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Andy Weaver

Divining the Derivers

Anarchy and the Practice of Derivative Poetics
in Robert Duncan and John Cage


Well, communion is probably what a poem is.

— Robert Duncan, “Robert Duncan in conversation with John Tranter”

I think everyone influences me.

— John Cage, “The Making of Cage’s One11

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The similarities between Robert Duncan and John Cage are striking. Aside from the more obvious biographical similarities — both were white males born into educated middle class households and raised in California in the 1910s (Duncan was born in Oakland in 1919, Cage in Los Angeles in 1912), both were homosexual (though both had short-lived heterosexual marriages as younger men), both had lifelong marriages-in-all-but-name relationships with important artists who worked in non-literary disciplines (Cage’s relationship with the dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham began in 1945 and lasted until Cage’s death in 1992; Duncan’s relationship with the visual artist Jess Collins (better known as “Jess”) began in 1950 and lasted until Duncan’s death in 1988) — the two also shared significant aesthetic and ideological positions: both were avowed anarchists and both talked openly about how anarchy influenced their poetry, both were appreciators of Ezra Pound’s aesthetics and — although both openly disagreed with Pound’s politics — agreed with Pound that poetry was a didactic art form, both were associated with Black Mountain College and the accompanying literary movement that emerged, and both sought out and were openly influenced by religious and philosophical teachings from outside the Western canon (Cage most importantly by the influence of Zen and his work with the I Ching, Duncan by his upbringing in a practicing Theosophist household). Most importantly, and the key aspect that I would like to examine, both Duncan and Cage openly stressed the derivative nature of their poetry, constantly exposing how they directly derived their own writings from the writings and ideas of many different literary forerunners. Both Duncan and Cage, then, worked against the commonly-held notion of the individual genius, the writing subject who brings forth great texts through his or her own solitary, unique brilliance. Instead, they created texts that show the importance of anarchic communities, texts that show the importance of non-hierarchical giving to and taking from others in a radically free exchange of ideas. Quite simply, both Duncan and Cage attempted to teach their readers how to live ethically, which for each poet meant how to create and maintain an anarchic relationship between the individual and her or his community.

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However, in spite of these deep biographical similarities, the poems that Duncan and Cage created are actually quite different in many ways. One of the most important differences involves the writers’ use of derivation as a literary technique: Duncan’s derivative poetics revolve around quotation and collage, combining elements from different writers in his own texts, resulting in poems that offer the reader a bricolage, while Cage’s use of derivation focuses mostly on rewriting a source or generant text, re-engaging with the earlier text (in a style that Cage refers to as “writing through”) in such a way that a Cagean derivative poem offers a palimpsest to the reader. [1] Still, in spite of these aesthetic differences, Duncan and Cage offer remarkably compatible and even complementary styles of derivative poetics. An examination of their poetry in combination shows how their derivative poetics serve the same goal (of creating didactic poetry bent on convincing the reader of the ethics of anarchy) through different paths, and it also provides insight into why each writer used a poetics of derivation in the fashion he did. In the end, what the comparison shows is that Duncan’s poetry stresses that the individual is proof of the efficacy of the community, while Cagean derivative poetry illustrates that the community is proof of the efficacy of the individual. The result is that Cage and Duncan provide two sides of the same derivative poetics coin. More importantly, as I will argue in the latter sections of the paper, both Duncan and Cage use their poetics of derivation in service to an anarchist philosophy that calls for and attempts to enact both an ethical relationship between the individual and her community as well as a stance of active attention to the organic order that both Duncan and Cage view as underlying all creation.

Duncan, Cage, and Derivative Poetics

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In the introduction to Bending the Bow, Duncan states that “I’d like to leave somewhere in this book the statement that the real ‘we’ is the company of the living, of all the forms Life Itself, the primal wave of it, writing itself out in evolution, proposes. Needs, as our poetry does, all the variety of what poets have projected poetry to be” (v-vi). More than just an affirmation of life, this statement provides a necessary key to Duncan’s derivative poetics. Aesthetically and ideologically, Duncan wants the poem to reflect the vast variety of Nature, of “Life Itself” — and the technique above all else that Duncan uses to achieve this complexity in his poetry is derivation, specifically quotation. The use of quotation in Duncan’s work, particularly in the Passages series, creates a poetic community into which Duncan places his own works: for example, note how Duncan prefaces the first poem in the series, “Tribal Memories, Passages 1”:

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from the Emperor Julian, Hymn to the Mother of the Gods:

And Attis encircles the heavens like a tiara, and thence sets out as though to descend to earth.

For the even is bounded, but the uneven is without bounds and there is no way through or out if it. (9)

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More than just an epigram, these lines are an important part of the poem itself. The emphasis on quotation sets up a community of writers, a community of people, to which Duncan connects himself. It is important that this first poem in the series is entitled “Tribal Memories,” not individual memories, and Duncan emphasizes this connection to community by making the poem an invocation to Mnemosyne (“Her-Without-Bounds”):

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And to Her-Without-Bounds I send,
wherever She wanders,       by what
            campfire at evening,

among tribes setting each the City where
                    we Her people are
at the end of a day’s reaches        here
            the Eternal
lamps lit, here            the wavering human
         sparks of heat and light
glimmer, go out, and reappear. (9)

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Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, was the Greek personification of memory, and, as Duncan states in his essay “The Delirium of Meaning: Edmond Jabès,” “memory is the author or matrix of poetries” (209). By invoking Mnemosyne, rather than one of her children, Duncan reaches towards the cultural, communal, tribal memories that underlay all humanity, rather than the individual making of a poet invoking one of the Muses. Duncan’s emphasis on the communal is also alluded to in the lamps, the “human sparks” that “glimmer, go out, and reappear”: these cultural memories are the work and inheritance of many people, passed down through the ages to Duncan, who takes his place as one more person passing along the memories in these Passages.

