Marjorie Perloff

published in Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies, with accompanying CD, ed. Adalaide Morris, Chapel Hill and London: Univ. of North Carolina Press (1997), pp. 129-48.


As early as 1939, when he was in residence at the Cornish School of Music in Seattle, John Cage investigated the application of electrical technology to music. His first (perhaps the first) electroacoustic composition was Imaginary Landscape No. 1, a six-minute radio piece for muted piano, cymbal, and two variable-speed record turntables, designed to accompany the production of Jean Cocteau’s play Marriage at the Eiffel Tower. The piece was performed by Cage, his wife Xenia, and two friends in two separate studios, mixed in the control room, and beamed the short distance to the theatre. [1] Imaginary Landscape No. 1 looks ahead to any number of Cage compositions involving radio, magnetic tape, and computer technologies. And yet the irony is that, having produced so many complex intermedia works using the most varied acoustic materials, by 1970 or so, Cage started to write a series of “mesostics,” performance works that made use of only a single instrument–the human voice–and a single medium–language.

“My first mesostic,” Cage writes in the Foreword to M, “was written as prose to celebrate one of Edwin Denby’s birthdays. The following ones, each letter of the name being on its own line, were written as poetry. A given letter capitalized does not occur between it and the preceding capitalized letter. I thought I was writing acrostics, but Norman O. Brown pointed out that they could properly be called ‘mesostics’ (row not down the edge but down the middle)” (M 1).

Here is the Edwin Denby mesostic of 1970 called “Present”:

rEmembering a Day i visited you –seems noW
as I write that the weather theN was warm– i
recall nothing we saiD, nothing wE did; eveN so
(perhaps Because of that) that visit staYs.

This first attempt, as Cage suggests, was clearly not quite satisfactory. The four-line text, with its justified left and right margins, doesn’t have much visual interest, the capital letters merely appearing in a linear sequence. More important, the Denby mesostic doesn’t have much aural or musical complexity, its prose format being that of normal writing of the sort we all do when we write a note to a friend on an occasion like a birthday. True, the mesostic rule (Cage was later to call this a 50% mesostic since the given letter capitalized can occur between it and the following capitalized letter, whereas a 100% mesostic doesn’t allow for occurence of the letter either preceding or following its appearance) is observed, but hearing this particular text read, one would not especially notice the structuration of language by the EDWIN DENBY string, although–a harbinger of things to come–the “Y” word, “staYs,” rhymes with the “D” word, “Day.”

The difficulty at this stage was that Cage was still using normal syntax. In another early mesostic, entitled “On the windshield of a new Fiat for James K[losty] (who had not made up his mind where to go) and Carolyn Brown,” we read:


Unlike the Denby mesostic, this one is “written as poetry,” in that each capital letter gets a line to itself (and as a 100% mesostic, its wing words are of necessity very short), but again, the poem’s syntax and sound are almost those of ordinary conversation. Thus, although the Klosty mesostic is visually more of a “poem” than is
the Edwin Denby one, the poetic problem has not yet been resolved.

Cage was quite aware of this quandary. When, in the early seventies, the French philosopher Daniel Charles posed the question, “Aren’t your lectures, for examples, musical works in the manner of the different chapters of Walden?”, Cage replied, “They are when sounds are words. But I must say that I have not
yet carried language to the point to which I have taken musical sounds. . . . I hope to make something other than language from it.” And he adds, “It is that aspect, the impossibility of language, that interests me at present.” Again, in a later exchange, when Charles remarks, “You propose to musicate language; you want language to be heard as music,” Cage responds, “I hope to let words exist, as I have tried to let sounds exist” (For the Birds 113, 151). [2]

Making language as interesting as music, Cage was to learn, depended on the dismantling of “normal” syntax. Much as he loved Joyce, Cage felt that even Finnegans Wake was conventional in this respect

Reading Finnegans Wake I notice that though Joyce’s subjects, verbs, and objects are unconventional, their relationships are the ordinary ones. With the exception of the Ten Thunderclaps and rumblings here and there, Finnegans Wake employs syntax. Syntax gives it a rigidity from which classical Chinese and Japanese were free. A poem by Basho, for instance, floats in space . . . . Only the imagination of the reader limits the number of the poem’s possible meanings. (“Foreword,” M 2)

