To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Jerome Rothenberg: Talking with David Antin, the First Accounting of a Friendship

[Remarks prepared for presentation at the conference “David Antin: Talking, Always Talking” September 27, 2018 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, in connection with the revival of Antin’s 1988 “Sky Poems” as an exercise in the poetics of sky-writing.]

I know that this is not intended as simply a memorial for David Antin, but rather to discuss his very great achievements and maybe to point to some aspects of them that may not be immediately obvious.  For me, my sense of David goes back further than that of anybody in this room and, for that matter, probably anybody in the world today.  We met in June of 1950 – or was it 1951? – at an end-of-semester party in the apartment of one of our professors at City College of New York, an amiable and charmingly pretentious expert in Romantic and Victorian English literature.  For David and me, however, our meeting was an immediate turn-on, a recognition from the outset of what we already had in common (and conversely, I suppose, of what we didn’t).  So, we made plans to meet again in the fall, by which time David had gone from a strikingly blackhaired and swarthy teenager into the early stages of an alopecia totalis that would deprive him of all his facial and body hair before the year was over. 
And so, the first months of our friendship were colored by crisis for him, at the end of which we found ourselves bonded forever.  And from the start talking was at the heart of our friendship – in person or by telephone – and an overwhelming sense of poetry as the medium by which we would explore the world and, if it came to it, would define or re-define that world as needed.  So, David was freely talking (always talking) from the start, but also listening (always listening), far more than other talkers I would come to know thereafter, and in his presence I felt myself to be a talker also.  It would be three decades or so of preparation before the talking and the poetry came together, with results we all can talk about tonight, but the preparation, the readiness, as someone said, is all.
Two things (or more) to make note of, then.
At the heart of David’s intellectual and artistic world was a sense (which he also attributed to me) of contrariness & skepticism: to overturn the bad hand we (and so many others like & unlike us) had been dealt as young poets in the reigning literary world of that time, & to search (after we had nearly succumbed to it) for an avant-garde practice across the arts against the demands of a reborn artistic/poetic conservatism. And along with this came a distinct desire & need to redefine the inherited poetic past in terms of the vital present – a desire showing up, as we later found, all around us.  (He also wanted, and was better equipped than I, to shake off the mystical in poetry, then and now, in favor of a more rational, even scientific mind-set & writing practice, while I found a kinship in the old mystics and shamans to what would be my own non-mystical poetic practice.
The contrariness, then – to call it that – manifested in David early, as in his contention, when we were still in our very early twenties, of Thomas Campion’s superiority as a poet over the likes of Shakespeare and other more expansive (more wordy) poets.  (Shades of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Poetic Principle”!)  Something like that didn’t last very long of course, but it gave a foretaste of his later willingness to go deliberately against the grain (all sorts of grains), and even closer to home, by calling into question – but not quite – such matters near and dear to me as deep image, ethnopoetics, imagination, poetry-as-music – while collaborating with me and supporting my own involvements therein, in all of which he was and remained a curious but vital ally and co-creator.  (I would cite him here as a marvelous translator of André Breton and an intimate of Nico Calas, a later spokesman for Breton and Surrealism, then living in New York – and prior perhaps to his more important engagements with Wittgensein & Cage.)  In our collaboration on our magazine Some/Thing in particular we brought these disparate but solidly avant-garde elements together, starting our first issue with a series of Aztec Definitions from pre-Conquest Mexico and with the image of a northwest coast shaman as our logo: a reflection of his enthusiasms as well as my own.
His later turn to talking was also a jab at a song-derived approach to the origins of poetry, as in his dispute with Gary Snyder at the First International Ethnopoetics Symposium in 1975, which might have been with me as well, but wasn’t.  For myself I saw the talking gambit as a brilliant extension of what was possible as poetry, but I would also turn the tables on him later, by viewing the Talk Poems, perhaps his greatest and most original achievement, as most interestingly a form of writing, for it’s in their written form that the structural/visual nature of the poetry, its immediate recognition as such, is in full display.  (A kind of concrete poetry, much like his sky poems, which we’ll get a chance to look at shortly.)
And finally, I want to speak about his take on dreams or the absence thereof, as a contrarian escape perhaps from his earlier surrealism.  Here his decade-long challenge was to the experiential core of Surrealism and of many other schools of poetry, but he put it in negative experiential terms of his own -- that dreams were phenomena to which he could pay no serious attention because he in fact did not dream and therefore had no experience of dreaming.  So, in the talk poem called “how long is the present” (1978) we get the following assertion:
i am somebody who doesn’t dream    in the significant sense    you could probably get rapid eye movement measurements and electroencephalograms to produce a plausible case that i have occasionally been dreaming    and you may believe it and i may believe it     but you cannot prove it to my satisfaction that i dream because i simply have no memory of it    so phenomenologically it is not possible for anybody to say that i dream because i have no experience of dreaming   except for one time there was this one dream   i dreamt that i was dreaming    but then i woke up and found out    that it wasn’t true
It’s to be noted of course that after several years of unwavering denial, David followed his renewed interest in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and other Freudian writings into frank discussions of his own experiences of dreaming.
About all of this I may someday write at greater length.  But for now – with the short time allotted to us this evening – I’ll close this presentation with a couple of poems addressed to David as both a non-dreamer and a dreamer, and will let it go at that.

