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Legacies of Form

Duncan’s Open Form and Cagean Intermedia: The Practice of “Theatre” After Black Mountain

Forme ouverte et intermédialité cageienne chez Duncan : la pratique du « théâtre » après Black Mountain
Edward Alexander


Pourquoi Robert Duncan fait-il référence aux « gammes ouvertes » de John Cage à la fin de « Passages 17 » ? Les cours de Cage sur la composition expérimentale à la New School for Social Research furent peu ou prou contemporains des ateliers de Duncan et Jack Spicer sur « Poésie et magie », des conférences de Charles Olson intitulées Special View of History et de la mise en scène de Medée par Duncan. Tandis que les mouvements qui émergèrent à partir des enseignements de Cage (Fluxus, le happening) rejetèrent nombre des présupposés que Duncan souhaitait conserver en tant que poète « dérivatif », les courants qui poursuivirent, à l’est comme à l’ouest, l’aventure de Black Mountain, héritèrent de questions qui trouvent leur source dans la dernière phase connue par cette institution, sous la direction d’Olson, entre 1952 et 1953. Cet article présente un modèle de l’avant-garde de l’après-guerre en tant que formation culturelle au sein de laquelle les compositions ouvertes et sérielles de Duncan, ou les œuvres-événements de Cage, apparaissent comme les branches d’un même arbre, dont les racines demeurent hantées par le medium du théâtre.

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Oh Egypt, Egypt, of thy immortal poems only stories will remain – the stone images, the painted realities; the divine words cut in stone surviving their language.
For the Eternal Ones shall return to the Dream. And their forsaken dreamers shall all die out. (
Duncan 1968, 61)

The Archival Fate of Experience: Artaudian Dramaturgy as Anti-Genre in the Postwar Avant-Garde

  • 1 See The Corpus Hermeticum: Initiation into Hermetics, the Hermetica of Hermes Trismegismus. Ed. G.R (...)

1Robert Duncan’s mention of “John Cage’s open scales” crops up unexpectedly at the end of “Passages 17,” following an excerpt from “To Asclepius” in the Corpus Hermeticum (Duncan 1968, 62). In the excerpt, Hermes Trismegistus1 tells Asclepius that Egypt’s monuments, bereft of the “great daimon, intermediate / between the divine and what perishes” (ibid. 61), will be passed on to future generations only as lifeless husks of their former animate selves. David Grubbs’ Records Ruin the Landscape, whose title derives from Cage’s remark in For the Birds, makes the similar point that much avant-garde music of the 1960s was “ill-suited to be represented in the form of a recording” and passed onto posterity through archival projects like Ubuweb due to the fact that it “actively undermined the form of the sound recording” (Grubbs 1). While poetry’s typographical fixity might seem to exempt it from this dilemma, a closer attention warrants our asking whether a similar elision of a crucial missing ingredient in reconstructions of postwar poetry may undermine the transmission of what was most dynamic in that work. To identify this missing ingredient as “experience” or “the present” in no way reduces the challenge its recuperation presents if we consider all the grounds (linguistic, historical, political and/or metaphysical) on which scholars have thrown such terms into question.

2A watchword of the mid 20th century, “theatre” nevertheless indexes something of this missing ingredient by connoting the breakdown of genre distinctions that would place Duncan the expressive lyric poet far from the milieu of Cage the constructivist composer. While “theatre” has a literal sense – it matters that Duncan wrote Faust Foutu, Medea at Colchis, Adam’s Way; taught a theatre course at Black Mountain along with his workshop on form; and staged plays both at Black Mountain and in San Francisco during the 1957 activities – the dramaturgical also provides a figural shorthand for the period’s ‘trans-literate’ tendencies. Theatre’s indexical sense becomes discernible in Charles Olson’s frontispiece epigraph to The Special View of History: “an attempt to state a view of reality that yields a stance nexal to the practice of verse, narrative and theatre now” (Olson 1970). Likewise, in Duncan’s “as if it were a scene made up by the mind” (Duncan 1960, 7), “as if” tautologizes any dramaturgical literalness in “scene made up by the mind,” itself already an “as if,” so the statement reads something like ‘imagine the act of imagining.’ The line’s effects cannot be reduced either to reference or to figuration and their recovery demands a different kind of orientation than the linguistic or generic.