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The quotations from Julian reinforce the derived, communal nature of the poems to follow, as well as the point that the poems aren’t Duncan’s creations so much as they are Duncan’s addition to and passing forward of a part of humanity’s cultural heritage. The poems become part of what Duncan refers to in the book’s introduction as “It,” the “Life Code” that shapes us all and with which we can, at moments of clarity, briefly reconnect: “It is striving to come into existence in these things, or, all striving to come into existence is It — in this realm of men’s languages a poetry of all poetries, grand collage, I name It, having only the immediate event of words to speak for It” (Introduction vii). Grand collage: the term stresses the necessary interplay of elements, the lack of any central focus, which Duncan works to create in his poetry; his use of quotations is fundamentally important to creating this community in his work. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the two pages that bring Bending the Bow to a close, the “Notes” pages in which Duncan lists the sources he has borrowed from in his poems. Not just a case of academic or creative honesty, the “Notes” pages reiterate the derivative, communal, anarchic nature of Duncan’s aesthetic and ideological project. This commitment to using quotation to illustrate the communal creativity of derivative poetics occurs over and over again in Duncan’s work, at least as early as the tentative communality of “Poetry, A Natural Thing” and “A Poem Beginning With a Line by Pindar” from 1960’s The Opening of the Field, through the Passages poems, and into the great derivative poems in “A Seventeenth Century Suite in Homage to the Metaphysical Genius in English Poetry (1590–1690),” “Dante Études,” and “To Master Baudelaire” from the Ground Work volumes.

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Cage also uses quotation quite a bit, but his usage differs from Duncan’s in that he tends towards the anecdotal, using indirect quotation rather than quoting another’s written words. A quick scan through Silence, for example, offers dozens of small anecdotal stories, almost all of which focus on either Cage’s interaction and conversation with a friend or else retell a story that a friend has told Cage; they tend to explain the relationship in their opening sentences: “M. C. Richards went to the Bolshoi Ballet” (6); “When Xenia and I came to New York from Chicago, we arrived in the bus station with about twenty-five cents. We were expecting to stay for a while with Peggy Gugenheim and Max Ernst” (12); “One day when I was across the hall visiting Sonya Sekula, I noticed that she was painting left-handed” (56); “Richard Lippold called up and said, ‘Would you come to dinner and bring the I-Ching?’ I said I would (66); etc. From there, the anecdote tends to offer an implicit example (often humourous) of Cage’s personal ideology: “Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, ‘What is the difference between before and after?’ He said, ‘No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground’” (Silence 88).

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Jann Pasler argues that Cage uses derivation in order to invent a tradition for himself: “Cage’s manner of inventing a tradition involves not so much extending others’ ideas as re-presenting them, bringing them again to life in part because they have become and represent aspects of Cage himself” (133). While this point is certainly accurate for these anecdotes, which stress community and commonality, it is important to realize that this type of derivation is only a small part of Cagean derivative poetics.

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The most important examples of Cage’s derivative poetics are the “writing through” poems. For these works, Cage began with a generant text (i.e., Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Thoreau’s Journal, Pound’s Cantos) and, through a series of specific rules, selected passages from the generant text; Cage then edited (only through removing words; it is important to note that Cage added no words to the text) into a new poem. Cage completed five different writings through of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, so it seems reasonable to focus on those poems as exemplary. In these poems, Cage derived long strings of mesostics (“not acrostics: row down the middle, not down the edge” [“Writing for the Second Time” 134]). Cage chose as his mesostic spine Joyce’s name, and then “began looking for a J without an A. And then for the next A without an M. Etcetera. I continued finding Joyce and James to the end of the chapter” (134). This creates a base text, from which Cage removed words to make his poem. The opening two stanzas of “Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake” help to illustrate the results:

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wroth with twone nathanJoe
                                              A
                                              Malt
                                           jhEm
                                               Shen

                                          pftJschute
                                             sOlid man
                    that the humptYhillhead of humself
                         is at the knoCk out
                                       in thE park (137)

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The poem continues on in such a manner for a total of 295 stanzas (40 pages), with the sheer length of the poem helping to emphasize its lack of normative meaning. Rather than Duncan’s collage of quotations, the Cagean writing through is a poetic palimpsest, where the generant text severely limits the possibility of what the text can say. Creation in Cage’s writings through is not a matter of creating a community of voices, but rather of revivifying the author of the generant text in such a way that Cage can enter into a kind of textual conversation with him.

