|John Cage at Knox College in 1967. Photo by Leonard Borden.|
Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson were the co-authors of the sedately titled Human Sexual Response that nevertheless became an immediate best-seller when it was published in 1966. The book reported on their studies of volunteers in their laboratory, and some of their conclusions contradicted conventional wisdom. But their book's impact seemed based mostly on the fact that they were openly and dispassionately discussing aspects of sexual behavior and function that had not been part of acceptable public discourse. In other words, they'd broken the silence.
In January 1967, Dr. Master spoke to a capacity crowd of students in the Harbach Theatre and answered questions--some anonymously written in advance, some from the audience. What I remember is the mood, which was of intense quiet and seriousness that approached reverence. It seemed as if everybody believed that even a titter of nervous laughter, let alone a rude joke, would instantly send the event into chaos and disrepute. (Although I do recall curious questions afterwards about the female student who had asked about fellatio and cunnilingus.)
|W.H. Auden in New York 1966|
American poetry took other directions by the 1960s, and I knew little about him. We hadn't read him (as far as I remember) in our poetry classes, with the possible exception of his most famous poem, "September 1, 1939," written as World War II began.
But he cut quite a figure on campus. A couple of classmates remembered him wearing carpet slippers as he moved from place to place. I recall his Hobbit or Tolkien sweatshirt (there was a national undergraduate revival of Tolkien underway.)
I was among the students who had lunch with him on the balcony of the Oak Room. This was supposed to be the first of several such lunches with various students, but it was the only one Auden attended. He found the food inedible. I was told that, hearing of Auden's penchant for food, the college booked him into the motel to which the Toddle House was attached. I loved the Toddle House waffles, but it wasn't exactly gourmet dining.
Classmate Leonard Borden was also at that lunch in the Oak Room. He was assigned to then walk Auden to his next event, William Brady's Shakespeare class. As they ascended the stairs inside Old Main, Auden turned and offered Leonard this observation: "A poet should never use the word 'I' in a poem until he is over forty."
Auden had barely left the Toddle House behind before an entirely different sort of poet arrived, as cutting-edge as Auden was old guard. The second week of February 1967, Gary Snyder came to town.
In his late 30s then, Snyder had been a presence in American poetry for over a decade. He was among the poets who read at the famous Six Gallery evening in 1955 that premiered Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and launched the so-called Beat movement. A student of American Indian cultures and both Chinese and Japanese languages, Snyder interspersed months and years at a Zen monastery in Japan with jobs on an oil tanker, on logging crews and as a fire lookout.
The Knox Student lists Snyder's events as a lecture on Tuesday (subject: "What's Going On?") and a reading on Wednesday, both in the Alumni Room of Old Main beginning at 7:30 in the evening. While Snyder did speak about political, cultural and environmental subjects at one or both of his appearances, I recall him reading a great deal of poetry at both--hours of it.
Snyder's readings were mesmerizing: poems of simple descriptions in brief bursts of mostly nouns and verbs, and mostly one syllable words (a conscious choice in Rip Rap due to his observation of classical Chinese) that produced a cumulative, incantatory magic. After awhile the words became mostly sound and you got tired, but then they took you to another level. I doubt that many audiences anywhere had the opportunity to hear Gary Snyder read for such sustained periods.
His emphasis on the ignored value of the non-human and Indigenous cultures struck a chord with me: as he wrote, "In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past."
Snyder also was an impressive presence on campus. Jay Matson remembers that he wore an earring, some decades before this became a male fashion. I recall the bells in his boots: little jingle bells that rang as he walked. I loved that, and tried it myself for awhile. But even in the upcoming counterculture it didn't catch on, alas. Still, I remember sitting in the audience for the second event, alive with anticipation, and hearing those jingling boots tromping down the Old Man hall.
The party for him was at James Campbell's apartment, which overflowed with students. I asked him one question. Though I don't remember what I asked about, it was in the nature of "how do you know?" He answered that I'd have to "experience it." I immediately jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he'd advised me to take LSD. Such were the nerve endings as the wildness of the counterculture approached. It was in fact a practical as well as a perfectly Buddhist answer to almost anything.
Wendy Saul remembers telling Snyder at the party that she was writing a paper on witchcraft, and he said "something like, 'Why for God's sake? Just become a witch.' In retrospect that seems like good advice."
But perhaps the most profound effect of Snyder's visit was felt by a younger student, Peter Overton. He was so impressed by Snyder's talk that he decided to go to Japan as Snyder had done and study Zen. Later he read about Tassajara and the San Francisco Zen Center. He went to the Bay Area instead and began taking instruction at the Berkeley center. Zen Buddhism in the Bay Area became his life. Some of his talks are on the Internet.