In the former case, the words themselves are made strange, Joyce being, of course, a master of word formation, punning, metaphor, and allusion, but the syntax is left intact; “Joyce,” Cage remarks elsewhere, “seemed to me to have kept the old structures (“sintalks”) in which he put the new words he had made” (“Writing” 133). The alternative (Basho’s) is to use “ordinary” language but to explode the syntax, a process Cage regularly referred to as the “demilitarization of the language.” “Speaking without syntax,” he explains in a note on “Sixty-Two Mesostics Re Merce Cunningham,” “we notice that cadence, Dublinese or ministerial, takes over. (Looking out the rear-window.) Therefore we tried whispering. Encouraged we began to chant. . . . To raise language’s temperature we not only remove syntax: we give each letter undivided attention setting it in unique face and size; to read becomes the verb to sing” (“Notes” 97). But he admits in the “Foreword” to M that “My work in this field is tardy. It follows the poetry of Jackson MacLow and Clark Coolidge, my analogous work in the field of music, and my first experiments, texts for Song Books. . . . Concrete and sound poets have also worked in this field for many years, though many, it seems to me, have substituted graphic or musical structures for syntactical ones” (2).

Cage is quite right to refer to his “work in this field” as “tardy.” As early as 1960, Jackson Mac Low had written a sequence called Stanzas for Iris Lezak based on chance operations. “Call me Ishmael,” for example, takes the first three words of Moby Dick as its acrostric string, and finds the words that begin with the thirteen consecutive letters C-A-L-L-M-E-I-S-H-M-A-E-L in the novel’s first few pages, as determined by chance operations. [3] These operations also determined their lineation, so that we have five three-line stanzas, with the pattern 4-2-7 words per line respectively:

Circulation. And long long
Mind every
Interest Some how mind and every long

Coffin about little little
Money especially
I shore, having money about especially little

Cato a little little
Me extreme
I sail have me an extreme little

Cherish and left, left,
Myself extremest
It see hypos myself and extremest left,

City a land. Land.
Mouth; east,
Is spleen, hand, mouth; an east, land. (JML 89)

When Cage began to write mesostics, he adopted Mac Low’s acrostic procedures, but with an important difference. Whereas in the example above, Mac Low lets chance operations generate the entire text, Cage, as we shall see, uses these operations to generate the word pool to be used and the rules to be followed, but he then fills in lines with “wing words,” generated, as he repeatedly put it, “according to taste.” [4] The result is an
idiom markedly different from Mac Low’s, especially in its vocal quality, Cage preferring softer, blending sounds to the harshly stressed monosyllabic nouns, separated by strong caesurae, that we find in “Call Me Ishmael.” A similar difference may be observed between Cage and such concrete poets as the Brazilian Noigandres group (Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, and Decio Pignatari), with whom he shared many aesthetic principles and who have assiduously translated and disseminated his writings. In concrete poetry–say Augusto de Campos’s Luxo or Pignatari’s Beba coca cola — the visual image predominates, the actualization of performance not giving the listener the full effect of the figure the poem makes, a figure depending on complex patterns of typography, spacing, color contrasts, and so on. In Cage, by contrast, it is the aural that dominates. Indeed, however visually striking Cage’s verbal scores may be, the mesostic column creating an interesting pattern and the punctuation marks of the original often strewn around the page, as in Roaratorio, poetic density depends primarily on sound, as actualized in performance. Cage was, after all, a composer even when the materials he worked with were linguistic rather than musical.

