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A Conversation With Marjorie Perloff

The fearlessly outspoken critic and Stanford titan on the contemporary poetry canon, the complexities of O.J. Simpson, and the non-Zen of John Cage

Jeremy Sigler
April 01, 2019
Emily Berkey
Emily Berkey
Emily Berkey
Emily Berkey

I was waking up a little jet-lagged in Los Angeles and forming a game plan to get across town to the noted poetry critic, Marjorie Perloff, when a morning thunderclap came out of nowhere and literally shook the house.

I’ve never seen such sheets of rain. Getting into the car was like an action-adventure movie. I made my way down the flooding freeway with windshield wipers at hyperspeed, preoccupied with a vision of a mudslide sweeping toward me and swallowing me whole. I was sure the world would come to an end before Marjorie and I could even get started.

But as the freeway veered away from the gray cloud mass hovering over Hollywood, I was led by the exit ramp almost magically into sunny Brentwood. The air and roads were 100 percent dry by the time I pulled up to Marjorie’s. What storm? We got right down to business.

As a tiny poet conducting an interview with a giant poetry critic, I knew I was out of my league. At best, I was hoping for common ground. Maybe a little sympathy. A smile. But I was quick to learn that “it’s just not a great moment for poetry.” Ouch.

Where, I thought, shall I probe for that smile? For that feeling of connection? In her recent book, Edge of Irony, on a handful of very difficult Austrian writers, including the infinitely confounding Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein? In her controversial Unoriginal Genius, exploring the irreverent nature of the Conceptual Poetry movement? In her memoir about fleeing European Nazification as a child? Her landmark early book on a poet named Frank O’Hara? Or perhaps the ever-scandalous Carl Andre—a figure she and I had both spent considerable time contemplating as contributors to the major Dia Art Foundation traveling retrospective catalog of 2014.

I simply did not predict that Marjorie would let her guard down immediately and completely, and that we’d flow effortlessly in and out of most every subject that came up. Nor that we’d laugh so much, trading tales of friends like John Ashbery and John Cage—early influences that still make me want to be a poet when I grow up.

Three hours later, the bulk of everything said was officially “on the record.” But as I packed up, I realized most of our conversation should probably be left off the record. My parting words were, “Don’t worry, I’ll clean it up. Then we can decide which bridges we really want to burn.”

When I forwarded my edit, I expected a more polite and responsible Perloff to censor the fearlessly outspoken critic I had more or less “caught on tape.” But she stood by her words.

Jeremy Sigler: What’s next for you?

Marjorie Perloff: I don’t know. I’m so old. I may stop writing scholarly articles and books.

JS: But Marjorie, you still seem like the youngest go-getter out there. And almost everything you say or write creates a stir.

MP: Well, I’m not eager to write poetry criticism right now because the current scene strikes me as pretty unchallenging vis-a-vis, say, fiction or documentary. It’s just not a great moment for poetry.

JS: I visited Charles Bernstein the other day in my Brooklyn neighborhood. He’s a poet I know we both admire, and he doesn’t seem to be too disillusioned about the poetry scene. If anything he’s thriving.

MP: Charles and I have wonderful debates about what’s happening in poetry. As a poet, he naturally wants to like a lot of work, but I find it difficult to agree. Look, when the language school of poetry started out, Charles was the radical, oppositional poet who brilliantly demolished “Official Verse Culture,” as he called it. But now, alas, much of what he previously condemned, like the “transit theory of poetry—from me to you” has come back with a vengeance. Now the criterion for poetry is very romantic again, filled with the witnessing of personal pain and suffering, whether in relation to gender or race or disability, and so on.

JS: Yes. But it has to be politically correct pain. Try writing a brutally honest politically incorrect book of confessional pain poetry even with a good dose of irony and self-deprecating humor, and see how far that gets you. Right now only certain people are allowed to say certain things. Like news anchors, or pundits.

MP: When I had lunch a little while ago, I turned on the news, and then quickly switched the channel to TCM to watch an old film!

JS: I don’t blame you. In order to stay in the present tense one has to be willing to put on a hazmat suit and wade through this toxic sludge of breaking news. I have to admit I lost my appetite for even The New York Times and NPR, and now I’ve put myself on a diet of pure Franz Schubert. Speaking of music, can we talk about your recent interview with the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso? I’m a big fan. But I can’t imagine actually meeting him in person.

