Hadbeen variety (PoemTalk #135)

John Cage, 'Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake'


Marjorie Perloff, Danny Snelson, and Nancy Perloff convened with Al Filreis at Marjorie Perloff’s home in Los Angeles to discuss John Cage’s mesostic abridgement of James Joyce, “Writing for a Second Time through Finnegans Wake.” Nothwithstanding its status as an intense selection or condensation of the original text, the resulting “writing through” is too long for PoemTalk’s signature “close but not too close reading,” so the group focuses on the opening pages of the Cage text. “Writing for a Second Time,” including the methodological preface, has been published in Empty Words; the pages we discuss (37–42) have been made available through PennSound here.

UbuWeb’s John Cage page is an extraordinary resource for recordings, including “Writing for the Second Time.” The source for PoemTalk’s inclusion of audio is derives from a video recording made of a 1978 reading of the entire work Cage gave in 1978. This has been available through a copy posted to Vimeo in 2011 here. This is the particular performance, which includes a full reading of the preface, on which our discussion is based. We have embedded this video here in our program note, below. (Click the image of the text above at right to view the excerpt from Empty Words.)

Cage famously considered Finnegans Wake “without a doubt the most important book of the twentieth century” (Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage, 294). He obsessed over it, wrote music inspired by it, and corresponded and conversed with several Wake-focused Joyceans such as Marshall McLuhan and Norman O. Brown. Brown, in fact, makes a significant appearance in Cage’s charming and somewhat helpful (somewhat charmingly digressive and disarming) prefatory statement to the work. Cage visited the Wake elsewhere in his Roaratorio (1976–79) — fully titled Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake; the Mode Records CD series of Cage recordings arranges its volume 6 to include “Writing for the Second Time” along with Roaratorio and Laughtears: Conversation on Roaratorio.

Note: During the discussion it was mentioned that Cage’s first version was not made available in print. We thank David Miller for pointing out that that version was indeed published — in 1978 by the University of Tulsa as a special supplement to volume 15 of the James Joyce Quarterly as number 16 in the University of Tulsa’s Monograph Series.

PoemTalk’s visit to Los Angeles was part of a west coast tour of ModPo, the open online course on modern and contemporary poetry, during which we filmed a dozen new discussions to be added to the ModPo syllabus, including several made before and after the PoemTalk session at the Perloff home. Anna Strong Safford, Zach Carduner (PoemTalk’s editor), and Chris Martin directed, engineered and filmed our discussoin of “Writing for the Second Time” and we present a long, unedited version of PoemTalk as a video, below.