David Antin, i never knew what time it was
(University of California Press, 2005)
I used to be a poet. I studied poetry at Penn. That’s where I first saw David Antin perform. I remember he was tall and bald and had an intensely serious expression on his face while he talked in a bobbing, weaving manner about Freud and other things. He was the best kind of deadpan performer: the kind who never sets the audience at ease as to whether he’s really joking or really serious.
The Freud talk isn’t one of the pieces in i never knew what time it was, but the recording is on PennSound. Antin talks about the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in which Freud theorizes “a deeply emotional and free thinking nature below the level of our awareness” which he draws in part from slips of the tongue, “which look like the intervention of some demonic other, who’s making you say what you don’t really want to say in public but what you might very well think.”
My dad used to tell me to stop saying like between my words, pointing out that it gave the impression that I was unintelligent and had no ideas. At the time, like was operating in my speech as a “filler,” a verbal signal that the speaker is pausing to think, without giving the impression of having finished speaking. I was a pretty well-trained speaker by that time, so it’s not like I wouldn’t have been able to stop saying “like” if every time I talked I thought about what I was going to say first, and thought of what I was doing as speaking. But I was also, especially at that age, very intent on impressing people and on not being left behind or left out. Like many people who fear being forgotten or left behind, I felt I needed to keep making noise, even if I was communicating nothing.
A lot of this kind of noise now comes through screens, where individual voices are distinguished only by the extremity of their desire for attention. Much of the text generated on these screens employs the same strategy I used as a teenage girl to hold my place in the world: compulsively gesturing towards speech without actually speaking. The possibility of communication is overwhelmed by the noise of one’s own voice. The most demonic of these voices take it one step further: it’s not enough for him to make noise, but he has to drown out everyone else, one’s voice heard over the rest.
I thought about the difference between such a demonic voice, and the voice of David Antin. Both voices operate from a position of singularity, but rather than attempting to drown out other voices, Antin invites them to drown him. Although the book is a record of Antin speaking, his practice of monologue reveals itself to be anything but solipsistic. His voice persistently occupies space, arriving at a conversation with his experience, but rather than that voice demanding our attention, it gives way to attention’s demands.
I saw David Antin perform again many years later, at the Poetry Project. I had already moved to L.A. after college and had come back to New York, and had begun to turn from a kind of poet into a kind of entertainer. Antin, who was sometimes accused of being an entertainer, says in this collection that the difference between the two is that a poet entertains ideas, not people. He says “im quite happy for people to feel free to get up and leave whenever they stop finding this entertaining and that’s how i know im a poet, not an entertainer.”
A successful gynecologist and his wife are showing another successful gynecologist and his wife a slide show of their vacation. Antin never attended said slide show, but says,
while the account that accompanied these slide shows was casual and anecdotal there was something ritualistic and deeply serious about them as if through this procession of ordinary little stories one couple was revealing something secret and deep about themselves to the other something no outsider could understand
The many layers of critical distance between this insight and its insight puts the reader at a great remove, as if looking at the slide show from an aerial view. At the same time, the deep secret expressed by the gynecologist and his wife feels intensely intimate, breaths away. Antin’s omniscient knowledge of our secrets is imaginary, but in letting this imaginary knowledge run to its logical conclusions, something real slips in, and feels all the more exciting for seeming to be by accident. While the show may have been meant for ideas, not people, I was wildly entertained.