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Moreover, this textual conversation works to renew, to literally breathe new life into the thoughts and beliefs of the author of the generant text. Cage comments about Finnegans Wake, for example, that “Due to N. O. Brown’s remark that syntax is the arrangement of the army, and Thoreau’s that when he heard a sentence he heard feet marching, I became devoted to nonsyntactical ‘demilitarized’ language. [… ] But when in this spirit I picked up [Finnegans Wake], Joyce seemed to me to have kept the old structures (‘sintalks’) in which he put the new words he had made” (“Writing through” 133). The Cagean writing through, then, takes on the role of an intervention, freeing Joyce’s words from their old-fashioned syntactical structures, structures that Cage believes were already out of date when Joyce was writing the book. Much more than an ideological updating, the writing through creates a new text, one that comes about only through the combined efforts of both Cage and Joyce; ascribing a singular authorship becomes impossible, especially since so many of the words in the writing through are Joyce’s own nonce words. This type of derivation places the site of creation in a liminal zone, a both/and yet neither/nor Cage/Joyce. In a way, the author of the piece is most accurately referred to as an imaginary John James Cage-Joyce.

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Although Duncan’s emphasis on collage, on bringing into his poetry the disparate voices of the multitude, holds obvious differences from Cage’s aesthetic project, both poets share this refusal to blindly continue on the project of their forerunners. As a poetic apprentice of Ezra Pound, Duncan openly acknowledges his debts to his “master.” However, as Christopher Beach argues, Duncan did not subserviently adopt Pound’s poetics; instead, “In Duncan’s derivation of Pound’s conceptions and poetic stance we find an influence that is not so much a direct transfer of ideas as a matter of artistic and intellectual inspiration. Duncan does not merely restate Pound’s meaning; neither does he distort it. Instead, he enters into a ‘field of possibility’ provided by Pound’s work” (137). What this means is that “Like Pound, Duncan is never satisfied with received notions of what constitutes acceptable poetic sources” (137). Taking to heart Pound’s maxim “Make it new,” Duncan remains faithful to his mentor by refusing to blindly follow even Pound’s own pronouncements. Consequently, Duncan sets Pound up as a personal master, but he also includes poets that Pound explicitly recused, such as Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and John Milton. As Beach argues, “The inclusion of Milton in Duncan’s canon is part of a self-conscious polemic against what he sees as the restricted lists of acceptable writers maintained by Pound and Olson” (138). Duncan openly deals with Pound’s influence in the second Passages poem, “At the Loom,” which opens with

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                                              A cat’s purr
in the hwirr thkk        “thgk, thkk”
   of Kirke’s loom on Pound’s Cantos
                  “I heard a song of that kind …  ”

my mind a shuttle among
              set strings of the music […  ] (11)

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Pound appears immediately after the opening Passages poem, one which functions as a prolonged invocation of Mnemosyne; consequently, Duncan acknowledges Pound as the most important of his forebears, with his mind figuratively acting as a shuttle on the loom of Pound’s Cantos. However, although Duncan remains faithful to Pound’s aesthetic of poetic collage, Duncan goes on to include in his grand collage many of the writers that Pound expressly forbade: Whitman (“The Fire  Passages 13”), William Blake (“The Multiversity Passages 21”), D. H. Lawrence (“Up Rising  Passages 25”), Stevens (“In Memoriam Wallace Stevens, Structure of Rime XXVIII”), as well as a recurring emphasis on mysticism, something that Pound disliked. Even Duncan’s sequence “A Seventeenth Century Suite in Homage to the Metaphysical Genius in English Poetry (1590–1690)” works in opposition to Pound, as Duncan explains in an interview with Michael Andre Bernstein and Burton Hatlen:

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In Pound aesthetics takes the place of humanitas. [… ] Humanism presented problems for the aesthetic. And Pound’s abhorance [sic] of the Renaissance is, I think, the actual abhorance [sic] of humanism, but he never saw where he was, he skipped the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries. In many things, he’s very much a person of the Enlightenment. My lines really mean a compromise all the way through, and the Renaissance is a compromise. (95)

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This stance of compromise leads Duncan to oppose respectfully Pound’s rigid dos and don’ts. It also informs Duncan’s derivative poetics, as it underlies his desire to gather together seemingly disparate or even opposing poetics and ideologies, in an attempt to create a resonance that brings about a fruitful relationship. Setting these oppositions in relation to each other also necessarily brings about conflict, but such a conflict is positive in Duncan’s opinion:

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           The President of the Grand Symphony
               for the sake of a dread calm and harmony
sets into motion      a counter-point      of contending elements,
     music’s     divine Strife. (“Eye of God, Passages 29” 126)

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Divine strife, not reified Order, underlies Duncan’s grand collage, and it both supports and flows from his inclusion of disparate authors quoted in his poetry. As Beach notes, “Rather than viewing ancestors as alternatives between which he must choose [… ], Duncan sees them as sources of differences that can be combined and recombined in productive endeavours” (141).

In Relation to the Masters:
Differing stances towards source material

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It’s important to note that the notion of strife, of refusing a blind obedience, is also a part of Cage’s aesthetics. Both Cage and Duncan openly acknowledge their aesthetic masters, but they also refuse to blindly follow those masters’ teachings. Consequently, Cage can write through and recreate Joyce’s novel in order to correct its shortcomings, while Duncan can take Pound’s collage style and use it to broaden the field of poetic potentiality by including quotations from many of the authors Pound attempted to exclude from the canon. This similarity, though, again points out some significant differences, particularly in relation to notions of voice.

