Friday, April 27, 2007

Poetry Friday: Cage's Mesostics

I'm taking a brief respite from the world of doo-wop today, for a quick plunge back in the world of John Cage. Our department has a competition--with a fairly substantial cash prize--for best dissertation chapter, so I'm doing a little editing and cleaning of my Cage chapter. Part of the editing resulted from finally reading Carolyn Brown's memoirs. Brown was an early member of the Cunningham troupe, and also the first wife of Earle Brown. She spent her whole life hanging around with Cage, and was present at the premiere of 4'33", which is of course the subject of my chapter. I was hoping there would be some juicy detail, but unfortunately the book is very thin on these early years. With a few exceptions, I suspect that she refreshed her memory by looking at the same old secondary sources all of us know. Oh well! I imagine, though, that the book would be extraordinarily useful for those looking at later Cage and Cunningham stuff.

Anyways, it's Poetry Friday, and I realized I've never posted anything by Cage. From the seventies on, Cage almost exclusively wrote in a poetic form he invented called "mesostics." Basically, you take a word, and arrange it vertically. Then you find other words to go across each letter, the main rule being that you can't repeat the vertical letters. So if you chose the word "vertigo" because of the "t", you can't have another "t" until after the next vertical letter.

Cage did these mesostics in many different ways. Sometimes he chose letters and phonemes at random, and then also used chance procedures to randomly change the size and typeface of the letters, as in 62 Mesostics Re: Merce Cunningham. (See an example here. I have a different one of these mesostics tattooed on my back, largely to intimidate other Cage scholars at conferences.) Other times, he more or less wrote in readable prose, but still arranged in the mesostic system.

Why did he do this? In Empty Words, Cage writes that he was inspired by a remark of Norman O. Brown, who pointed out that the word "syntax" is military in origin. And also by a comment of Thoreau, who once wrote that when he heard a sentence, he heard the marching of feet. It was also in this period that Cage did some of his most overtly political music. Cage's politics were always a bit fuzzy, and often annoying, but some of the work of this period is remarkably effective. In the Lecture on the Weather, for instance, is a piece for twelve men, ideally twelve Americans who became Canadian citizens to escape the draft. The men read aloud selections of writings by Thoreau, while recordings (by Maryanne Amacher) of weather sounds blast in the background, and a film (by Luis Frangella) projects photographs of Thoreau's handwriting in negative so that it appears like flashes of lightening. It is a grim, and aggressive, work. It's a little later than Crumb's Black Angels, or middle-period Curtis Mayfield ("(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go"), but shares obvious sympathies. Grim times.

At any rate, here's a slightly more cheerful piece, the beginning of "Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegan's Wake. Cage loved Joyce, and decided to improve upon Finnegan's Wake by destroying its syntax even more. The words are chosen from the book, with an emphasis on Joyce's made-up words, and the vertical spine is simply "James Joyce." If you read it aloud, it's quite lovely in its own way.

wroth with twone nathandJoe

sOlid man
that the humptYhillhead of humself
is at the knoCk out
in thE park

A bunch of my friends are taking or about to take their qualifying exams. Good luck out there! Illegitimi non carborundum.

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