David Antin: The Stranger at the Door
David Antin:
The Stranger at the Door
(Genre, 1987)

In 1965 in the second issue of the magazine some/thing that I edited with Jerome Rothenberg, we published the following text:

Excerpts from
Gloss For An Unknown Language

Tablet 3

Line   Character

17     9    Image formed by a moving object for the duration of one breath.

31     7    An object formed by the intersection of an imaginary sphere with
               objects of the reference language. (Here used to describe
               a plano-convex section of flesh/earth).

31     8    Used by an observer standing at the edge of a body of water
               to denote an area of water surface in front of the observer
               and the area of earth of equal size and shape behind the observer,
               considered as one surface.

Tablet 10

6      4     Everything within the bounds of an imaginary cube having its center
               congruent with that of the observer, and an edge of length equal to
               the observer's height.

23     9    A verb apparently denoting the motion of a static object. (The
               meaning is not clear.)

Tablet 13

19     3    A unit of time derived from the duration of dream events.

45     2    The independent action of two or more persons, considered as a single


It was the longest of a series of texts by the sculptor George Brecht, some of which had originally been printed on individual cards and collected in a cardboard box designed by George Maciunas and issued in a limited series under the title of Water Yam by Fluxus in 1963. In the magazine they appeared under the title

Dances, Events & Other Poems

between the Table of Contents and a chapter of what the Contributor's Notes referred to as Rochelle Owens' "encyclopedic novel-in-progress," Elga's Incantation. The title was as I remember supplied by my co-editor, because Brecht was out of the country and had simply left us a pile of manuscript copy. Together with the layout, in which the smaller pieces, for purposes of economy and clarity, were printed two or three to a page with their margins staggered to maintain their separate identities, the title tended to suggest somewhat equivocally that these texts were all to be considered poems. Equivocally, because the title itself - Dances, Events & Other Poems - in its use of the word "other" suggests that these "dances" and "events" are also "poems" and raises the question of in what sense these texts might be poems while also being dances and events.

Taking as examples the pieces THREE YELLOW EVENTS and THREE DANCES:

I.     ˇ yellow
       ˇ yellow
       ˇ yellow

II.   ˇ yellow
      ˇ loud

III. ˇ red





it seems probable that in the Fluxus box both of these texts would have been regarded as scenarios or instructions for performances somehow to be realized by a performer/dancer. A Judson dancer might have realized the instruction "Saliva" by spitting, begun the second movement ("Pause") with a rest, then urinated in a bottle and rested (Pause) again, and concluded with a set of violent exercises leading to "Perspiration." He could have interpreted the second with a series of lamps that flashed "Yellow" and "Red" or might better have unrolled bolts of colored cloth or paper or painted them and realized the noise with a tape of hammering or a pneumatic drill or simply yelled after the fourth yellow. This would all have been within the context of the game of interpretation between a scenarist- inventor (composer poet, artist, choreographer) and a realizer (musician, actor, installer, dancer), a performance genre that had been established in the contemporary art community since the late 1950's and is abundantly illustrated in the Fluxus oriented anthology published by LaMonte Young and Jackson MacLow.

MacLow's own 1964 publication, The Pronouns: A Collection of 40 Dances, is probably the most brilliant and extensive example of the "dance-instruction poem" which MacLow explains in the following way:

The poet creates a situation wherein she or he invites other persons & the world in general to be co-creators. [1]

and in his "Some Remarks to the Dancers" specifies precisely how he means this:

In realizing any particular dance, the individual dancer or group of dancers has a very large degree of freedom of interpretation. However, although they are to interpret the successive lines of each of these poems - which are also dance-instructions as they see fit, dancers are required to find some definite interpretation of the meaning of every line of the dance-poem they choose to realize. (67)

These remarks are both definitive and explicit; and, though perhaps somewhat more explicit than some other practitioners of the instruction genre might have liked, together with Peter Moore's photograph of various danced realizations of The Pronouns, they indicate how well established this genre was for the early 1960' art world.

