Reading John Cage with my Mother

March 23, 2016

Written by guest blogger, Dani Spinosa, York University


daniTo be quite honest, I started writing on John Cage because it was easy. It was the first year of my doctoral studies and I was drowning in a sea of Foucault and my interest at the time in critical animal studies and I found much of the theoretical work to be obtuse and pretentious. I was having a hard time getting into these writings, even when I knew that I was sympathetic to the theoretical and political issues at stake. I was in a course with a professor who would become my PhD supervisor on the Black Mountain poets and we started with Charles Olson, who still has a pretty special place in my heart. But I found them to be difficult, too, in the same way that I was struggling with some of the more difficult concepts in my other classes. When we reached Cage, I felt like he was able to convey some similar concepts, but he spoke like a real human when he did it.

Even more than that, I could just look at a poem like Cage’s “62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham” and I could start to understand it without having to decode it or interpret it. I was reading Cage alongside Robert Duncan, who was also difficult to understand, not quite because his work was jargon-laden or heady, but instead because he was so full of allusions I had to follow. Cage didn’t seem to be like that. His relationship to Black Mountain College was tenuous at best. His politics and his poetics fit, but he didn’t talk down to me in his work. It felt like he really wanted me to understand his writing on my own terms, like he wanted me to engage with and enjoy what he had written, or more properly in the case of the “62 Mesostics,” what he had assembled.

Of course, when it came time to put together a dissertation, I inflected my readings of Cage with a bunch of heavy theory: anarchism and later postanarchism, critiques of representation, and at the behest of my supervisor some Lyotard. While I’m still pleased with what my dissertation produced, I couldn’t help but feel throughout that I was muddying the water, clouding the clarity that Cage had brought me.

My article, “Cagean Silence and the Comunis of Communication” included in this most recent issue of the Canadian Review of American Studies is my making sense of the difficulties of a hard theory, and the difficulties of a hard poetics in a way that tries to render itself accessible. I fell in love with Cage’s idea of a writing that literally anybody could read, and I really enjoy (even still) the parts of my dissertation where I brought my mother into it, my mother with no formal training in poetic study. I would show her Cage’s work and gauge her opinions of it in a way that I couldn’t possibly show her, say, a page of Duncan and ask her how she felt.

I haven’t abandoned those more difficult texts, and my scholarship lately has really worked to include them, but I won’t forget the importance of a poet who really tries to take these difficult concepts—about the communal nature of poetry, the limitations of a representational/substitutive language, and the possibility of demilitarized language—and really try to reach and audience rather than teach them.

Dani Spinosa’s “Cagean Silence and the Comunis of Communication”, is now available at Canadian Review of American Studies Online. Click Here to Read.


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