The term "mesostic" was coined by Norman O. Brown to describe the acrostic-like letter structures that John Cage used when writing short occasional prose-poems. These commemorative pieces were free verse structured by using an index of letters taken from the name of the dedicatee as a spine.
a utility aMong
thEy produce it mid-air
to avoid coLliding.
. . .
of the bUgle
were out of my Control,
Made the effort
they wouldn't have been Produced.
- from 36 mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp (1970)
In 1976, Cage followed the letters JAMESJOYCE through Finnegans Wake to create a reduction of that text, in the form of a mesostic. This resulted in some 600+ handwritten pages that were deemed inappropriate for publication by his editor at Wesleyan University Press.
Cage reiterated the exercise with Finnegans Wake, but kept a catalog of each syllable used to represent each index letter and did not permit a repetition of those syllables to occur in the mesostic.
This was published as Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake in 1977.
This writing became the spoken word portion of the soundscape Roaratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, which Cage produced at IRCAM in 1979 for broadcast on WDR.
The project led Cage to correspond with Louis Mink, the author of A Finnegans Wake Gazetter, who proposed that a "pure mesostic" might not iterate either of the index letters in the words between those letters so that each line becomes a short lipogram.
Cage accepted the idea of a pure mesostic (although he referred to them in later years as "perfect mesostics") and subsequently wrote through Finnegans Wake twice more, creating pure mesostics, once without any further restrictions and then again employing a catalog of possible syllables to avoid their repetition.
In later mesostics, Cage relied upon the computer program MESOLIST to identify words in a source text that would satisfy the index of the mesostic and chance operations based on the I Ching to select which of those words were to be used and the amount of text to remain of either side of the spinal word.
This allowed him to practice non-intention when creating the mesostic in a similar way to his use of chance in his musical works.
He described this as using the source text as an oracle to solve for the puzzle that the index of the mesostic proposes.
Sources consulted in the writing of this node:
The Roaring Silence, a biography of John Cage by David Revill, published in 1992 by Arcade Publishing.
Cage's writings, particularly M: Writings '67-'72, Empty Words: Writings '73-'78, Silence: Lectures and Writings, and A Year from Monday, all published by Wesleyan University Press.
Cage's setting of a selection of 15 of the 36 mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp as "Solo for Voice 91, Song with Electronics - Irrelevant", published in his Songbooks: Solos for Voice 3-92 (1970).