what it means to be avant-garde [excerpt]

David Antin - 1932-2016
            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

More by David Antin

the theory and practice of postmodernism—a manifesto [excerpt]

         about two years ago elly and i decided we needed a new mattress 
or maybe elly decided it    because i didnt pay much attention to the 
  problem
               we had an old mattress wed had it for years and the salesman
 wed bought it from had assured us it would last us a lifetime    and it
was getting older and lumpy or lumpy in some places and hollowed out 
  in others and    i just assumed it was part of a normal process of aging
 it was getting older we were getting older and wed get used to it     but 
  eleanor has a bad back and she was getting desperate to get rid of 
this mattress     that had lived with us for such a long time and so
 lotally      that i thought i knew all its high points and low points     its
eminences and pitfalls    and i was sure    that at night my body
 worked its way carefully around the lumps    dodging the precipices
and moving to solider ground whenever it could
                                              but maybe eleanor
sleeps more heavily than i do    i have a feeling that i spent much of 
 my life at night avoiding the pitfalls of this mattress that i was used
to     and it was a skill id acquired over the ten or fifteen years of this
 mattress’ life     so I felt there was no reason to get rid of this mattress
that had been promised to us by a salesman who said it would last the
 rest of our lives     i figured we were going to live long lives i didnt  
think we were anywhere  close to dying     so neither was the mattress
  but eleanor kept waking up with backaches
          still i figured it was a good mattress and that elly just didnt have
 enough skill at avoiding the lumps      it never occurred to me that the 
mattress was at fault     so i didnt  do anything     and elly didnt do
  anything because shes not into consumer products and hates to go
 shopping    but by the end of a year elly convinced me     because she
  has a sensitive back and i dont     that she had a more accurate
  understanding of this business than i did      so I said sure eleanor  
         lets get a new mattress      were rebuilding the house       as long as
were going to have a new house      we may as well have a new mattress 
 but eleanor said how will i know its a good one     i dont want to get 
another mattress that gets hollowed and lumpy and gives me backaches
 when i wake up     how will i know how to get a good one
         i said well open the yellow pages and well look up mattresses and 
 therell be several places that sell them       and ill close my eyes and 
point a finger at one of these places      and it will be a place that has 
 lots of mattresses where we can make a choice as to what constitutes 
 a good one by lying on them

the second hundred: for sid luft

1.

there are two sides to every story and to abbreviate one side is to diminish a side of a wall    creating an absence that is stronger than any presence and making any attempt at accurate construction hopeless    sid luft is such an accusative absence    perhaps you have never had to address yourself to a wraith    to proceed adverbially    naming effects as of the wind upon trees or Van der Waals forces on a surface    but sid luft was a test pilot    had flown grumman p 47's called thunderbolts and twin-fuselaged p 38's called lightnings    and thought it an agreeable task    his eye proceeding over the control panel checking the readings on all of the luminous dials    letting his ear discriminate among the complex series of metallic sounds that would allege a private relaxation    the way it takes the sharp eyes and quick ears of an astronaut to foresee a future failure in the allusion of a single dial    what is out there is altogether conjectural    that is the attraction that can take a smart boy out of his apartment and suspend him over an entire atmosphere    this applies also to arctic explorers whom also some bubble must arouse    let this be an attempt at assessment


2.

you know how a small deviation in the suspension of a balance wheel can lead to a barbarous inflection of the entire mechanism?    bringing a belgian police dog to sit in your lap or a bicycle to rest under a moving van    and the imperfection is only borne in upon you once it has passed a certain boundary?


3.

and in a car a defect in the low speed carburetor circuit will leave the entire carriage sucking for air at anything below the highest throttle speeds    so it is necessary to go on a splurge in cincinnati and choose a tomato soup red oldsmobile before going to chef's college    to infuse a vessel with air here becomes a commission    it is required to create a sense of competition where there isnt any    on a farm by the connecticutt    then to stand back at a street corner refraining from criticism like roger de coverley    as much of a spectator and as kindly    a moss covered rock coolly withstanding the current


4.

such a machine is guaranteed to bring you to despair precisely when the situation isnt desperate    because a mounting anxiety approaches a maximum when you have nothing to record in your diary and you have nothing to fall back upon except a tenuous self-discipline