But appearing in some/thing was a bit different. Even if there was some overlap - we published George Brecht, Jackson MacLow, Carolee Schneemann in this issue under the cover of a Robert Morris lead piece - our magazine was directed more to the contemporary poetry world, which was a somewhat different audience. Since a genre is a theater of operations that is defined by the audience that comes to it and the memories of previous performances they have attended there, as well by the nature of the site - because what tends to determine our understanding of the nature of a site is our memories of the performances we have seen there and our dreams of the performances we might some time put there - we could have expected to see quite different generic significances attributed to these texts. And in fact, by publishing them the way we did, we were promoting these differences to get a poetry-reading audience to see these verbal pieces as poems.

But Brecht's texts were not poems in the same way as MacLow's, who considered himself a poet, called his texts poems, performed them at poetry readings as well as in concert settings, and published them in literary magazines. Moreover, however strange they might have been verbally to a conservative poetry audience that required poems to consist of more or less grammatically well-formed and semantically perspicuous utterances that expressed the psychological state (usually intense) of some plausible speaker (James Wright, for example), most of MacLow's poems should have satisfied another of the requirements of this Romantic poetics. They were very musical - in that they were marked by arbitrary phonological and intonational play, though more in the manner of Gertrude Stein than William Butler Yeats. Still, to an audience for whom Gertrude Stein was a poet, and so for the only people we took seriously, Jackson McLow was clearly a poet. But George Brecht was another matter. It is a considerable distance from MacLow's 8th DANCE: MAKING SOMETHING NARROW AND YELLOW (on the pronoun: "We")

We make some glass boil,
& we have political material get in,
& we make some drinks,
seeing danger,
& making payments,
& all the time we seem to put examples up.

Then we do something consciously
& we name things.

Afterwards we quietly chalk a strange tall bottle.

We question each other
while we do something down on the floor,
attacking each other at times,
but never stopping our questioning, and always reasoning regularly.

We number some thing or some people
& we page some for the people,
& either we harbor poison between cotton or we go from
breathing to a common form
while we skirt a rod,
and then again we harbor poison between cotton or we go
from breathing to a common form
while we're doing waiting,
like someone awaking yesterday when the skin's a little
but each of us has an instrument,
& we go under
as anyone would who awakened yesterday when the skin's
a little feeble;
afterwards we're being red enough;
we walk,
we rail,
and once more harboring poison between cotton or going
from breathing to a common form,
we're finally doing waiting. (21-22)

to George Brecht's



or the untitled

Three of them were the same size, and two were not.

But for us this distance was not so great as to obscure their family relationship within the great genre of poetry, which for us was a superordinare genre - the language art, not the microgenre synonymous with verse and based primarily on a distinction however tenuous from prose. From the very beginning as editors of some/thing, we were completely uninterested in the verse/prose distinction promoted by the neoclassical essayists following the lead of Eliot and Auden.

Our first issue began with a selection of Aztec definitions collected by the Franciscian friar, Bernardino de Sahagun a few decades after the Conquest. [2] In his preface Rothenberg introduced these texts, which he called Found Poems from the Florentine Codex, with a short account of the collapse of the great Indian civilization and the fragmentation of "that archaic system, fixed in ritual and myth" that "had been wrenched from them." The survivors, Rothenberg suggests, had a "need to preserve the potency of the real by a regular overturning of primary beliefs," a task to which they were stimulated by Sahagun's project of compiling a record before they vanished of The Things of New Spain. To this accounting they brought a vast assemblage of their gods, their days, their signs and omens, their sacrifices, their songs, their defeats, and in the midst of this collection they appear to have compiled a list of definitions of terms for the simple things of their lives - rocks, birds, plants, trees, implements, topographical features.

The Precipice

It is deep - a difficult, a dangerous place, a deathly place. It is dark, it is light. It is an abyss.

A Mushroom

It is round, large, a severed head.

