i never knew what time it was, David Antin
[Univ of California Press, 2005]

Songs for Two Voices,
Bruce Smith
[Phoenix Poets, Univ of Chicago Press, 2005]


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 realized this
     and anyway what time was it
     but up here theres no telling
     and i saw a very modern looking
     because many years ago
     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 metal-edged fleetings.

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

     James Baldwin who worships at the church of style
     and testifies. Style will save us, more than

     capital and its engines that take us in one direction
     like the lovesick to Long Island City

     to Costco and the museum
     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