MP: Oh, we really hit it off when I was in Rio a few years ago. I love him! Caetano is a very famous composer/singer, who fuses pop and avant-garde elements. And he was associated with Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, two of the Brazilian concrete poets I have written about for many years. And they introduced him to the work of Ezra Pound. So we always have so much to talk about.

JS: How did your relationship with Caetano evolve?

MP: We did a live conversation at the 2016 MLA (Modern Language Association) in Austin, Texas. Many of my colleagues were skeptical and wondered who would come to hear such an unlikely pair give a talk. And do you know who came? Aside from the MLA members, the hotel staff at the Hilton got time off and came to hear Caetano! It was standing room only. People were crawling off the walls. And that was wonderful because the aim of Roland Greene—who was MLA president in 2016, and is the man who introduced me to Brazilian poetry—was to reach a wider audience, an audience beyond English teachers and students.

JS: And your latest book, Edge of Irony, is also reaching a large audience.

MP: Yes. Though, not especially an American audience—the book is more popular in Poland than anywhere, it seems. It is on pre-WWI Vienna.

JS: In it you point out how this diverse, multilingual, and vast geographical culture was shrunken into a nationalistic, predominantly conservative Germanic area of land, virtually overnight. You compare its diminished shape on the map to a tadpole.

MP: And I focus on some of the early 20th-century Viennese writers such as Robert Musil, Karl Kraus, Paul Celan, Joseph Roth, and Elias Canetti.

JS: … who were not formally so radical in that they didn’t use collage, or stream of consciousness, etc., but used more conventional forms laced with irony. They were on what you call “the hard edge of savage and grotesquely comic irony.” Moments of your book are comedic, but all in all, it’s very upsetting.

MP: Why?

JS: Because it deals with anti-Semitism. And the struggles of so many writers, some who were themselves Jewish and yet blatantly anti-Semitic. It’s all very troubling. One day (before WW1) they were living in a fairly liberal, and very Jewish society, and then came this unprecedented backlash into Nazism.

MP: Well, the Jews like Karl Kraus, certainly flourished in the pre-WWI period. But even in the early ’20s, as Joseph Roth shows in many of his short stories, there were already swastikas everywhere and the brochures of summer resorts had already made it clear that Jews were not to be admitted.

JS: The anti-Semitism was present all along. But it seems to have quickly shifted from being a low-grade, benign annoyance to a very real, terrifying threat.

MP: Yes, from 1933 on, when Hitler came to power, the Jews were persecuted in ways that now seem unimaginable. I keep hearing today about this or that microaggression. And I want to respond, “You know what’s worse than a microaggression? A macroaggression.”

JS: What’s the distinction?

MP: A microaggression is an unintended slight to someone who lacks your privilege, usually a member of a minority group. And such micro-aggression taps into deep-seated prejudices in our culture. But a macroaggression is not a question of insulting words but of overt and hurtful action against someone.

JS: Brute force. As a child your family was forced out of Vienna. You were certainly a victim of macroaggression.

MP: Yes. Even my own children and grandchildren, cannot understand what it meant to be a refugee from Vienna, from one day to the next, and entirely without warning—and to leave our apartment in Vienna, leave behind all our possessions, and somehow cross the border to Switzerland, not having any idea where we would finally settle! And then to have to flee to a strange country (the U.S.) and start all over again.

JS: And now here we are sitting in this living room in this wonderful house in a very upscale section of Los Angeles.

MP: Well, it is half a century later. And getting here was at least partly luck. For years after arriving in the U.S., we were quite poor. I couldn’t afford such ordinary middle-class things as figure skates and had only two or three dresses. It was only decades later that my cardiologist husband made a reasonable income and that I too had a good professorial salary, though I am by no means rich.

JS: Getting back to your book, I found the final chapter on Wittgenstein to be especially interesting.

MP: Really, why? He is my hero.

JS: I certainly want to like him, but I’ve always found his biography confusing.

MP: Was it his conversion to Christianity? Or that his father made such a fortune in the Austrian petroleum industry?

JS: I think it was his gesture of giving his inheritance away! And how, after WWI, he seemed to give up philosophy in order to become a gardener and then an elementary school teacher at a rural school.

MP: That was in the hope that leading an ordinary life would make him a better person.

JS: But he often lost his temper and he wound up boxing a young student’s ear. And this got him fired. What a disaster.

