Cage and Oulipo

A conversation from Silence, the John Cage mailing list. I have fixed a few typos.


From: Marjorie Perloff
Date: Mon, 19 Feb 2007 09:10:47 -0800
Subject: [silence] Cage and Oulipo?

I am trying to determine whether Cage ever had contact with his Oulipo contemporaries in Paris--e.g. Jacques Roubaud, George Perec, Harry Matthews? Since they like him use very complex constraints, it seems to be a reasonable affiliation but I can't find anything in the literature about this and Cage never talked about Oulipo when I knew him.

Best wishes,
Marjorie Perloff


[people comment about how Oulipians were against Cage, including me, along similar lines]


From: Chris Piuma
Date: Mon, 19 Feb 2007 14:02:38 -0500
Subject: [silence] Cage and Oulipo?

There are comments by Oulipians against Cage's chance techniques. The basic idea seems to be that chance techniques lead to "nonsense" and the whole trick with Oulipo is to squeeze some sense out when you're in a straightjacket. But there is an almost raving quality to the criticism I've read by them -- rejecting chance so completely that they probably missed some interesting opportunities! Certainly they missed the entire point of Cage, but even within their framework there are some interesting things that could be done with chance (and there are some post-Oulipians who have tried to synthesize the two ideas -- or at last, *I* have ;-)

I'd have to hunt down the specific reference I'm thinking of -- I think it's in Motte's anthology?

I imagine young Cage (maybe up to Sonatas & Interludes?) would have been interested in Oulipo, but by the time they started up his esthetic aims seem to be completely different.




From: Marjorie Perloff
Date: Mon, 19 Feb 2007 17:26:57 -0800
Subject: [silence] Cage and Oulipo 2

Thanks, everyone, for your prompt and good responses. But I am not wholly convinced. True, Oulipo descried chance but what, in practice, is the difference between, say, a mesostic rule (even if the vertical strings are generated by chance operations) and the Oulipo N+7 rule, which is not "unchancy" in that different dictionaries would give you a different seventh noun after the N. Besides, Cage admits again and again that he changed the chance products "according to taste."

The key link may be Duchamp, who is connected to both camps. I will try to check more fully.

Marjorie Perloff


From: Chris Piuma
Date: Mon, 19 Feb 2007 17:52:56 -0800
Subject: [silence] Cage and Oulipo 2

It's not "according to taste" that's at issue, though -- it would be "to have it make sense". Hence the Oulipian shortened sonnet technique (under "redundancy" in the Compendium) -- it's not just the last word, or the last syllable, or the last n letters of each line that you take -- it's as little as you can while still retaining a syntactically "intelligible" or "normative" poem.

Duchamp did spectacularly little for Oulipo except perhaps lend his name and fame to the group; he's only recorded as attending one meeting, never wrote anything Oulipian, and his entry in the Oulipo Compendium suggests he was mostly in it for the puns. Plus he seems to have joined any group or scene that would allow him...

The mesostic rule -- when Cage was composing "freehand" in it, writing "normative" poems/lectures/sentences with it -- and when he was excluding the occurrence of a key letter between the previous key letter and the following one (oof, that's a complicated rule to describe; I hope you know what I mean) -- anyway, that is absolutely an Oulipian form. "Mesostic" isn't keyed in the Compendium, but it's
mentioned under "acrostic" with this parenthetical -- "John Cage published many mesostics dedicated to friends and colleagues" -- which are the "freehand" ones I was just describing, mostly, rather than, say, the Writings Through.

The N+7 is one of a number of Oulipo rules that allow for a certain measure of indeterminacy, but are still constructed so that their results are still, in some way, "sensical". But that is the real dividing line; one gets a sense from Oulipo that without the need for ending up with something "sensical", all their acrobatics are just calculations; which is the opposite of what Cage is doing.

But I'm happy to see you working on this; the synthesis of the two modes of thought is something I've been interested in for years.

I don't recall that you were at the noulipo conference last year; I seem to recall that this issue got lightly touched upon in a few of the presentations. I seem to remember Christian Bök talking about it, but I also remember him talking about something else, so... Hrm.




After which she privately e-mailed me a note thanking me for my thoughts.

I have no idea if she has actually written on the Oulipo/Cage dynamic yet, although she mentioned Oulipo in connection with her book on "unoriginal genius".