I heard Snyder read again a few years later at a benefit reading for an ecology organization in Berkeley. He was among his old San Francisco colleagues, including Lew Welch, who read his famous California poem with the refrain "This is the last place/there is nowhere else to go." Months later Welch disappeared, a presumed suicide. I spoke with poet Michael McClure in 2003, who read there that day as well as at the historic 1955 event that launched Howl, and he remembered that reading in Berkeley as something special.
For the next five years Snyder published poems in periodicals, from Look magazine and the New York Times to Poetry and the Hudson Review to Kayak, Caterpillar and Unmuzzled Ox. His collection Turtle Island (a traditional name now applied to North America) sold something like 100,000 copies and won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. It included the prose statement "Four Changes" that set the agenda for a number of environmental groups.
For awhile after, I acquired his books haphazardly, mostly as I came across them used, but eventually I had the poetry collections The Back Country (1968), Regarding Wave (1970) Axe Handles (1983), Left Out in the Rain (1986) and the hybrid Turtle Island (1975) as well as the prose collections Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1977) and The Real Work (1980).
For me, living in California brought new dimensions to Snyder's work, both in terms of places he wrote about and the relevance of his writing to our ecology. (He lives most of a day's drive south of me, in the foothills of the Sierras.)
So I began to acquire his more recent books: the completed Mountains and Rivers Without End (1997), Danger on Peaks (poems, 2004), A Place in Space (new and selected prose, 1995), Passage Through India (1992 edition) and Back on the Fire (essays, 2007.) I even got his doctoral thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth (1979.)
Even at that, there are books I missed. More recently I added The Etiquette of Freedom (2010), a companion book to a film featuring Snyder in conversation with poet and fictionist Jim Harrison, which also includes the film on DVD. Now I have another experience of Snyder reading his work (which he said "is mostly done") in his late 70s. In May 2020 Gary Snyder turned 90.
|Snyder, Ginsberg chanting, Human Be-In 1967|
It was a Midwestern version of a Be-In, called Gentle Thursday. Ginsberg was beginning his years of greatest fame on college campuses, and his identification with the counterculture.
I hitched a ride with a group of Knox faculty and students (Doug Wilson was one.) I remember it as a huge event in bright sunshine, with Ginsberg reading and leading his "Om" chants.
Leonard Borden remembers that he read his poem "Kral Majales (King of the May.)" We, as I recall, were pretty far away. ( Leonard reports however that some Knox classmates wound up at Ginsberg's table in the University of Iowa cafeteria.) When the official events were over, we heard about a big party that night that would feature a pig roast. Some of our group stayed, but I was among those who returned before then. Later we learned that a number of people at the party became ill from under-cooked pork.
John Cage visited Knox for a few days in the spring of 1967, though I have no documentation on exactly when. Leonard Borden has some photos however, that suggest the weather was sunny and warm.
|Photo by Leonard Borden (cropped): Dennis Parks, David Axelrod, Tad Gilster, Don Hanson, Bill Kowinski and John Cage on the Gizmo Patio, Knox College 1967. Click photo to enlarge .|
I remember this day. I came outside from the Gizmo counter with my paper cup of coffee in hand, and saw John Cage sitting alone on the patio. I immediately asked if I could join him, eager to take advantage of this opportunity for a one-on-one. Unfortunately, once I sat down I couldn't think of anything to ask him, or to talk about.
It was such a perfect John Cage response that I dined out on this story for decades--including an actual dinner with a group from Carnegie Mellon University, where I got to tell it to monologist Spalding Gray. And just after writing this I chanced across some black and white film footage of a younger Cage (in a biography of dancer Merce Cunningham) advising that people stuck in lines could be entertained by hearing the sounds around them as music, and seeing the movement around them as dance.
But that brief exchange was about all the solo time I had with Cage, as a stream of other students (and one faculty member) saw us and clustered around. In these photos by Leonard Borden, you can see ceramics prof Dennis Parks, and students David Axelrod, Jack Herbig, Tad Gilster and Don Hanson. Others came and went.
In any case, it is from this latter piece that I extracted two statements that have stayed with me over the years. I can only approximate his line breaks: "They ask what/the purpose of art is. Is that how/things are? Say there were a thousand/artists and one purpose, would one/artist be having it and all the nine/ hundred and ninety-nine others be missing the point?" "The truth is that everything causes/everything else. We do not speak therefore/ of one thing causing another. There/are no secrets. It's just we thought they/said dead when they said bread." This piece also contains a speculation that seems to have come true: "Relevant information's hard to come/by. Soon it'll be everywhere, unnoticed."
