December 11, 2021

"A Cultural Icon" | essay by Douglas Messerli on David Antin's life and work

A Cultural Icon

by Douglas Messerli

On the morning of October 12th I received a phone call from my dear friend Marjorie Perloff. Her first words were quite disconcerting: “Is it true what I just heard?”

     Although we’d all long expected sad news about David Antin, given his suffering from late Parkinson’s disease and his many recent falls, the death still came as a shock. While I was speaking to her, my friend received another telephone call confirming David’s death, which I could hear in the background. I quietly hung up, and by the time I returned to my computer, I too had received notice from the Antins’ assistant, Lynn Schuette, that David had, indeed, died in a local San Diego hospital, apparently after falling in his home, which I later discovered resulted from a broken neck.

     My friend called back, crying. She had been born in the same year as David, and all of her friends were dying—a phenomenon that occurs when you reach a certain age (this year alone, I lost several friends and correspondents, including Bill Berkson, Ted Greenwald, Charles Garabedian, Andrzei Wajda, Gordon Davidson, Klaus Kertess, and Edward Albee). I shed a few tears for a short while, then received a call from Antin’s son, Blaise, asking me to write an obituary which we might send to the national papers. 

    It pained me some to write so objectively:

David Antin / Photo: Douglas Messerli

“On October 11th at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, California, the major American poet,  David Antin died after falling at home. He had long been suffering from the advance stages of Parkinson’s disease.

Born in New York City in 1932, David Antin grew up in Brooklyn in a family of Eastern European emigres. His father died when he was two, forcing his working mother to leave him for years at a time with various uncles and aunts who argued and told endless stories in various European languages. These early family experiences are the subject of many of Antin’s later “talk poems,” and were, in part, what helped him later to become such a gifted storyteller.

As a young man he attended Brooklyn Technical High School with intentions of becoming a scientist or an inventor. It was there he read works such as Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives and Joyce’s novels, all of which highly involved him, and began to interest him in a literary career. At age 16 he left home, ultimately attending the City College of New York. There he met fellow student Jerome Rothenberg, the renowned poet who remained a very close friend of Antin’s throughout his life. At City College Antin edited the school’s literary magazine and wrote mostly fiction.

His ability with languages helped him land jobs after college as a scientific translator, bringing cutting-edge research in German and Russian to English-language readers. When Rothenberg returned from the army, he and Antin co-founded the Chelsea Review, working closely with Ursule Molinaro, Venable Herndon, and Robert Kelly. During that same time, Antin began working on an exploratory, expressive poetry that, along with Rothenbergs, had an “image core.” When the term was taken up by others such as Robert Bly, Antin and Rothenberg felt that their ideas were “eviscerated” of any intellectual significance, and they stopped using it. During this time of the early 1960s, his poetry began to be published in various journals, including El Corno Emplumado, Folio, Kayak, and Trobar as well as more establishment publications such as The New Yorker.

In 1961, Antin married Eleanor Fineman, who later as Eleanor Antin became an internationally acclaimed multi-media artist. Antin became disengaged with the kind of writing he was doing and turned from imagistic based works—works which critic Marjorie Perloff has argued owe something to Surrealism and the French poet, Andre Breton — to a “process poetry,” work influenced by the art world of the 1960s—much of which Antin  was writing about in art journals—which was more “confrontational” than the lyrically-based work he had been doing.

In 1968—on the day that Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles--the Antins moved to Southern California, ultimately becoming professors of art at the University of California at San Diego.

That same year he published Code of Flag Behavior and in 1971 Meditations which was built around an alphabetical listing of words that high school children had trouble spelling. Also in 1971, Antin was asked by Dore Ashton to take part in a series of talks she was organizing at Cooper Union, and, along with other talks he was asked to do (at Pomona College in Southern California and a reading at the San Francisco Poetry Center) Antin began working with the improvisatory compositions that have defined much of his poetic activity from 1972 onward.

These pieces generally begin with a suggested topic, which, after research into various related subjects, were created before the audience as Antin interwove various ideas and stories together through poetic devices such as repetition, rhythm, metaphor, and just plain talking. The pieces were recorded and later transcribed and revised by the poet into written works that look more like prose pieces, albeit without margins and standard capitalization.

Among his important books of “talk poems” are Talking (1972), published by the Kulcher Foundation, Talking at the Boundaries (1976), Tuning (1984), What It Means to Be Avant Garde (1993)—all published by New Directions Press— and i never knew what time it was (2005), published by the University of California Press. His Selected Poems1963-1973 was published by Sun & Moon Press (Los Angeles) in 1991. In 2002 Granary Books of New York published A Conversation with David Antin, an interchange between Antin and the poet Charles Bernstein, which revealed a great deal about his earlier work and life.

