Monday, July 18, 2005

Mesostics II

John Cage at the end of his life wrote mostly mesostics. In an essay on Jasper Johns written in the 1950s, Cage likens Johns’ preference for the American flag as subject to the preference poets have for the sonnet as a form. Some years later Cage turned to the mesostic. It is a formal variant of the acrostic. Richard Kostelanetz thinks he may have derived the form from Louis Mink. Cage credits Mac Low as influence:

“Mac Low’s Thoreau: he gives exact attention. No added flavor: just it. His poetry sets us ecstatic, though he insists we speak it “soberly and clearly (as in serious conversation).” Bells ring (Stein, Whitman): others will (Joyce, ancient Chinese). He was ringing them before we were able to hear. Musician, he introduced poetry to orchestra without syntax. Poet, he “sets all well afloat.” That’s why his poetry, even though it looks like it, is poetry.” (1971)

It is, in any case, fun as Scrabble. This excerpt of a longer Cage text opens The Cantos (121-150) Ezra Pound:
a Martyr

in thE best mdse.
and to hIs


small talK
ThE same
ANy effect

the syphilisAtion

Cage is here writing through a poem by A.M. Klein about Ezra Pound. Such texts are structured around a word or phrase that runs down the center of the text, in this case, the poet’s name, A.M. Klein. The second letter of the centered word or phrase or name begins, Cage says, a “string.”

Visually, mesostics are yang to the I Ching’s yin. Thus, the Chinese Book of Changes has a variable center line, and all else is identical. In a specific mesostic, on the other hand, what does not change is the center word. “What does not change,” wrote the poet Charles Olson “is the will to change.” Cage could also compose music by creating a visual score.

Cage’s mesostics have had little obvious influence. Only Mac Low, again, has done creditable work in the form. Only Michael McClure, of the other poets, writes centered poetry at all. Perhaps Cage’s texts are not poetry. Perhaps they are as discourse akin to the etude or musical “study.”

Anarchy (Wesleyan, 2001) is the most recent of three excellent posthumous Cage titles. Aside from the introduction, Anarchy is written wholly in mesostics. Anarchy pushes the mesostic into new complexity; but it is not without difficulty to the common reader. It brushes quotations against information. It offers homage to anarchists mostly forgotten or, if occasionally remembered, only by rioters in places like Genoa and Seattle and Miami, folks who probably prefer the Sex Pistols to John Cage.

Cage quotes Fuller: “It’s possible to make life a success for everyone.” He quotes Thoreau: “That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

And he quotes Whitman:
For I am the sworn port of every dauntless rebel the world over
And he going with me leaves peace and routine behind him
And stakes his life to be lost at any minute.

Musicage (Wesleyan, 1996), edited by Joan Retallack, is a final conversation with Cage about his music, his visual art, and his writing. Retallack is a poet and suitable partner for Cage’s musing.

And John Cage, Writer (Limelight, 1993), edited by Richard Kostelanetz, is one of Kostelanetz’s best jobs. The book is better than some of the books Cage wrote when he was alive. Indeed, Kostelanetz was basically serving as Cage’s hands and eyes and legs on this project when Cage died suddenly of a stroke 12 August 1992. It reprints Cage’s mesostic on shoes which I published in Unmuzzled OX.

Merce 50, that 50th anniversary tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, headlined the vibrant Cage/Cunningham collaborations. The music and society pages of the newspapers were briefly all Cage/all Merce, just as they sometimes were fifteen years ago. What would have been Cage’s 90th birthday was celebrated with readings on WBAI-FM and at The Poetry Project.

Cage, freed of his body, lives.


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