At the symposium, Retallack mentioned an "N+0" technique, which is a great idea and one that I can't believe I haven't heard before.


I am now thinking of using this blog as a clearinghouse for things I have written (in various places) on poetry and poetics and whatnot. Let me try to remember where else I have written such things. It is, I assume, obvious why this exchange came to mind.

(Any significant updates are in this color.)

0 First off, I want to thank the people at Lewis & Clark and at PSU who made this weekend's poetry symposia happen.

0.a (For those who didn't attend, they featured some "big names" in experimental poetry: Lyn Hejinian, Hank Lazer, and Joan Retallack, as well as one of the biggest "names" in avant-garde literature/poetry criticism, who was, as we were reminded a few times, until recently the president of the MLA: Marjorie Perloff.)

0.b Poetry is not rare in Portland. Experimental poetry is no longer rare in Portland. Extended events involving experimental poetry are still a little too rare in Portland, but there are one or two each year. Poetry criticism is extremely rare in Portland, and mostly consists of Rodney. But famous experimental poets still rarely read in Portland.

0.b.1 No, really, I might be the second most active poetry critic in Portland. Please prove me wrong. This is a bit of overstatement that I might write about soon. But I still encourage you to prove me wrong.

0.b.2 It's possible that by "famous" I mean "the kind you have to pay traveling expenses for to get them to Portland".

0.c "Experimental" is a problematic term for poetry, but I'll use it for now to refer to a group of poets who have been clustered together for whatever reasons, and who may or may not be distinguishable in a blind taste-test from poets who are not "experimental".

1 One of the nice things about these events was that, for almost the entire time, I was paying full attention to the readings.

1.a My friends who don't attend poetry readings regularly mention that they lose focus during readings, that their minds wander. They think this makes them feel like they are bad audiences for poetry readings. My mind wanders all the time at readings. It does not seem like a bad thing. Drifting off can allow the text to work on other levels, and where your mind wanders off to might meet up with the text in unexpected and delightful ways. Nevertheless, it sure can be nice to find yourself actively engaged with someone else's mind for an extended period.

1.a.1 It is even nicer what that someone has the sort of mind you enjoy being engaged with.

1.a.2 But the frustration of engaging with a mind that you find all wrong can sometimes be nice as well, in its way, in how it provokes you to shore up your own thoughts.

1.a.2.a They are so wrong, which just confirms that you are so right.

2 All of which is meant to serve as an opening move in untying myself from the knots of anger and vitriol that Marjorie Perloff contorted me into this weekend. Without, perhaps, disturbing the sense of calm, delight, and excitement about what poetry can be that Joan Retallack (in particular) inspired or reawoke in me.

2.a Poetry as a systemic, organized, semiprofessionalized force.

2.a.1 Poetry as "the poetry community".

2.b "Methodical doubt", as Retallack said, and as I wrote onto my too-small paper coffee cup.

2.c "Ontological poof", as Maryrose misheard, and as I considered txting to Seth.

3 If Marjorie Perloff recommended a book to me, it would be a good book. If Joan Retallack or Lyn Hejinian recommended a book to me, it would be a good and surprising book.

3.a Marjorie Perloff has been reading The Arcades Project and the controversial new translation of War and Peace.

3.b Lyn Hejinian has been reading up on late nineteenth century technophobia.

3.b.1 The doorbell: Dangerous new technology that will startle people and cause heart attacks and will disrupt and tear down the family.

3.c Marjorie Perloff reads strategically. She hedges her bets.

3.c.1 With the exception of a single Japanese-German writer, I knew every one of the cultural touchpoints that Perloff touched during her two papers and two panel discussions, during over two hours of motormouthed namedropping. I had not read all of them, but I knew of them enough to know when she was getting the names wrong.

3.c.2 I knew them enough to know that she could have come up with better examples from her own reading to illustrate some of the points that she wanted to talk about. If you want a modernist predecessor of a person who writes in a foreign language to estrange themselves from their text, you do not turn to the Cantos, as Perloff did, you turn to Beckett.

3.c.3 I do not actually consider myself all that well read in poetry. I am better read than your average so-and-so on the street, sure, but I spend time with David, Maryrose, Rodney, and others who have read far more of this stuff than I have. I am a dabbler compared with them. I do not read the journals, I do not know that poet who did that marvelous book of translations in the 60s before taking her life, I do not try to keep up with such things. My interest in poetry is no longer in the system that is called poetry, so I don't keep up with it. Nevertheless, Marjorie Perloff, famous critic, alleged expert in the field, made me feel phenomenally well read.