MP: But his idealistic aim was certainly admirable, and Wittgenstein was always as hard on himself as he was on others. I think he was in many ways the model for self-examination. Keep in mind that he struggled throughout his life to remake himself, and that he always felt alienated from his environment—first Vienna, then Cambridge. And then, oddly enough, his last words were: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

JS: He died of cancer at age 62. And there was so much depression and suicide in his family. I get the feeling he was tortured, the way he rewrote his books over and over again. Are you sure he wasn’t being ironic when he referred to his life as “wonderful?”

MP: No. I think he absolutely believed it. His was, in a certain sense, a “wonderful life” because he was able to make a real contribution to philosophy, and “become a different person.” He worked very hard to overcome his character flaws: like his impatience with the foibles of others, his irascibility, and what he considered his laziness.

I keep hearing today about this or that microaggression. And I want to respond, ‘You know what’s worse than a microaggression? A macroaggression.’

But I do think he was in some way tortured by being in the closet about his homosexuality. He tried very hard to deny it to himself as well as to others throughout his life. The question of sexuality was fraught, especially in his early years, as his secret journals testify. He castigated himself for so much as masturbating. Like his idol Tolstoy, he dreamed of being “pure.” So when he says, “I want to be a different person,” he means that he wants to lead a less frivolous, more monastic life—a life of good works rather than idle conversation and social activities.

JS: I thought his notion of becoming a “different person” had to do with assimilation—with shedding his Jewish ethnicity. Which I saw as his motivation to enlist in the army and fight in the war. I’m reminded of Roth’s The Radetzky March, which portrays a very elegant Jew buying his son a commission in the cavalry, since, after all, being a cavalry officer was a sign of being an aristocrat.

MP: The question of being Jewish bothered him surprisingly little until the early 1930s when he had to admit to himself that he belonged by ancestry to the religious and ethnic group that was being persecuted. He had been brought up as a Catholic, and he always loved—even if he didn’t quite believe in—Christianity. Like so many of the affluent, cultured Jews of Vienna, he was himself rather anti-Semitic.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein says “the meaning of the world must lie outside the world,” which is an amazing statement.

JS: In other words, you cannot provide answers for many of the questions of life while you are living.

Wittgenstein’s biography is really quite an amazing story. And so is your’s Marjorie. I discovered your 2004 memoir, The Vienna Paradox. Someday I hope to write an autobiography. I’m curious how you feel about poets’ biographies in general.

MP: Well, autobiography is one thing, but biographical criticism can be very misleading. Roland Barthes was right in the early ’60s to proclaim “the death of the author.” All he really meant was that one cannot regard the work as just the materialization of aspects of the author’s life, which was the standard academic mode of criticism in the various “Life & Letters” series so common at the time. The work itself was seen as no more than an emanation of the life.

JS: And you have always been a critic, not a biographer.

MP: Yes, I have a book coming out called Circling the Canon that covers, in two volumes, selected book reviews I wrote between 1969 and 2017. It will be out in the fall from University of New Mexico Press.

JS: Great title. But shouldn’t it be: The Canon Circling? Marjorie Perloff being the canon. Loud and accurate.

MP: I’ve taken my hits too. But the first volume does have a number of quite negative reviews, beginning with the very first one—of Anthony Hecht’s The Hard Hours for a now defunct Canadian journal called The Far Point. I was a fledgling critic at the time and read everything I could lay my hands on about a given subject. And I thought I had to be honest, as long as I could back up my judgments. So I did get into some trouble. But going back and rereading these old reviews after all these years, I have to admit, I have hardly ever changed my mind.

JS: That’s very interesting. I have this sense of dread about a few of my reviews from a decade ago. I was maybe a little too harsh. A painter once told me I had knocked her off her horse, and my response was that I hadn’t anticipated that she would ever bother to read the review.

MP: Don’t feel bad. A number of my harsh reviews were of fellow critics, for example, Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom. It’s strange to read these reviews now, as I have come round to appreciating both of them much more. Both care so deeply about poetry, and this passion is ultimately what matters to me most.

In any case, my criticism changed when, for an omnibus review, I was sent, in a pile of about 100 books, David Shapiro and Ron Padgett’s An Anthology of New York Poets.

JS: I love that book. And its cover. The lettering is done by hand and includes sweet little drawings of cherries, jacks, and a butterfly. It’s by Joe Brainard of course.

