ” is that the discourses are treated as matters of language without regard to their substance.” A scientific methodology clings to the text – “1. attack an argument/ 2. assail an opponent/ 3. reading/ 4. omitting.” But here a scientific method of attack is divorced from the specificity of a problem. We are reading the method, but also the omission of a subject other than itself, or of the act. By dating ‘the November Exercises’ and notating the times each section is written, we position writing in time. This, again, adds layers. We encounter the time specification of the act of writing as we are engaged in the time specification of the act of reading. One may even later introduce a further time specification of the moment of thinking about the text. Does this create a three-dimensionality?

I will hold off on any in-depth discussion of ‘In Place of a Lecture’ or ‘A London March,” works which again confront us with the knotty actualities of time. Expect me to engage these pieces soon when I look further at Antin’s book ‘Talking.’ In the last entry of ‘the November Exercises,’ Antin writes that ‘the instruction book gives a false impression of a real picture. Everything you expected to handle with patient acceptance is now speeded up and scattered. Relax, hold onto the steering wheel and pretend that you’re driving.” The reader may not be writing the text in any actuality, but we can almost stretch the conceit to a fruition.The act of pretending is still an action, and that is a very real thing.

Piece crossposted with For The Birds