David Antin's Radical Coherency

by Danny Snelson




Very rarely, a retrospective publication can cast a writer’s oeuvre into a radically new, coherent narrative. Readers accustomed to Antin’s signature talk-poem format who haven’t had the pleasure of tracing his diverse critical output across poetry magazines, academic journals, exhibition catalogs, and one-off publications will marvel at the breadth and concentration of these essays. Opening with densely packed art criticism written in the ’60s and moving through the anecdotal insight of more recent writings and transcriptions, this book takes the reader through Antin’s persistent disentanglement of the most pressing local contingencies over 40 years of critical poetic practice.

Opening with an evaluation of the “precisely pinpointed defectiveness” of Warhol in 1966 and closing with a short talk poem transcribed in 2005 on John Cage’s “art machine” poetry, the collection is divided into roughly equivalent halves covering art and literature. In the preface, Antin describes his selection process to include only “those that collectively give a reasonable idea of the range of my work and resonate most strongly with the unresolved issues of our time.” Indeed, with a set of themes tracing the attenuated demarcations of modernism and postmodernism, concept and representation in the arts, and narrative and improvisation in poetry, Radical Coherency presents a mode of thinking-while-writing in a variety of lucid narrative formats at once thoroughly contemporary and historically significant. Raveling the myriad strands of diverse and knotty discourses, stretching and examining each localized trajectory, Antin performs the miraculous bow-tying of a radical coherence.

The title essay is a talk poem commissioned for the 1981 Coherence issue of Don Wellman’s excellent O.ARS poetry and poetics journal. Antin takes the invitation as an opportunity to explore his transition from modernist-inherited collage to the improvisational narrative of spoken composition. The talk follows this line of thinking right into the local Sears—a fragmented system organized by principles not dissimilar to collage—where his mother has embarked on an extended digression shopping for a brassiere. Throughout the collection—looping through Wittgenstein’s poetics and Rothko’s chapel, stringing up Frost’s diction and LACMA’s corporatism—Antin pierces through modernism’s core and embroiders the postmodern’s fringes with unexpected and startling illumination.

Danny Snelson is an editor, writer, and archivist who lives in Philadelphia.


Experimental poetry
BOMB 117
Fall 2011
The cover of BOMB 117