MP: Yes! That was when I fell in love with Frank O’Hara! I featured him in my review. And at that time I could review almost anything I wanted for the New Republic. Those days are gone forever. My editor was the novelist and critic Doris Grumbach. She’s still alive, over 100, and living in Maine. Anyway, Doris was an incredible book editor, very adventurous. When I wanted to review something, I’d just ask Doris and she’d mostly say, “Go ahead, review it.” That could never happen now.

JS: Wanna bet? When I pitched interviewing you, my editor wrote back in less than 30 seconds, “Go right ahead. I love her.” No questions asked.

MP: Wow! I’m surprised and grateful that that’s true. In any case, I reviewed Frank O’Hara’s Art Chronicles for The New Republic. In response, Michael Braziller, the son of the noted publisher George Braziller, wrote me and said, “How would you like to write a book on Frank O’Hara?” And I thought, well, that’s tempting. I didn’t want to write a biography because I am not really a biographer. My O’Hara book is a critical introduction. And when the Braziller people read my first draft, they were not so happy with it, since they wanted me to bring in more biography. But I was reluctant because O’Hara’s untimely death—he was hit by a beach buggy on Fire Island and was only 40—had been the subject of much romanticizing and lurid speculation and I didn’t want to get involved in all that.

JS: But your book is somewhat personal too, yes?

MP: Yes. While I believe in being scholarly, I can’t write the usual impersonal, even-handed academic text. I used to have colleagues when I taught at Catholic U. who would never ask themselves if they liked the books they taught: They just taught them. I find that impossible. I only teach what I love. I’ve taught modern poetry, and can’t conceive of having to cover every “leading” poet. I usually omit Robert Frost.

I was once a big Virginia Woolf fan: indeed, I wrote my M.A. thesis on Woolf, but over the years I came to find some of the fiction too mannered. At Stanford we had a basic humanities survey course that always concluded with To the Lighthouse. I said jokingly at a faculty meeting, “I’m happy to teach the course as long as I don’t have to include To the Lighthouse. My colleagues looked at me incredulously, as if to say, how dare you say that?

JS: Let me guess: you would have preferred to end with Gertrude Stein.

MP: Yes, Gertrude Stein would have been lovely! At Stanford, I once gave a sophomore seminar on Stein, and the students, who were originally mystified, came to love her work. We even acted out one of her plays. Her work has a toughness and subtlety that is endlessly challenging. But the difficult puts many readers off.

JS: Somehow her legacy has gotten this far, even without people knowing her writing so well. And she was also preoccupied with biography and autobiography.

MP: As were her biographers. But sometimes biography perpetrates myths. My dear friend and major William Carlos Williams scholar Emily Mitchell Wallace believes that the suggestion, made by the various biographers, that Williams had many extramarital affairs, simply isn’t true. She thinks the so-called evidence in the poems, which have such erotic moments, is largely a matter of fantasy.

JS: I guess I share this perception, though I’m not sure where it comes from. Maybe since Williams was a doctor and a pediatrician, like my father, I tend to assume he lived a healthy life and that he was a very proper guy.

MP: I wouldn’t call him proper. He was a regular at Walter Arensberg’s salon. He was part of a bohemian circle. And such poems as the wonderful lyric in Spring and All that begins “What about all this writing?” dramatize a love affair between a nurse and a hospital-based physician. Is Williams drawing on his own life? We can’t be sure and it doesn’t matter. In the film Voices and Visions, there’s a wonderful scene where Allen Ginsberg recites this poem (“O Kiki! / O Miss Margaret Jarvis!”), while walking through an empty hospital. I love Ginsberg’s rendition of the climactic lines “I was your night gown. / I watched.”

JS: You’re saying that the text doesn’t necessarily yield accurate biographical information. It’s interesting that Ginsberg is sort of the tour guide because he is so Out as a poet about everything. He never seems to have anything to hide. Even though it was hard for him at first, I think he taught himself to be very bold. So in that sense he wasn’t really an enigma. Let’s return to Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was a mystery man.

MP: True. Take for example the cottage he had in Norway that was on a fjord way out in the middle of nowhere. And the question is, why did he often leave Cambridge and go there to be all alone? As soon as I investigated it, the truth came out that he often wasn’t alone. He was usually there with one of his many lovers.

JS: Really? So this discovery must have implications. It changes our idealized perception of him as a pure, hermetic mind at work.

