john cage at seventy

“About five or six years ago, I was invited to make etchings at the Crown Point Press in California. I accepted immediately, even though I didn’t know how to make them, because about twenty years before, I was invited to trek in the Himalayas, and didn’t. I later discovered that the walk was going to be on elephants with servants, and I’ve always regretted that missed opportunity.”

(John Cage, from an interview in 1982 with Stephen Montague.)

suite of appearances, iv

In another time, we will want to know how the earth looked
Then, and were people the way we are now. In another time,
The reords they left will convince us that we are unchanged

And could be at ease in the past, and not alone in the present.
And we shall be pleased. But beyond all that, what cannot
Be seen or explained will always be elsewhere, always supposed,

Invisible even beneath the signs – the beautiful surface,
The uncommon knowledge – that point its way. In another time,
What cannot be seen will define us, and we shall be prompted

To say that language is error, and all things are wronged
By representation. The self, we shall say, can never be
Seen with a disguise, and never be seen without one.

(Mark Strand)

duino elegies, 1

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?

and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.
Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need?
Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.
Perhaps there remains for us some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take into our vision;
there remains for us yesterday’s street and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.
Oh and night: there is night, when a wind full of infinite space gnaws at our faces.
Whom would it not remain for–that longed-after, mildly disillusioning presence,
which the solitary heart so painfully meets.
Is it any less difficult for lovers?
But they keep on using each other to hide their own fate.
Don’t you know yet?
Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe;
perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.
Yes – the springtimes needed you. Often a star was waiting for you to notice it.
A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past,

or as you walked under an open window, a violin yielded itself to your hearing.
All this was mission. But could you accomplish it?
Weren’t you always distracted by expectation, as if every event announced a beloved?
(Where can you find a place to keep her, with all the huge strange thoughts inside you
going and coming and often staying all night.)
But when you feel longing, sing of women in love; for their famous passion is still not immortal.
Sing of women abandoned and desolate (you envy them, almost)
who could love so much more purely than those who were gratified.
Begin again and again the never-attainable praising; remember: the hero lives on;
even his downfall was merely a pretext for achieving his final birth.
But Nature, spent and exhausted, takes lovers back into herself,
as if there were not enough strength to create them a second time.
Have you imagined Gaspara Stampa intensely enough
so that any girl deserted by her beloved might be inspired by that fierce example of soaring,
objectless love and might say to herself, “Perhaps I can be like her?”
Shouldn’t this most ancient of sufferings finally grow more fruitful for us?
Isn’t it time that we lovingly freed ourselves from the beloved and,
quivering, endured: as the arrow endures the bowstring’s tension,
so that gathered in the snap of release it can be more than itself.
For there is no place where we can remain.
Voices. Voices. Listen, my heart, as only saints have listened:

until the gigantic call lifted them off the ground;
yet they kept on, impossibly, kneeling and didn’t notice at all: so complete was their listening.
Not that you could endure God’s voice – far from it.
But listen to the voice of the wind and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.
It is murmuring toward you now from those who died young.
Didn’t their fate, whenever you stepped into a church in Naples or Rome,
quietly come to address you?
Or high up, some eulogy entrusted you with a mission,
as, last year, on the plaque in Santa Maria Formosa.
What they want of me is that I gently remove the appearance of injustice about their death—
which at times slightly hinders their souls from proceeding onward.
Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,

to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things in terms of a human future;
no longer to be what one was in infinitely anxious hands;
to leave even one’s own first name behind,
forgetting it as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires.
Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away in every direction.
And being dead is hard work and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel a trace of eternity.
Though the living are wrong to believe in the too-sharp distinctions which
they themselves have created.
Angels (they say) don’t know whether it is the living they are moving among, or the dead.
The eternal torrent whirls all ages along in it, through both realms forever,
and their voices are drowned out in its thunderous roar.
In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us:

they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joys,
as gently as children outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers.
But we, who do need such great mysteries,
we for whom grief is so often the source of our spirit’s growth—:
could we exist without them?
Is the legend meaningless that tells how, in the lament for Linus,
the daring first notes of song pierced through the barren numbness;
and then in the startled space which a youth as lovely as a god has suddenly left forever,
the Void felt for the first time that harmony which now enraptures and comforts and helps us.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell.)

opening the cage

14 variations on 14 words

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry
John Cage

I have to say poetry and is that nothing and am I saying it
I am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
I am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it
I that am saying poetry have nothing and it is I and to say
And I say that I am to have poetry and saying it is nothing
I am poetry and nothing and saying it is to say that I have
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
Poetry is saying I have nothing and I am to say that and it
Saying nothing I am poetry and I have to say that and it is
It is and I am and I have poetry saying say that to nothing
It is saying poetry to nothing and I say I have and am that
Poetry is saying I have it and I am nothing and to say that
And that nothing is poetry I am saying and I have to say it
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it

(Edwin Morgan)

election day

E. B. White said democracy
is a letter to the editor and
I’m not sure I agree though I
love letters to the editor
particularly loony ones that
begin by quoting Bob Dylan’s
“Like a Rolling Stone” and end
by endorsing “nobody” for
president (“if nobody wins
nobody loses”) but when I
think of democracy in American
I think not of Tocqueville but
of The Great McGinty
a Preston Sturges movie
where the big city hero now
a bartender recounts how
he, a bum, got paid to vote early,
vote often, and so impressed
the machine boss that he rose
to become an alderman
then the mayor of the city
then governor and would have
kept the job, too, if he hadn’t
(thanks to do-gooder wife)
tried to do some good for
the people some think
the moral is that politics
is crooked but I think it’s
that anyone can grow up
to be governor

(David Lehman, from the 10 November 2006 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, p. 10)

prologues to what is possible


There was an ease of mind that was like being alone in a boat at sea,
A boat carried forward by waves resembling the bright backs of rowers,
Gripping their oars, as if they were sure of the way to their destination,
Bending over and pulling themselves erect on the wooden handles,
Wet with water and sparkling in the one-ness of their motion.