4 Obviously it is not what you read that counts, but what you do with it. One thing you could try doing is to construct some sort of historical narrative out of it. You could try to explain why poetry styles change over time.

4.a I mean, I might recommend that you start by showing that poetry styles in fact do change over time, and that it isn't just what we talk about when we talk about poetry that changes. No, really. Try. I'd be curious to see if you could get anywhere with that project.

4.b History is, perhaps, not as good at showing continuity over time.

4.c Either way, your job as a historian is to show, discover, invent, whatever -- to note potential paths of causation between one thing and another.

4.d So, Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project.

4.d.1 It mostly consists of clippings, lifted whole, with minimal connective critical apparatus!

4.d.2 Many of those clippings are in French, while Benjamin's text was in German, and it switches back and forth between the two!

4.d.3 Benjamin ties together different parts of the text together using set-off keywords, through which you are encouraged to jump to another related section!

4.e So, what does this remind us of?

4.e.1 Clippings? Kenneth Goldsmith's Day, in which he retypes a Sunday New York Times in its entirety! Or maybe sampling!

4.e.2 Languages? Poems written in more than one language are "on the rise", we were told repeatedly throughout the weekend!

4.e.2.a The proof of this goes something like, "Well, the poets in In The American Tree (an early 80s anthology of language poetry) weren't writing in multiple languages so much, whereas the poets who would be in a similar anthology today would be more likely to write in multiple languages."

4.e.2.b This proof, of course, asks that you take In The American Tree as representative of all the poetic activity that was going on in the late 70s/early 80s, which is a mind-boggling proposition.

4.e.3 Keywords sending you to other sections? It's hypertext! Click!

4.f Perloff spent maybe twenty minutes explaining 4.d.1-3 and 4.e.1-3. This was the centerpiece and culmination of her hour-long talk on Saturday, which was part of the introduction of a book she's writing on "unoriginal genius" or something along those lines. An expansion on Kenneth Goldsmith's ideas, it seems.

4.f.1 No, really, like twenty minutes to explain what I explained in a dozen sentences.

4.f.2 Was she drawing a historical connection between The Arcades Project and Day, and sampling, and polyglot poetry, and hypertext?

4.f.3 Well, no. I mean, you should probably hope not. The Arcades Project wasn't published in English until 1999, a little late to influence hypertext, sampling, and polyglot poetry. And anyway, there are clearer precedents for all of these.

4.f.3.a Especially for sampling, ffs.

4.f.4 There are also precedents for The Arcades Project's use of all these forms.

4.f.4.a The sampling is far closer to a daybook -- or, lets say, to a historian keeping files of the source materials that he's going to use as a reference -- than to musical sampling as it's been developed in the past few decades (which is perhaps closer to how Biblical quotes are used in medieval European writing, though not historically related, of course).

4.f.4.b The polyglot aspects are not remotely remarkable for a work of European scholarship in the early twentieth century.

4.f.4.c The hypertext elements are like encyclopedias and Bible concordances.

4.f.5 Let's not forget that The Arcades Project really was just a guy's notes and initial stabs at a standard critical thinkpiece that ended up getting published as is.

4.f.6 So it would be difficult to prove a historical connection between The Arcades Project and the works that Perloff points out are similar to it. And there are works that share these features that The Arcades Project probably does have a historical connection to, and works that share these features with the more contemporary works that they do have a historical connection to, but none of that is what Perloff wanted to talk about.

4.f.7 Marjorie Perloff is not a historian.

4.g Well, OK. Perhaps she never claimed to be. (Although I am told she claimed as much more than once during the symposia.) After all, she's primarily identified as a critic. Perhaps she is highlighting the similarities to suggest that reading strategies that are typical for one of those texts might be useful for reading the other texts. Polyglot poetry is kind of like The Arcades Project, and we can read polyglot poetry like we would read The Arcades Project, or vice versa.

4.g.1 [This is where I would summarize what she said along those lines, had she said anything at all along those lines.]

4.g.2 [OK, I guess she suggested that The Arcades Project is funsies for employing these strategies just like Day or polyglot poetry is funsies for employing these strategies.]

4.g.2.a [It is hard to imagine a more surface reading of these texts, one which would fail to point at what is actually funsies in them.]