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While Cage certainly pays respect to his forebears, his stance is often one of correction in the writings through. Duncan, however, takes a stance of humility relative his masters; his voice is one that openly and constantly shows what and how he has learned from his forebears. In this sense, Duncan’s derivative poetics work to create what he refers to as a “chrestomathy”:

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Down this dark corridor, “this passage,” the poet reminds me,

    and now that Eliot is dead, Williams and H.D. dead,
    Ezra alone of my old masters alive,     let me
                    acknowledge Eliot was one of them,     I was
           one of his,      whose    “History has many
               cunning passages, contrived corridors”

        comes into the chrestomathy. (“Orders, Passages 24” 78)

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A chrestomathy is “A collection of choice passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language” (OED). Literally, then, we see Duncan including Eliot’s passage in his own Passages (and Duncan intends the title of his series as a collection of choice passages to ring in resonance in the reader’s mind). Perhaps more important is the notion that the chrestomathy teaches the collector how to acquire language, how to speak. In this sense, Duncan’s derivative poetics creates for him a compendium of knowledge, of great ideas and of great writing, that had taught and continued to teach him how to write properly. Duncan situates himself as a student of his masters’ language and ideas, collecting from them the choice bits and then using what he sees as the best from all of them (even those authors that seem incompatible or who disagree with each other). The result is such that Duncan’s use of chrestomathy blurs the usually sharp line between creative author and passive reader; instead, as Clément Oudart notes, “Duncan’s radically open form is predicated upon a dual practice of reading writings and writing readings [… ].” Due to his ongoing creation of a chrestomathy, Duncan’s derivations worked in such a way that reading was for him a type of writing, and writing was a form of reading.

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Cage, on the other hand, turns to his masters not to learn how to write properly — Cage himself determines how to write through the restrictive rules he sets in place before starting a writing through — but strictly in order to learn what to say. In a Cagean writing through, Cage controls the rules, but he does not control the language, which is determined by the generant text and so was actually determined by the master. In the case of “Writing through the Cantos,” for instance, Cage makes it clear that he himself determined the form:

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To write the following text I followed the rule given my by Louis Mink, which I also followed in Writing for the Third (and Fourth) Time through Finnegans Wake, that is, I did not permit the appearance of either letter between two of the name. As in Writing for the Fourth Time Through Finnegans Wake, I kept an index of the syllables used to present a given letter of the name and I did not permit repetition of these syllables. (109)

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Formally, Cage controls the text. However, Pound necessarily determines the language (or at least the archive of possible language), and a cursory look at the first few lines of the poem shows that Pound’s language and themes shine through the palimpsest:

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and thEn with bronZe lance heads beaRing yet Arms
                          sheeP slain Of plUto stroNg praiseD
                thE narrow glaZes the uptuRned nipple As
                                        sPeak tO rUy oN his gooDs
(109)

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For instance, Pound’s themes of martial conflict and ancient rites of sacrifice to Greek gods (both of which Pound borrowed from The Odyssey), his interest in Classical literature and in commerce, as well as specific phrases such as “the upturned nipple” (Canto III, ln 16) and the reference to Ruy Diaz remain; however, by entering into this textual conversation with Pound, Cage provides his master with new things to say, shaping and re-presenting Pound’s words to make them more appropriate (in Cage’s opinion) to Cage’s audience, since Pound’s overt didacticism, his anti-Semitism and Fascist sympathies — in short, Pound’s politics — are excised from “Writing through the Cantos,” resulting in a text that luxuriates in Pound’s language and general themes but removes Pound’s hierarchical ideology.

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Consequently, Duncan and Cage hold two very different authorial positions in relation to their masters. Whereas Duncan learns how to speak via his interaction with the masters, Cage provides the masters with new comments and new ideas that they didn’t have before. What this means in terms of poetic voice, however, is that Duncan’s derivative poetics teach him to actively speak — he gains his own voice by interacting with his masters and with the community as a whole: “the man individualizes himself, deriving his individuality from the ideas and possibilities at large of manhood in a community that includes all that we know of what man is… ” (“From The H.D. Book, Part II, Chapter 5” 50). Cage, however, remains silent, doing no more than revising his masters’ speech in order to correct and update it for a new audience. Duncan’s derivative poetics create an active poetic voice, while Cage’s derivative poetics leave him silent, voiceless, unable or unwilling to speak for himself; this silence arises, as Michael J. O’Driscoll explains, because Cage’s “auditory and verbal catalogs are without intention [… they are] therefore without meaning” (630). The result is that “If ambient sounds are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention, then Cage’s poetic assemblages [… ] are silent texts, texts without intention” (632). Emptied of intended meaning, Cagean writings through leave Cage relatively passive and silent in “his” derivative texts.

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Although it is true that Cage does not completely avoid authorial agency (he determines the form, he puts the rules in place, he chooses the generant text, he does choose which words to edit out of the text, etc.), this agency is severely limited; he cannot speak his own ideas because he is limited to using the themes, ideas, and words of the generant text. As Cage explains, like all Cagean aleatoric creations, both literary and musical, the writings through were designed to limit the author’s ego in favour of collaboration with the external world of possibilities: “chance operations are not mysterious sources of ‘the right answers.’ They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego of its taste and memory, its concern for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience whether that lie outside or inside” (“Preface to ‘Lecture on the Weather’” 5). Rather than completely excising authorial agency, the writings through lessen Cage’s agency in order to allow this collaboration; rather than merely effacing the individual, Cage wishes to open the individual up to multiple possibilities. Diminishing authorial agency allows for the type of attentive listening that Cage demands, a point that I will work through in the next section.