  • 2 Ruth Erickson sees Olson’s summer 1949 class “Exercises for Theater” as prefiguring the theater-as- (...)

3In his notes for the 1952 Theatre Institute that was contemporaneous with Theatre Piece No.1 – famously touted as the first happening – Olson similarly uses the tautology “theatre of theatre” (Olson 1977c, 52), referring to Antonin Artaud’s concept of “mise-en-scene” in The Theatre and its Double. Artaud’s “mise-en-scene” refers to all exclusively theatrical features.2 Artaud had claimed that inverting mise-en-scene’s subordination to narrative converts theatre into what he calls a “function” (Artaud 37). Theatre at this point stops designating a genre and instead becomes a social fact or occasion. In making this move, Artaud aims at what he calls the “intense liberation of signs” that “transforms the mind’s conceptions into events” (Artaud 62). As an occasion, “theatre” yields a distinct milieu that “recover(s) a unique language halfway between gesture and thought” (Artaud 89). In an interview with Martin Duberman, Cage, who read aloud from The Theatre and its Double during Theatre Piece No 1 alongside readings from Olson and M.C. Richards, claimed his primary interest in Artaud was this distinctive mode of experience or intellection. Cage was inspired by Artaud’s notion of “a theatrical event in which all the things that took place were not causally related to one another – but in which there is a penetration – anything after that happened in the observer himself” (Duberman 350).

  • 3 See, for example: “Olson, a serape flung over his naked torso, sitting in the dining room next to J (...)

4Opening her essay on Olson’s influence during her years at Black Mountain with a journal entry recounting Cage’s oration during Theater Piece No.1, Francine du Plessix Grey pairs Olson and Cage three times in her memories of Black Mountain circa 1951-53.3 Comparing Olson’s digressive, associative pedagogy to the non-linear, improvisatory unfolding of Happenings, Grey claims “Olson hailed [these events] as one of the glories of the twentieth century.” More recently, Mark Byers has suggested both Cage and Olson share an anti-authorial bent. Byers sees this correspondence illustrating the central stakes of America’s postwar reception of the avant-garde: “that Boulez and Cage elicited such strong responses from Olson suggests that what was at stake in their work for Olson was at stake for the early postwar avant-garde in its entirety” (Byers 55). Whereas Byers rightly sees this tendency as bound up with the effort to get beyond the authorial ego by “excising the aesthetic subject altogether” (Byers 56), theater’s circulating indexical meaning makes clear how the shift away from the “egocentric predicament” was part and parcel of a repositioning of aesthetic practices within the larger distribution of social functions. In other words, the intellective experience isolated as the “medium” of composition was corollary to the premise that such practices could be released from the localized genres and institutions that constitute the “fine arts” as a separate domain of culture.

5Cage echoes his remarks to Duberman regarding this experiential intellection in the discussion of what he calls “inclusive awareness” that would yield his famous definition of experimental art:

Where […] the attention moves toward the observation and audition of many things at once, including those that are environmental – becomes, that is, inclusive rather than exclusive – no question of making, in the sense of forming understandable structures, can arise (one is tourist), and here the word ‘experimental’ is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of its success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which cannot be known in advance. (Cage 13)

  • 4 Olson’s “Me-mo to Stefan and John,” written in the weeks after Theater Piece No. 1 and attempting, (...)

6The exact point at which the authorial will, as technique, yields such an intellective experience becomes the point of contention that Olson takes up in his writings from 1952. Introducing the term “methodology,” Olson splits it into the etymological roots “meta,” or ‘with,’ and “odos,” or ‘road,’ ‘way’ or ‘tao’ (Olson 1977a, 43). Olson first mentions “methodology” in a June 1952 letter to Robert Creeley discussing Pierre Boulez, a regular contact of Cage’s and the source, via David Tudor, of the copy of The Theatre and its Double that M.C. Richards translated from French into English (152). While unlikely to have been written in response to Cage’s “tourist” figure of 1955, Olson nevertheless contrasts his own position with Cage’s aleatory or procedural methods in a remark that “one travels but there is something on which one travels that is distinct from the traveller” (Olson 1977a, 43). That Cage is an implicit interlocutor here is clear from Olson’s inclusion of tao within the semantic field of odos.4 Olson takes issue with the procedural methods he describes as “sensationalism…” or “the theatre of nonsense…, the ultimate ennui… that nothing really matters” (Olson 1977c, 52). Before addressing this notion of ‘sensationalism’ in relation to procedural methods, it is necessary to see that, while taking issue with proceduralism, Olson fundamentally endorses the ‘functional’ concept underlying objectless, event-based or environmental art.