The influences Cage cites in M could thus take him only so far. A decade of experimentation followed. While the earliest mesostics, like the “25 Mesostics Re and not Re Mark Tobey” (M186-94) were written in Cage’s own words (the first “MARK” mesostic reads “it was iMpossible / to do Anything: / the dooR / was locKed”), and while what we might call the middle ones were “writings through” such great literary texts as Finnegans Wake or Ezra Pound’s Cantos, [5] in his last years, Cage turned increasingly to making mesostics out of texts not in themselves consciously “poetic.” In Tokyo in 1986, for example, Cage performed a mesostic piece called “Sculpture Musicale,” which used as its source text for the mesostic string only that title and the following words of Duchamp’s: “sons durant et partant de differents points et formant une sculpture sonore qui dure.” A second Tokyo piece submitted to “writing through” Cage’s own “Lecture on Nothing,” even as his “Rhythm, etc.” (1988) takes a passage from A Year from Monday (“There’s virtually nothing to say about rhythm. . .”) and uses the four sentences of this passage as the mesostic string.

Discussions of Cagean mesostic have usually ignored this evolution from mesostic strings based on single proper names, repeated throughout (as in the case of the name “JAMES JOYCE” in the Roaratorio), to strings derived from larger statements or paragraphs, whose individual words are part of the standard lexicon. The turning point from the “proper name” string to what we might call the “sentence” string may well have come with the writing, in the early eighties, of the performance piece Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet. In this complex work, the hypothetical “conversation” between the three artists is presented, partly by means of found text, artfully collaged from their writings, partly by Cage’s own discourse, structured by the proper names of the three artists, repeated as mesostic strings according to chance operations. In “A Conversation about Radio in Twelve Parts” with Richard Kostelanetz,” conducted a few years later, Cage expressed dissatisfaction with Alphabet because its “scenes [are] in a very simple way differentiated from one another. They don’t overlap so that it’s as simple as a work by Stravinsky, but within each part there’s a great disparateness with the next part; so that the act of listening is very uncomfortable.” “All those scenes,” he explained, “have beginnings and endings. It’s a multiplicity of beginnings and endings. That’s what annoys me. I don’t mind it as something to read; but as something to hear” (293-94).

What Cage means, I think, is that proper-name mesostics, derived, not from a “writing through” but from sentences made up for the occasion, have a tendency to form independent strophes of four to six lines, strophes divided by a sharp pause and hence not sufficiently “interpenetrating” phonemically. For example:


Here the syntactically straightforward narrative perhaps too easily yields the requisite mesostic letters: J-A-M-E-S and J-O-Y-C-E; if, say, an “O” were needed as the final mesostic letter, Cage could substitute “knOw” for “tEll” without it making much difference. Then, too, the stanza break follows the normal syntactic break: “the younger one is Joyce, thirty-nine. // He jumps. . . ,” thus producing the “differentiat[ion] from one another” Cage criticizes.

The solution was to use a seemingly inconsequential prose text as the source, not only for his own “writing through” but for the mesostic string as well. Cage called this form of mesostic an autoku: “‘Ku’ I take from haiku. . . . An autoku uses its entire source as the string down the center of the mesostic, providing, at the same time, all the wing words” (HKM 266). In this variant of mesostic, there is, in other words, a rule to follow, but that rule is so hidden that “beginnings and endings”
cannot call attention to themselves. Moreover, the discourse of ordinary prose–a passage from an interview, a newspaper paragraph, a statement from a lecture–could now be decomposed and recharged so as to uncover the mysteries of language. “You see,” Cage told Niksa Gligo in an interview, “language controls our
thinking; and if we change our language, it is conceivable that our thinking would change” (Kostelanetz 149). For this purpose, “empty words” are more useful than “full” ones. “Full words,” Cage explains to Richard Kostelanetz, “are words that are nouns or verbs or adjectives or adverbs,” whereas “empty words” (what we
call function words or deictics) are “connective[s] or pronoun[s]– word[s] that refer to something else” (141).