Anarchy, Organic Form, and Derivative Poetics

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The relationship of individual to community that plays itself out in the styles of voices that both poets create is deeply connected to the poets’ anarchist ideology. [2] Indeed, for both Duncan and Cage, derivation is an anarchic action, one designed to re-orient society along what they see as the ethical imperative of anarchy. Both poets use derivation to highlight what they believe to be the necessarily communal nature of creativity. Duncan stresses this anarchic communal creativity generally through his use of chrestomathy, through those poets who have taught him his voice, but he also specifically draws the reader’s attention to his belief in an anarchic community in many of his poems; for example, in “The First” (from “The Regulators” set of Passages from Duncan’s final book, Ground Work II), he emphasizes the anarchic, non-hierarchical nature of a trans-historical, just society: “The people of this nation thruout [sic] time are not one but a multitude      each from his one / heart/mind       coming forward      masst [sic] / so you cannot strike down our leader     for no one      leads us” (61); likewise, he ends “The Multiversity, Passages 21” (one of his most vitriolic of anti-Vietnam War poems) with an anarchic affirmation of individual rights: “There being no common good, no commune, / no communion, outside the freedom of / individual volition” (73). It is this belief in anarchy that leads Duncan, in the introduction to Bending the Bow, to declare that “The commune of Poetry becomes so real that [the poet] sounds each particle in relation to parts of a great story that he knows will never be completed” (vi); poetry, as the work of many hands (echoed in the loom image in “At The Loom  Passages 2,” the collage image in “The Collage  Passages 6,” etc.) is necessarily beyond the work of any one contributing individual, though each individual’s contribution is vital to the shape of the whole. This anarchic stance helps to explain Duncan’s humility in relation to his acknowledged masters: the chrestomathy shows Duncan’s willingness to place himself in the masters’ textual hands, emphasizing both Duncan’s individual choice and agency as well as his certainty that he is but one part of a much greater whole.

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Although expressed in a different fashion, anarchy also underpins Cage’s use of derivation. As Cage states in Anarchy, a book-length writing through of numerous quotations drawn from anarchist philosophers and apologists, “Buckminster Fuller believed, and I follow him, that politicians are of no good use. They could be sent as he used to say to outer space and left there without matters getting worse for humanity here on earth. We don’t need government” (v). Cage wants both himself and his readers “Not just to say anarchy / but to Do it” (“Overpopulation and Art” 19), and he exhorts his readers “tO find new forms / of liVing / nEw / foRms of living together” that will “overcome / the Pariarchal thinking / the aUthoritarian structures” (“Overpopulation and Art” 23). Derivation fits into Cage’s support for anarchism by allowing him to enter into an individual relationship with his forebears and, by silencing his voice, allowing those forebears to speak again. This silencing of the self, accomplished by the writing through method (which removes Cage’s own voice from the text) goes hand-in-hand with another aspect of Cage’s anarchy: listening. Cage believed that it is only by listening that the individual can locate her or his place in the universe. This last point is perhaps best illustrated through a brief discussion of one of Cage’s best-known musical compositions, 4’33”, a musical piece in which the performer sits at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a note.

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As Austin Clarkson astutely points out, critics that focus on 4'33" as containing the ambient sounds in the performance space “miss Cage’s requirement that the act of listening is paramount, and that the minimal condition of the musical fact is the reflexive relationship between sound and the listener” (70). Moreover, because 4’33” demands an attentive, active listening, the “distinction between the self and the other, the listener and the music is minimized” (70); in other words, the listener must pay attention to the world, listening to all sounds equally, becoming both a listener and a performer at the same time. I would argue that all Cagean writings through, which require such attention to detail, provide Cage with similar listening experiences in relation to his forebears. By not speaking, by not writing his own words, he is able to focus on what his forebears said and are now saying again (in response to Cage’s formal choices) for the first time. Cagean nonsensical writings through clear the reader’s mind of the expected knowledge they often expect to receive from the Great Author and, much like Duncan’s humility in the face of his masters, also declares that “the price of enlightenment is the surrender of one’s intellectual pretensions, and the acceptance of one’s vulnerability in the face of new experience” (Junkerman 52). The individual, be she the reader or the Cagean reader/writer, must constantly understand and negotiate her place in relation to the communal whole. There are no hierarchies with Duncan or Cage, no easy places where the individual can passively or unthinkingly accept a subordinate position; as Cage puts it,

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                              Anarchy
really does have The future
    people are talkIng
                          abOut
   it is creative coNduct
                              As opposed to
                 subordiNate
                         conDuct         it is positive
                 individuAlism       to follow a way of thinking
                     that pRoposes you can assume
    for your own acTs
                       respOnsibility
                               Visibly
                              rEsponsible
                             fiRst to yourself and then to society 
                                                  (“Overpopulation and Art” 37)

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What we see with both Cage and Duncan is a commitment to anarchic principles in society and an attempt to actively portray those principles in their writing in order to teach their readers a more ethically sound relationship between individuals, and between individuals and their communities.