7Affirming Cage’s commitment to breaking down the social and cultural divisions between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘non-aesthetic’ experience, Olson writes:

“the methodology is the form [...] which – because form is the act of art – [...] instantly makes any art now a function and – because they assert themselves by way of human sensibilities – positively restores the arts to the prime position in human society [...] you see, I not only don’t believe that there is any other goal but this one – the sort of total creation, art’s and no other – but I also don’t think it allows of analogy” (Olson 1977a, 44-45).

  • 5 Olson remarks to Creeley regarding a previous essay by Elath that the terms totality and methodolog (...)

8Olson recognized the stakes of theater’s transformation from dramatic genre into a “function,” social occasion or, in its 1960s manifestation, “total art,” as aligned not only with his “New Sciences of Man” seminar, but also with Black Mountain College’s placing aesthetic experience at the center of the learning process. Only by removing the modes of experience called “aesthetic” from sequestration within genre conventions and, by extension, the institution of “fine arts” per se, could the arts be restored to the prime position in human society. Hence Olson’s pairing “methodology” with “totality.”5 But those same conventions provided the container for the coherences of form enabling “aesthetic” experiences. For Cage, chance procedures in event-based art inherited the role formerly performed by genre conventions in facilitating a shift out of instrumentalizing practical orientations during composition once that process no longer relied exclusively on a material medium. Olson saw that nothing ensured that chance disruptions of means-ends intentionality would tilt the event in the direction of coherence rather than random meaninglessness.

The Heat of Changes: Articulations of Practice in ‘Against Wisdom As Such’

9Duncan observed that, at the time of his own arrival at Black Mountain in 1956, Olson was “constantly addressing and trying to fix in his mind where the will comes in” (Duncan 2017a, 88). In The Special View of History lectures delivered during this period, Olson’s fusion of Hegelian sublation with Keatsian negative capability in his concept of “obedience” (Olson 1970, 45) is not an ‘aesthetic’ solution but purports to be a new form of practical knowledge. The lectures claim to re-envision historical understanding as such, while Olson selects the grammatical unit of the sentence, rather than the generic unit of the stanza or line, as obedience’s objective-practical counterpart. Asserting that “writing is first a search in obedience” at the outset of “The Structure of Rime,” Duncan’s paronomastic figure of the “Sentence” provides one indication of how decisive these problematics were in facilitating the transition into his major phase with The Opening of the Field (Duncan 1960, 12). In a letter to Helen Adam, Duncan defined this shift as a move from “the ‘romantic’ view that poetry comes by an inspiration” to the view that “in poetry one practices life” (Jarnot 244). This term “practice” (Duncan/Olson, 88) first turns up in Olson’s 1955 letter to Duncan, latter described by Duncan as “the best thing I could be waiting for, well, with what unlocks thought – that the religious thing is this practice of the outside and the inside” (Duncan/Olson 89). We can hear a chiastic resonance, in fact, between Olson’s definition of practice-qua-obedience as “the double coincidence [of subject and object] at any serial point (or incident moment act experience) [...] a principle of happening” (Olson 1970, 36) and Cage’s description of the object of inclusive awareness as not being “one of a series of discrete steps, but a transmission in all directions from a field’s center” (Cage 14).

10The formative impact of Olson’s productive agon with Cage on Duncan’s transition into his major phase crystalizes most clearly in their exchanges around Olson’s “Against Wisdom as Such.” Often taken as a critique of the occultist tendencies of the Duncan and Spicer group, the letters in which the essay originated reveal Cage’s background presence. In a 1953 letter first voicing the view, “that’s the trouble with wisdom. It isn’t a measure. And thus has to go, from language (not knowing abt art),” Olson’s larger concern is to explore the compositional process through a figural interplay of “light” and “heat” (Duncan/Olson 41). This elemental figuration echoes Olson’s Empedoclean riff in “A Toss, for John Cage”: “Take it another way, take water / (or be classical – fire, air, earth, too) ask him / about vessel” (Olson 1987, 272). Light and heat – the latter Olson also identifies with “love” (Duncan/Olson 41) anticipating Duncan’s Eros – correspond to the cognitive and enactive dimensions of composition, respectively. Olson accordingly assigns to light the “reductive” (ibid.) role of clarifying “what has been found out” by way of heat in the act of writing (ibid.). In describing the eventfulness of “heat,” though, Olson equates it with Carl Jung’s concept of the “synchronistic” (ibid.). Synchronicity – the acausal principle of meaningful coincidence – is the idea through which Jung explained the divinatory method of the I Ching, on which Cage in turn based his aleatory methods beginning with 1951’s Music of Changes.

