John Cage

Blind in a Good Way: The Cunningham Mesostics as Love Poems

As I have noted in a previous entry, it has become typical to read the Cunningham mesostics as experimental love poems. Andy Weaver, in “Writing Through Merce: John Cage’s Silence, Differends, and Avant-Garde Idioms,” argues that the sequence “openly enacts Cage’s love for Cunningham” since the poems both “show Cage’s intimate knowledge of Cunningham’s aesthetics (since the generant books are those ‘most used by Cunningham’)” and “mimic Cunningham’s dancing, as lines and letters tumble into and over each other, gracefully accentuating their movements across the page” (30). Additionally, Weaver notes, the poems are littered with sensual, physical, and potentially sexual diction. Acknowledging that here he attempts to read hermeneutically a text that actively resists and refuses this reading, Weaver reminds his readers that this is an “impossible-to-prove feeling” rather than a close exegetical reading, but one that is no less valid and important for its lack of provable evidence: “Such a claim is not provable in the understandable idioms of everyday discourse, but one must note that these everyday idioms are precisely those in which, due to the differend, Cage cannot speak his homosexuality” (32). In a similar vein, Sean Braune, in “Cage’s Mesostics and Saussure’s Paragrams as Love Letters,” also maintains that “the mesostics exist within a poetic or syntactic space that signifies the love shared between Cage and Cunningham,” and that “the mesostics not only enact a love, but rather encode a love within a particular textual practice that, through the heterogeneous dispersal of letters organized through a strict conceptual rule, erases the binary of homosexual or heterosexual in favour of the experience of love itself.” Both of these readings, it would seem, fit in line with Cage’s larger ethics and poetics of breaking down categorizations that are necessarily limiting.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that, in an interview with Thomas S. Hines, Cage asserts that he does not want to be categorized as a “gay composer” because such a designation “takes the relationship between art and sex very seriously,” adding “I do not. Once I am doing something serious, I don’t think about sex” (Hines 98n43). [i] The surprise, then, comes in the sentences that follow, when he tells Hines he is actually opposed to love:

I am entirely opposed to the emotions. … I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way. … I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing. (98n43)

And,  indeed, both Braune and Weaver, in their own ways, indicate that Cage’s love for Cunningham, as demonstrated in the Cunningham mesostics, denotes a kind of blindness to the outside world. Braune indicates, in his article, that the sequence is written in “asyntactic signifiers” that “take on the form of a private and personal homage that indicates a state of reverence and love.” That is, in their secretive intimacy, the poems undermine meaning-making (which, as I have previously noted, Steve McCaffrey argues is “staged as the telos and destination of the de-materialization of writing” [“General Economy” 204]) in favour of an antiexegetical language that shows love’s tendency to make people “irrational and a little bit obsessive” (Braune). Weaver suggests in his reading that the manner in which the brief references to Cunningham punctuate the sequence (both within and without the nominal spines of the mesostics) mimics the author’s love for his beloved, “seemingly interrupting Cage’s thoughts as determinedly as the thoughts of anyone lovestruck” (31). Love in the Cunningham mesostics, then, closes lovers off from attentiveness to the outside world (it “makes [them] blind”), even as Cage in his interview with Hines demonstrates an aversion to this very process.

And yet, Braune’s reading of the Cunningham mesostics as love poems appears with one important caveat: that Cunningham as the beloved does not, in any sense of the term, dominate the poems. He writes:

Merce’s name is very often hard to decipher. The varied spacing, size, and font-type of the Letraset choices encode and hide the spine-word or name in the presentation of the mesostic. For this reason, … Merce’s name does not dominate the mesostics, but rather exists tenuously and contingently within the experimental structure of the mesostics’ presentation on the page.[ii]

In essence, the refusal of traditional authorship, the alteration of traditional syntactical language and formal organization, and the reliance on non-traditional visual appearance in the poems is a way for Cage to negotiate his way out of the potential blindness of love. The love demonstrated in this sequence, then, is not the romantic, emotional love that Cage voices indignation for to Hines, but rather the love of flux that Hardt and Negri suggest are constitutive of the common. Rather than the generic marker of love poetry, the love encoded in the Cunningham mesostics is markedly metapoetic.

This is all to say that while both Braune and Weaver clearly identify the importance of the nonsemantic in their work, something is lost when we read these poems as love poems, rather than relying instead on the metapoetic drive that seems to be suggested by the first-poem sicductor. I’d like to suggest that one way of surmounting this is by discarding the problematic term “protosemantic” that Braune takes from McCaffrey and replacing it with the perhaps more apt “extrasemantic.” The “proto-” prefix, with its connotations of “first” and “before” does not adequately describe the excessive semantics of the Cunningham mesostics; they make (or complicate) meaning decidedly after or even external to a more traditional, logical process of meaning-making that occurs in the source texts Cage uses, and within the poetic tradition in which Cage is necessarily working. In this way, the Cunningham mesostics carry out the physical, material processes of language, but without that telos of meaning McCaffrey refers to. They act out language’s denotative, communicative functions without reaching their logical conclusion. This element of the poems is suggested, I argue, by “Mesostic 26”’s hidden command “you / … / start / mimes.”

Mesostic 26

Mesostic 26 as it appears on page 100.

In the poem itself, it is important to note just how occluded the command is. Here are those final two “start / mimes” lines isolated to make them clearer.

