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what it means to be avant-garde [excerpt]

            and i was thinking about this while i was flying
 toward iowa and thinking about how everyone was going to be
trying to locate the avant-garde      and about how almost
 everyone was going to agree that it would involve either
shocking or making it new      and and that i was supposed to be
 talking about this too      and i realized i was going to be
  confused      because practically every role classically
attributed to the avant-garde has been preempted by something
 else      and i reflected that i myself have never really had
a clear image of what it was to be avant-garde      though ive
 been thrust into the role often enough to know what it feels
 like to be avant-garde

                             a friend of mine had written a book
  marjorie perloff had written a book dealing with american
poetry as a kind of french connection      as opposed to the
 english connection which is conventionally supposed for it
  in the schools      now i personally think there are many
roots to contemporary american poetry      certainly my poetry
 and the poetry i admire      but i also know what writing a 
  book means      in a book you have to organize your ideas
 pretty much one thing at a time      if its an important thing
and you want to really get it done      and this is a book
  designed to challenge what i have always thought of as the
 anglophiliac model of american poetry that is so dominant in
 those literary strongholds east of the mississippi      or the
connecticut river      north of the monongahela      that are so
 strongly devoted to an anglican passion      that they give
  the impression of some kind of outpost in a novel by huxley
 or evelyn waugh      where the people are sitting around on a 
veranda sipping their gin slings in the shade of the local
 textile factory or integrated circuit fabricating plant
  dreaming of playing polo or cricket or rugby in the greener
 older playing fields at eton or harrow      which they may
  never have seen      being often second generation eastern
european jews from brooklyn or queens      or lithuanians from
  indiana or lutherans from wisconsin      and somehow there
  they are gathered on the veranda in new haven or manhattan
in memory of the british empire      of which they are among
 the last supports      and several columns of which this book
  is probably intended to take away
                                             or maybe more precisely
      this books is only bringing the news to these outposts
that the british empire has long since passed away      and
 that the messages from england would no longer be coming and
 had not been coming for a long time      and that there was a 
french connection as there is a russian connection and a
 spanish connection      and for many a chinese connection or
japanese connection      there are lots of connections in this
 world      but in a book you have to do one thing at a time
  the world may not happen one thing at a time but in a book
you have to tell one thing at a time
                                              and my friend was invited
 to washington to be part of a discourse with some of these
english emigres and refugees      among whom were numbered
  harold bloom and john hollander and richard howard      who
are certainly distinguished members of the refugee community

            now marjorie was giving a talk based on the
 last chapter of her most recent book      the poetics of
indeterminacy      the last chapter of which happens to deal
 with john cage and with me
                                     and whatever differences there may
  be between cage and me      and these are considerable      we
 were both obliterated by the righteous wrath of harold bloom
    who had hardly heard more than our names      when he
 denounced the proceedings as ridiculous and us as nonpoets
and stormed off the stage
                                  i was told about this performance of
  blooms and though it was wonderful and forgot about it
    but it was not long afterward that i was invited out to
 the very same place to do a talk performance on the folger 
librarys little shakespearean stage      and it happened that
 when i came to do the performance i had something serious in
  mind      because a friend of mine had died two or three days
before      after a sudden and unexpected hospitalization from
 which we had all hoped she would come out alive      and i
 wanted to make my piece a kind of homage      a mediation and
speculation on the nature of her life and death

            so in the course of things i told her story
    or what i knew of it      and i tried to consider the
 nature of the fit      between the life we lead and the death
we get      and what i wanted to think about was whether there
 was such a fit and if there was      what kind it was      and i
 did the best i could      under the circumstances      of being 
there      then      which is my image of what an artist does and
 is      somebody who does the best he can      under the
 circumstances      without worrying about making it new or
shocking      because the best you can do depends upon what you
 have to do and where      and if you have to invent something
new to do the work at hand you will      but not if you have a 
 ready-made that will work and is close at hand and you want
 to get on with the rest of the business
                                                   then youll pick up
 the tool thats there      a tool that somebody else has made
    that will work      and youll lean on it and feel grateful
when its good to you      for somebody elses work      and youll
 think of him as a friend who wold borrow as freely from you
 if he thought of it or needed to      because there is a
community of artists      who dont recognize copyrights and
 patents      or shouldnt      except under unusual circumstances
            who send each other tools in the mail or exchange them
in conversation in a bar
                              though i had a couple of friends
 from whom i got a lot of things in the mail      who got very
nervous about exchanging things with each other because they
 had ileana sonnabend looking over their shoulders      and one
of them got so distressed because he had ileana looking over
 his shoulder forbidding him to collaborate with the other
  friend      that when he wrote the text for the others
 installation performance he never put his name on it      but
this is an unusual situation      and i only mention it because
 of that

From what it means to be avant-garde. Copyright © 1993 by David Antin. Reprinted with permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

From what it means to be avant-garde. Copyright © 1993 by David Antin. Reprinted with permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.