^

Part and parcel of the two poets’ commitment to anarchy is their belief in an organic order that underlies all of creation. Anarchy is the best ethical situation when one believes that nature has always already determined the best relationship between its elements, including human beings. As Duncan states in “Towards an Open Universe,” “Central to and defining the poetics I am trying to suggest here is the conviction that the order man may contrive or impose upon the things about him or upon his own language is trivial beside the divine order or natural order he may discover in them” (6, my emphasis). Duncan argues that the individual must remain constantly attentive to her or his surroundings, both natural and textual, and must obey the order found in those surroundings. This is derivation at its most broad, not just in poetry but in ethical living in general. The individual must trust the larger whole (be it the community of individuals or the textual whole of poetry), even though the order contained in that wholeness is too large for any individual to understand: “Our engagement with knowing, with craft and lore, our demand for truth is not to reach a conclusion, but to keep our exposure to what we do not know, to confront our wish and our need beyond habit and capability, beyond what we can take for granted” (“Towards” 12). The attentive individual may not understand the larger whole, but, by remaining attentive, she can engage with the larger whole, which remains fluid, non-containable, and never-ending. This means that the individual cannot dismiss anything out of hand, since for Duncan “nothing is trivial, [… ] meaning and the potential for feeling permeate or saturate everything, no matter how apparently insignificant” (Mackey 101). It also means our world is in a constant state of change and flux, that “What is complete but rests in the momentary illusion” (“After Passage” 70) and that “no one / nor poet / nor writer of words // can contrive to do justice to the beauty of that / design he designs from” (“Transmissions” 21). No one can do the whole justice; only the communal entity can, and only then when the communal entity follows the organic rules of anarchy.

^

Cage also believes that there is an organic order underlying all of creation, and it is this belief that allows him to embrace aleatory compositional methods. Specifically, it is Cage’s Zen studies that fuel his belief that, as Gudrun M. Grabher says, “order is no longer the network of the human mind cast on the world but, rather, a structure that is inherent in reality” (74). What this belief means for Cage is that chance is not chance, since everything is always already naturally ordered. As it does for Duncan, natural order requires for Cage the individual’s attention; Cage comments in the introduction to his lecture “Indeterminacy” (which is comprised of ninety stories, paratactically combined) that

^

The continuity of the stories as recorded was not planned. I simply made a list of all the stories I could think of and checked them off as I wrote them. [… ] My intention in putting the stories together in an unplanned way was to suggest that all things — stories, incidental sounds from the environment, and, by extensions, beings — are related, and that this complexity is more evident when it is not oversimplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind. (260)

^

Cage believes, like Duncan, that the organic order underlying creation exceeds the grasp of any individual. All that one can do is let go of the belief in individual order, and instead “give up the desire to control sound, [… ] and set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments” (“Experimental Music” 10). Although Cage directs this last comment specifically at music, it applies equally well to any of the writing through poems, such as “Empty Words,” which attempts to make out of Henry David Thoreau’s writings a “transition from language to music” (“Empty Words” 65). When both Duncan and Cage engage in derivative poetics, they implicitly place their faith in an anarchic, organic order — Duncan quotes from his diverse sources in order to show an unforeseen commonality in these sources, while Cage writes through his forebears to show that any text contains a myriad of other possible texts. Neither poet relies on chance in these actions, precisely because they both believe that organic order denies the possibility of random chance.

^

What we’re left with, then, are two complementary versions of anarchic derivative ethics: Duncan focuses in his work on the role that the community plays in shaping the individual, while Cage focuses on the individual who will help to shape the community.

Areas of Influence

^

For Duncan, influence tends to flow from the communal to the individual, as with a chrestomathy. The community must be in place in order to show the individual how to act ethically. For example, in “The Architecture, Passages 9,” Duncan shows that the structure (literally of the house, but figuratively of the community) comes from the communal whole. He begins the poem with the first of several lengthy quotations from Gustave Stickley’s 1909 book Craftsman Homes: “‘… it must have recesses. There is a great charm in a room broken up in plan, where that slight feeling of mystery is given to it which arises when you cannot see the whole room from any one place . . when there is always something around the corner’” (26). Acting as a didactic tag, Stickley’s pronouncement applies to Duncan’s method of writing the poem, as he darts between subjects, references, and quotations, never completely finishing with one before moving on to the next. Duncan, the adopted son of an architect, openly derives his structural form from Stickley, going on to quote Craftsman Homes several times throughout the poem, including a passage which makes explicit the link between community and individual: “‘the staircase, instead of being hidden away in a small hall or treated as a necessary evil, made one of the most beautiful and prominent features of the room because it forms a link between the social part of the house and the upper regions’” (27). The upper regions are the place of privacy, of individual space; that space must be entered by going through the “social part of the house,” and the staircase must be prized as the link between the two regions. This emphasis on the connection between the two regions works to illustrate Duncan’s belief that “We ourselves can know no good apart / from the good of all men” (“The Earth, Passages 19” 66). Moreover, as Thomas Gardner points out, the metaphor of the architect necessarily involves combining separate elements into one unit: “the act of creating a household is, in fact, the act of bringing together, into an expanding but coherent structure, things that had been separate and distant” (303).

