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Martin Elster 03-13-2021 11:59 AM

Mesostic poem by John Cage
I was thinking about Aaron Novick’s recent poem at Metrical and was trying to find some of John Cage’s mesostics. I came across this video of Cage reading this amazing poem.

John Cage - Overpopulation and Art: A Mesostic Poem (1992)

Here is a short poem of John Cage:

For William McN. who studied with Ezra Pound

And here are a couple of links to articles about the mesostic:

Here's a little item about John Cage himself:

Allen Tice 03-13-2021 12:17 PM

What I've seen in the quickest flyover here is that Cage's efforts are examples of the Worst concrete poems. Not pretty enough. I spent a lot of time working over a word square with this sort of thing in mind so that several columns made some sense where all the rows made some sense while the square shape was retained. Not satisfied, I stopt.

Roger Slater 03-13-2021 01:32 PM

Basically, a mesostic is just an acrostic in which the vertical word doesn't have to use only the first letter of each line, but can use any letter in the line. The lines are then indented in such a way as to line up the letters that spell the word. They're a lot more fun and easier to write than acrostics because you are not forced to start any line with any particular letter.

I've written quite a few mesostic poems for children. My general approach is to make the poem be a riddle and the word that is spelled down the center of the poem is the answer to the riddle. The poem can be presented with the letters filled in on the page, or with blanks that the child fills in as part of the strategy of solving the riddle.

I have my own mesostic variant in which the blank letters are not in order but require the child to unscramble them to spell the riddle's answer.

Bill Carpenter 03-13-2021 03:08 PM

Martin, check out Cage's Writing Through Finnegans Wake. I think there is even a Second Writing Through Finnegans Wake. From what I recall, it is a series of lines from FW arranged so that bolded letters in the middle of the lines line up to spell "James Joyce," over and over, for 150 pages. I admit I did not attempt the experience of reading it from beginning to end, or end to beginning, or middle to ends, or randomly.

Martin Elster 03-13-2021 11:42 PM

Allen, I donít think a mesostic is a concrete poem. Though in many of Cageís mesostics, the typography is crucial (so in that sense it is), but not just for the visual effect but more so for how it might possibly be interpreted aurally by the performer. In the case of the one in the video, I imagine it took a lot of time and at least some skill to be able to repeat ďOVERPOPULATION AND ARTĒ so many times and actually arrive at something that makes some kind of sense. Iím not saying itís a great poem, but I thought it was pretty clever.

Roger, that sounds interesting. Iíd love to read some of those.

Bill, several years ago I read Cageís book Silence: Lectures and Writings.It was too long ago to remember a lot of details, but I did enjoy it. Now that Iíve thought about it again, I want to read it once more.

Thanks for letting me know about "Writing Through Finnegans Wake" and the second one. I have a feeling itís more abstract than ďOverpopulation and Art: A Mesostic Poem (1992).Ē

Ann Drysdale 03-14-2021 03:30 AM

The name was unfamiliar to me but it reminded me of a thing now abandoned in the back of my mental sock-drawer. I was once hell-bent on writing a poem that was visibly unremarkable and made perfect sense but included a central thread that read: anyone found speedreading this poem will be shot.

Circumstances overtook it; he who would have caught it when I threw it, died before I was able to finish it. Speedreading seems to have died, too. For each sorrow there comes a little joy.

Roger Slater 03-14-2021 07:24 AM

Ann, before I went to college I took an expensive speed-reading course that promised you'd triple your reading speed or your money back. At least they were honest. I ended up getting my money back. Their technique, which basically involved running your hand down the page in Z patterns and gobbling up whole paragraphs at a time instead of words or phrases, was at best a skimming technique.

Martin Elster 03-14-2021 08:55 AM


Originally Posted by Roger Slater (Post 461973)
They're a lot more fun and easier to write than acrostics because you are not forced to start any line with any particular letter.

I’m not so sure about that because, whereas there are no rules in an acrostic, there are strict rules in a mesostic. Wikipedia explains it this way (I haven't formatted the poems, but you can visualize the layout):


There are two types of mesostic: fifty percent and one hundred percent. (See also the example below.)

•In a fifty-percent mesostic, according to Andrew Culver (John Cage's assistant), "Between any two [capitalized] letters, you can't have the second [letter]."
•In a one-hundred-percent mesostic, "Between any two [capitalized] letters, you can't have either [letter]."

Below, an example of a one-hundred-percent mesostic:


let us maKe
of thIs
a room Holding
tons of lovE
(&, Naturally, much good food, too)

It qualifies as a one-hundred-percent mesostic because there is no k or i in the text between the capital K of line 1 and the capital I of line 2 –

let us maKe
of thIs

– no i or t between the capital I and T –

of thIs

– and so on.

Roger Slater 03-14-2021 09:03 AM

I never heard any of that, so I guess the "mesostics" I've written don't qualify under that definition. But it doesn't bother me. I think those additional constraints are silly and pointless. As it is, I've done many variations on the mesostic concept. For example, I have poems that don't line up the letters but spread the blank letters throughout the poem for children to fill in. They then have to put the letters in order to spell out the word that is also the solution to the poem's riddle.

For me, what's important is that the poem also be good if you scrap the mesostic angle and just present the entire poem in normal typeface that doesn't highlight any letters. One of my mesostic poems was published in a children's anthology and the editor just published it that way, stripped of its mesostic character. The mesostic part is sort of just added fun and shouldn't be integral to the poetry itself. I had another that was published with the mesostic word running down the middle in an obvious fashion, rather than left blank as I contempleted (the magazine is found in many libraries and waiting rooms, so the editors didn't want anything that encourages people to write in it and ruin it for others).

Martin Elster 03-14-2021 12:00 PM

Roger, I didnít know about those mesostic rules, either, until I saw them at Wikipedia. I agree they are silly and purposeless.

Thanks for that private message. I really enjoyed your little mesostic, especially because it rhymes and is even in a recognizable meter!

Now I think Iíll try writing one (which Iíve never done, though Iíve written several acrostics, one of which was also an Onegin stanza that won a small weekly poetry contest).

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