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Reviewed by Kenneth Goldsmith
In early 1992, I went to see John Cage read on a Sunday at a small church in New York City. He read for 45 minutes to an audience of maybe 20 people; the room held more, but there were many empty seats. I felt fortunate to be at this event--an intimate gathering with one of the three or four major 20th-century cultural figures before me. Although at this point Cage was considered "classical" ("classical" meaning that which has been classified--Gertrude Stein), he still did many of these small gigs when the opportunity arose. I looked around again--I saw about me a withering, aging congregation, albeit faithful, who came to hear Cage preach. Born in 1961, I must have been the youngest in the room.
On the way home, I began to think about what I had just seen. His presence, words, and manner all impressed me. His lecture had a compelling open, ethical underpinning that seemed particularly timely. I couldn't help but wonder, why did Cage no longer have the cultural power and pull that he had in his heyday of the 1960's and 1970's? Twenty-five years ago, thousands flocked to his concerts (the first Musicircus in 1969 was attended by over two thousand people), and he was regarded somewhat as a wizened older guru (both in the "art" sense and as a Pop culture icon) to the seething youth culture. One need only look at the books produced at the time on Cage to see his enormous sway. Slowly though, the country changed. After the Vietnam War and Watergate, the mood of the nation's youth shifted away from the utopian/radical possibilities in both politics and culture and moved toward a more self-centered materialism. As the 70s wore on, Cage seemed to be increasingly marginalized (not, of course by his own doing) as a functioning radical thinker and began the transformation into a museum relic. He was now an important, historical artifact, for whom great crowds would appear at sanctioned museum events, see a piece of living history, and go home.
However, Cage himself never softened. The culture might have moved on, but he kept on his radical edge, continuing his revolution in a quiet way for those who cared not only to listen, but to act on and live by his words. Through the 1980s, Cage's influence was felt in the underground, influencing many of the more interesting cultural movements of that decade--the birth of indy rock, the renewal of Conceptual Art, and the rise of Language Poetry. Many of these artists studied Cage in the 60s and 70s and went on to synthesize newer aesthetic/cultural concerns with older Cageian ideals. While the 80s played out in the media with Wall Street Yuppies and decadent consumerists grabbing the spotlight, many of us spent time on the edge of the culture, sowing the seeds for the more politically charged times in which we now live.
Given their timeliness, I thought that Cage's social and ethical ideals would have been embraced by an emerging politic. But I was wrong. As I looked around me, I saw the rise of multiculturalism and political correctness--initially not bad ideas at all--but as the dialogue deepened, these movements seemed to embrace separation and closure, a single-mindedly "correct" meaning opposed to Cageian ideas of open inclusiveness ("Here Comes Everybody" and lack of center). I finally had to ask myself, what could Cage possibly mean to my generation?
When I got home, I pulled out all of my books about and by Cage. I looked at the copyright dates--1961, 1965, 1967, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1992. Ah! 1992! David Revill's biography of John Cage, _The Roaring Silence_ had just come out. Perhaps in some way this book could answer my question and place Cage in a contemporary light. However, the problem was that this book could have been written in 1966. Shrouded in reverence and privacy, we were only allowed a certain view of this approachable genius. And if we didn't obey the code, there was a certain wrath to bear; Cage was approachable yet all approached with caution. I have read that when John laughed, everyone laughed--such was his power. Certain subjects were taboo. In Revill's book, the paragraph that deals with Cage's homosexuality is closed:
"The imminent breakup with Xenia was not only the loss of one relationship, an important one, but of a sexual orientation and an identity. The catalyst can be seen, with hindsight, as Merce Cunningham; he and Cage would become partners in the personal as well as artistic sense. Exactly what happened is not clear and not important. It is not clear because the protagonists have kept the matter private (indeed, one young speaker at a conference at Stanford University in 1992 was censured by the chairman for mentioning Cage's homosexuality "because" Cage does not). The details are not important given the aims of this book; all that is important is that a crisis of a marriage and a sexual orientation occurred, and Cage's life-decisions, work and thought need to be placed within that context."