[Reads from “Seneca Journal: The Dreamers” and three sections from “The Mysteries of Mind Laid Bare in Talking,” as follows:]

from Seneca Journal 7: “The Dreamers” (1972)

that couple sitting
in splendor of old houses
Albert Jones & his wife Geneva
were old before my time
he was the last of the Seneca diviners
died 1968
the year we first stayed in Salamanca
with the power to know dreams
“their single divinity” wrote Fremin (S.J.) 1650
as we say “divine”
the deva in us
like a devil
or a divus (deus)
when these old woods were rich with gods
people called powers
they would appear in words
our language hides them
even now
the action of the poem brings them to light
dear David
not in the business man’s
but asking
“who is Beaver?”
forces them out of the one mind
in mything
mouthing the grains of language
as David that sounds like deva
means beloved
thus every Indian once had a name

from “The Mysteries of Mind Laid Bare on Talking” (2017)

who does not dream
dreams deeper
by not dreaming

until the door
swings open
draws you to
sleep within

what forms
assailing us
the scattered dreamers

curtains closing
on our eyes
in frantic bursts
lights streaming

take the shape
of birds & stars

move across the sky
the eye in love
with tentacles
in mauve & amber

the new year
without you

then the rest
is dream
whether the images
arise or not

the screen goes blank
foretold by you
the dreamer

here is the death
we feared
infinite space
to every side

absent all light

After Wang Wei
O my friends! there is no friend.

at Weiching
            morning rain
                        the fine dust damped
a guest house
            green among
                        green willows
urge a friend
to drink a final
glass of wine
west of Yang Pass
            there is
                        no friend

except the memory
the loss   a dream
that will not stick
but comes & goes
as if we hadn’t
dreamed it

for which I name you
poet of the dream
in whose denial
dreams come forth
the word “desire”

pleasures first
a place as large
as Prospect Park
where others
feast & bathe
some sleeping

& the dreamer
kicks his shoes off
wades into a pool
the north branch of
an old estate
its master far away

then goes from room
to room in search
of shoes   as prelude
to a silent movie
buried like his life
too deep for tears

for which the word
the woman
throws at him
is hog (he says)
not out of shame
or fecklessness

but turning
subject into object
echoing the master’s
words   the world
is everything
that is the case

waking & dreaming
much the same


[NOTE. The dream covered lightly in the final section, above, is from David Antin’s “On Narrative: The Beggar and the King,” published previously (2010) in Poems and Poetics.  The full poem as it appears here was published February 1, 2017 on what would have been his 85th birthday.]

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