MP: Right. And I dared point this out in Vienna, which is, in this regard, still a very traditional place. And everybody gasped. And the person running the program said, “you know, with philosophers, we don’t believe their life has anything to do with their philosophy.” When I was teaching in Innsbruck for a brief time, there was a scholar there, who was also very pious. And she would say things like, “we don’t like to talk about these things, period.” And so I never brought it up again.

JS: That sounds similar to my experience at Dia Art Foundation, when I was working on the Carl Andre retrospective catalogue (Sculpture as Place: 1958-2010). There were certain things one was not supposed to talk about. Such as his trial in the ’80s for the untimely death of his wife, the artist Ana Mendieta.

MP: Certainly Carl Andre’s biography is problematic. It’s not the typical case.

JS: He has a terrible unproven suspicion surrounding him, that rubs off on everything. It could turn a serious minded academic into a pulp noir detective. There’s no doubt that the incident has added to his mystique and brought a layer of unreliable subtext to his poetry and art.

MP: When you first invited me to write on the poetry of Andre for the Dia book, I barely knew anything about him. Which is why I wanted to take on the assignment. I love tackling something I don’t know. Now obviously Andre’s life will always be tainted by his horrible tragedy. It it quite clear that something terrible did happen. The two were very drunk. They had a screaming match. But it is entirely possible that Ana Mendieta jumped out the window, just as Andre claims.

JS: We’ll never really know.

MP: But in a case like this, I believe in the law. In other words, since Andre was acquitted, we have to respond accordingly. To castigate the jury is no solution. And God knows Andre was punished for what happened by being exiled from the U.S. for decades and getting little attention even abroad and by being treated as a pariah here at home. I feel the same way about O.J. Simpson.

JS: Oh boy! We’re really getting into it now.

MP: Well, I have followed the Simpson case very carefully especially since his house was about five minutes from where I live and one could hardly avoid the endless talk about the murder and the trial. But I particularly admire the Ezra Edelman film O.J.: Made in America, which understands the complexities and ironies of the saga. Of course Simpson was guilty of the murder of Nicole. I despise the Dream Team and their sordid tactics for getting O.J. off the hook. At the same time, the Edelman film shows how O.J. was driven to do what he did. He was/is a tragic figure, given his great potential.

JS: Is it possible that poetry critics are drawn to tragic figures? You speak of O.J. as if he were a literary protagonist.

MP: Perhaps. What sticks with me more than anything is that once he was cleared, I think it was cruel of the neighbors here in Brentwood to hound him everywhere he went and carry signs saying “Get out, murderer!” and so on. And the daily outcry at gas stations and shopping centers certainly had a racist component.

JS: What other poet biographies have you been interested in?

MP: Well John Ashbery passed away recently and his biography is in the works. Karen Rothman, the author of Ashbery’s biography (first volume published, the second to come), was in town recently and interviewed me. I think she is doing an excellent job and I greatly enjoyed the interview. At the same time I couldn’t help thinking that biographers must be careful not to trust interviews too much because, after all, we who are interviewed don’t quite tell the truth as we see it.

JS: Like right now, you’re trying to be truthful but you’re holding back. And inevitably editors will also choose to hold us back, probably for our own good. I often don’t hold back enough. I get caught up in the excitement of telling a story and begin to exaggerate and embellish and distort reality.

MP: Sure! But the biographer’s goal is to be accurate. And honest. And when Karen asked me how I feel about John’s late poetry, it was tricky. I was not going to say (as I’m afraid I believe), that in the later poetry, there’s a certain falling off. Nor do I want to be quoted in a biography as saying that perhaps John published too many books in his last decades, even if that’s what I believe. So I kept quiet on such issues, as I’m sure do most people. That’s why the biographer of the living (or recently dead), must be careful not to trust interviews too much. There may be a great deal at stake for the interviewee.

JS: I actually worked as John Ashbery’s secretary for a few years at the start of the millennium. If Karen Rothman were to ask me for an interview, I’d just try to give her an honest but comical picture of a day in the life of John Ashbery. So that she could see maybe what a boyish octogenarian he was.

MP: Of course he was. He also had a wonderful sense of humor.

JS: Especially after he had a few drinks in him.

MP: I have a good story. Shortly after the Getty opened in its new location on the hill, he happened to be visiting me and we toured the painting collection, which was then still quite spotty, as John noted, telling his husband David (Kermani) on the phone, “You know, they actually have paintings there.”

JS: Perfect.