As an example of such an “empty word” mesostic, I have chosen the autoku “What you say. . .” from 1986, a “writing through” of an informal statement on aesthetic made by Jasper Johns in an interview with Christian Geelhaar. This is the first of two companion texts based on Johns’s commentary on his work, the second being “Art Is Either A Complaint Or Do Something Else,” which is taken from a series of statements cited by Mark Rosenthal in his Jasper Johns: Work Since 1974 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1988). Cage discusses this mesostic piece with Joan Retallack, in an interview originally published in Aerial (1991), together with “Art Is Either A Complaint.” As Cage explains the piece:

. . . it’s all from words of Jasper Johns, but they’re used with chance operations in such a way that they make different connections than they did when he said them. On the other hand, they seem to reinforce what he was saying . . . almost in his way. And why that should surprise me I don’t know because all of the words are his. (laughs) But they make different connections. (Retallack 107) [7]

Consider the “different connections” in “What You Say. . .”, which draws on a statement Johns makes at the very end of the Geelhaar interview:

What you say about my tendency to add things is correct. But, how does one make a painting? How does one deal with the space? Does one have something and then proceed to add another thing or does one have something; move into it; occupy it; divide it; make the best one can of it? I think I do different things at different times and perhaps at the same time. It interests me that a part can function as a whole or that a whole can be thrown into a situation in which it is only a part. It interests me that what one takes to be a whole subject can suddenly be miniaturized, or something, and then be inserted into another world, as it were. [6]

Notice that Cage’s reproduction of Johns’s response is already a kind of writing through, the sentences being arranged as line lengths and centered so as to give the whole an accordion-like visual shape. At the Los Angeles performance I attended (at UCLA, 4 September 1987, in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition of the Samuel Beckett-Jasper Johns collaboration Fizzles), “What you say . . .” was preceded by the reading of three short mesostics on the name JASPER JOHNS, one of them having appeared in Empty Words (1979) under the title “Song”:


Notice that this mesostic belongs to Cage’s earlier “concrete poetry” phase, the lines built primarily on catalogues of nouns, and the game being that each of two words (or phrases) per stanza can supply the poet with the necessary capital letters (e.g., the “S” and “E” of “morels”). These are primarily eye devices. By the time Cage wrote “What you say. . .”, his aim was to “musicate” the language, letting it do the sorts of things he had hitherto done with musical sounds. Indeed, at the UCLA performance, the piece was performed by a dozen or so readers, according to the following program notes:

For any number of readers able to read in one breath any of the 124 “stanzas” (a “stanza” is a line or lines preceded and followed by a space).

Each reader, equipped with a chronometer, and without intentionally changing the pitch or loudness of the voice quietly reads any 4 “stanzas” at any 4 times in each minute of the agreed-upon performance time.

The readers are seated or stand around the audience or both within and outside it. [8]

Whether performed chorally or by Cage himself (and I have heard it done both ways), the “frame” is now no longer the decision how many times to repeat a given proper name like JAMES JOYCE but the “agreed-upon performance time.” Cage’s initial experiments with magnetic tape in the late forties and early fifties, Margaret Leng Tan has pointed out, “emphasized the fact that duration (time length) is synonymous with tape length (space) and it is the application of this principle which forms the basis for the space-time proportional notation used in the Music of Changes and the Two Pastorales of 1951” (51). The same principle, Cage came to see, could be applied to language texts. In the case of “What You Say. . .”, duration would seem to be determined by the need to provide one line for each of the 512 letters in Johns’s paragraph. But in fact “What You Say. . .” is much longer than 512 “lines” because of the spacing (silence) Cage introduces between word groups, with extra rests replacing the missing letters. Missing because “For several letters there were no words: the v of have (twice); the v of move; the j of subject; and the z of miniaturized. Spaces between lines take the place of the missing letters” (F 53).