Mesostic 26, lines 9-10

Mesostic 26, lines 9-10


The process of this poem’s production is, I would like to argue, a kind of miming, wherein the physical trappings of material language are acted out, but are not carried through to semantics. Where use value is discarded in favour of performance and excess. Reading this as a sequence of love poems, this command to start miming certainly echoes those trademarks of Cunningham’s own choreography that mimes or distorts quotidian activity, but also animal actions. Indeed, much of Cunningham’s avant-garde choreography recalls this process of miming. Additionally, much of Cage’s work involves miming or reconfiguring the use of quotidian objects or the carrying-out of everyday tasks, as best demonstrated by his now notorious piece, “Water Walk.” But we also cannot forget that “start / mimes” is preceded, if at some distance, by the second-person pronoun. Who, then, is that “you”?

*          *          *

If we follow in Braune and Weaver’s footsteps and read this sequence as a set of love poems, then the “you” in question is most certainly Cunningham, Cage’s beloved that permeates the text. But, if we also read this as a metapoetic sequence, one that is interested in making observations about how language functions outside of the semantic realm, we must also read this “you” (and the many other second-person pronouns scattered throughout the sequence) as a call to the reader. This is perhaps most evident in the pronoun’s appearance twenty five pages later, as the possessive “your” in “Mesostic 31.”

Mesostic 31, as it appears on page 125.

Mesostic 31, as it appears on page 125.

This mesostic begins with the also somewhat obscured “facts / your / find,” where Cage most clearly refuses the logical, scientific discourse privileged by Hiller’s definition of the experiment and his reliance on hypotheses. Facts Your FindThe “facts” are our find, our ways of proving and knowing. And yet, I wonder how one could read a text such as this one and come away feeling as though they have found “facts.” Thus, the Cunningham mesostics serve, however unintentionally, as a command to the reader, a writerly text that openly engages with the reader to discard the facts we find, to refuse a reading of the poem as a treasure hunt, to acknowledge the error of the printing press, and to ultimately embrace trash, the failures that, instead, produce new ways of knowing.


[i] While some may take exception to my reliance here on Cage’s own arguments about his work, especially since both Cage and I have worked to complicate authorship and distance it from the text, I would like to remind my readers that by entertaining the notion that the Cunningham mesostics are love poems at all, we are already superimposing the Author’s life onto his work. Indeed, if we were not privy to this knowledge of Cage’s biography, we would not read these as love poems at all. In fact, other dedicated mesostic sequences Cage produced, such as the “36 Mesostics Re and Not Re Marcel Duchamp,” or the “Sixty-One Mesostics Re and Not Re Norman O. Brown,” are decidedly more adoring.

[ii] I should note here that part of the reason Braune finds Cunningham’s relatively down-played presence in the poem so striking is that he is reading the poems as examples of Saussure’s “paragrams.” In this reading, it is especially important to note that Cunningham’s appearances in the sequence are sporadic and brief, thus refusing the god-like dominating presence of the nominal paragram that Saussure asserts.

3 thoughts on “Blind in a Good Way: The Cunningham Mesostics as Love Poems

  1. I like your comments on my article, and I take your point about the dangers of reading love into/onto the sequence–though I stand by my argument. “Extrasemantic” is extremely interesting, and seems like a useful term for Cage’s asemantic writings. You’ve got me wondering about the addressee in these mesostics, now–I’m not sure that if you follow the arguments that Sean Braune and I offer that the addressee necessarily must be Cunningham. That’s a possibility, especially if we see the mesostic spines (“Merce” and “Cunningham”) as the antecedent for the pronoun–but I don’t think the text, even as a love poem, demands that reading. Is a love poem necessarily addressed to the beloved? Is it possible to discuss the beloved in the 3rd person to a 2nd person? I think so. So, “you” extends beyond Cunningham, to the reader, as you say–but could “you” also refer to language itself, to Cage as creator, to the books Cage lifted his words from–or even to everyone/everything in creation and thereby nobody/nothing in particular? Or is that possibility too open?

    • Yeah, I think you might have me here. A love poem need not necessarily be written to the beloved (while that may be traditionally true, there’s no reason to suddenly be holding Cage to tradition). Without the typical semantic signifiers to let us know who “you” is necessarily, I don’t think it’s possible to have a reading that is “too open.” Mesostic 31 contains more readable words than most of the other mesostics, which is, perhaps, why I have swayed here to the dark side of interpretation. But, it is no more possible for me to say your comment is “too open” than it would be for me to say that the possible readings of the “tescor” that starts Mesostic 26 are “too open.”

      Certainly understanding Cunningham as the antecedent is suggested by yours and Braune’s readings. But, it is also cannot be precluded by my own.

  2. I really like your coinage of “extrasemantic.” I think that your term, as a contribution to scholarship, could be foregrounded earlier in your diss (maybe even in your intro) and could be fruitfully deployed throughout in relation to other poets you focus on (it certainly would work for Mac Low). I like how your coinage of “extrasemantic” seems to explicitly speak to the political ramifications of McCaffery’s “protosemantic” – politically, the “proto” prefix does point to a sort of “Ür-text,” originary point, or unimaginable semiotic telos. (To that end though why not “rhizosemantic” (for root), or “wigglysemantic” …, etc.). :P

    I like your response to my paper and your reference to the Hines interview in which Cage seems to distrust love because it is “blind in a bad way.” However, I cite Cage in conversation with Richard Kostelanetz in my article, where Cage insists that: “when people love one another, they don’t speak so much; or if they speak, they don’t make sense. They tend to make nonsense, when they love one another.”

    I wonder how Cage means “blind” in the Hines interview – i.e. does “blind” refer to a resistance towards meaning (is sight meaning, and blindness nonsense)? and, if so, then why would Cage be against that (why would it be “bad”)? I would think that Cage would support the “nonsense” that he sees love producing, but how can this nonsense be “blind in a bad way”?

    I think I am wondering (or typing) out loud.


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