MP: While I was making dinner, John made himself a drink or two. And then at dinner (there were six of us), he began to feel rather woozy and asked the poet Ralph Angel, who was in attendance, to take him home. As Ralph shepherded him out into the night, John turned around and remarked, in his best Blanche DuBois imitation, “I’ve always been dependent on the kindness of strangers.” It was so funny!

JS: Blanche DuBois? I always described that as “his Mr. Magoo-ish voice.” He would use this cartoony whimper when he was joyfully helpless. See I never got the intended reference. Yours makes a lot more sense. I can still hear him now. He once asked me in that same voice, “What are you gonna be when you grow up?”

MP: That’s very sweet.

JS: I know. It was cute. The two of us were kind of delinquent. We would take all morning to open the mail. He would finally get around to dictating a couple letters to me. I’d maybe type his latest couple of poems into the computer. But if David went out, say on an errand, we’d raid the liquor cabinet. And then we’d brush our teeth really fast in the bathroom while David was on his way back up in the elevator. That sort of thing. I’d love to try to make JA’s life seem like a television sitcom. That’s the kind of stuff he really liked anyway.

MP: But that’s just as partial a view, isn’t it? The Ashbery I knew could also be very introspective and thoughtful. And insecure.

JS: Good point. I saw that side too.

MP: And toward the end of his life, from what his friends tell me, he was evidently rather depressed, worrying if he had perhaps been a failure. His books were no longer getting reviewed regularly and he felt passed over, as one does feel in old age.

JS: And yet, he probably got more attention than all the rest of the poets in New York combined.

MP: My other great favorite from this period is John Cage. And while he’s gotten a lot of attention, I was recently rereading his published letters, and I don’t think he’s gotten his due. I’d like to write a book—though not a biography!—on Cage. My problem is I don’t know enough about music.

JS: I became very close with the Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, and she started out in Cage’s class at the New School. This has always led me to see Cage as first and foremost a teacher.

MP: Yes, I agree. His work has an undeniable pedagogical mission. And the Fluxus people considered Cage their mentor.

MP: I have been rereading his Selected Letters [Wesleyan], and they convince me that Cage has been much misunderstood. People don’t realize how fun-loving and engaged he was, as in the fascinating letters from Paris, after World War II, to his parents. For too long, Cage has been regarded as some sort of disciplined Zen thinker.

JS: … a sage. The prophet of silence.

MP: Exactly. But Cage wasn’t like that at all. Until his late years, he smoked and drank a lot and loved good food. He was extremely practical and had his eyes on the prize. He promoted his art very carefully. He took advantage of every situation. He did what he had to do. If the only way he could make money was to do a water ballet, he did a water ballet.

JS: Ha. And he had this uproarious laugh. And he was maybe mischievous, right? Perhaps this was his dadaist or even absurdist side. The side that championed Erik Satie.

MP: Cage stayed with me at Stanford when we had the big Cagefest in 1992, not long before his untimely death. I went, at the urging of a friend, to an organic food store to buy all this special peanut butter and bananas and so forth that would accord with his macrobiotic diet. And the first evening, he said laughingly, “I really could go for a big juicy steak.” Of course he didn’t! But it’s that side of Cage that comes out in the letters. In one letter to his parents from Paris, he describes how great the social life is, how many fascinating artists he has met! But he also feels he is doing too much running around and partying and should get to work—which he can only do in New York—but, then again, how wonderful it is to be in Paris!

JS: Sounds like he was able to be very open with his parents.

MP: To an extent, though of course not about his private life. Oh, and there is one delightful letter [July 1944] he wrote shortly after he and Merce Cunningham had become lovers, when he was still married to Xenia. “pardon the intrusion, but when in september [sic] will you be back? I would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.”

JS: A bit more flirtatious than you’d expect from the soon-to-be student of Buddhism, with its emphasis on curbing desire.

MP: Here’s another great one from 1944: “Dear Merce, Saturday night, nearly went crazy, because not solving my problems until they occur, I very suddenly realized you were gone. …” And he comforts himself by adding, “It’s very simple now, because I’m looking forward to seeing you again rather than backward to having seen you recently. That’s a happy way to be.”

JS: I look forward to seeing you again. Rather than backward to having seen you recently. That reads like a short poem.

MP: Isn’t that a lovely statement? Here’s another one: “So, your spirit is with me. Did you send it or do I just have it?” That’s the uniquely Cagean tone I admire so much.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.