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.