11Olson is not rejecting the synchronistic or aleatory per se, but sees its experiential preservation as dependent on an intervening, willed receptivity. In the essay, Olson offers the system of the I Ching as an example of the tendency among “sectaries” to “deal with wisdom” as separable from personal embodiments of disposition or sensibility (Olson 1997, 261). While Olson is critical of fetishizing the I Ching’s divinatory system – in a clear shot at Cage – his earlier letter explicitly identifies “heat” in the enactive experience of composition with the synchronistic experience of a “simultaneous” and “homogeneous” coincidence of subject and object that Cage calls inclusive awareness (Duncan/Olson 42). Quoting Jung’s introduction to sinologist Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the Taoist alchemical text The Secret of the Golden Flower, Olson remarks that “time is synchronistic and a poem is the one example of a man-made continuum ‘which contains qualities or basic conditions manifesting themselves simultaneously in various places in a way not to be explained by causal parallelism’” (Olson 1997, 263). Duncan remained unequivocal that the exchanges following “Against Wisdom as Such” were decisive in his development toward The Opening of the Field, remarking in 1957, “haven’t you, from ‘Wisdom as Such’ on, given me myself?” (Duncan/Olson, 128).

12The impact this “dramaturgical” prehistory of “Against Wisdom as Such” had on Duncan’s poetics from The Opening of the Field onward clarifies his participation in the postwar avant-garde’s pragmatic turn that takes experience itself – rather than genre – as art’s medium and locus. The major tributaries shaping the American avant-garde’s broader turn towards experience-as-medium would also include John Dewey’s Art as Experience. Critics like James Maynard and Stephen Fredman have done important work tracking Duncan’s debt to pragmatist philosophy. Olson’s own provocations during this period frequently have the sense of attempts to jar Duncan loose from the aestheticist tendencies that would lead Jack Spicer to characterize Adam’s Way as “early Swinburne” (Ellingham and Killian 239). But the underlying issue pertains to a problematic of composition, not to genealogy. Spin out the implications of the effort to distill art’s central experiential and intellective event out of the media and genres dividing it from social life per se, while at the same time retaining the distinct practical context preventing instrumental aims from subsuming direct experience under concepts once you have removed those same conventions. You get a picture of Black Mountain’s dispersion to the two coasts around 1957. From this vantage point, serial open-form, Olson’s Special View of History lectures and the staging of Medea at Kolchis in San Francisco, on the one hand; and Cage’s Experimental Composition courses at the New School for Social Research in New York with future members of the Fluxus and Happenings groups, on the other, constitute parallel developments within a shared sensibility.

13Capturing Duncan’s uniqueness involves juxtaposing his work with these movements, all of which sought to produce a radically post-literate cultural paradigm, the experience- and event-based character of which sits uneasily with archival dependence on material artifacts. Discussions of art practice offered by Cage’s collaborators Allan Kaprow and Dick Higgins show how theorizations of Fluxus and Intermedia practices were often more appropriate to the compositional problems poets faced in the postwar avant-garde than literary theories assuming textuality as a defining condition of the work. Marshall McLuhan, whose governmental report on media circulated among Cage and Richards and who went on to publish with Something Else Press, made this claim for the late 50s and 60s sensibility’s post-literate and ‘trans-textual’ dimension a theoretical cornerstone.

