Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words

Yesterday, Anne Michael told me about the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan, who started out with a line by Cage:

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.

~ John Cage

which he made into a new poem, like this:

Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words

I have to say poetry and is that nothing and I am saying it
I am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
I am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it
I that am saying poetry have nothing and it is I and to say
And I say that I am to have poetry and saying it is nothing
I am poetry and nothing and saying it is to say that I have
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
Poetry is saying I have nothing and I am to say that and it
Saying nothing I am poetry and I have to say that and it is
It is and I am and I have poetry saying say that to nothing
It is saying poetry to nothing and I say I have and am that
Poetry is saying I have it and I am nothing and to say that
And that nothing is poetry I am saying and I have to say it
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it

~ Edwin Morgan

Timothy Nicholson says:

The poem “Opening the Cage,” by Edwin Morgan, is based on a quote taken from John Cage. Cage said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.” Cage’s quote contains fourteen words which are rearranged fourteen times by the poet to create a fourteen line sonnet.

Based on a line of 14 words, by simply taking all possible combinations of the words, there are over 87 billion combinations. Certainly, most of these combinations would not make any sense at all, but surely there are more than 14 that would make some sort of sense. This means the author did not just take 14 lines that make little sense and compose a random poem. Instead, each line builds upon the previous line and leads into the next one. Similar to most English sonnets, this poem explains a problem or dilemma in the first 12 lines. The last two lines (or final couplet) solve the problem and shed light on the rest of the poem. The paradox in this sonnet is that, even though saying (or creating) poetry is nothing in and of itself, through producing poetry as a reader or, even more importantly, as an author, we can gain meaning from the poetry, and only then can we make it a part of us.


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