Despite its prominence in scholarly criticism of Cage, the influence of Zen Buddhism on his work cannot be overstated. It may, at first, seem strange to read the Cunningham mesostics as a particular example of the influence of Zen Buddhism on Cage’s poetry; certainly other more semantic poems, such as the poems in the “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)” series demonstrate a clear link between Cage’s politics and ethics (what Marjorie Perloff has termed his “poethics” [John Cage: Composed in America]) and his affinity for Zen practice and Buddhist thought. These poems are written in short anecdotal stories or meditations that are borne out of the Zen tradition of the koan. A koan is a brief story (in literary tradition), or, more commonly, a saying, phrase, or sometimes even a word, that conveys an impossibility or a paradox, and is used as a meditative tool by Buddhist monks. As Kay Larson, in her excellent, and exhaustive, book-length study of the role of Zen in Cage’s work, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, asserts
Cage appreciated the koan’s cryptic storytelling style, which allowed him to say amusing things. Each koan-like story was a fragment, self-contained, gleaming like a jewel in its setting. The setting itself – the gold that holds the jewels – was the Cageian principle of Indeterminacy. (19)
Cage’s koan-like fragments vary in nature. Some are expressly political, as in “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued 1968 (Revised),” when he writes: “Protest actions fan the / flames of a dying fire. Protest helps to / keep the government going” (12). Some are more purely amusing: “Farting, don’t think, / just fart” (22). Some, interestingly, are merely quotations from other people, as in this striking recounting of a conversation with fellow poet Robert Duncan:
Duncan told me his poetry was picked up
from other people. The only time he
felt, he said, like using quotation
marks was when the words he wrote
were his. (13)
These examples demonstrate is that Cage was certainly influenced by the koan structure, and the meditative possibilities of its repetition. Where, then, can we see the koan’s influence in the Cunningham mesostics?
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In section 75 of John Cage’s Indeterminacy, he meditates briefly on the Zen argument regarding repetition: “In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.” In this brief quotation, we are forced to immediately contend with Cage’s view of repetition: rather than a meditation on what is being repeated, Zen (and by proxy Cage) see repetition as a means of discovering something present, but latent, in what gets repeated. It is unsurprising, then, that Cage’s work (his poetry, prose, music, and visual art) are all marked by distinct and prolonged repetition. Consider, for example, 4’33”, a piece that repeats, insistently and incessantly, the silence of a refusal to perform. And, yet, as nearly every scholar has noted of 4’33”, the piece is virtually unrepeatable. The sounds of audience, environment, and ambience, makes each performance unique.
Similarly, the Cunningham mesostics are marked both by persistent repetition and the unique or unrepeatable, a paradox particularly relevant to the koan. To begin, of course, the poems repeatCage’s partner’s first and last names throughout. Additionally, the process of the poems’ production, the very repetitive throwing of the I Ching coins, adds another meditative repetition. But, even on the level of the morphemes, phonemes, words, and even phrases that appear in the poem, there appears another level of repetition. For example:
“Mesostic 30” shows one of the most important features of repetition in the Cunningham mesostics: the repeated references to movement, shown here in the especially paradoxical “rooted / run,” a koan in its own right. While the “run” in this poem suggests a movement, the “rooted” that precedes it implies a stasis, one that necessarily grounds the movement, and, in turn, makes it cyclical, a run that forever repeats itself. The cyclicality recalls the “inging” I’ve discussed previously; “inging” is itself a koan, reminiscent of the famous koan “mu” (which cannot be adequately translated into English, but very roughly translates to “not”) which is often given to young monks.
I start with this example not only because “rooted / run” perfectly summarizes the repeated tension of movement and stasis within the poem, but also because of the necessarily aborescent connotations of the word “rooted,” which provide an important link between Cage’s poetic work and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who, in A Thousand Plateaus, present the rhizome as an alternative to the totalizing principles, binarism, dualism, and linearity of what they term aborescent thinking[i]. While Cage’s sequence predates Deleuze and Guattari’s work by some seven years, he grapples with a similar concern here, opposing the “rooted”ness of arborescent thinking with the anarchic “run” of repetition and movement. “Rooted / run,” then, serves as our jumping-off-point, from which we must then understand the repetition of this poem as, in so many ways, attempting to reconcile the stasis of the poem with the movement and process Cage wishes to capture. In re-encountering these concepts throughout the sequence, repeating their koan-like nature as though meditating constantly on this tension, Cage’s reader is forced to reconcile this relationship between the repeated and the unique, the moving and the static, what is written in ink and what Cage’s work endeavours to place in flux.
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But, “rooted / run” is not an isolated occurrence in the poem, and Cage’s work constantly returns to these tensions. Consider, for example, the ending of “Mesostic 46,” a Cunningham mesostic in which the final four lines, organized by the letters GHAM, read an uncharacteristically semantically sensical “go / there / and / move.” “Go / there / and / move” quite literally signals this tension between movement in “move” but complicates it slightly with “go / there” – the poem commands its reader to situate his/herself in a specific spatio-temporal location, a “there,” and subsequently instructs him/her to “move” either within, or from, that location. Importantly, “go / there / and / move” is only one of a number of direct references to movement within the poem. “Move” itself appears again on its own once more, on page eleven. The word “movement” appears in full twice, first also on page eleven, and then again on 112. Additionally, on page 125, “Mesostic 31” includes the especially interesting portmanteau “movegram,” which links this “movement” to the linguistic realm.
With “movegram,” Cage’s work highlights the crux of this tension between movement and stasis, between the unique and the repeated: that language, in its attempts to organize, categorize, and communicate, works to make the moving static, to make the unique repeatable, to regularize and make same the different. “Movegram,” then, for us as readers, is a koan especially difficult to conceive of.
In its invitation to the reader for active engagement with the mesostics, Cage’s chance-produced text is still just as full of paradoxical, thought-provoking koans as his more traditionally composed work. And, indeed, the subtle or implicit, but nonetheless irreconcilable, paradox of “rooted / run” or of “movegram” (or even of the “sicductor,” which I discuss often), seems a more apt meditative koan than Cage’s slightly less provocative thoughts on passing gas[ii]. Providing a reader with the irresolvable koan requires that s/he undertake a shift in mental state from a Westernized privileging of dualism and logic (Deleuze and Guattari’s “aborescent thinking”) to what the Zen Buddhists call satori. D.T. Suzuki, a friend of Cage’s renowned for his role in bringing Japanese Zen Buddhism to the West, defines satori as “an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it. […] [W]ith satori our entire surroundings are viewed from quite an unexpected angle of perception” (Essentials of Zen 154). Reaching satori, a kind of enlightenment, is possible only when one accepts that dualism and logic is flawed. In these brief moments of koan, the Cunningham mesostics encourage readers to accept the kind of noise that occurs in silence, the kind of uselessness that provokes new meaning, and the kind of blindness that opens up new ways of seeing.
[i] They write: “Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification, central automata like organized memories” (A Thousand Plateaus 18). And later, in rhetoric more characteristic of their style of writing: “We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial roots, adventitious growths and rhizomes” (17).
[ii] My comments here clearly indicate my own desire to keep some things “familiar” – Cage’s discussion of farting, perhaps much like Duchamp’s “Fountain,” seeks to defamiliarize my notions of art and of poetry, and of the mundane. I acknowledge my own bias in my unwillingness to meditate on farting.