Here according to Rothenberg "we can draw close to them, can hear in these 'definitions' the sound of poetry, a measure-by-placement-&- displacement, not far from our own," different from their songs and hymns collected by Sahagun and others, which "has its own goodness" as "part of the fixed world before the upheaval." But only these definitions participated fully in a freedom that was, in our view at that time, more important than whether they were intended as poems or not. "For surely," the preface concludes, "it should be clear by now that poetry is less literature than a process of thought & feeling & the arrangement of that into affective utterances. The conditions these definitions meet are the conditions of poetry. "I would probably, even then, have put this a bit differently, but I am still convinced, as I am sure Rothenberg is, that these Aztec definitions meet the conditions of poetry, or perhaps more precisely that it is not worth while to define a set of conditions for poetry that would exclude them.

These questions of necessary and sufficient conditions qualifying a work for entry in a genre is really a central issue for the concept of genre, but it is often confused with the related but somewhat different question of genre definition. Genre definition may be a futile pursuit because culturally well-established genres with a long history like poetry, as Aristotle's famous essay seems to demonstrate, may be embarrassingly difficult, or even impossible to define in a compact and nontrivial way. But new works are continually being proposed for inclusion in established genres and judgments are constantly being made about the suitability of their candidacy. The history of modern art is filled with accounts of well known critics confronting works that they declare are not "painting" or "music" or "theater" or "dance", only to be answered by others that what they have been confronting is indeed and for certain very good reasons "painting," "music," "theater," or "dance."

These arguments about genre membership have rarely if ever proceeded from definitions of the genre to an examination of the candidate's qualifications. Probably this is so because very few people educated in art feel confident in sweeping definitions of a terrain in which they have experienced as much anxiety and effort as pleasure and conviction, but also because it simply seems the wrong way to go about it.

The negative critic, when not simply outraged, usually proceeds by identifying the absence of some single feature of the new work that he or she regards as an indispensable attribute of all genre members or, alternatively, the presence of a feature that is antithetical to such an attribute. In fact this indispensable attribute is almost inevitably merely a marked feature of all members of some favored subgenre. So for Robert Frost or Allen Tate "formal versification" was the indispensable attribute of poetry, for Stanley Cavell pervasive "compositional choice" the indispensable attribute of music, while for Michael Fried the "literalness" of Minimal Art was antithetical to art, or at least to "modernist" "painting". [3]

The tactic of defenders is to connect some fundamental feature or features of the new work with some feature or features of members of apparently legitimate though not currently dominant subgenus, or with an insufficiently marked feature of a dominant subgenre. This was the point of connecting Whitman's free cadences to the cadence prose of the King James Bible and the rhapsodic verse of the Hebrew prophets, of connecting Katie's Gymnosperm to plainsong and Gregorian chant, earthworks to Stonehenge, or Happenings to collage.

These tactics can be convincing or unconvincing, brilliant or trivial, as the connections are fundamental or inconsequential. What most convincing arguments of this type have in common is some way of deepening our sense of the tradition of the genre and of art by articulating some hitherto unknown and consequently unforeseen productive line of play that will allow the genre to continue to satisfy our needs. It appears to be this kind of game that keeps a genre alive once it has developed to the point of general recognizability. This seems evident from the fate of opera which, as long as its patrons and performers regarded it as a museum art all of whose creators are dead, counts as an extinct species until some composer like Philip Glass with a band of collaborators attempts a new kind of dramatic musical spectacle that restores it to the condition of an endangered species.

So in the case of the George Brecht texts, I believe we saw in them something new that revealed the existence of an insufficiently marked and indispensable poetic tradition. His TWO SIGNS joins a line that connects ways of working as diverse as Frances Denmark's translations of Chinese songs, the Englishman version of Japanese haiku, and a singular poem from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons.

The two signs


extricated from two discrete worlds - a recording studio and an apartment house window - come together to gloss John Cage's famous observation that in the supposed total silence of an anecdotist chamber you can still hear the sounds of your nervous system and your blood circulating. so SILENCE becomes a place where there is NO VACANCY, as the cup that you empty is not truly empty because it's filled with air. The operation of mind invoked here to make sense of this brief text is very close to that required for Issa's haiku

one man
one fly
one big guest room

where a single fly measures the magnitude of the empty guest room, or Buson's

on the temple bell
a butterfly
sleeps [4]

with its two scales of sleep from which both bell and butterfly may wake together, briefly. What is interesting about these works - their conceptual brilliance, which is illuminated by the Brecht poem, seems even more pointed in translation, that strips them of the particular excellences of the Japanese language and verse, and releases into English a new mental poetic power. This power is also invoked by translations of American Indian poetry. I think particularly of Frances Densmore's translations of Chippewa songs.


