For John Cage on his 75th Birthday (1987)
I live in an agricultural community. Where you sometimes have to wait for the cows to go by before you can drive down to the house.
You need to know about that because this poem that I’m about to read, which was written for John Cage, the composer, for his 75th birthday, has cows in it.
And the other thing, for those of you who don’t know or have, perhaps, some immediate feeling about John, is to realize that one of his contributions was to find that the whole universe of sound is music. He didn’t make a distinction between noise and music. It made him controversial. But.
This was a poem written on request for his 75th birthday celebration. And we were on stage together in Los Angeles, and I got to read it to him.
Dear John Cage
It is already dusk and the cows are not yet in —
already dawn, are not yet out. Listen.
It sounds ever thus, the breathing.
40 years ago
you touched down at our landing,
inwardly orbiting. tirra lira loo
Our first words were a courtship!
tirra lira day in and day out
Shall I tell you the secret of our mystery?
You are a preacher and I am a missionary.
We make love for justice
and delight: kindliness, laughter, and rage.
Macrobiotic eros, you nourish the ends of the earth
in ever new beginnings.
The cows, John, the cows are banging their udders
like soft cymbals, and the milkers
are playing the teats like bell ropes
tugging and letting go.
The music, my God, the music!
M.C. Richards (1916-1999) was many things. She wrote poetry and philosophy, taught, translated, painted, created pottery, and more. She earned her Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley. Richards had the distinction of being the only female faculty at BMC with a terminal degree. In 1945 she joined the faculty at Black Mountain College where she taught writing, translated plays, danced, studied pottery, and founded The Black Mountain Review. She was one of BMC’s most popular faculty members in the late 1940s and later wrote: “I have no criticism of Black Mountain, it was an entirely transforming, maturing and inspiring experience.” While at BMC, Richards played an essential role in maintaining community balance in the wake of Josef and Anni Albers’s resignation and the rise of Charles Olson as the college’s leader during the 1950s. Richards was a key contributor to Theater Piece No. 1, orchestrated by John Cage. Richards returned to BMC as a student in 1953 where she learned pottery and sculpture. Her experiences at BMC led her to gain an interest in communal living, which she fostered at the Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point, NY; Haystack Mountain School in Portland, Maine; and Camphill Village in Copake, NY. Richards taught workshops and lectured at universities and communities until her death in 1999. Her most well-known publications include Centering in Poetry, Pottery, and the Person (1964), The Crossing Point: Selected Talks and Writings (1973), and Towards Wholeness (1980).