14Historical facts of cross-pollination reinforce the pairing, such as Duncan’s visiting Cage and Richards at Stony Brook in 1957 while en route to San Francisco, or Al Hansen’s remark that his New York City Audio Visual Group formed in the aftermath of Cage’s New School course was aided by “a backwash in New York from the 1957-58 San Francisco poetry-literature revolution” (Hansen 104), or Jerome Rothenberg’s Symposium of the Whole, taking its title from The H.D. Book’s “Rites of Participation” and drawing from Fluxus and Intermedia events. Seen in this light, the “derivative” aspects of Duncan’s work – the magpie-isms that led to charges of literary conservatism – frame him instead in the 1960s intermedia cast. Duncan’s inclusions reflect his view of reading, writing and life per se as undivided by representational distance. Duncan’s misread line from Pindar, for instance, presents an anecdote of a reading experience rather than an intertextual allusion. In Duncan’s work, as in Happenings and Fluxus work, the object – whether book, event, or thing – is not primary but functions merely as an occasion facilitating a transition from one mode of experience that grasps a world of cognitively schematized objects to another mode that intellectively contacts the world without concepts.

15In 1958, Allan Kaprow described “total art” less as a matter of rejecting older art materials than of omnivorously including anything relevant:

we admit the usefulness of any subject matter or experience whatsoever. Then we juxtapose this material – it can be known or invented, “concrete” or “abstract” – to produce the structure and body of our own work. For instance, if we join a literal space and a painted space, and these two spaces to a sound, we achieve the “right” relationship by considering each component a quantity and quality on an imaginary scale. So much of such and such a color is juxtaposed to so much of this or that type of sound. The “balance” (if one wants to call it that) is primarily an environmental one.

Whether it is art depends on how deeply involved we become with elements of the whole and how fresh these elements are [...] when they occur next to each other. (Kaprow 11)

16We can see why the “missing ingredient” slips archival nets by considering the tension in Kaprow’s statement between this emergent “imaginary scale” allowing a Happening’s elements to cohere and its “environmental” or processual, enacted character. This scale, on which coherence depends, only emerges within the specious present of enactment. Supplanting older notions of prosodic measure by fusing Olson’s principles with the multivolume open series, Duncan’s notion of “form” in writing necessarily came to rest upon this same principle of an imaginary scale that Kaprow posits as motivating an environmental assemblage. Duncan explicitly asserts this equivalence between the radical expansion of frames of measure in speech and those occurring across media:

What does speech verge upon? An area of sound or noise that could become noise? And you find composers like Cage in our period extending there, taking away the tribal boundaries of the octave, taking away the tribal boundaries of the range that we define for instruments. … Our period goes out far beyond what was proposed about modes, and its adventure breaks what we thought were the boundaries and advances into what we thought was noise, and we become sophisticated in that area. There it is – John Cage. (Duncan 2017a, 135)

Cage here provides reliable shorthand for the contemporaneous tendency to move beyond the strictures of genre, which Duncan identifies as central to his lecture’s topic: Olson.

17Kaprow’s “balance” or “right” relationship shows intermedia work not as “indeterminate” in the poststructuralist sense of openness to an endless plurality of possible interpretations. A definite experience orients environmental and verbal work equally. Taking up Olson’s term in a 1958 poetry review, Robert Creeley defines the failure to produce this experience as “sensationalism, i.e. the repetition of a known sensation” (Creeley 172). Sensationalism, Creeley remarks, “is what happens when all qualification exists as a method of feeling rather than as a posited consequence of actions” (ibid.). In other words, sensationalism places sense data under a cognitive schema, rather than yielding experienced “effects” (Kaprow’s “freshness”) by practically evading schematization and opening beyond the known. In sensationalism, knowledge predetermines a given experience by orienting action, whereas its opposite – as in Olson’s “obedience” – lets experience arise as a practical consequence of action’s keeping pace with knowledge. Duncan describes this effect in his Olson lectures as “the world, felt as presence,” remarking “the central thing I wanted to return to was the time in which something is released that is felt” (Duncan 2017a, 141). “Bending the Bow,” for example, registers this interstice between sensation and effect in the hesitations around its motivating “current,” which the speaker refrains from identifying either with “air?” or “an inner anticipation of…?” (Duncan 1968, 7). Duncan’s Apuleian figure for this mode of experience is Eros. Psyche’s penance for her sensationalist turn to behold Eros directly consists in the “transformation of the ground” to “provide a ground for some form beyond what we know” (Duncan 2011, 79).