In the coming heat
of the day
I stood there.



Maple sugar
is the only thing
that satisfies me. [5]

which disdain poetically conventional "musical" devices for an intense concentration and a mysterious elegance of tempo and focus that create the image of a purely mental "music" independent of symmetry, repetition and jingling, strangely similar to that singular poem of Gertrude Stein, a poet by no means averse to symmetry, repetition and jingling, A WHITE HUNTER:


A white hunter is nearly crazy. [6]

This poem goes off like a rocket and leaps out of the semantically fractured text of the rest of Tender Buttons with such piercing clarity you can easily forget that you have no idea what it refers to. At the very least there is this image that always comes to me as the all white silhouette of a man in pith helmet and safari clothes projected against the black map of darkest Africa - a silhouette drawn so taut it must surely break and is therefore "nearly crazy," and while such a response is not literary criticism, something of this tense polarity of white and the implied black most be invoked for any reader, stretched to its breaking point at "nearly" and shattered on the word "crazy." If the poem hadn't been written in 1913 one might have to think of it as a deadly image of Hemingway, for whom it could have served as an epitaph; but since it was written too early for that, I like to think of it as an arrow waiting for its target.

Now as I go over these series of work with family resemblances that group themselves around the George Brecht texts - the Aztec definitions, the Densmore Chippewa songs, Stein's White Hunter, I begin to see other poems that come to join them - Ezra Pound's "Papyrus," and "In a Station of the Metro," William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow" - and this suggests a whole new set of works that might follow out from them as a set of possible consequences: Jerome Rothenberg's Sightings, Robert Kelly's Lunes, some of my Meditations... This list could easily be extended, but I believe this family grouping as I have sketched it out is still too narrowly framed.

Suppose we return to one of Brecht's longer texts, TWO DEFINITIONS, which reads

ˇ 1. Something intended or supposed to represent or indicate another thing, fact, event, feeling, etc. ; a sign. A portent. 2. A characteristic mark or indication; a symbol. 3. Something given or shown as a symbol or guarantee of authority or right; a sign of authenticity, power, good faith, etc. 4. A memorial by which the affection of another is to be kept in mind, a memento, a souvenir. 5. A medium of exchange issued at a nominal or face value in excess of its commodity value. 6. Formerly, in some churches, a piece of metal given beforehand as a warrant or voucher to each person in the congregation who is permitted to partake the Lord's Supper.

ˇ 2. (a cup of saucer)

These are dictionary entries. The form is familiar. Perhaps they've been modified by subtraction, though the first one seems literal enough. But here they evidently serve a quite different purpose, because the dictionary is being run in reverse. We habitually go to dictionaries to find definitions of terms we have in hand but with whose usages we are unfamiliar. Here we are given a family of usages that cluster around an unknown term. On their own, these usages seem almost as diverse as the members of a genre. They are queerly related, and queerly different - a memorial affection, a piece of metal, a medium of exchange. Taken all together this definition presents an odd list of actions that you have to think about several times as you work your way up and down the list before you try to guess at the words that unite them - TOKEN - which then takes on a new life surrounded by all this history when you've finally guessed it.

So this text invokes a family of poems, not so popular now, but whit a long history - the riddle - and gives it a new life in contemporary terms, as it turns the dictionary into a possible anthology of riddles by reading its entries in reverse and cropping them of their normal function. But it also calls for family membership with texts of Marcel Duchamp or Joseph Kossuth, though perhaps more faintly when we read the second definition

ˇ (a cup and saucer)

where the possibility of satisfactory solution is denied because there aren't enough clues to tell whether you have the right answer or not, and the impact is mainly made by the rhetorical tactic of an abrupt scale shift from the copious first definition to the sparse and enigmatic second, which gives the work something of a joke structure as it seems to say "you've solved the first one smart guy, try this."