The selection of words from the source pool, Cage explains in his note to “What you say. . .” (F 53), is based on MESOLIST, “a program by Jim Rosenberg,” extended for this particular piece by a second program made by Andrew Culver, which extended the number of characters in a search string . . . to any length; this extended MESOLISTwas used to list the available words which were then subjected to IC (a program by Andrew Culver simulating the coin oracle of the I Ching).” Although I have not seen this program, it seems clear that even though the MESOLIST-derived “chance operations” do govern the sequencing of the words that contain the requisite letters for the mesostic string, the variable length of the search string made it possible for Cage to create precisely the semantic and phonemic juxtapositions that suited him. In this particular case, he had to begin with a line containing the “W” of the first word “What,” followed by the “h,” the “a,” and so on, and the first “W” word designated by Mesolist is the last word of Johns’s statement–“were.” But although chance operations dictated the selection of “were” as the first capitalized word to be used in “What you say. . .”, it was Cage’s own choice to place, in the opening line, the whole phrase, “as it Were.” Indeed, as we shall see, in this instance as elsewhere, Cage’s poetic composition is nothing if not designed. As he put it in the Foreword to Silence: “As I see it, poetry is not prose simply because poetry is in one way or another formalized. It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words” (x). The world of words, in this case, consists of seven “ordinary” sentences (three of them questions), containing 127 words, 99 of them monosyllables. This is already an unusual linguistic situation but what’s even odder: there are only seven words in the entire passage that have more than two syllables. [9] And further: the majority of monosyllables and disyllables are deictics or function words: “it” appears seven times, “thing” six times, “one” five times, “something” three times, “how,” “what” and “whole” twice each. In this context, the word that stands out is the five-syllable “miniaturized” in the next to last line. [10]

The sentence structure is as elementary as is the word pool. “How does one” with the variant “does one” appears four times; “it interests me that” twice, and simple parallel structure occurs in “move into it; occupy it; divide it; make the best one can of it.” Johns’s statement, at least as lineated here, thus has a naive or childlike sound structure, especially since the artist hesitates or withdraws statements, as in “I think I do different things at different times and perhaps at the same time,” or when he declares that “a whole subject can suddenly be miniaturized, or something.” Finally, the paragraph concludes with the qualifier, “as it were.”

Why would Cage, who has previously written through the incredibly rich word pool of Finnegans Wake or the hieratic rhythms of Pound’s Cantos, select such an ordinary flat discourse to “write through”? After all Johns’s statement is just an unrehearsed response to a question from an interviewer. This is of course Cage’s point. “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear” (Silence 8). Even in his off-the-cuff remarks about his art-making, Johns, so Cage posits, is saying something significant, is posing basic questions about painting. And moreover, Johns’s own vocal patterns, with which Cage was of course deeply familiar, produce a sound curve to which Cage’s own sound curve is designed to respond. Indeed, the composer-poet’s role, in this scheme of things, is to bring Johns’s “something,” his particular signature–the visual made verbal and vocal– out into the open, by “demilitarizing” the syntax so as to controvert the chosen statement’s linearity and permit its components to realign themselves. Let me try to elaborate.

“What you say. . .” opens with the final “as it Were” of Johns’s paragraph and comes full circle to “wEre” on its last page. Here is the beginning:

Perhaps the first thing to notice here is the elaborate sound structure, a structure especially notable in Cage’s own reading of the text in which each line, spoken slowly, is followed by a silence the length of a short syllable. [11] The first three lines are linked by stress pattern (two stresses per line), anaphora of short “a”s and internal rhyme (“Were” / “world” ‘ “or”). In line 4, the sound shifts to short vowels, embedded in “t”s and “th’s; the lightly stressed monosyllabic line “The best one can of it,” being related to the first three by the repetition of “it”, the internal rhyme of “an” (in “another”) and “can”, and of “-tHer” and “The.” (“t”s and “th”s, incidentally, constitute 52 or roughly one tenth of the poem’s phonemes.) Lines 5 and 6 –“suddenlY / sOmething”–are again related by stress pattern and alliteration, and “move,” with its open vowel followed by a voiced spirant opens the way for the alliterating “m” of the passage’s longest (and perhaps least musical) word, “miniatUrized,” a word that appears again and again, furnishing the different letters of the “What you say. . .” string.

But there is also a curious clinamen in this passage. Line 7, “move” is not part of the mesostic string at all, “WHAT YOU” being complete without it. The source text reads: “does one have to do something; move into it.” Cage might have put “move” on line 6 along with the semi-colon, or he might have left the word out completely since the search string can be, as Cage points out, of any length. Yet “move,” physically moved over to the right here, has an important effect. The domain of art, the text suggests, is “as it Were / anotHer world / A whole or / The best one can of it.” This other world is “suddenlY / sOmething,” and it is, in Cage’s elliptical construction, “move”–which is to say, moving, on the move, in movement, in a move toward, the “miniaturization” of “subject” which is art.