5.

which supposes not only a set of earnest resolutions    promises made to Eliot for a regimen of self-improvement to be undertaken in the doldrums    dance lessons at 12:00    voice in the afternoon    and strict control of your diet    the problem is how to go on being enthusiastic about swallowing air in the evening    it means being equipped with the sense of a soft worm under the shell of a mollusc    which is an excellent image but finally fails to exhilarate if you have never seen it


6.

yet what continues to fascinate us in the shell are the continuous depositions of calcium    which we undertake to unwind like a bandage    while each roll is just like the last    allowing for minor accidents    and merely somewhat smaller    it does not fulfill our expectations    but the belief that there is something to fulfil in our expectations is fundamental


7.

a guard outside of a warehouse suggests there is something to protect


8.

the idea of hypocrisy is expensive


9.

for someone to scream incidentally and interrupt lunch


10.

similar cases in "temporary amnesia" are also known


11.

all you have to do is go to the library to become convinced that they are very likely    energy coming from somewhere striking like lightning


12.

annulling a marriage in a minute    such impulsive behavior modifies the entire history of a landscape    when a car breaks down it appears there was always something wrong with the motor


13.

to a man on a tightrope the Falls at Niagara are the truth of a river    and living to ninety appears like a sudden nomination


14.

its hard to maintain your obedience to impulse when you know that at 5 o'clock you're about to enter Mercy Hospital for a colitis operation    which leaves you nothing to do but pretend that under the ether you're going back for a look at your origin


15.

have you noticed how psychological states are all nouns    Happiness  Sorrow  Rage  Fear  and Shame  are never named participially say    like Smiling-Preceding-the-Storm or Lining-the-Depths-of-an-Outer-Darkening or Something-Preferred-to-Nothing?    its almost worth becoming a professor and obtaining a right to prophesy    erecting a science of naming and calling it Pyschology    finding a net in our hands meaning that there is something we pursue


16.

Judith what i have to say will be lost in this quiet for which i was never quite successful at promoting an antidote


17.

the knack of a child cupping a radio to his ear on his walk through the traffic    i would really have liked to wrap you in music in elevators and airliners    which i could recommend over amphetamine for its more regular rhythm


18.

to engineer another moment in the wings at the palladium and wait for an illumination from the scene to come and seize you    what we can expect of speaking sincerely is an elevation of feeling that we can equate with sincerity    which makes Wearing-Your-Heart-On-Your-Sleeve more than a becoming fashion that can fit any college sophomore and be successful    it needs a desire to be stretched while you are still superintendent of your passions    to which you will ultimately surrender


19.

and recalling the moment of your triumph is a roll call of reporters in which i even remember Ted Thackerey of the Compass    the last time we were truly together


20.

though in your memory it was undoubtedly different


21.

maybe you remember a village where i was a villain


22.

and the weather was bad    yet you didn't know whether to leave or take Joey and Lisa to the movie    the separate inventories of facts in the memories of people who have shared common experiences are weird    though perhaps only this division preserves the welfare of individuals and is insurance against the inevitable separations of pairs of men and women

6th separation meditation

it appears whole
it has been
thought of
as good
not reasoned out
he uses
he is bound
to a state
he has recognized
even if the description is a delusion
it is worth while to speak of logic
frequently 
it depends on knowledge
to translate it
suggests conflict
which is 
implied
in the word
demonstration
it would seem
the more formal
the meaning seems to be
the more
from the center of your being
that feeling
that nothing
either for me or my friend
the conjecture
this meaning
or material
is applied at the end
as the element
of commanding value
in contrast with joy
which is not of its essence
it is sometimes
supreme
something specially concerned
in conduct
interest
the true interest
the interest of true self
is mad
in this state
he is confronted by the rich
if you take a low view of politics
you will degrade yourself
see how things are going in the capital!
the senator
discovers
the soul's moral equipment
is imperfect
the point seems to be
this indignity
the educated man
is untrained
to complete the sense
protest
the managers
the schools
taking cognizance of things
see
the community 
its limitations
its hard circumstances
the insolence of the rich
all acts are appropriate
to the circumstances