As Brecht's TWO DEFINITIONS opens up a line of connection to riddles and conceptual art, his excerpts from GLOSS FOR AN UNKNOWN LANGUAGE open in yet other directions. Once again we are dealing with lexicography, but here the lexicon is a selection of translations of presumably problematic words from a text recorded on tablets in some other language. Unlike Armand Schwerner's TABLETS, [7] which may as well have been suggested by this work as by Kramer's Sumerian translations, Brecht's text has none of the impulse toward lyrical though fractured speech, and all of the interest is focussed on the significance of the terms and our need to imagine a possible world in which they could apply. This brings Brecht closer to Wittgenstein than to Schwerner.

Though the conceptions implied by some of these term are from our point of view decidedly eccentric, they are nevertheless imaginable. In Table 3 we encounter

Line   Character

17     9    Image formed by a moving object for the duration of one breath.

which suggests a strongly apperceptive and perhaps kinesthetically oriented society with a powerful interest in the measurement of their most fleeting perceptions. Tablet 13 at Line 19, Character 3 yields - "A unit of time derived from the duration of dream events," which is open to at least two crucially different interpretations: this is a society that has found a method of measuring dream events "scientifically" by rapid eye movement or EEG or some unknown sophisticated device of technologically advanced civilization; or it is a kind of ritual knowledge such as an Australian aborigine might have had of the "dream time" and sacred happenings within it. In the latter case we know less, because we don't have any idea what the event measuring would be like. Still, it is even possible to speculate on a society that combined both the technological and ritualistic orientation to the dream. In both cases we may have entered into the genre of a science fiction.

In Tablet 10 at Line 6, Character 4 we have a unit of conceptual organization, "a cube having its center congruent with that of the observer," in which the observer is embedded as in a kind of three- dimensional Vitruvian space frame that, though apparently odd in its extraordinary precision - having "an edge of length equal to the observer's height" - could be conceived as relevant to the extreme body sensitivity of these people and their strong awareness of proximate objects. This heightened awareness of objects behind as well as in front of the observer appears also in Character 8, Line 31 of Tablet 3, where an observer standing at a shore takes note of both the area of water surface in front of him and the equal area of earth behind him as a single unit. It also indicates, somewhat more obviously, a riparian or littorial culture or at least a culture that attributes some importance to the shore. This is the kind of imaginary anthropology that is invoked by Kafka's In the Penal Colony or better-grade science fiction. But of course it is not saddled with a story to tell or even a complete landscape to depict, it merely sets up suggestions of a culture we are invited to conjecturally imagine on the basis of scanty evidence.

Then there are the completely absurd or paradoxical entries, like Line 23 Character 9: "A verb apparently denoting the motion of a static object. (The meaning is not clear.)," which last comment like most of the footnotes of Schwerner's scholar translator, calls as much attention to the comic pathetic plight of the translator as the absurdity of the text. Whereas the gloss for Character 2, line 45 in Tablet 13 evokes a fundamental paradox.

The independent action of two or more persons, considered as a single action" - a man zipping up his pant while his neighbor's wife sues her employer - may be loosely conceived as simultaneous events, in a sense, perhaps as metaphorically connected or as equivalent, or even identical from a certain perspective; but an event isn't an action, which we think of in relation to the idea of an agent. As long as multiple equivalent actions have distinct agents, we can't imagine how to think of them as a single action if we are to continue to make sense in the language we call English. The idea is, so to speak, ungrammatical. Of course one point of this GLOSS FOR AN UNKNOWN LANGUAGE is to suggest the possibility of another language in which ideas that are "ungrammatical" in our language might be "grammatical," or to allow us to decide whether some ideas that seem logically possible and therefore in our sense grammatical are in fact fundamentally illogical and ungrammatical for any language we can imagine, if this gloss has provided a truly adequate translation. Naturally, it is always possible that the translation may be faulty.