More recently, Antin had published a critical summary of his art and literary criticism, Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature 1966-2005 published by University of Chicago Press in 2011 to great critical acclaim.”


     I gladly wrote on behalf of the family, and, with the help of Michael Govan of The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and others, I was able to place that information with those selected newspapers. Obituaries appeared in all of those publications as well as many others. And I was able to notify most of David’s poet friends through Facebook. Job done.

     But then, a couple of days later, I realized something was missing. I, myself, one of David’s closest friends, had not yet had time to grieve for his death. I broke into tears while writing of David’s passing to another mutual friend, also close to David, Martin Nakell.

     I had long been involved with David through my close relationship with Marjorie Perloff, who was one of the first major US critics to engage in a critical dialogue with him and his writing; it was not easy, in those days, when the current American critical scene summarily dismissed his “talk” poems as having little to do with poetry. Several years later, I would be asked to introduce him at the Shakespeare Folger Library.

    Although we had long ago became close friends with David and Eleanor, it was when we too moved to California that we truly became closer, we, several times driving down to La Jolla to see them and Elly’s shows, and they driving up to Los Angeles to visit us, their son Blaise, and local galleries and museums. At each of these events David, almost as if he was proposing a talk piece, would bring up a vast subject such as the theories of Karl Marx, the literary constructs of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the flowery romantic styles of F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc. If these might have been perceived as unbearable coming from other friends, when David did this, it was more like an invitation to share our ideas with him than a boorish lecture—even if, of course, none of us could respond as brilliantly as David. And he always left lots of time and room for us to report our lives to him and Elly, and for Elly to discuss her new ideas and art plans.

     David, I would now argue—and as I have previously written—was a great poet. But he was also, and perhaps more importantly, a great art critic. As I wrote in my review of his remarkable Radical Coherency, where he discusses a wide range of artistic careers from Rothko and Jean Tinguely to Andy Warhol and Alex Katz, as well as pop art, earthworks, and numerous other artists long before they were being “talked” about:

“It is this definition of narrative and Antin's own exploration of that genre in his "talk poems"  that came eventually to define his art. One must understand the picture on the cover, accordingly, not just as an encounter of an older Antin with a newer one, but one kind of self-facing the spectre of another and redefining that vision of self in the process. And in that sense, the image on the cover is a slightly disturbing vision of these two selves coming together almost to duke it out over the changes that have obviously occurred in the writer's own life, one might say, another kind of "radical coherency." Yet I was struck in these revelatory essays, at how much continuity Antin demonstrates in a writing that bridges 39 years. There are only four works that actually fit the format of what the author describes as "talk poems" here ("the existential allegory of the rothko chapel," the title piece, "radical coherency," "the death of the hired man", and "john cage uncaged is still cagey," although Antin tells me that "Fine Furs" was originally written in the form, but later transformed into an essay), but I would argue that all of the pieces in this volume have the same Antin inflections of voice and structural patterns as his later works. Antin's is a voice filled with pauses, not always at the place one might suspect, but as in Stein, always there as part of the syntax itself. These caesuras are a product of Antin's whole process, which is so different from most critical writing that it is sometimes difficult to think of Antin setting out to write an "essay." For Antin does not "answer" anything, but poses of each artist, poet or groups of these, questions which he then ponders and pauses over in sentence after sentence wandering and wondering aloud in astoundingly profound ways, how and why certain things are being said or done. Occasionally, for Antin is a true wit, these can be somewhat whimsical—in "Warhol: The Silver Tenement," for example, Antin's major summary is that in order for Warhol's beautiful creations to succeed, they must necessarily develop "scuffs," transforming his paintings, films, novels, soap operas, and even his planned "silver tenement" into a kind of "precisely pinpointed defectiveness," a kind of tawdry version of glamour—but by and large, no matter what his own position about the quality or purposefulness of the various art and poetic endeavors upon which he focuses, Antin asks serious questions, challenges set notions, and makes us rethink our assumptions.”

     With his death, Antin is almost impossible to talk about. He was so very much, so very electric in his presence, but so later diminished. And in these later years, at times he seemed frustrated and somewhat argumentative in a way that I had not previously been. I recall one time when he picked me up at a nearby train station at Del Mar that I had no sooner gotten into the car and he begin the disparage the poetry, out of the blue, of my friend Arkadi Dragomoschenko, finding its roots too romantically inclined to be of any interest to him. Obviously, it had been an issue that had been bothering him, and he simply could any longer contain his frustration, venting it full force against Aradii’s major publisher and supporter in the US.

     Yes, time does that, but it is still hard to imagine that it might have happened to such a completely exhilarating individual. I no longer need tears. I need another cultural icon.  

Los Angeles, October 20, 2016

Reprinted, in different form, from Hyperallergic Weekend (November 19, 2016)




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