4.g.3 She did a close reading on a list of shop names, and was convincing enough in her theory that the list was organized suggestively and poetically, that items in the list were not arbitrarily put one after the other but were done so to be suggestive. This is a good example of using a poetic technique to pull meaning out of what might be considered, at first, a nonpoetic text.

4.g.3.a But, then again, it has nothing to do with the points of similarity outlined above.

4.h Except that, ultimately, the point seemed to be that The Arcades Project could be profitably read using poetic strategies. Also, it employed these strategies that contemporary things labeled poetry employ.

4.h.1 Perloff spent most of her time suggesting this rather than doing this.

4.h.2 But all texts can be profitably read using poetic strategies. That the nature of poetic strategies is to render profit. Poetry is the irrigation of dry fields of text.

4.h.2.a Though I'd love it if you would show otherwise.

4.h.3 So why this text? Why in relationship with these other texts?

4.h.4 It seemed like she was using one set of texts to validate another set, but whether The Arcades Project is supposed to be validated by being like Day, or Day is supposed to be validated by being like The Arcades Project is unclear.

4.i What is clear is that both are supposed to be validated by being liked by Marjorie Perloff.

5 Marjorie Perloff said on Saturday: "I like to pick winners."

5.a Perloff is not terribly interested in providing critical or historical context or understanding to poetry. She is interested in promoting what she likes and ignoring what she does not like.

5.a.1 She said she doesn't teach work that she doesn't find interesting.

5.a.2 There was some interesting discussion, especially by Retallack, about what pleasure is and how it functions as a tool to keep you engaged with the world. I am still thinking about that. It is an issue.

5.a.3 If you find someone's poetry interesting, that is one thing. If you want to say something about why it is interesting, that is another thing. If you want to place it in some sort of historical, cultural, and critical context, that is yet another thing. And to do that last thing right, you are going to have to rub up against the various things that were going on around the place and time that the text came into being. And much of that will probably not be all that interesting to you.

5.a.3.a If someone writes a poem you find interesting to react against poetry that the poet found not interesting, then you as a critic or historian had probably study both pretty carefully.

5.a.3.b This seems obvious to the point that I don't feel like going into it, but it might not be that obvious to others, and I will try to explain it further if asked.

5.a.4 And it is your pleasure in the interesting texts that should drive you to investigate the texts that you find less interesting. In this way, pleasure increases your engagement with the world.

5.a.5 Perloff uses pleasure as a buffer to keep herself from engaging with the world.

5.a.6 Perloff is not a historian and is barely a critic.

5.b Perloff said that she is upset that there is a "glut" of poetry these days, thanks to the internet, thanks to what is sometimes called the increased democratization of publishing.

5.b.1 It is hard to keep up with.

5.b.2 There is so much of it.

5.b.3 Perhaps: How can you know who the winners are when you can't keep tabs on the races?

5.b.4 Perhaps: How can you pick the winners when people are running so many races that you can't be involved in all of them?

5.b.5 Perhaps even: How can you have a democracy without a centralized authority?

5.c I live in Portland. Portland is not central to the scene that is considered the poetry scene, and yet here we are, writing poems, reading them, having a poetic discourse, running what you could, if you felt the urge, call a race. And Marjorie Perloff was only just invited to town! But she was not invited to talk about, look at, investigate, or judge our race. She was invited to talk about the "big race". The one that, by and large, we are not participating in, here in Portland, except, perhaps, at the margins.

5.c.1 OK, races don't have margins. Do they?

5.c.2 Also, there are many races going on in Portland.

5.c.3 Isn't it amazing that so much poetry could be going on in Portland without Marjorie Perloff being aware of it!

5.c.4 Perloff mentioned that Yeats wrote, in his autobiography, that at some point in his life he had met all the poets of his generation. She believed him.

5.c.4.a Surely there was some person roughly contemporaneous with Yeats, some woman who wrote little bits of poetry for her friends, nothing innovative, perhaps clunky, with rhymes and poor scansion and tired metaphors, but still recognizable as poetry. And whom Yeats never met.

5.c.4.b Perhaps, because the writing was nothing innovative and was clunky, it doesn't count as poetry.

5.c.4.c Perhaps, though, we don't know how to read clunkiness; we are raised on sophistication and urbanity, and cannot pierce the veil of clunkiness.