The impulse to this sort of speculation connects GLOSS FOR AN UNKNOWN LANGUAGE to works like Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations or even to the Tractatus and appears to draw them into its orbit: if A is a relative of B, B is a relative of A, and they are both members of the same family. I have on other occasions argued the case for consideration of the Tractatus as a poem, but it is not really relevant to the issue here. It may be that the GLOSS and the Tractatus are constructed out of the same kind of materials but are different kinds of buildings. What I am trying to show is the way the notion of genre operates and has operated as a generative force in the world of radically contemporary art and poetry.

In this context the George Brecht texts are typical in that their candidacy for membership in the genre of poetry appeared to us at the time as both questionable and desirable, as did just about all of the works we found most interesting and powerful - Cage's lectures, the whole range of MacLow's random and partially random texts from the Assymetries to the Presidents and the Light Poems, all of Gertrude Stein, the Aztec Definitions, and a great family of texts generated from "primitive" and modern performance and conceptual art works.

This list may suggest, as it probably has suggested to neoconservative critics, that the sole purpose of proposing such work for genre membership - they would probably say "for inclusion in the canon" - is an absolute lack of fit and consequent suitability as instruments of a traditional avant-garde intention to shock. But a questionable fit is unlike either an absolute fit or absolute lack of fit. It is more like an uncertainty about a strangely resembling foreigner presenting himself at a doorway and seeking recognition as a family member, a situation that calls for a kinship search perhaps involving possible affiliations with quite remote ancestors or merely peripheral relatives. This exercise in kinship analysis has been one of the most fruitful aspects of post-second World War avant-garde art activity, but it has certain surprising historical precedents.

It is well known that Aristotle in the Poetics, following Plato and possibly a widespread Greek cultural understanding, accepted imitation (mimesis) as the common feature of all art, of which the Poetics served as a full philosophical defense, primarily against Plato's attack in The Republic. But what appears to have escaped notice is that in postulating imitation as the defining feature of all art, and imitation through language as the defining feature of poetry, Aristotle was able in the very next passage to propose several radically new candidates for inclusion within the genre of poetry - the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchos and most pointedly the Socratic dialogues - a piece of dialectical judo that allowed him to cast his old teacher as a poet and member of the same class he had exiled from his Republic precisely because of the common commitment to imitation. The comedy of this reversal, which is presented deadpan and somewhat elliptically, could not conceivably have escaped the notice of Aristotle's contemporary audience, who would surely have understood that they were being presented with an elaboration of Plato's own theory with its value reversed, in a version where the notion of reversal (peripety) plays as strong a role. The comic effect must have been greatly enhanced by the fact that the passage in question never once mentions Plato's name.

But if it was rhetorically necessary to sweep the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchos into the net of poetry for Aristotle to catch the Socratic dialogues without revealing that it was Plato himself he had set out to trap, Aristotle had to place himself in the avant garde position of presenting not one but three candidates that must have been considered questionable from the traditional view of the genre. The reason for this was that the mimes and the Platonic dialogues were, according to Aristotle, composed in "bare words" and not in verse, and the traditional conception of poetry was grounded on the historical connection of poetry (the rhythmical verbal art) with music (the art of rhythmically and harmonically ordered tones) and dance (the art of rhythmical body movement) in the family grouping or supergenre of mousiké. This was the old cultural understanding supported through the 5th century BC by a performance tradition that regularly associated poetry with music and dance went along with a widespread belief in their historical unity.

This understanding may have been associated with the notion of imitation, but could not easily extend to include works that were not apparently aimed toward actual performance, until a truly literary and private literacy that admitted solitary and probably silent reading had become reasonably widespread. According to Eric Havelok such a situation did not come into being until the end of the 5th century, [8] but by Aristotle's time, private literacy was sufficiently widespread to allow for a theory of poetry that was not grounded in performance. This situation is probably reflected in Aristotle's notorious indifference to the actors' performance of tragedy, the importance of which he contemptuously minimizes and compares unfavorably to the art of the costumer. In these circumstances a new understanding could be framed that might admit Aristotle's nonmetrical candidates.

