John Cage Criticism - Essay

John Cage and Richard Kostelanetz (interview date 1974-75)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cage, John, and Richard Kostelanetz. “Empty Words (1974-1975).” In John Cage (ex)plain(ed), pp. 115-32. New York: Schirmer, 1996.

[In the following interview, conducted in 1974-75, Cage discusses Mureau, his work on Thoreau's Journal and explains his experiments with the structure and sound of language in Empty Words.]

I was always impressed by John Cage's statement that when you build a structure that strong you can accept all sorts of things into it.

—Robert Dunn, in an interview with Don McDonagh, The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance (1970)

Language was the base of much of John Cage's work in the 1970s and 1980s—language that is meant to be read and spoken without specific pitches (that would, by contrast, make the words song). These works are not essays, or even antiessays, like his earlier “Lecture on Nothing” (1959). As literary creations these later works are generically closer to poetry than to essays or fiction in that they represent compressions of language rather than extensions into narrative (fiction) or definitions of extrinsic reality (essays). Cage's first departure in this poetic direction was the essayistic “Diaries,” produced in the late sixties, which are, in essence, a formally rigorous and typographically various shorthand for miscellaneous remarks. Three of these “Diaries” appeared in A Year from Monday (1967), and in the course of reviewing this book I suggested that Cage's work with words had not been as radical as his work with sound. Rather than dispute me, Cage remembered my criticisms (and repeatedly reminded me that he had) and moved ahead. He made a sequence of cleverly structured visual poems in memory of his friend Marcel Duchamp, Not Wanting To Say Anything About Marcel (1969), and then Sixty-two Mesostics re Merce Cunningham (1971), a series of vertically organized words that exploit the unique possibilities of rub-off lettering. He developed, in Mureau (1971), a nonsyntactic prose that was based not, like the “Diaries,” upon his own experience and his own language, but upon words drawn from Henry David Thoreau's Journal. He further extended this line of work in his 1979 book, Empty Words.

Empty Words contains expository essays on “The Future of Music” and “How the Piano Came to Be Prepared.” Both of these are of interest to followers of Cage's musical thinking. Another section, ostensibly about both the choreographer Merce Cunningham and food, illustrates Cage's genius for storytelling. However, most of this book contains language constructions that must be called “poetry,” partly because they are not prose but mostly because they cannot be persuasively classified as anything else. Because these poems are radically unlike everything else in American writing today, it is scarcely surprising that they are rarely discussed by “poetry critics” and never mentioned in the current surveys of American literature.

Notwithstanding his advocacy of “chance” and artistic freedom, Cage was a poetic formalist who invented alternative ways of structuring language. One device is the mesostic. Whereas the familiar acrostic has a word running down the left-hand margin of several lines, the mesostic has a recognizable word running down the middle. In Cagean practice, this vertical word is usually the name of a friend—Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Norman O. Brown. Within this mesostic constraint, Cage makes concise statements:

                                                                      not Just
                                                                      cop Rini.
                                                                      not Just hunter:
                                                  cutting dOwn
                                                            ailan tHus
                                                                      cuttiNg down

The title piece of Empty Words is a four-part poem drawn from Henry David Thoreau's remarks about music and sound. Cage copied relevant passages out of Thoreau's journals and then subjected them to I Ching-aided chance processes that, in effect, scrambled and combined them, eventually producing a nonsyntactic pastiche of Thoreau's language:

                              speaksix round and longer than
the shelloppressed and
now ten feet high hero Theclosely isor
                              have looked wellthat and spruces
the and a darker line below it

This stanza comes from the first page of the first part, which contains phrases, words, syllables, and letters (characters) from Thoreau. The second part of “Empty Words” contains just his words, syllables, and letters; the third part just syllables and letters; and the fourth part just letters.

Cage's long poem “Empty Words” is less about Thoreau than about sound, or the sound of language about sound, compressed and recombined; reading it is not about assuaging our powers of literary understanding but about challenging and expanding them. This is rigorously Platonic poetry that takes initially spiritual literature and recomposes it into a yet more ethereal realm. In my opinion, “Empty Words” is better heard than read.

