John Cage Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

John Cage 1912-1992

(Full name John Milton Cage, Jr.) American poet, composer, essayist, and graphic artist.

Inventive and experimental, Cage was an influential and controversial avant-garde composer of music and poetry. In his works, he relentlessly strove to enhance and perfect the visual and aural texture of music, language, and art. His innovative work with mesostics—poetry and prose arranged to spell out words and ideas vertically through the text—and creative use of punctuation reflected his belief that language is merely a tool of art and can be manipulated to provide the reader with multiple avenues of interpretation.

Biographical Information

Cage was born on September 5, 1912, in Los Angeles, California, to John Cage, Sr., an inventor, and Lucretia Harvey Cage, a journalist. An exemplary student, he was the valedictorian of his class in high school. Upon graduation in 1928, he enrolled in Pomona College but left after two years. He then traveled through Europe and studied music composition, piano, painting, and poetry. He returned to the United States in the early 1930s, and in 1934 began three years of study with the composer Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles. In 1935 Cage married Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff, and two years later they moved to Seattle, where he took a teaching position at the Cornish School. While in Seattle, he met the dancer Merce Cunningham, with whom he later frequently collaborated, and he was introduced to the principles of Zen Buddhism. He relocated to New York in 1942 and became acquainted with the artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Marcel Duchamp, the composers David Tudor and Morton Feldman, and the Zen scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. Cage began in the early 1950s to read the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text used in a form of divination in which the results of the tossing of coins is related to specific passages. This reading led him to experiment with incorporating elements of chance into his musical and poetic compositions. In the 1960s he began using the I Ching to create poems, deriving them from the works of other writers, such as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Henry David Thoreau's Journals. He also developed his mesostics. Cage continued to experiment with sounds, silences, and languages, and to perform innovative “lectures” and readings until his death in 1992.

Major Poetic Works

Cage's early career was primarily devoted to composing music, and his first experiments with nontraditional sounds were in this medium. He placed various objects on piano strings to change the tone of the instrument, used electronic sounds in his performances, and incorporated silence as an integral part of music. As he began to explore poetics and language, Cage blended musical qualities with the spoken word. Silence (1961), A Year from Monday (1967), and Pour les ouiseaux (1976; For the Birds) contain many of these performance pieces and innovative writings. Cage's mesostics, a type of visual and textual poetry that reflected Cage's appreciation for chance events, are included in Sixty-Two Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham (1971) and M: Writings, '67-'72 (1973). He also created pieces that applied the principles of the I Ching to texts written by others. Mureau (1970; collected in M) was derived from Henry David Thoreau's Journals (the title comes from combining the words “music” and “Thoreau”); and Writings through Finnegans Wake (1978) was based on James Joyce's work. In Empty Words: Writings, '73-'78 (1979), Cage continued to develop poems with freedom of form and innumerable possibilities of interpretation. He further investigated free form in Themes & Variations (1982) and X: Writings '79-'82 (1983).

Critical Reception

Due to their iconoclastic nature, Cage's poetic works at first did not receive favorable mainstream criticism, and much of the commentary they did receive was uncomprehending, bemused, or indifferent. As Cage further developed his ideas and style, however, reviewers began to recognize the artistry of his poetics. Observers increasingly applauded Cage's attempts to free poetry from the constraints of language, incorporating a significant element of chance into his compositions while, in an apparent paradox, adhering to consistent forms and techniques. In the view of a number of critics, Cage's works derived from other's texts, such as Mureau and Writings through Finnegans Wake, enhance the understanding and appreciation of the originals. Many commentators now acknowledge his important contributions to music and poetry and consider Cage one of the most influential avant-garde artists of the twentieth century.