Of the three, Plato's dialogues posses not only the feature of imitation, which was perhaps not so universally accepted as a characteristic attribute of poetry as the Platonic literature would suggest, but they also possess extreme flights on fancy - fantastical figures, metaphors, allegories - that were the surface manifestations of a principle of radical invention, which was widely held to be the property of poetry and probably contributed more to the acceptance of Aristotle's candidates than anything else. For surely it is an interesting question to ask how ready Aristotle's audience would have been to admit as poetry Xenophon's desperately pedestrian Socratic memories, regardless of how thoroughly they exhibit the principle of imitation.

In fact Aristotle's use of the principle of imitation as a defining feature of poetry created more problems for him than it solved, because according to his reading of the principle as a representation of human action he was obliged to exclude from the genre the metrical philosophizing of Empedocles, that had strong traditional claims to membership, and forced to consider admitting history, his resistance to which provides one of the funniest and most problematic passages in the Poetics. In the courage of the absurdity with which Aristotle excludes Herodotus, "the father of lies," from the genre of poetry, because he presents an imitation of facts ("what has happened") and therefore a contingent representation instead of the essential representations, fictions or truths, of poetry, Aristotle abruptly shrinks the principle of imitation from a defining feature to a necessary condition and foreshadows one of the symptomatic tactics of a theoretical and programmatic avant-garde.

It is in sharp distinction from this kind of exclusive and theoretical radicalism that the most interesting post-second World-War avant garde undertook its game with genre. Genre was seen as family membership and the basis of inclusion was affiliation with any subgroup with which a new candidate shared a fundamental feature. This often had the fruitful effect of articulating and characterizing possibly for the first time an important branch of the family, which would open up a line of connection between past practice and future possibilities. So for some/thing, consideration of George Brecht's poems appeared to connect and open up a tradition of poetry that acts primarily as an instigation of mind to the solicitation of experience.

This articulation is not a definition and would not have served as one if we had stated it in the magazine at the time. It was an opportunity for extension of a practice, that did not even include all of the works that we published and clearly reached out to many works that we had not published or thought to publish, which might well have dissatisfied many of our contributors or even ourselves. Structurally, the result of introducing works like the Brecht text was very much like a situation described by Wittgenstein in which someone gives the rules of a game and someone else in accordance with the rules makes a move that is legal but was not explicitly foreseen and changes our image of the game. As Wittgenstein points out with droll understatement "it must have been possible not to have foreseen that some quadratic equation would have no real roots." [9]

It seems apparent that there is a large body of otherwise interesting poetry that is not primarily an instigation of mind or is so only secondarily, and there are I am sure many contemporary poets for whom this would hardly seem a sufficient or appropriate function. And even using the texts of Jackson MacLow, who fits well enough within this branch of the family of poetry, and whom we published in all five issues of some/thing, we might have come to a different fundamental feature. Something like - radical invention. Following this rather Shklovskian sounding feature would lead us through a somewhat different family grouping that, depending on how we interpreted it, might include only GLOSS from the George Brecht texts, while connecting to the works that we printed of Roclelle Owens, Allan Kaprow, Armand Schwerner, Carolee Scheneemann, as it looked backward to poets like Gertrude Stein, Blaise Cendrars, Vicente Huidobro, Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara and Velimir Khlebnikov, or even more interestingly to Aristophanes, Sterne, Diderot, Kierkegaard and G. Spencer Brown.

But this feature too, though it throws light on an illustrious branch of the family and valuably extends a practice, would hardly suffice as a genre defining property. As many, and perhaps even more, of my contemporaries would be dissatisfied with it, apparently definition is no more useful for the notion of a genre than it is for the notion of a family. Seen from this viewpoint the viability of a genre is based on survival, and the indispensable property of a surviving family is a continuing ability to take in new members who bring fresh genetic material into the old reservoir. So the viability of a genre may depend fairly heavily on an avant-garde activity that has often been seen as threatening its very existence, but is more accurately seen as opening its present to its past and to its future.

Tört és Redukált Nyelvek Intézete
(Institute of Broken and Reduced Languages)

Light and Dust

English text copyright © 1987 by David Antin

This is a cooperative project of
the Institute of Broken and Reduced Languages
and Light and Dust