Scarcely contented with past poetic inventions, Cage developed a series of conceptually ambitious schemes for extracting language from James Joyce's multilingual masterpiece, Finnegans Wake. In the initial scheme, Cage worked from the beginning of Joyce's book to its end, extracting words that contain letters that fit into a mesostic structure based upon the name “James Joyce.” Since the first J in Finnegans Wake appears in the word “nathandjoe,” Cage took out that word and then, by a decision of taste, decided to take as well the three adjacent words to the left of it (ignoring those to the right). For the a of “James” he selected only the article (and implicitly decided against both sets of words adjacent to it). The next m appears in the word “malt”; the next e in “Jhem”; and the next s in “Shen.” Thus, Cage's opening stanza reads:

wroth with twone nathandJoe

It is a simple measure of Cage's originality that nobody ever made poetry like this before—the method is, like so much of his work, at once sensible and nutty. To my mind, Writing Through Finnegans Wake is interesting in part because it is so audaciously innovative; it succeeds in part because it recycles James Joyce. Hearing Cage read it aloud, with sensitive precision, was a special pleasure.

Empty Words contains only the second of Cage's workings with the Wake; the first, longer Joyce piece appeared initially as a special issue of the James Joyce Quarterly and has since been reissued as a book, Writing Through Finnegans Wake (1978). Both Cage Wake pieces appear together in a third book, a large-format signed and limited edition titled Writings Through Finnegans Wake (1978) (note the plural in the first word). Reproducing Cage's manuscript in its original size, this sumptuously produced volume is superior to the reduced versions, even though its high price is amenable, alas, primarily to libraries and collectors of Cage's visual art.

Cage described Empty Words as progressing, over its four parts, from literature to music, and it seems to me that both this work and its Joycean successor finally realized an identity between the two traditional arts. Text-sound is the epithet I use to define language works that cohere primarily in terms of sound rather than syntax or semantics; and Cage, as a literary musician, was clearly a master of that domain. On the other hand, because both Empty Words and Writings Through Finnegans Wake are language-based, they fit snugly into the great American tradition of poetry that realizes an eccentric innovation in the machinery of the art—a radical change not in meaning or in sensibility but in the materials indigenous to poetry: language, line, syntax, and meter. (In this sense Cage's principal poetic precursors are Whitman, Cummings, and Gertrude Stein.) Considered in this way, Cage was not a literary curiosity but an exemplary American poet.

I spoke with Cage about how he created these unusual literary works, including Mureau and Empty Words; here's some of his thoughts.

[Cage]: Having agreed to write a text about electronic music, and having noticed that HDT—that's Thoreau—listened to sound as electronic composers listen to it, not just to musical sounds but to noises and ambient sound generally, it occurred to me that making a chance-determined mix of his remarks in the Journal about sound, silence, and music would make a text relevant to electronic music. Therefore, I gave it the title Mu(music)reau(Thoreau). I went through the index of the Dover edition of the Journal, and I noticed every occurrence in the index of anything that could be remotely thought to be connected with music, and then I listed all of those appearances; then I subjected it all to chance operations in terms of sentences, phrases, words, syllables, and letters. I made a permutation of those five possibilities, so that it could be each of the five alone, or in any groups of two, or any groups of three, or any groups of four, or finally all five.

[Kostelanetz]: In gathering the original material for Mureau, you took phrases out of Thoreau and sentences out of Thoreau and words out of Thoreau.

First I listed all the things having to do with sound. Then I asked, what it was of all those permuted possibilities I was looking for, whether I was looking for all five together or a group of four of them, or a group of three or a group of two or one. And when I knew what I was doing, my next question was for how many events was I doing it? And the answer could be anywhere from one to sixty-four. Let's say I got twenty-three. Then if I knew that I was looking for twenty-three events which were any of these five, then I asked of this five which is the first one. Which is the second? Which is the third? So I knew finally what I was doing. And then when I knew what I was doing, I did it.

How did you decide to begin work, in the case of Mureau?

I wanted to make a text that would have four parts, and it was written for a magazine in Minneapolis called Synthesis. And they were written to be columns. I was a columnist for the magazine. I don't think of these texts as lectures. They were conceived as columns, initially, and if you'll notice, the columns have different widths. I did that on purpose.

