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 black-haired 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 redefine 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 and skepticism: to overturn the bad hand we (and so many others like and unlike us) had been dealt as young poets in the reigning literary world of that time, and 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 and 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 mindset and 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 cocreator. (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 and 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 nondreamer and a dreamer, and will let it go at that.


[Reads from “Seneca Journal: The Dreamers” and two 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 eighty-fifth birthday.]