Revill never mentions the subject again. This type of veiled biography seemed irresponsible and unthinkable in 1992. How could Revill keep silent about such a subject in the middle of the AIDS crisis after so much work had been done to dismantle thick closet walls over the previous ten years, not to mention the heated discussion that had been raging surrounding the issues of gender and identity? This was just one of many ways in which his book just did not seem up to date.
How different this is in comparison to Thomas Hines' essay "Not Yet Cage" in the new _Composed In America_. Hines reports a conversation with Cage where he reveals his favorite cruising spot in Los Angeles in the early 1930's!! "Contact with the rest of society was through (cruising) the parks," (Cage) remembered. "For me it was Santa Monica along the Palisades." Wow! Now that's more like it! Hines' acute political, temporal, and cultural awareness in this essay makes it quite clear that he would refuse to treat the subject as taboo. This appears to me to be an open and contemporary approach to biography.
Or how about Joan Retallack's appendix essay "Revisions to Overpopulation and Art"? This is a truly amazing document telling how Cage, upon having been made aware of the patriarchal and male dominated language in his mesostics, went and revised them! For example:
Line 126 original: or should he Put himself aside revised: or should artists be Put aside or Line 592 original: by mAn revised: by humAn beings or Line 595 original: which man invents sO that revised: which are invented sO thatHere is a remarkable instance of the "protagonist" himself adjusting his own agenda to move with the times. The appendix opens with the statement "That John Cage was open to criticism of his work until the end of his life will surprise no one who knew him. In this sense he was experimental in a way that scientists would recognize--exploring the unnoticed and the new while testing his conceptual framework against what he regarded as important "reality principles." He wanted his work to have useful consequences in the world and it couldn't have that if it was somehow off-base, inappropriate, irrelevant." Cage's actions and this statement suggest to me that it was not Cage who left, but the general population who veered off the utopian ethical pathway. I was beginning to get an answer to my question.
I next turned to Gordana P. Crnkovic's essay "Utopian America and The Language of Silence," which presents a fascinating idea. She begins her essay discussing a visit to Prague during the wane of Communism. There, she and a friend created a utopian view of America that was based in opposition to whatever information was officially being given by the government. Hence, she idealized America as a horizontal social structure in direct opposition to Eastern Europe's verticality. She got a hold of John Cage's _Silence_ and in it found her "Utopian America," "one able to acknowledge the validity of each of the numerous, unfixed centers of society." She readily admits that this utopian notion had no correspondence to the "real" America but as there was no impartial Western information available, these sorts of utopian fantasy constructions were evidently commonplace.
She spends the rest of the essay showing examples of Cage's writing that support, both in theory and practice, her "Utopian America." It is indeed a language foreign to the ideological and political concerns of late Communism; the vocabulary includes such ideas as the language of question, the language of self-alteration, and open multi-directional language working against closure.
All very nice, I thought to myself, but this is dated material--the collapse of Communism happened over 5 years ago and a new set of problems, equally repugnant and vertical, had risen--raw-boned Capitalism. And then it struck me--it was a trade of one set of verticality for another, Communism for Capitalism. The "Utopian America" that Crnkovic fantasized about remains unrealized, both here and in Europe--and as late Capitalism continues to spread like wildfire around the globe, notions of horizontality seem more necessary than ever. However, utopian thinking alone does not seem to cut it here. Crnkovic, as well as the rest of the authors in this book, seem to want action. How does she propose this will happen? The answer comes at the very end of the essay where she discusses the "reality factor" in any Cage performance. Crnkovic declares (bravely, I might add) that Cage himself is a vertical structure--after all, someone has to invent the language of freedom and set the system in motion. She repeatedly uses the notion of "materialism" in regard to Cage, as if practice is the real way to cut through the layers and layers of useless ideology and propaganda. So, once again, I found myself pleased with the notion of action and usefulness--timely and important concerns for a younger generation.
Funny things happen to a person after they die--suddenly it's as if the closet doors are permitted to be opened and all sorts of repressed and hidden things come tumbling out. Hence, another important aspect of the book: it is the first to come out on Cage since his death and in this respect alone it's remarkable because we are able to see the composer in a fully dimensional form that was witheld while he still lived. This is the case with Marjorie Perloff's contribution "A duchamp unto myself", which deals with Cage's sublimated and repressed desire for Marcel Duchamp and Jann Pasler's "Inventing a Tradition: Cage's "Composition in Retrospect", which discusses Cage's rewriting of his own history. These are outrageous essays, really. In the case of Perloff, I never could envision anyone positing such a theory while Cage was alive. It's truly juicy.
