[48. Ching / The Well, Unchanging.]
he had stopped woRking
even though we’re now Conscious
never reLaxed for a moment
Today I am reading through the inaugural installations of Cage’s unique poetic form, the “mesostic.” In essence, a mesostic follows the rules of an acrostic, where a single phrase is highlighted amidst the text either through boldface or capitalization, aligned to one margin. It was often used as a mnemonic device, and Cage took the concept one step further by creating a limiting procedure or rule whereby, between any two capitalized letters, you can’t have the second letter appear again. This simply means that one must start a new line or choose a new word or phrase to continue the poem. Here is a simple example:
I’ll start with an acrostic, BOB, and my text is “Buy Our Books online,” which would look like this:
Now I’ll construct something more elaborate, applying Cage’s “50%” mesostic rule:
if possiBle we will buy Our digital Books online
This was the format for Cage’s first mesostic, written for his friend Edwin Denby, in 1963:
rEmembering a Day i visited you
seems noW as I write that the weather theN was warm
seems noW as I write that the weather theN was warm
The simple rule of succession means that, once we reach the next letter of the core text, we must capitalize it, and the poem is over when the letters are all used. The next step was to align the core text center, thus creating, as Norman Brown observed, a “mesostic” rather than an acrostic, after the Greek term mesos, or middle, rather than akron, which means extremity. Applying these rules to the BOB mesostic, we get this:
if possiBle we will buy
digital Books online
Here is where the decision-making is dictated by the structure; my first inclination was to write “if possible we should buy our books online,” and this would force the following layout according to the rule of succession:
if possiBle we
Buy our books online
And so on. Cage later conceived of a more elaborate “100%” mesostic, whereby the rule of succession goes both ways, neither the previous nor the next letter can occur in between. This is far more restrictive, and only the second version of my acrostic would fit the rules, and only if I removed “our books online” with something like “them,” which would destroy the meaning of the sentence, since the preposition “then” is ambiguous; thus, one must get more creative.
These are great examples of the kinds of riddles or puzzles built into many of Cage’s works, providing a platform to engage in some creative dislocations of familiar syntactical structure while still maintaining some semblance of a coherent and decipherable message. The first mesostic series I am reading through, “62 mesostics re Merce Cunningham,” are not really even mesostics; if fact I am a little confused as to exactly what procedures Cage used, since he only mentions the ubiquitous term “chance procedures” in the preface. I imagine one could decipher the process by going through the notes for the project, which are at Wesleyan University.
As with almost all of Cage’s projects, he first assembled a set of materials for the content, then devised methods for arranging their layout on the page. The material for Cunningham’s mesostics consisted of syllables and words from Cunningham’s publication Changes: Notes on Choreography, along with thirty-two other books Cunningham often referred to for his own work. Cunningham’s name proved too long for the mesostic method, not to mention the fact that his full name included two e’s, three n’s, two c’s, and four of the five vowels, which would make even the 50% rule difficult. Instead Cage devised an elaborate typographical layout of 700 different typefaces and font sizes, and rather than connecting words via a center aligned core text, he connected letters both vertically and horizontally. I am not entirely sure how to decode this, but the end result is quite fantastic. Even sections that contain complete words are difficult to decipher, and because the gamut of words was so large, there is no specific meaning to individual phrases like there are in the mesostics.
I mentioned before that Cage never wrote a traditional essay on Cunningham in any of his major publications, and I feel it is notable that Cage’s longest essay (if you can call it that), focusing on his partner is also the most difficult to decipher. I would venture to say that it is purposefully coded for a number of reasons. Cunningham and Cage were adamant about keeping their personal life separate from the public, and the story of their life and work together followed many of the pivotal moments in the gay rights movement, each inching one more step toward equality that we are now finally seeing today, at least among more progressive circles in American and abroad. This again is a side note to this project, and I do not consider myself qualified to truly give the topic justice, but it is noteworthy nonetheless, and I look forward to future examinations of the topic by gender scholars in the future.
Turning to the second essay, a collection of mesostics “re and not re” Marcel Duchamp, here we are introduced to the formal 50% mesostic format. The occasion for these mesostics was a small publication by Shigeko Kubota, wife of Nam June Paik, documenting Reunion, an 1968 interactive work conceived by Cage and executed by Lowell Cross, where a chessboard was wired into a sound system, and each successive move triggered noises in the auditorium. The original premiere consisted of a game between Cage and Duchamp (which Duchamp won easily), followed by several more games with Marcel’s wife, Teeny. The entire performance lasted about five hours.
The real subtext of these mesostics is not the performance, but rather Duchamp’s death, which occurred just eight months after the performance, along with the subsequent unveiling of Duchamp’s seminal work, Étant donnés, an monumental installation artwork Duchamp secretly worked on for over 25 years, which was installed in a permanent exhibition space at the Philadelphia Music of Art. This was quite a shock to the art world, as most were under the impression that Duchamp had given up on art in favor of chess for the last twenty or so years. The work is far too intricate to discuss in a short blog post, but needless to say Cage was likely surprised as well about the project, especially the explicit sexuality that was foregrounded. I remember vividly spending hours in this small alcove in the corner of the museum, pondering Duchamp’s work, and leaving with more questions than answers. I’ll conclude by saying that I find these mesostics quite sad and full of melancholy; Cage had such an affinity for Duchamp, and owed so much to his precedent, and his death was in my mind quite significant: is it a coincidence that, the following year, Cage famously retreated from his monumental multimedia installation period toward a final “late period” of introspection?
since other Men