18Hannah Higgins has argued both Fluxus events and objects like Fluxboxes take as their “ultimate goal” the “forming [of] multiple pathways” to what she variously calls primary experience, primary information and ontological knowledge (Higgins 37). But just as a tension between knowledge and blindness informs Duncan’s Eros, a paradoxical dynamic shaped the intermedia effort to render the field of experience-as-such into the object-of-experience. Even in the case of Happenings, where the event’s localization allows one to conflate the “experience of a particular event” with “experience as an event,” one finds Kaprow reflecting on Happenings’ success or failure as hinging on whether the event takes on a momentum of its own, fusing the participants’ individual wills. It is here that chance procedures present the gamble that, as Kaprow puts it, “control (the setting up of chance techniques) can effectively produce the opposite quality of the unplanned and apparently uncontrolled” (Kaprow 19).

Specificity and Chrestomathy: Use and Intent in the Objectless Work

19Turning from events to objects like Fluxboxes and Fluxkits – assemblages made for human interaction – the wager and stakes become even more pronounced because these target not a particular experience but experience per se. Dick Higgins, coiner of the term “intermedia,” calls an object’s capacity to modulate the texture of experience its “arc of invitingness,” the fringe of potential use-values that make objects flicker between human meanings and that which exceeds human meanings, such as a “table just waiting for something to be on it” (D. Higgins 1). In single-media art, Higgins explains, “every time the artist makes a choice, this choice is projected onto this arc in various ways” (ibid.). Moving beyond the strictures of a single medium or genre, where one is using this arc to affect the presentation of an object, into an intermediary space where one uses an object to amplify a sense of the arc itself, Higgins insists “we then reach the point where rules become paramount” (ibid. 2). Like Olson, Higgins acknowledges the risk that “accepting the validity of this randomized material,” intended as a defense against the sensationalism that knowing what one is doing can only lead one to repeat known sensations – a problem of access to direct experience –, provided no guarantee, given the double fact that “it is impossible to see anything except in its physical manifestations” and “on the other hand, what one sees is irrelevant unless one is able to see it in the context of one’s experience” (ibid. 3). What Higgins describes as “specificity” and defines through a self-contradictory formula as “whatever most efficiently defines the artist’s intentions in as many ways as possible” (ibid. 4) he acknowledges as contextually necessary to frame a Fluxbox as an occasion for forming pathways to primary experience.

20Anticipating his term “Chrestomathy,” which meets Higgins’ criteria for specificity, Duncan in Roots and Branches writes, “you’ve to dig and come to see what I mean” (Duncan 1964, 31). A graphic index, Duncan’s use of ‘Chi’ (χ) in Bending the Bow’s “Passages 15” crosscuts the two spheres of enacted experience and physical media. An introductory note explains that one should write “χ” on a blackboard and enact “the earnest mimesis of a classroom exposition, keeping in the motion of the writing as in the sound of the reading the felt beat in which the articulations of the time and poem dance” (Duncan 1968, 48). “χ,” then, literally leaps off the page, which the passage shows is its figural point as well: to “call to attention anything remarkable in a passage” (Duncan 1968, 48). The salience to which “χ” calls attention is the outer counterpart to the practical orientation and enactment associated with the term “use,” which “Passages 15” illustrates through the typographical mark “used as an abbreviation for chreston or ‘useful’” (Duncan 1968, 48). A collection of such salient passages, we learn, “might make up a chrestomathy” (Duncan 1964, 48), literally a ‘use-learning,’ a learning by, for, and through use. The opening lines of “Passages 15” stage the logic of this use-learning:

He did not come to the end of the corridor

He could not see to the end of the corridor

What came beyond he did not know (Duncan 1968, 48)

21By restating the syntagm figured as a “corridor” (or passage), the lines gradually shift their semantic emphasis from lack of closure, both enactive (“come to”) and cognitive (“see to”), to encountering a trans-cognitive “what came beyond.” The “passage”’s spatial figure thus connotes the lines’ own temporal pragmatics. We do not come to the corridor’s end because the field of the known does not admit of terms beyond its own. Insofar as we are in the semantic, there is no getting outside. Restatement shifts this spatial figuration from the referential to the phatic: in the act of restatement we move from the statement to the actionable underlying it. “χ”s use in “χristos” “χronos” and “χord” (Duncan 1968, 48) likewise illustrates the axial shift the graphic character both registers and facilitates. Just as a chord is a relationship of simultaneity or coincidence, the time of restatement is phenomenologically always the present tense of enunciation or enactment, which is always outside of the semantic or known.