But of course the text itself we are reading (or hearing) is precisely this miniaturization, this creation of “suddenlY / sOmething.” Lift the ordinary out of the zone of saying, Cage seems to say (“The best one can of it”) and “it” will become “something.” Just as Johns would paint ordinary numbers (0 to 9) or the letters of the alphabet (A to Z), or a clothes hanger or beer can, so Cage will take words as uninteresting as “as,” “it,” “or,” “of,” and “a,” place those words in particular spatial configurations, white space (silence) being at least as prominent as the spoken and written language itself, ” and create a minimalist ars poetica.

That Cage’s work continues to go unrecognized as poetry by those who produce books like the Norton Anthology of Poetry as well as those who read and review them, has to do with our general inability to dissociate “poetry” from the twin norms of self-expression and figuration. “What you say. . .”, it is argued by Cage’s detractors (and they are legion) is, after all, no more than a reproduction of someone else’s text: the “I” is not Cage’s and, in any case, there is no psychological revelation of a personal sort. Moreover, in the passage we have just read there isn’t a single metaphor (except for that dead metaphor “world”) or arresting visual image. Indeed, Cage’s diction, so this line of reasoning goes, is merely trivial, isn’t it?

This is to ignore the crucial role played by the context in which words occur, by their temporal and spatial arrangement, and especially by their sound. Take, for example, the common phrase “make the best one can of it” in Johns’s paragraph. Eliminate the initial “make” and the phrase becomes the strange “The best one can of it,” made even stranger by its insertion in the text between “A whole or” and “suddenlY.” Yet the reallignment produces a new meaning: “a whole or / the best” may now be read as adjectives modifying “world,” and “the best one can” may be construed as a noun phrase. Certainly a “can” is a kind of whole. Aural performance, in any case, activates any number of meanings, especially since the spacing (the visual equivalence of silence) ensures very slow reading, whether one or more persons are reading simultaneously. “SuddenlY / sOmething / move / miniatUrized”–one word per line, a rest between lines: the audience is forced to listen carefully, to pay attention to the sound of each unit.

The strategy of “What you say. . .” –and this is where the mesostic mode, with its dependence on a fixed word pool, can work so effectively– is to recharge individual words by consistently shifting their context and hence their use. Take the word “whole,” used three times in Johns’s statement: “It interests me that a part can function as a whole or that awhole can be thrown into a situation in which it is only a part. It interests me that what one takes to be a whole subject can suddenly be miniaturized. . . ” (my emphasis). In Cage, this “normal” syntax gives way to astonishing variations. “Whole” appears twenty-eight times, each of its letters appearing in the mesostic string of the text. Along the way it yields such stanzas as:


Here the mesostic string is “FUNCTION AS A WHOLE.” But the poem itself questions this “function”; the “whole sUbject” is in apposition to a mere “it”; “a whole Can be” “whaT you say about / It,” “a whole caN / hAve / different timeS and / takes,” it can be “throWn / and perHaps at the same time.” On the next page “wHole” furnishes Cage with the “H” mesostic letter and thus becomes a “hole.”

Now let us look again at the source text which reads” “What one takes to be a whole subject can suddenly be miniaturized.” Cage’s own text enacts precisely this statement: what we “take to be a whole” dissolves into a number of possibilities. Not only can this “whole” be “miniaturized” but it “caN / hAve / different timeS and / tAkes”; there is no essential truth behind the word: “a whole Can be / whaT you say about it.” A neat illustration, as it were, of Wittgenstein’s proposition that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

Again, consider the couplings and uncouplings given to the word “tendency,” which appears only once in Johns’s statement, in the opening sentence: “What you say about my tendency to add things is correct”:


What tendency, we wonder, is this? ThrOwn into a / thEn? “My tendency tO / move iNto it”? It sounds risky. Two pages later, we read:


where “deal” may be either noun or verb, either indicative or imperative, the “tendency to / have somethinG” therefore being quite mysterious. Further down on the same page, the plot thickens:


Let’s make a deal and take care of the situation in which the tendency in question arises, as it were. Two pages later, we find the stanza:


The instructions are to “moVe it” (reenforced by the verb “make,” another one of what we might call outriders in the text, “make” not being part of the mesostic chain, which here is “[DI]VIDE IT MAKE T[HE BEST OF IT]”), to which the response is “i Do movE,” and now “tendency” is explicitly linked to “situation,” a “situAtion in which / i thinK / one can funcTion as.” Function as what? Johns’s “tendency to add things” now takes on a darker cast, his tendency producing a situation in which the artist only thinks he can function.” When “tendency” reappears some time later in the performance, it is “thAt / teNdency to / oF it,” where the “tendency” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Or again, it becomes a whoLe / tendencY to / whAt one / occuPy.” The last three pages of “What you say. . .” accelerates the repetition, “tendency” appearing six more times:


This is Cage at his most Steinian, charging language by means of permutation, words like “tendency” taking on a different aura with every repetition. What makes these pieces so remarkable is that they are, to use Joyce’s term, “verbivocovisual.” Visual, to take it backwards, in that the spacing and mesostic chain produces its own meanings, so that “tenDency,” with that “ten” separating out, is not the same as “tendenCy,” and the construction of larger units will depend upon word placement and spacing. “Verbi,” in that Cage is always constructing new meanings, in this case giving new connotations to a “tendency” Johns mentions only casually. But it is the “voco” (“musical”) element which perhaps dominates here. For given the nature of the writing-through process, there are only so many words at the composer’s disposal, and these words– “what,” “world,” “perhaps,” “another,” “something,” “interest,” “function”–appear again and again, becoming familiar counters. “Miniaturized,” for example, has nine lives, supplying the mesostic string with necessary letters (aurally phonemes) at frequent intervals, even as its “z,” as Cage notes, cannot be used.

As such, Cage’s sound structure has a decisive semantic import. Unlike most actual art discourse, the mesostic “written through” lecture or essay cannot just continue, cannot move from point to point, from thesis statement to exemplification or analogy, in a logical way. Rather, the discourse must “say something” about aesthetic, using no more than its baseline of 127 words, whose rule-governed permutations take us from from “as it Were” to “a wholE can / peRhaps / wEre.”

That it does “say something” is, of course, the work’s great feat. “What you say. . . ,” what Cage’s work “says” takes us back to the famous (perhaps too famous) theorem of “Experimental Music” that the “purposeless play” of art means “waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way” (Silence 12). Purposeless play is not a matter of making “just any experiment.” It does not mean that anything goes, that anyone can be an artist, that any random conjunction of words or sounds or visual images becomes art. What it does mean, as a reading of “What you say . . .” teaches us, is that the ordinary (in this case, Jasper Johns’s not terribly edifying comment about his painting habits) can provide all that the artist needs to make “something else.” Indeed, the challenge is to take the ordinary–words like “it” and “one” and “function” and “situation”–and “miniaturize” it into “something.”

And that is of course what Johns himself does in his paintings (figure 1). When he remarks, “Does one have something and then proceed to add another thing or does one have something; move into it; occupy it; divide it; make the best one can of it?”, we should note the allusion to his own famous warning to “Avoid a polar situation.” For of course there is no meaningful opposition between “add[ing] another thing” or “hav[ing ]something [and] mov[ing] into it”; the either-or proposition is falsely posed. Johns is playing similar games when he says, “I think I do different things at different times and perhaps at the same time.” At one level, the tautology is absurd. But as we learn from Cage’s “What you say. . .”, such tautologies are integral to the process whereby we learn that there is no essential truth about art making, no way of saying for sure what art is or what the artist does.

“I think,” Cage remarked a few months before his death, “a very impressive quality [of Johns’s painting] is the absence of space. Something has been done almost everywhere. So it leads very much to the complexity of life.” [12] The verbal equivalent of this “absence of space” can be seen in a passage like the following:


In the source-text interview, Johns speculates on the ways “a whole subject” might “be inserted into another world.” Cage shows how such insertion is performed by presenting himself as “one” who can actually “function As / another WorlD.” And just as Johns’s painting is characterized by an “absence of space” (which is to say, unused space), so Cage’s performance poem is characterized by an absence of time, in that each word, each morpheme, each phoneme must do double duty: look, for example, at the way “d”s “o,” and “n”s are modulated in the “miniaturizing” sequence “Or–does–one–function–another–world–do–proceed–to–divide–one–painting.”