The boat was built of stones that had lost their weight and being no longer heavy
Had left in them only a brilliance, of unaccustomed origin,
So that he that stood up in the boat leaning and looking before him
Did not pass like someone voyaging out of and beyond the familiar.
He belonged to the far-foreign departure of his vessel and was part of it,
Part of the speculum of fire on its prow, its symbol, whatever it was,
Part of the glass-like sides on which it glided over the salt-stained water,
As he traveled alone, like a man lured on by a syllable without any meaning,
A syllable of which he felt, with an appointed sureness,
That it contained the meaning into which he wanted to enter,
A meaning which, as he entered it, would shatter the boat and leave the oarsmen quiet
As at a point of central arrival, an instant moment, much or little,
Removed from any shore, from any man or woman, and needing none.


The metaphor stirred his fear. The object with which he was compared
Was beyond his recognizing. By this he knew that likeness of him extended
Only a little way, and not beyond, unless between himself
And things beyond resemblance there was this and that intended to be recognized,
The this and that in the enclosures of hypotheses
On which men speculated in summer when they were half asleep.

What self, for example, did he contain that had not yet been loosed,
Snarling in him for discovery as his attentions spread,
As if all his hereditary lights were suddenly increased
By an access of color, a new and unobserved, slight dithering,
The smallest lamp, which added its puissant flick, to which he gave
A name and privilege over the ordinary of his commonplace—

A flick which added to what was real and its vocabulary,
The way some first thing coming into Northern trees
Adds to them the whole vocabulary of the South,
The way the earliest single light in the evening sky, in spring,
Creates a fresh universe out of nothingness by adding itself,
The way a look or a touch reveals its unexpected magnitudes.

(Wallace Stevens)


“It’s difficult, in other words, to define in precise terms the imprecision of amorous moods, which consist in a joyous impatience to possess a void, in a greedy expectation of what might come to me from the void, and also in the pain of being still deprived of what I am impatiently and greedily expecting, in the tormenting pain of feeling myself already potentially doubled to possess potentially something potentially mine, and yet forced not to possess, to consider not mine and therefore potentially another’s what I potentially possess. The pain of having to bear the fact that the potentially mine is also potentially another’s, or, for all I know, actually another’s; this greedy jealous pain is a state of such fullness that it makes you believe being in love consists entirely and only in pain, that the greedy impatience is nothing but jealous desperation, and the emotion of impatience is only the emotion of despair that twists within itself, becoming more and more desperate, with the capacity that each particle of despair has for redoubling and arranging itself symmetrically by the analogous particle and for tending to move from its own state to enter another, perhaps worse state which rends and lacerates the former.”

(Italo Calvino, “Mitosis” in t zero, p. 71, trans. William Weaver.)

new york

“Eventually we all wound up in New York studying of looking for jobs – which reminds me of a point I would like to make about New York, namely, that if you live in most other places, like San Francisco, Paris, or Bloomington, you are, almost against your will, taking a stand of some kind, and the stand is that you are not living in New York. If you live in New York, however, you are probably not doing so because you like it or you feel it expresses you, but because it’s the most convenient place: there are people, jobs, concerts and so on, but it doesn’t add up to a place: one has no feeling of living somewhere. That is another reason I dislike the New York School term – because it seems to designate a place, whereas New York is really an anti-place, an abstract climate, and I am not prepared to take up the cudgels to defend such a place, especially when I would much rather be living in San Francisco.”

(John Ashbery, “The New York School of Poets,” p. 114 in Selected Prose.)


“Perhaps it would be best to abandon the idea that any one text represents the ‘definitive’ version of a Shakespeare play. After all, the quest for a ‘definitive’ text, based on a ‘single lost original’, was premissed on the principles of Classical and biblical textual criticism. It is not necessarily appropriate for more modern literary and, especially, dramatic texts. ‘Version-based editing’ now seems a more fitting way of approaching authors (such as Wordsworth in The Prelude, or Henry James in the New York Edition of his novels) who self-consciously revised their word. Theatre is a supremely mobile art form, and we need a similar version-based approach to Shakespeare. We cannot be confident about the degree of authorial control in the revision of Shakespeare’s plays, or the extent to which it was systematic or haphazard; but we can be confident that many of the thousands of differences between the quarto and Folio texts are best explained by accepting that the texts embody different moments in those plays’ theatrical lives.”

(Jonathan Bate, “The Folio Restored,” p. 12 of the 20 April 2007 issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)


Jealousy. Whispered weather reports.
In the street we found boxes
Littered with snow, to burn at home.
What flower tolling on the waters
You stupefied me. We waxed,
Carnivores, late and alight
In the beaded winter. All was ominous, luminous.
Beyond the bed’s veils the white walls danced
Some violent compunction. Promises,
We thought then of your dry portals,
Bright cornices of eavesdropping palaces,
You were painfully stitched to hours
The moon now tears up, scoffing at the unrinsed portions.
And love’s adopted realm. Flees to water,
The coach dissolving in mists.
                                                      A wish
Refines the lines around the mouth
At these ten-year intervals. It fumed
Clear air of wars. It desired
Excess of core in all things. From all things sucked
A glossy denial. But look, pale day:
We fly hence. To return if sketched
In the prophet’s silence. Who doubts it is true?

(John Ashbery, from Some Trees.)