22That present moment of experience outside of the known or represented is exactly what Duncan invokes in defending Cage’s method against an audience member’s charge, that procedural means removed the “biological breath” (Duncan 1967, 8:04) from the work, during a talk the two gave together at Stony Brook in 1967, remarking:

when he plays the piano don’t you feel a breathing because he is there at the piano playing, this is the difference between the dimension of theory and the dimension of the living thing as its done… when I’m there at the board running back and forth you’re getting more of a demonstration… you’re watching a thing, going back and forth, so you feel this breathing. (Duncan 1967, 8:10-8:32)

23Cage responds that the audience member had based his charge of method’s taking precedence over the event on a recording, rather than the performance. Concurring, Duncan remarks, “you weren’t there when it’s happening [...] the idea isn’t there [in the recording] [...] had the idea been there you wouldn’t be thinking about an idea, you would have recognized it” (Duncan 1967, 7:10). The point is that the convergence of these two approaches can be found in the experienced event itself, if not in the record. There is ultimately more at stake in this question of whether the act that gets beyond the representation can be included in the representation of the act than merely the historical record, as seen in Cage’s later remark that the modes of experience under discussion are proof that the human mind possesses capacities far beyond those of a computer. The effort to retrieve from the recorded archive what the latter does not contain entails recuperating from the 20th century avant-garde certain modes of human intellection that both outpace cognitive representation, including computation, and can be socially shared.

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Olson, Charles. “Theater Institute Lecture on Language.” Olson: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives 1910-1970 8 (Spring 1977): 50-55. (1977c)

Olson, Charles and Robert Creeley. The Complete Correspondence Vol. 1. Ed. George Butterick. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980.

Olson, Charles. Collected Poems of Charles Olson. Ed. George Butterick. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Olson, Charles. Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

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1 See The Corpus Hermeticum: Initiation into Hermetics, the Hermetica of Hermes Trismegismus. Ed. G.R.S. Mead. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1906; rpt. New Hall Press, 2019.

2 Ruth Erickson sees Olson’s summer 1949 class “Exercises for Theater” as prefiguring the theater-as-intermedia model that would crystalize with Theater Piece No 1. Olson describes the group’s performance of “Wagadu” as a “jointure of speech-sound-motion, projection-melody-gesture” (Molesworth and Erickson 300).

3 See, for example: “Olson, a serape flung over his naked torso, sitting in the dining room next to John Cage, always most formal in a black city suit and tie and very shiny pointed shoes, punctuating the cultivated laconism of dinnertime with his tinkling, Zen monk’s laugh as he mused about his next Happening.” Grey pairs Olson and Cage when reflecting on their shared impulse to dissolve boundaries separating art from life: ‘“Write as you breathe,” Olson always taught. “I want to erase all differences between art and life,” Cage said. “Rauschenberg just wants to fill in the gaps between the two, which strikes me as a little too Roman Catholic.”’ (Grey)

4 Olson’s “Me-mo to Stefan and John,” written in the weeks after Theater Piece No. 1 and attempting, in Byers’ account, to conciliate the two composers (Wolpe had walked out during the performance), contrasts Stefan’s “cry that determinism by the self is required” with “John’s uncry that below it is the way out (tao), that continuity of all life saps the single from beneath itself” (Olson 1977b, 41).

5 Olson remarks to Creeley regarding a previous essay by Elath that the terms totality and methodology “make a pair to open stuff” (Olson/Creeley 150).

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Edward Alexander, « Duncan’s Open Form and Cagean Intermedia: The Practice of “Theatre” After Black Mountain »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Edward Alexander

Edward Alexander works on American poetry from modernism to the present. He received his PhD from UC Berkeley in 2018 and currently teaches in the Liberal Studies department at NYU. His writing has appeared in Contemporary Literature and The Wallace Stevens Journal and is forthcoming in Paideuma. His book project examines open-form poetry’s development in light of the avant-garde’s fascination with ritual objects.

Edward Alexander a consacré ses recherches à la poésie américaine depuis le modernisme jusqu’à la période contemporaine. Après avoir obtenu son doctorat à l’université de Californie à Berkeley en 2018, il enseigne aujourd’hui à New York. Il a publié dans la revue Contemporary Literature et The Wallace Stevens Journal. Il prépare un ouvrage sur la notion de forme ouverte en poésie, en lien avec le regard porté par les avant-gardes sur le rôle du rituel.

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