^

Although Duncan tends to focus on how influence flows from the communal into the individual, he also recognizes that, having learned from society one’s ethical place in society, the individual then becomes a part of the society that influences other individuals. As he states in “Of Empire” (one of the poems in “Dante Études”),

^

The individual man  having his own nature and truth
      and appropriate thereto     his household
outlined     in relation to groups     he finds
      himself in     freely attending, changing,
      electing,    or joining to carry forward
            the idea, the insistent phrase,
            the needed resonance   into action,

seeks to realize harmonies in his district (105)

^

However, one should note that Duncan believes that even after the individual takes on the role of influencing others (and becomes a “master”), that individual still must respect the needs of the greater community. As Stephen Collis puts it, “Duncan envisions a poetic anarchism that checks the ego [… ] without giving authority over to some centre. Authority is thus given to the centreless commons — all of past poetry echoing in Duncan’s own, the entire field of language over which many ‘masters’ stand and are in turn ‘servants’ of the commons once again… ” (“A Duncan Etude: Dante and Responsibility”). In other words, attaining the position of master does not mean that the individual attains a position of dominance over others; masters must also maintain their ethical responsibilities as individual members of the group.

^

This duty of the individual to her society is precisely what Cage focuses on in his derivative work. As he says in “The Future of Music,” “Less anarchic kinds of music give examples of less anarchic states of society. The masterpieces of Western music exemplify monarchies and dictatorships. [… ] By making musical situations which are analogies to desirable social circumstances which we do not have yet, we make music suggestive and relevant to the serious questions which face Mankind” (183). In choosing to write through two of the dominant and dominating texts of Modernism, Pound’s Cantos and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Cage does more than enter into a textual conversation with Pound or Joyce, and he does more than remove what he sees as the Fascist holdovers of syntax from Joyce’s novel or the obvious Fascism of Pound’s poetry; by creating a text that literally anyone could create, given the time or interest, Cage removes the aura of artistic virtuosity from the two Modernist texts. Cage attempts to move the emphasis from masterpieces created by great individuals who stood above the crowd to texts that shift the emphasis to the individual who refuses to pronounce, who refuses to claim authority. Cage’s writings through are not his writings, but rather his recycling of another writer’s words. Rather than art, Cage wishes to create objects that engage with everyday life:

^

WHEN WE SEPARATE MUSIC FROM LIFE WHAT WE GET IS ART (A COMPENDIUM OF 
MASTERPIECES). WITH CONTEMPORARY MUSIC, WHEN IT IS ACTUALLY 
CONTEMPORARY, WE HAVE NO TIME TO MAKE THAT SEPARATION (WHICH 
PROTECTS US FROM LIVING), AND SO                                 CONTEMPORARY MUSIC IS 
NOT SO MUCH ART AS IT IS LIFE AND ANY ONE MAKING IT NO SOONER 
FINISHES ONE OF IT THAT HE BEGINS MAKING ANOTHER JUST AS PEOPLE 
KEEP ON WASHING DISHES, BRUSHING THEIR TEETH, GETTING SLEEPY, 
AND SO ON. 
(“Composition as Process” 44)

^

Cage writes through these texts in order to both correct the egoism of Pound and Joyce as well as to silence himself. He presents in the nonsensical derived texts an example of how to avoid setting oneself above or aside from the community. Written in concert with another author, these writings through show the reader how to ethically remove her ego from her actions in order to open herself up to the influence of others. Because the writings through silence Cage, they allow someone or something else to speak. Consequently, “Having nothing to say,” Christopher Schultis explains, “allows [the] environment the opportunity to speak” (316). With this move towards silencing the self so that the environment (which necessarily includes all contiguous communities) can speak, we have, in a sense, completed the ethical circle that Duncan began: for Duncan, the community must influence the individual, who eventually learns how to become part of the ethical community; for Cage, the individual must first act ethically towards the community, refusing to set herself above or apart, thus showing that community how its individuals should act ethically, and then the community can ethically engage with the individual without seeking to dominate or overwhelm the individual. Rather than seeing these two forms of influence as contradictory, I believe that they combine to offer a complete whole, a cycle of influence that is only partly drawn in either Duncan’s or Cage’s work.

^

Derivation lies at the heart of the ethical and aesthetic programs of both Duncan and Cage. Although they present their derivations in different ways, they share a deeply-held belief that derivative poetics will help to bring about a turn to anarchism. In this sense, both poets use their writings didactically, trying to teach their readers through both form and content that anarchy provides an ethical solution to the problems of the contemporary world. Duncan hopes that his emphasis on chrestomathy, on showing how the individual should learn from a variety of sources set side-by-side without placing them into hierarchies, will teach the reader how to enact a personal anarchism. Cage, in the derivative writings through, hopes to show the reader how to anarchically silence the self, thus deprivileging the western world’s emphasis on the Individual and opening the reader up to the anarchic community. Therefore, even though Duncan focuses on the community’s influence on the individual while Cage emphasizes the individual’s proper relationship with the community, both use derivative poetics to further their anarchistic ethics. They do write quite differently, but, as Duncan acknowledges at the end of his poem “Moving the Moving Image, Passages 17,” their shared belief in an organic form underlying all of creation means that their derivative poetics are implicitly aligned:

^

As for Music — to know this is to know the order of all things
              set together in a key of diversities

                            is a sweet harmony.
…  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …  …   .
         “By Him, the Holy Spirit, all intercourse and converse
            awake and asleep.

         “His intermediate powers are many,
            and this one is Eros”

                        John Cage’s open scales

“who will be faced with the entire field of sound” (60; 62)




Works Cited

Beach, Christopher. ABC of Influence: Ezra Pound and the Remaking of American Poetic Tradition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

Bertholf, Robert J. “Decision at the Apogee: Robert Duncan’s Anarchist Critique of Denise Levertov.” Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry. Ed. Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006. 1–17.

Cage, John. Anarchy. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2001.