Perloff deals with issues of identity and desire, both public and private. She also entertains the very pertinent notion of one's image and the means by which one manipulates and controls the public perception of that image. And what concern could be more up-to-the-minute than one's notion of one's "media-self"?
Cage, as Pasler tells us, was a master in shaping our perception of him. So was Duchamp. As it turns out, they did it in very different ways-- Duchamp was fleshy French eroticism, and Cage was WASPy American repression. Perloff quotes Duchamp discussing erotica as "a thing that everybody understands . . . to be able to reveal them (erotic things), and place them at everyone's disposal--I think that this is important because it's the basis of everything, and no one talks about it." It's a funny contrast to Cage, who celebrated the wonder and awareness of one's daily life but repressed the thing which is "the basis of everything."
Perloff's thesis is that there was an erotic and sexual side to Duchamp's work that Cage could never assimilate. She states "Ironically, the real appeal of Duchamp for Cage ('I love him and he ... changed my life') may have had less to do with Marcel's work than with his enticing presence--the exotic image of the man smiling enigmatically over the chessboard or appearing in drag as Rrose Selavy." This brings the subject around to image control and manipulation. Perloff and Pasler make me aware in these essays that Cage controlled his public image to the same extent as Andy Warhol. One of the things that makes Cage so relevant to us is his Media-savvy. Cage not only used electronic media in his work but also had a sense very early on about how to use Media to his advantage (his close affiliation with Marshall McLuhan was no coincidence). Perloff discusses Cage's rewriting of his own and Duchamp's history (through the mesostic work "Alphabet") to have us see Cage as Cage wanted us to see him. Cage was Warholian in this way but in my opinion (and many will surely disagree with me), Cage was sacrificing/altering his ego in order to show us an alternative way to live and be in the world, whereas Warhol was complicit with the economic and ethical systems of Capitalism. So in a way, Cage's media manipulation was forgivable--showing us a higher good--whereas Warhol's manipulation showed us a mirror of our ugly selves and seemed offer no alternative.
Composed In America centers around a Cage Musicircus held at Stanford University in 1992, beautifully described by Charles Junkerman in the opening "nEw / foRms of living together": The Model of the Musicircus." Junkerman tells us that the Musicircus is a model that envisions a utopian possibility for humanity. It involves a horizontal, decentered, non-judgmental community effort which includes all who wish to partake. Cage's main thrust in the Musicircus is that one musician might stop trying to play in time with the other musicians around him/her in order to be able to function as an interdependent, non-interfering entity. This is the opposite approach to Western music where an orchestra, say, is supposed to function like a well unified machine. Awareness and openness is required of the individual performers, allowing others to perform in a parallel manner that promotes less ego-dependence and ultimately freedom. It is a practical working model of (to use Herbert Lindenberger's term) "regulated anarchy". And *working* is the key here. This book seems to say that theory alone is not good enough--theory must then be put to task through realization. Realization of theory in many cases is extremely experimental and it takes an open-minded culture to allow the experiment and to accept the results as proof. _Composed In America_ insists on getting its hands dirty. It tests theories again and again and accepts them only if they prove to be workable. This is the pragmatism of Cage--the son of an inventor and himself "an inventor of genius", he favored a pragmatic "American" model of thinking, hence the call to action. _Composed In America_ picks up this thread and time and again on its pages, theory is put into practice.
