These books push the
same kind of gift with rhetorical build-ups of clauses, one in a modern kind
of free verse, one in a modern kind of rhyme.
David Antin's early work, before his talk poem period (of which this is the
third, or is it fourth, collection), included a piece rather marvellously
(intuitively, non-computationally) sampling lots of sentences from different
novels collaged together. The marvellousness stemmed not from maintaining a
narrative, they did not do this. It stemmed from maintaining an
improvisational mood. For all Bruce Smith's alleged allegiances to jazz, it
is Antin for whom one could see a Kerouac urging, yeah man, line after line
from the audience, as Kerouac did when Ginsberg recited Howl. Jazz moved on,
and Antin seems closer to say seventies Miles Davis. Smith namechecks Davis,
but it seems Best of Davis, not Davis. Fifties jazz is more analogous to
modern rhyme, seventies jazz more to modern free verse.
Rhetorical build-up of clauses has, I think, nothing to do with jazz, no
analogy in jazz - but then I could not imagine jazz played on certain
instruments, and instrument-combinations.
What Antin does well is avoid one feel of repetition, and this is what links
free verse to serialism; that, on a micro-level of form, one rings the
changes. Antin's talk poems are typed-up improvisations (brilliantly tweaked,
in that one cannot see the joins). They manifest as pages of text with a
jagged left and right hand margin, very few if any punctuation marks, but
little gaps of bare page between or inside clauses. I can illustrate how
Antin rings the changes by making a collage of some of the chunks of
expression left isolated by these gaps of bare page - clauses, of a sort, but
not clauses. At random, picking only ten-word or so chunks at most:
and i had
what time was it
but up here
theres no telling
and i saw a
very modern looking
but they said
you have to be careful.
Now this is the only (albeit travesty of a) quote from Antin I'm going to do.
I want to illustrate how I come across these delightful isolated phrases. If
I were to quote six lines of a whole "prose" page, the eye would
not most readings fall on these lines. Antin does a spellbinding sort of
parenthetical sidetracking self-reflexiveness, actually as apparently
ponderous, as actually light for the indulging reader, as Henry James' prose.
Antin has unfortunately said, to Charles Bernstein in their book A
Conversation with David Antin (2002), if he is doing prose it is not Henry
James; he does not say Jamesian; in one of his numerous black-and-white
It is very good to encounter Antin's latest pieces. I personally find his
maneouvrings in the art world and the poetry world, about which this is a
gossippy volume that finds its groove and sometimes hits some lovely high
notes, very useful, very much about how one pitches in the art world (like we
all know screenwriters do in the movie world) and about how one rubs along in
the poetry world. It seems to me more a book of belonging, in these worlds,
without doing some kind of Ern Malley fraud. It rarely seems about the world
at large, and is rather nervous, rather catty, underneath. It is a nice book
to walk through.
What I find as rhyme
in Bruce Smith's book is the exploring of what Pound called "subject
rhyme" (a key thing for Allen Fisher, as he's often said). Sometimes
this can boil down to a kind of autobiography, you have to try to enjoy the
feeling that the two things being held in parallel by the poet, so he says,
are held in parallel much. This doesn't always work in this book, as don't
the common or garden rhymes, the little attempts at mini-attack,
mini-crescendo, through word-flurries.
The book is supposedly in duets. Each poem has a mini-break, marked by
asterisks, then another poem, usually in the same stanza form to the same
length, immediately following. But one gets only the slimmest feeling of a
real call and response. It seems like Georgian English poetry to me: they
used to do sequels too, one thinks of Walter de la Mare or even Larkin's two
toad poems, but there was always Tennyson in the background, a feeling of
allusion to the master with a mini-labryinth compared to the big one of In
Memoriam. In my opinion, these sequels work best if the response poem is in a
slightly different stanza form - following and echoing as Smith does seems
just a creative writing exercise.
From that norm, Smith attempts to twist and outdo, but not leave behind.
There is talk of balance, balancing the I and the not I, but not action. On a
formal level, one can admire Ashbery's double-column work because we know
there is something of the art of translation about it. We know Ashbery is a
translator (it is nice to see Antin dwelling on it, seriously, without having
to talk about verse form to verse form translation). We know one compares one
translation with another, admiring the way the original enjambs and
concatenates, and how various versions in English, with all their poems
roughly in the same stanza form, pull off good enjambs in one verse at the expense of the enjambs
and concatenations of another. Smith seems to be trying to write good
stanzas, out of American speech, with none of these tensions behind the
effort. Antin seems more about speech, and more about everything, because he
is not just about speech.
Nevertheless, Antin has lost something that Smith says he is getting at:
style. Antin is not bravura as he once was. Smith is aiming at it. He has a
theoretical point in this book (and one good poem, the first half of his poem
about Sun Ra, kept buoyant because he does not try to show off about music,
which he writes badly about. He writes badly about being social, badly about
sex as a short-cut to being bad at being social; I don't mean "that
middle class lie" - a free-floating Smithism kept in check, kept cool,
but floating - he writes sweetly, in the first half of his daughter poem,
about his daughter, though).
When Smith talks about style, he is at his most stylish:
The faces of the N train
awake to the
No-Way; the boy looks like the young
who worships at the church of style
testifies. Style will save us, more than
its engines that take us in one direction
lovesick to Long Island City
to Costco and
to the spilled
evangelism of sport in the parks
He is a waspish commentator, He needs trade names and buzz words to spark up
and add a backbeat to his poems. This makes a call to which no response had
been so far made by Smith himself.
© Ira Lightman 2005