———. “Composition as Process.” Silence. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1973. 18–56.

———. “Empty Words.” Empty Words. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1981. 11–77.

———. “The Future of Music.” Empty Words. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1981. 177–187.

———. “Indeterminacy.” Silence. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1973. 260–273.

———. “Overpopulation and Art.” John Cage: Composed in America. Ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. 14–38.

———. “Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake.” Empty Words. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1981. 133–176.

———. “Writing Through the Cantos.” X. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1983. 109–115.

“Chrestomathy.” Oxford English Dictionary. 13 August 2008 <http://dictionary.oed.com. ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/cgi/entry/50039131?single=1&query_type=word&queryword= chrestomathy&first=1&max_to_show=10

Collis, Stephen. “A Duncan Etude: Dante and Responsibility.” Jacket 26 (2004). 9 August 2008 <http://jacketmagazine.com/26/dunc-coll.html

Clarkson, Austin. “The Intent of the Musical Moment: Cage and the Transpersonal.” Writings Through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art. Ed. David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001. 62–112.

Duncan, Robert. “After Passage (Passages).” Ground Work II: In the Dark. New York: New Directions, 1987. 69–70.

———. “At the Loom, Passages 2.” Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968. 11–13.

———. “The Architecture, Passages 9.” Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968. 26–28.

———. “The Delirium of Meaning: Edmond Jabès.” A Selected Prose. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf. New York: New Directions, 1995. 208–226.

———. “Eye of God, Passages 29.” Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968. 124–127.

———. “From The H.D. Book, Part II, Chapter 5.” Sagetrieb 4.2–3 (1985): 39–85.

———. “Interview with Michael Andre Bernstein and Burton Hatlen.” Sagetrieb 4.2–3 (1985): 87–135.

———. Introduction. Bending the Bow. By Duncan. New York: New Directions, 1968. i-x.

———. “Moving the Moving Image, Passages 17.” Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968. 60–62.

———. “Of Empire.” Ground Work: Before the War. New York: New Directions, 1984. 105–106.

———. “Orders, Passages 24.” Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968. 77–80.

———. “The Earth, Passages 19.” Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968. 66–67.

———. “The First  [Passages].” Ground Work II: In the Dark. New York: New Directions, 1987. 60–62.

———. “The Multiversity, Passages 21.” Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968. 70–73.

———. “Towards an Open Universe.” A Selected Prose. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf. New York: New Directions, 1995. 1–12.

———. “Transmissions, Passages 33 (Tribunals).” Ground Work: Before the War. New York: New Directions, 1984. 19–24.

———. “Tribal Memories, Passages 1.” Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968. 9–10.

Gardner, Thomas. “‘Where We Are’: A Reading of Passages 1–12.” Sagetrieb 4.2–3 (1985): 285–306.

Grabher, Gudrun M. “‘Playing Hide and Seek in the Nothing that Is’: ‘Silent’ Meaning and Order in the Poetry and Aesthetics of John Cage.” Ideas of Order in Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. Diana von Finck and Oliver Scheiding. Konigshausen and Neumann, 2007. 63–80.

Junkerman, Charles. “‘nEw / foRms of living together’: The Model of the Musicircus.” John Cage: Composed in America. Ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. 39–64.

Mackey, Nathaniel. “Gassire’s Lute: Robert Duncan’s Vietnam War Poems.” Paracritical Hinge. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2005. 71–178.

O’Driscoll, Michael J. “Silent Texts and Empty Words: Structure and Intention in the Writings of John Cage.” Contemporary Literature 38.4 (1997): 616–639.

Oudart, Clément. “Genreading and Underwriting: A Few Soundings and Probes into Duncan’s Ground Work.Jacket 32 (2007). 11 August 2008 <http://jacketmagazine.com/32/oudart-genreading.shtml

Passler, Jann. “Inventing a Tradition: Cage’s ‘Composition in Retrospect.’” John Cage: Composed in America. Ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. 125–43.

Schultis, Christopher. “Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the Intentionality of Nonintention.” Musical Quarterly 79.2 (1995): 312–350.


Notes

[1] Since, as I will argue later in the paper, Cage does not and cannot claim authorship of the writings through, I will refer to these texts as the products of a Cagean system of composition, rather than as Cage’s own writing.

[2] Both poets wrote and spoke openly about their belief in anarchism, which meant for them not chaos but an ethical society without government. Cage declared in his introduction to Anarchy that “We don’t need government” and goes on to quote Henry David Thoreau: “That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have” (v). Robert J. Bertholf summarizes Duncan’s anarchism thusly:

That the individual is free to act as long as his actions do not impinge on the freedom to act of other people [… ]. [E]ssential freedom means living in a society without government. [… ] These are the two principles of anarchist thought that appealed to Duncan, plus a third: the necessity to destroy present social and economic systems in order to create new kinds of organization in which the freedom and integrity of the individual will flourish. (4–5)

For both poets, and for anarchists in general, the lack of government will bring about greater individual freedom, but it will also require from all individuals a high level of personal responsibility.

Andy Weaver

Andy Weaver

Andy Weaver has published and has forthcoming articles on the poetry of Fred Wah, Darren Wershler, and Robert Duncan. His own poems have appeared in various literary magazines, as well as the book Were the Bees (NeWest, 2005), which was nominated for an Alberta Book Award, and the forthcoming gangson (NeWest, 2011). He teaches contemporary poetry and poetics at York University.

 
 
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