The final essay here is "Poethics of a Complex Realism" by Joan Retallack and note the word *realism* in the title. Retallack begins her essay with an invocation of American Pragmatist John Dewey's "Art As Experience" and launches into a long discussion of the idea of weather as it relates to the ideas of John Cage. Cage said that he wanted his music to be like the weather--unpredictable, omnidirectional, impermanent, and always changing--a complex system that parallels the conditions of our daily life. He did several works involving the weather, modeling his ideas after nature (again, a tip of the hat to American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau), which are described here. Retallack takes the word play of weather/whether and sets up a correspondence between the physical (realized) and the theoretical (unrealized). She then posits an ethic based on the principle of weather/whether. Imagine, she says, a culture sophisticated and open enough to be able to accept difference and otherness, a culture that rejects the oversimplified media response of black/white, yes/no, a culture that embraces complexity and contradiction--a "breathable" culture. And it is here that the book brilliantly dovetails with the multicultural attitudes sweeping the country today. Cage stands in opposition to the reductive and closed ideas that multiculturalism has come to stand for. While multiculturalism plays by the media-supplied dualistic rules, Cage seems to dump the idea of rules altogether and instead celebrates the idea of difference and unpredictability as a prerequisite to understanding and accepting the difficulties inherent in a pluralistic culture. It appeals to this reader as the path of least resistance and being based in action, seems entirely workable. The multicultural debate has made many people aware of the issues, but it stands in theory only and lacks the kind of pragmatism and functionality that could lead to real change as prescribed here.
The remainder of the book for me is like the Cageian experience of mushroom hunting in the forest. You might go out looking for one thing and yet along the way stumble across something you could never imagined. Cage taught us to appreciate and enjoy these finds as much as the trove we initially set out to look for. The other essays scattered throughout the book covers a fascinating variety of topics on specific fields and look at Cage through the lens of those realms. There are essays on Cage and ethical theory, science, opera, and the global.
These contributions function in letting us see more angles of John Cage than we ever could have imagined. For example, I never have read ethical theory, but I quickly found myself engrossed in Gerald L. Bruns' article "Poethics: John Cage and Stanley Clavell at the Crossroads of Ethical Theory." Cage provides a window for me to enter into a dialogue that was previously unbeknownst to me. Another case is Herbert Lindenberger's essay on Cage's Europeras "Regulated Anarchy." This is a brilliant essay by a man who obviously knows his field--it is lively and entertaining and I can't help but think how appropriate it might be in a book devoted specifically to opera--it will really shake up readers who are traditional opera lovers. Like traveling along the forest path in search of mushrooms, _Composed In America_ gently twists and turns as it goes along its way, but the reader should be warned that there is one patch of quicksand: Daniel Herwitz' "John Cage's Approach To The Global." This essay starts out lively but quickly disintegrates in a deadly dull, line by line reading of a mesostic that becomes swamped in a thick stew of sleepy theory. It is the only essay in the book where theory takes precedence over practice and the results are languidly stultifying .
After reading _Composed In America,_ I went to put it on the shelf with all my other books on Cage. Deciding where it should go, I realized that "Composed In America" is approximately the same size and shape of all of Cage's books published by Wesleyan. Is this any coincidence? Probably not. This is a savvy book, one that has one eye on the past and one eye on the future. "Composed In America" is the book on Cage we've been thirsting for--finally, a book that moves John Cage squarely into the 90s and sheds much needed light on the relevancy of his thought for the current generation. In doing so it performs a dual function--it allows us to see the man as he has never been seen before and it sets a radical agenda for the propagation of his ideas after his death and far into the future.