5.c.4.d Perhaps it does not count as poetry because we don't like it.

5.c.4.e Perhaps it does not count as poetry because it was not part of the system that is called poetry.

5.c.4.f But then, Perloff was willing to make fun of others for discounting Stein, Bernstein, or Goldsmith because their writings were not part of the system that those people called poetry.

5.c.4.g There is nobody unbiased, not one. When we are aesthetes, we can follow our pleasure without hesitation. But when we are trying to be good historians, good critics, good thinkers, we have to allow a wider range of possibilities in.

5.c.4.h Also: It is good to learn how to take pleasure in things. While we can't all learn to take pleasure in all things, we nevertheless shouldn't set up a methodology that ignores the unpleasurable!

5.c.5 I grew up in New York City, where the poets believed that they were deep in the midst of "the big race"; I have spent the last eight years in Portland, where poets are largely cut off from that big race.

5.c.6 The panelists complained about a lack of personal connections among poets, in part thanks to the internet and globalization; but it seems like the disconnect from a globalized "race" has strengthened Portland's poetry scene and made it more personal, more one-on-one, more "communitarian".

5.c.6.a When Lyn Hejinian said "be careful of global capitalism", perhaps what we should have heard was "be careful of canon-makers, be careful of people who think of poetic history as a, if not a single thread, then at least a single rope made up of twine, be careful of people who try to accumulate cultural capital and pave over distinctions, be careful of people who fear that democracy and autonomy will take away their abilities to accumulate that capital; be careful of Marjorie Perloff."

5.c.6.b Well, perhaps.

5.c.6.c Marjorie Perloff is not a historian and is not much of a critic; instead she is a tastemaker and a capitalist.

5.c.6.d Marjorie Perloff is a robber baron. Or, she would be, if poetry -- actual poetry, not that which is called poetry -- were susceptible to capitalist shenanigans.

5.c.6.e More than one person has suggested to me in response to this point that Marjorie Perloff is a carpet bagger. Which may be true. Critics can often be accused of carpet bagging, inasmuch as most of them talk about people who do a thing that they value but do not do. In Perloff's case, her fame and value rests not so much on the quality of her criticism but on how well the poets she picks do (Frank O'Hara, the Language poets, now it seems Kenneth Goldsmith), and how she can ride their fame, which she helps create. This is specifically how she wants it to work. So while it seems a bit much to accuse a critic of carpet bagging, which might be a function of the job, Perloff might be an egregious example of critic as carpet bagger.

5.d When someone wins in poetry, we all lose.

6 After Perloff read her paper on Saturday, Joan Retallack read a ten-minute essay/poem. Like the Perloff paper, Retallack's piece contained no content that I didn't already know. But the Retallack piece contained almost no explicit content. But I followed its twists and turns, its logic and puns, it rhythms and assonances, and I found myself tracing the paths that an engaged and excited mind had gone down. I can't explain or justify or even, necessarily, recommend it to anyone else -- I was falling down laughing with delight at parts of it even though no one else in the room was responding. Poetry, and even thought, are personal and idiosyncratic things, and just because Retallack's piece "worked" for me can't indicate that it would or should work for anyone else. I am not as interested as Perloff is in cultural hegemony, or in picking "winners", but I do want to acknowledge that Retallack's piece was a terrific path to travel down, a scenic walk through a field of wildflowers after Perloff's brass and hurried double-decker bus tour of the must-see places in Midtown Manhattan.

6.a But, yes, Retallack's piece was terrific, which has nothing to do with whether one can or should write criticism about it. Perloff wondered why Joyce had much better critical writing done on his work than Stein or Beckett did: It is because Joyce wrote the sort of work that one can write critically about, whereas Beckett and Stein didn't. This doesn't say anything about their work except about whether you can successfully write criticism about it.

6.b Yup.

7 So thanks again to Lewis & Clark and PSU for bringing Perloff, Retallack, and Hejinian to Portland. It was nice to be angered and even nicer to be pleased by the event. And while I am glad enough to have seen Perloff once, I don't think there's much to be gained by inviting her back to Portland. Retallack or Hejinian, on the other hand, should come back early and often. And while I have not said much about Hank Lazer (who only read on Friday), I enjoyed his poetry and his comments about poetry, and I thought he was a very nice and engaging person, and I am looking forward to hearing him read tonight with Laura Feldman for Spare Room.


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