John Cage to Elizabeth Bishop

Posted on August 5th, by JasonEricBell in Blog. No Comments

Did John Cage read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Letter to N.Y.”:

In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;

I ask because Cage delivered a “lecture” at Pratt in 1961 titled, “Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?” A lecture that was actually four in one. A performance of “Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?” consists of three pre-recorded tracks played simultaneously while the same speaker reads a fourth script. For his collection of essays Silence, Cage printed the four lectures in different typefaces, mixed together incoherently. In a brief introduction, Cage qualifies the print copy:

The texts were written to be heard as four simultaneous lectures. But to print four lines of type simultaneously–that is, superimposed on one another-was a project unattractive in the present instance. The presentation here used has the effect of making the words legible–a dubious advantage, for I had wanted to say that our experiences, gotten as they are all at once, pass beyond our understanding.

Is “Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?” a sardonic attack on “Letter to N.Y.,” a poem that grieves for the impossibility of describing the experience of the city? Or does Cage comfort the poem, provide a satisfactory if not satisfying response to the poem’s unanswered questions?

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