___________________________________________________________________________ Brief, Sketchy Report on Blaser Conference Kevin Killian _________________________________________________________________ "Recovery of the Public World": A Conference and Poetry Festival in Honour of Robin Blaser, His Poetry and Poetics June 1-4, 1995 Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design Granville Island, Vancouver, B.C. Canada _________________________________________________________________ [Adapted from a Poetics list posting, with permission of the author.] _________________________________________________________________ Okay, well the "hi pts" for me were as follows: I agree with Dodie Bellamy that Susan Howe stole the show during the one long reading with 22 poets. She stood on tiptoes and read & made everyone else seem half baked, no, pallid. Well actually I enjoyed some other readings quite a bit-incl. Deanna Ferguson, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, and other Canadian poets new to me. Pierre Joris's camel poem sure pleased the crowd - was it camels or horses? Steve McCaffery is a God. Susan Clark gave a very emotional, moving reading, and Lisa Robertson is becoming the new updated Elizabeth Smart. I had heard Karen Mac Cormack here in San Francisco before, but now she is even better, understated, in control, dignified, a dynamo too. Joanne Kyger read a piece about seeing Quan Yin-the Buddhist goddess-or whatever-and Dodie interviewed her in the women's "washroom" asking her if she really saw Quan Yin and JK said, "Yes, but you have to be on the right substance." Gosh, I seem to be praising all these women, well, that's me to a T. I didn't even mention Anne Waldman yet, a show all to herself . . . And what about that Rachel Blau Du Plessis! Rachel, "Drafts" 24 has opened up to a new theatricality & largeness of expression and scope that's just marvelous. Several have noted how Robin was in attendance during every event-for 4 days, from 9:30 a.m. till past midnight. Needless to say I didn't match his record & there were several panels I skipped or missed. I don't have his stamina-however maybe if it was all about me I would have attended it all too. His reading which climaxed the whole affair was outstanding, he read "Exody," "Even on Sunday," the new poem "Nomad" and another poem that's in progress, very much so. Great starpower! Speaking of which, I have a new dream man, Canadian poet & novelist Michael Ondaatje. We had heard that he was the sexiest writer in Canada, which is not quite the case close up, but nevertheless he has piercing blue eyes & this wonderful accent I could listen to for a week on end. Dodie spotted him first but I wasn't far behind. After that, all he had to do was open his mouth or eyes and we were transfixed - like two American rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Duh. A genius as far as I'm concerned. Dodie was quite jealous when she overheard M.O. telling Catriona Strang that she was brilliant. Okay, but Catriona was brilliant; the performance she gave with Francois Houle, the avant-garde clarinetist, playing 2 clarinets at once at times, while Catriona barked out syllables, words, gritty demanding sentences, around the letters "R" and "B" made a sensation at the Festival Opening. Charles Bernstein opened the "opening" with a very smart witty talk that hit the right notes, including a rapidfire mention of all the groups Robin has been associated with (Boston Gang, Vancouver poets, SF Renaissance, New American poets, Berkeley Renaissance) then reminding us that he has been all these things and more and none. The organizers worked like dogs. I felt sorry for them but they did not seem to be feeling sorry for themselves. Bravo to all! I saw most of Charles Watts and Karen Tallman but everyone seemed totally together. I did feel the strange disquieting presence of Warren Tallman, like a ghost, haunting the whole conference and the whole city and I kept wondering what he was making of all this hoopla. One man called "Robert Hullot-Kentor" gave a fine, iconoclastic paper, very Adorno-based, basically saying that there's no point to recovering the public world, that today there's no public and in fact no world. Next door to the Emily Carr School where the panels were held was a very fine show called "In Search of Orpheus: Some Bay Area Poets & Painters 1945-65," curated by Scott Watson. Jess, Tom Field, Harry Jacobus, Blaser himself, Lyn Brockway, a bright crayon drawing by Spicer, etc., etc, most of the work from Blaser's own collection. Here the work of Fran Herndon shone like a revelation. Here were the lithographs she did for Spicer's book The Heads of the Town up to the Aether, and the larger sports-themed collages you can see reproduced in Jim Herndon's book "Everything as Expected." Fran Herndon was in Vancouver attending the conference in person & received a tremendous ovation when picked out of the audience and introduced. It's about time such a talented artist began receiving the recognition due her. So to see it all happening before one's eyes was an incredible lift. Kristin Prevallet made a stir with her slide presentation, during the first panel, "Companions," outlining the life & work of the late Helen Adam. Prevallet's research into the Adam papers at the SUNY Buffalo Poetry Collection showed us all for the first time the extent and power of Adam's greatness as a poet & writer. And artist too, for Prevallet was able to bring out of the archives several-eight or nine?