Antonia Rigaud, John Cage’s Poetry of Anarchy


Politics of the text

Reading a poem by John Cage, one cannot but wonder about the economy of his poetic language. Indeed, with John Cage, poetry is not the product of the ‘artist’s voice’, but rather the product of chance procedures. His poetry focuses mainly on structure and on its creative processes. The latter are based on previous texts (mainly from Thoreau and Joyce) that Cage cuts into nominal, verbal or phonetic items (sometimes even only keeping a letter from a sentence). He then arranges these texts into a new one where meaning is not visible on a first linear reading. Indeed, Cage modifies the genre of the ‘acrostic’ inasmuch as what the text says is not situated on a vertical line on the left-hand side of the poem but rather in its middle. Cage calls this new genre the ‘mesostic’. In Cage’s poetry, the meaning of the poem is situated in its middle, it is usually a word or a sentence that writes vertically. We see, therefore, that this poetry is double in the sense that if we read it horizontally as any classical poetry, meaning is not obvious, but if we concentrate on the capitals in each line of the poem we realize that each capital letter on each line creates a vertical word or sentence that makes the obvious meaning of the poem.

Poetry is therefore divided between an obvious meaning and a text that does not seem on a first reading to hold a particular meaning. However, the first text (or the horizontal reading of the poem) holds a meaning in its processes of creation. Indeed, the practice of language as a constantly changing object is what makes the body of Cage’s poetry. Cage finds the elements of his poetry in previous texts arranged according to the mechanisms of the I Ching (a Chinese book of oracles), he states «The mechanisms of the I Ching is utility. Applied to letters and aggregates of letters, it brings about a language that can be enjoyed without being understood». An article in the selection of his writings entitled Silence (Wesleyan University Press, 1961), is entitled «Composition as Process», the title itself shows how the continuous elaboration of poetry is a necessary elements of his art. The horizontal text indeed stands for this continuous process of elaboration which is at the basis of the poem but also what makes of it a constantly changing text. One can indeed choose to read it in a variety of ways (either horizontally or vertically, concentrating on the words or on the processes that brought the poem about).

This makes for a language that does not evolve in a linear fashion, but rather a language which has lost the sense of linear evolution. One could therefore speak of a ahistorical language. Poetry escapes the notion of time through the disappearance of any evolving development. The presence of the text is not linked to any historical or linear evolution but rather keeps disappearing. The relation that Cage installs between language and history is indeed one of the main features of his poetry. For if his language is deeply historical in the sense that it is grounded in history (in using previous texts Cage enters the realm of history) the use he makes of language leaves the domain of history to enter a new kind of time-frame that is grounded in the present moment or in instantaneity. Indeed, the poem itself lies at the conjunction of both lines of reading (the horizontal and the vertical text) and it is only at the precise moment of reunion between both instances that the poem comes to existence. In other words, the poem only exists at the instant of reunion of both these lines of reading.

Chance is nevertheless a structure in the text, and it shows that however Cage wants to free his text from his ego, to make it truly anarchic (he states that his aim is to «examine the language for the location of power» and to «free the ego»), he does not totally refuse order. With Cage, anarchist poetry is therefore not a matter of bringing forth a chaotic poetry but rather a poetry of chaos, where the lack of obvious meaning is a political statement. Indeed, Cage wants to bring about a truly anarchist poetry that would be free of any type ‘governement’ or governing element. This explains the use of chance operations in the creation of language (referring to Norman O. Brown, Cage states that syntax is a military notion that should be avoided), but there is order in Cage’s texts because he uses the I Ching in a very conscientious way, he does not therefore let anything happen in the text for the sake of disorder but rather creates a text that is free from order in a particularly definite and precise method of disorder. As Cage states it, «What the rule is, in other words, matters much less than the fact that one uses it.» Structure is what enables him to create an anrchist text in the sense that anarchy is not for him a naive notion of freedom but freedom within reasoned order.

The place for anarchy

Anarchy, therefore, comes about in Cage’s poetry as the link between a desire for disorder and the reality of a necessary structure in the creation of a poetic language. It seems thus possible to admit that anarchy is a profoundly utopian notion for John Cage. Indeed, it is striking to note that he never participated in any particular political and anarchist action. It seems therefore that the poem itself is where Cage locates political action. His poetry is not about anarchy, but it installs anarhcy within the text. The poet indeed explains his artistic and political project in the following words: «To explore a way of writing which though coming from ideas is not about them, or is not about ideas but produces them». We could therefore argue that Cage creates and defines the idea of anarchy and gives it life within his text. But it is necessary to note that Cage’s aim is to give life to his poetry through his performance (reading or hearing it). It is therefore a disappearing form of art as it can only be inscribed in reality at the moment of its performance. Poetry is for Cage the performance of chance and of the lack of governement, it is the place where order and disorder come about not in a linear fashion but through the mixing of various texts and lines of reading. The reader is free to read one element of the text or another and the poet has freed his ego by using previous texts.

Anarchy thus becomes a process and never a fixed notion, it is defined by Cage in his poetry as a continual process and resides at the intersection between order and disorder. Cage’s anarchist revolution lies within his texts. He states indeed: «Revolution remains our proper concern. But instead of planning it, or stopping what we’re doing in order to do it, it may be that we are at all times in it». If we analyze this sentence in the context of Cage’s poetry, we realize that since the text (its meaning as well as its physical reality) keeps fading away, it must always be reenacted. Anarchy lies within the text, but the text does not allow itself to stand on a particular place. Anarchy is not given a place, it is utopian in this respect, but it is through the practice of poetry that it becomes the poem is given a place in itself, the place for anarchy.



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