One day Joan Retallack decided it was time to discard some books and journals from her personal library. Among them were Martin Buber’s I and Thou; a collection of short stories by David Kranes (Utah Press, 1979) called Hunters in the Snow; a 1974 volume of poems by Richard Howard; a published interview with Rita Dove; 1981 issues of The Socialist Review and Georgia Review; an issue of the Chicago Review that included an important line of Dante; books of poetry by Maxine Kumin, Ai, Burt Hatlen and Thomas McGrath; a 1988 number of Gargoyle magazine in which was published a poem by Angel Gonzalez beginning “The most obscure things have already been said”; Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch; Explanation and Understanding by Georg Henrik von Wright (Cornell, 1971); and others. This act of elimination, which on the contrary turned out to be a recycling and an archiving, produced a poem she came to call “Not a Cage,” after John Cage.
John Cage once made the following remark when asked why he wished to make English less understandable:
I let it be known to my friends, and even strangers, as I was wandering around the country, that what was interesting me was making English less understandable. Because when it’s understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears — and as I was talking with my friend Norman O. Brown, and he said, “Syntax [which is what makes things understandable] is the army, is the arrangement of the army.” So what we're doing when we make language un-understandable is we're demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living.... It’s a transition from language to music certainly. It's bewildering at first, but it’s extremely pleasurable as time goes on. And that's what I'm up to. Empty Words begins by omitting sentences, has only phrases, words, syllables and letters. The second part omits the phrases, has only words, syllables and letters. The third part omits the words, has only syllables and letters. And the last part has nothing but letters and sounds.
Here is a recording of Cage making this remark (in a radio interview given prior to a performance of Empty Words).
"It was at Harvard not quite forty years ago that I went into an anechoic [totally silent] chamber not expecting in that silent room to hear two sounds: one high, my nervous system in operation, one low, my blood in circulation. The reason I did not expect to hear those two sounds was that they were set into vibration without any intention on my part. That experience gave my life direction, the exploration of nonintention. No one else was doing that. I would do it for us. I did not know immediately what I was doing, nor, after all these years, have I found out much. I compose music.