-of Helen Adam's unique collage-based works, which were shown in the Scott Gallery as part of the Orpheus show-in fact it's hard to figure how incomplete the show would have been without them. For bibliophiles-the appearance of a dozen or so copies of Helen Adam's rare White Rabbit book "The Queen o' Crow's Castle" (1958) ill. by Jess-on the book table-for sale-and only $15.00 (Canadian) apiece-would have made you swoon! Try and get one in San Francisco for less than $100.00 (American)-and these were white as snow, no trace of fading or foxing-MINT! In fact the book table-book section (organized by Vancouver's Black Sheep Books) was totally tempting & I must have spent, oh, God, I don't even want to remember. I had fun having lunch with Joanne Kyger, Dora FitzGerald, George Stanley and Fran Herndon one sunny afternoon & then all of them sparking each other to more and more remembrances of Spicer faster than I could take it all in . . . and introducing them to Kristen so that they could tell her all about Helen Adam . . . I had this eerie feeling of history right in my hands. There could have been another wonderful reading just culled from those who were there in the audience, quite a swell crowd including Lee Ann Brown, Elizabeth Willis, Erin Moure, Myung Mi Kim, Kevin Magee, Laynie Browne, Matthew Stadler, Colin Smith, etc., etc. I felt safe going up to Vancouver because, with the help of so many pals, I had secured quite a number of "tributes" to Robin from those who could not attend. With those in my attache case I felt like a king. Ellen Tallman & I got to read them out loud at the dinner. Some of them were from people on this Poetics List, and I will be writing to you privately, each of you, to thank you at length, but for now let me close by thanking you all in toto: Giorgio Agamben, Don Allen, Bruce Andrews, James Broughton, Cid Corman, Robert Creeley, Samuel R. Delany, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Glu"ck, Barbara Guest, Thom Gunn, Lyn Hejinian, Jess, Robert Kelly, Gerrit Lansing, Denise Levertov, Jackson Mac Low, Bob Perelman, Avital Ronell, Claude Royet-Journoud, Ron Silliman and I'm leaving 1 or 2 out. ______________________________________________________________________
POETRY IN MOTION, edited by Ron Mann. [CD-ROM for Windows/Macintosh] New York: Voyager Company, 1994.
Reviewed by Loss Pequeño Glazier
THE "DIGITAL REVOLUTION" HAS SOME INTELLIGENT OFFSPRING. Though the most interesting developments in electronic poetry will occur, in my opinion, through a network sensibility (visit the Electronic Poetry Center via the Internet for a view into the possibilities of "connectivity") this CD-ROM suggests some immediate and interesting possibilities.
That this is a commercial product makes the poets chosen quite surprising. The voyager CD-ROM series, displayed in a number of stores nationally in flashy carousels, contains titles such as "Baseball's Greatest Hits" and "People: Twenty Years of Pop Culture" as well as interesting items such as "Maus" and "Ephemeral Films." The series by no means pretends any specialization in poetry. However this company's one contemporary poetry product, at this writing, contains a range of interesting poets including Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Alan Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Anne Waldman, and Jim Cage.
In all, Poetry in Motion offers the work of some two dozen poets. Using the disk involves choosing from the author list. When you select an entry for viewing, you are presented with an opening screen split into three sections: a text of the poet, a screen with the poet reading, and, in most cases, an interview screen. Clicking on the "reading" screen starts a video clip in motion and the poem in the text panel scrolls as the poem is read. (This text screen actually offers the choice of two versions of the text: "As Performed" and "As Published." The poem will scroll with the reading if the "As Performed" box is checked.) If you click on the interview screen, a brief clip of the poet discussing poetics will play.
The disk is tremendous as a sampler, especially for those who teach or for those who don't have ready access to readings. Who could ever read the printed text of Waldman and witness the physical energy there? Or the careful pacing of Creeley? (Ginsberg and Burroughs are exceptions somewhat, since both turn up more regularly in the mass media.) Berrigan is a particular treat, for the pacing of the poem read, of course, but also for Berrigan's movements, gestures, his physical approach to the literary "event."
The disk is also a rare exception in that a great deal of effort seems to have been put into layout and the graphical presentation of screens; it is quite a pleasure to move through its menus.
Notwithstanding the quality of the poets presented, of greatest interest is Poetry in Motion's approach to presenting the "word." The mix between performance and interview clips and the presentation of the dual nature of a poem as published and as it takes place in public is engaging. Quite a pleasurable experience bounded, interestingly, only by the medium itself: since video takes up so much disk space and emphasis is given to performances, interview clips tend to be quite short. In fact, there is NOT a lot of material here, each poet basically reading one poem. The CD actually does not compare to say, a good-sized anthology in breadth or variety.
The lack of depth in such a well-edited project makes one wonder if a multi-media CD-ROM product, though presenting well-selected material portably and in an engaging manner, must ultimately suffer from the insularity and limitations its own format imposes. All told however, it's a treat to see technology meet poetry in such a satisfactory fashion.