When Cage began to experiment with mesostics, he worried that he had not yet hit upon a way of “carry[ing] language to the point to which I have taken musical sounds.” The solution, it seems, was to learn to “Do /Time / and tHen proceed to / dIvide it.” But even this stanza, taken out of context, may seem too assertive, too dogmatic to suit those like Cage and Johns who want to avoid polar situations. And so the poem makes a tentative circle back to the “as it Were” of the opening:


where the last two lines introduce internal rhyme–”peR” / “wEre”– only to qualify repetition by the intrusion of that little particle “haps,” which repeats the “p” sound but combines it with a prominent spirant so as to produce dissonance. A wholE can / peRhaps / wEre”: the difference, as Gertrude Stein would put it, is spreading.


In The Roaring Silence, David Revill notes that “It was also in the Imaginary Landscape that Cage first employed his system of rhythmic structure. The simple figures that constitute the piece fit into a scheme of four sections consisting of three times five measures which are separated by interludes which increase in length additively from one to three measures; the piece ends with a four-measure coda (65-66).

The English version, For the Birds, John Cage in conversation with Daniel Charles, was published by Marion Boyars (Boston and London) in 1981. The actual interviews were begun in 1968 but were submitted by Charles to Cage for revision and commentary and not published until 1976 under the title Pour les oiseaux.

For a detailed account of these operations, see JML 71-85.

See, for example, John Cage, Roaratorio, An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, p. 173.

Cage was not satisfied with his “writing through” of Pound’s Cantos. “Now that I’ve done so [i.e., “written through” them],” he remarks in an interview, “I must say that I don’t regard them as highly as I do the Wake. The reason is that there are about four or five ideas that keep reappearing in the Cantos, so that in the end the form resembles something done with stencils, where the color doesn’t really change. There’s not that kind of complexity, or attention to detail, as there is in Joyce”; see Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, p. 152.
No doubt, Cage also objected to Pound’s studious elimination of the very words Cage himself liked best– prepositions, conjunctions, articles, pronouns–and that Pound’s parataxis of nouns and noun phrases made any “writing through” extremely difficult. Much more suitable for his purposes was Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”; I have written of Cage’s brilliant deconstruction of that poem in “A Lion in Our Living Room: Reading Allen Ginsberg in the Eighties,” Poetic License: Essays in Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, pp. 219-22.

On the piece as a whole, see my “‘A Duchamp Unto Myself’: Writing Through Marcel,” in John Cage: Composed in America.

For Cage’s account of the evolution and design of “Art Is Either a Complaint or Do Something Else,” see Retallack, pp. 109-114. Unlike “What You Say. . .”, this piece is based on separate statements made by Johns, appearing in different contexts.

These program notes were not included in the printed version in Formations, evidently because there is no way the instructions could be followed during a silent reading of the text. What status, then, does the printed text have? It is, we might say, a score that must be activated, an incomplete verbal-visual construct that needs to be “audiated.”

I am not counting “different” or “interests” because in standard American speech (and certainly in Jasper Johns’s Southern idolect) both words are pronounced as having only two syllables: “dif-rent,” “in-trests.” The seven words are “another” (used twice), “tendency,” “occupy,” “suddenly,” “inserted,” “situation,” and “miniaturized.”

Again, syllable count is not the same in the oral performance as in the written. When spoken, “miniaturized” usually has four syllables: “min-ya-tyuw-riyzd.”

Cage’s reading of this and related mesostics is, in many ways, inimitable, his soft, neutral California speech rhythms giving the pattern of sounds and silences of the lineated text an edge not quite duplicatable when anyone else (myself included) reads the “score.”

John Cage, “Second Conversation with Joan Retallack,” Conversations with John Cage, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press, 1994.