I was continuing Mureau, but extending it beyond Thoreau's remarks about sound and music to the whole of the Journal. To begin with, I omitted sentences, and I thought of Empty Words as a transition from literature to music.

In the first notebooks of Empty Words, each part is called a lecture. It was something to be read aloud, and therefore I made it a length that some people would consider excessive; I made a length of two hours and a half for each lecture.

How did you determine that?

Most people consider this excessive, and they don't want me to give it as a lecture. I think that's because the average lecture, say in a college, should be forty minutes.

Why did you make your own lectures nearly four times as long?

I had been very impressed by an experience I had in Japan, in 1964, of going to a Buddhist service. We went to an evening lecture there that went on for hours and hours, and we had been warned that it was going to be tiresome. I was with Merce Cunningham and the Dance Company. It was very cold, and we were not protected by any warmth. They had told us it would be uncomfortable and long, but we were told also that we didn't have the right to leave once we had decided that we wanted to stay. So we all suffered through it, and it went on and on, for something like six hours.

And then a few days later, or maybe it was on another trip to Japan, I was in a Zen temple in Kyoto. When I was invited to go to an early morning Buddhist service, I did. I noticed that after a lengthy service they opened the doors of the temple, and you heard the sounds coming in from the outside. So, putting these two things together, the long night business and then the dawn of the opening of the doors, I thought of the opening of the doors...

(The entire section is 5575 words.)

John Cage and Richard Kostelanetz (interview date spring 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cage, John, and Richard Kostelanetz. “Talking about Writings through Finnegans Wake.TriQuarterly 54 (spring 1982): 208-16.

[In the following interview, Cage explains his use of mesostics (aligning letters within a text to spell out words vertically), clarifies the formulas for picking the words and letters in his mesostics, and discusses his decision to rework James Joyce's Finnegans Wake in this style.]

In the 1960s, John Cage wrote poetry, initially in a series of notational “Diary” pieces that I regard as a rich extension of Black Mountain poetics. More recently, he has been rewriting poetry—to be precise, rewriting someone else's...

(The entire section is 3776 words.)

Marjorie Perloff (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Perloff, Marjorie. “‘Unimpededness and Interpenetration’: The Poetic of John Cage.” In A John Cage Reader: In Celebration of His 70th Birthday, edited by Peter Gena and Jonathan Brent, pp. 4-16. New York: C. F. Peters, 1982.

[In the following essay, Perloff refutes John Hollander's negative assessment of the artistic merit of Cage's work and offers the explanation that Cage's writing—although it has a strict form—actually is about the freedom from conventional form and style.]

—One does not then make just any experiment but does what must be done.1

John Hollander, reviewing...

(The entire section is 5395 words.)

Arthur J. Sabatini (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sabatini, Arthur J. “Silent Performances: On Reading John Cage.” In John Cage at Seventy-Five, edited by Richard Fleming and William Duckworth, pp. 74-96. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Sabatini describes the various media and genres of Cage's works, analyzes his experimental forms and styles, and attempts to explain his use of space and visuals to enhance poetic and artistic impact.]

At any rate, my musical words, strictly speaking, have managed to arouse either indignation or sympathy—nothing compared to my books. You can't imagine how many people were touched by Silence! I received...

(The entire section is 7900 words.)

Daniel Herwitz (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Herwitz, Daniel. “John Cage's Approach to the Global.” In John Cage: Composed in America, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman, pp. 188-205. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Herwitz views Cage's works as anarchic studies of humanity, politics, and language.]

It was almost inevitable that John Cage would move from composing in music to composing in words. For Cage, music was never just music, it was always the occasion for reformation. When Cage set out in the early 1950s to reform music, to silence what he saw as its constricted practices, he was really aiming to free constricted human beings by freeing their...

(The entire section is 7253 words.)

Marjorie Perloff (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Perloff, Marjorie. “The Music of Verbal Space: John Cage's ‘What You Say ….’” In Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies, edited by Adalaide Morris, pp. 129-48. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Perloff examines the form and content of Cage's mesostic endeavors, arguing that in his mesostic poems, Cage adds musical texture and deeper meaning to the texts he uses for his poems, therefore enhancing the original texts and creating new poetic interpretations.]


(The entire section is 6922 words.)