Cage talked about making creative choices based on "chance procedures," mostly throwing the stalks or coins of the I Ching. I believe he selected some of what he read at Knox based on chance procedures. I also seem to remember there was a performance of his most famous work, called 4' 33,'' which basically consists of musicians in a concert environment doing nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. The sounds that arise naturally in the room and from outside it during that time constitute the music.
John Cage, born in 1912, had quite a life-- in California, Europe, the Pacific Northwest, New York etc.-- before his period of greatest international fame began in the 1960s, and his ideas found resonance in new intellectual movements as well as the growing counterculture.
|John Cage at Knox 1967 by Leonard Borden|
He was that way at Knox, and he charmed everyone with his storytelling, and with a simplicity that encouraged receptivity to the complexities and paradoxes of his ideas. Formally dressed, with his cigarette holder, he was almost courtly. He listened. But he wasn't stuffy. We got to experience that frequent and legendary laugh. He seemed to enjoy Knox and its surroundings, including the mushroom-hunting he loved. Wendy Saul remembers picking mushrooms on the Old Main lawn with him, and I recall overhearing on his second visit to Knox his rapturous description of a local mushroom expedition, probably at Green Oaks.
On that second visit (probably the following year), Cage brought Merce Cunningham and dancers, so Knox got the rare opportunity to see these dances in intimate surroundings, with the artists available before and after the performances. (My memory is meeting them in the rehearsal lobby outside the Studio Theatre.)
As I recall, these dances were also governed to some extent by indeterminate means and chance procedures that decided what each dancer would do in a particular space for each interval of time, so that every dance was a unique event. It's worth noting that the Merce Cunningham dance troupe worked in obscurity for more than a decade, from 1953 to 1965. They started to achieve recognition, especially within the dance world, no more than three years before their appearance at Knox. Cunningham's stellar career stretched over 50 years. He died in 2009 at the age of 90.
There are several threads that link these people together, other than their appearance at Knox in 1967. One would run through Allen Ginsberg, who knew them all, including W.H. Auden. But the most meaningful thread linking Snyder, Ginsberg and Cage is Zen Buddhism, and specifically the man who largely introduced Zen to America, D.T. Suzuki.
This common starting point is described at the beginning of Kay Larson's wonderful 2012 book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. The book is mostly about Cage but it starts with Gary Snyder in 1951, sitting by the side of the road while waiting for rides through Nevada to school in Indiana, reading Suzuki's essays. Before long he would be meditating five hours a day in a Zen monastery in Japan.
Meanwhile, John Cage was already interested in Eastern modes of thought when he first heard Suzuki lecture on Zen in 1950. When Suzuki's regular classes began in 1953, Cage was there.
To some extent, Zen came naturally to Cage. The basis of Buddhist meditation is attention; to be fully present in the moment. That was his approach to music and living.
Indeterminacy comes from Zen, Larson writes, in which there is no fixed identity but only process. Ego and other, inner and outer, life and death and other foundational dualities in western thought are questioned in Buddhism, which, if nothing else, liberates the individual to question other assumptions and behavior.
Cage also found the essential humor in the apparent paradoxes and the odd wit of masters such as D.T. Suzuki, S. Suzuki (founder of the San Francisco Zen Center) and the Dalai Lama. According to Larson (a veteran art critic for New York Magazine and afterwards a practicing Buddhist), one element that the artistic innovators of the 1940s onwards had in common is that they'd just talked to John Cage. For them and for us, Cage provided two attitudes: encouragement to be open to new ideas and one's own way, and his own openness to others, even when their work was very different from his. Our "proper business", he said, is "curiosity and awareness."
|Cage and Merce Cunningham, maybe 1950s|
There was a period when I made some decisions using chance procedures, to see what happened. I used them in some writing, even in the 1970s.
Ultimately there is the question of how to sustain a life with this commitment. But just having Cage's ideas and example in the mix was valuable.
One of Cage's Knox trips was the occasion for an anecdote in his later book M:Writings 67-72, about Sam Moon picking him up at the airport. Cage became more of an international globe-trotter in the 1970s, but he did return to Knox for a performance in 1983, and was interviewed in the student magazine Catch. This was shortly before Moon retired, which is a reminder that the other common thread here is that Sam Moon brought them all to Knox. John Cage died in 1992, weeks before his 80th birthday, which was set to be celebrated around the world.