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Toward a Theory of the Perfectly Unreadable

Jane Malcolm

A New York Times review of Peter Jackson’s recent documentary about the making of the Beatles’ album Let It Be (1970) refers to Yoko Ono as a “sublime spectacle” in the recording studio, a disruptive force “wedged” between band members, “perch[ed] in reach of John Lennon, her bemused face oriented toward him like a plant growing to the light.”1 Indeed for the duration of the sessions, Ono appears to take up a great deal of space growing toward and away from the real action in the room. She idles expansively while, all around her, music history gets made. “Why is she there?” this same reviewer wonders, and why is it so hard to “stop watching Yoko sitting around doing nothing?”2 In what follows, I will argue that Ono’s doing (or seeming to do) nothing – its undeniable lure and its roots in Fluxus proceduralism from the 1960s – presents an opportunity for readers/viewers to engage dynamically with textual and extra-textual negative space. By doing so, we reorient the critical and pedagogical gaze beyond the action at the center (of the room or text) and toward the unreadable, or not yet read, (in)action at the margins – to any and all postures, placements, vantages, movements, adventures, refusals, etc. that exceed the text. Further, this essay considers how readers’ somatic engagements with Ono’s procedural poems from that era, collected in Grapefruit (1964) and Grapefruit: A Book of Instruction and Drawings (1970) 3 can produce new, emergent, and unexpected poetry, in the classroom and in the world.

I confess that I am primed to seek out Yoko Ono in a sea of Beatles, so I was not worried that I spent three episodes watching her when I was supposed to be watching them record their final album.4 By shifting our collective gaze toward Ono, we create the conditions for a whole range of somatic experiments reminiscent of Grapefruit’s whimsical instruction poems. In this particular case, the instructions could look something like:

Watch the Beatles’ Let It Be recording tapes. Look only at Yoko Ono.
Do not look at John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison,
Ringo Star, or any other member of the production crew.

I invite all readers to emulate this procedure [feel free to pause here and watch The Beatles: Get Back under Ono-centric conditions5] by fixing our attention to the Ono-in-the-room as she paints, chews food, gazes, reads the newspaper, etc. across the many sessions it took to record Let It Be, with such serene persistence that she could have been following a procedure like this:

Go to an album recording. Imagine you are a part of the band.
Imagine that you cannot hear the music. Move your body as if you were
going through your daily routine in the privacy of your own home.
Wear willowy clothing and try to take up as much space as possible.

Rapt attention to Ono’s body aligns her work with a long lineage of performance-based artistic practices, from Dada to Fluxus, rooted in anarchic bodily disruption of cultural spaces, though, as Joseph Jeon has noted, Ono has occupied an ambivalent position in this lineage, somewhere between “dragon lady destroyer and avant-garde wing nut.”6 What the NYT reviewer calls Ono’s “provocation,”7 legible in the Let it Be footage as obstinate existing-in-a-space – the quiet but inescapable event or performance of being – shows how (gleefully) unpredictable such experiments in presence as resistance could and can be. Though mainstream appreciation of Ono and her work has moved beyond the tired misapprehension that she broke up the Beatles – as JOHN LENNON BROKE UP FLUXUS t-shirts attest (Fig. 1) – her cultural imprint as a flamboyant, outspoken, Japanese-American conceptualist taking up space in the (pop)cultural imagination remains politically impactful, even as her poetry remains understudied. Hence, this essay’s first provocation: Why are the Beatles always there? And why would we bother to watch them when we could watch Yoko Ono sitting around doing nothing?

Fig. 1: “John Lennon Broke up Fluxus” t-shirt.

Doing nothing has long been the artist’s prerogative, much like Walter Benjamin’s collector in the Arcades Project who “dreams his way” into a better world where people and objects are “freed from the drudgery of being useful” and where intentional idleness becomes a form of resistance to oppressive capitalist structures.8 Similarly, Spanish artist Rogelio Lopez-Cuenca’s 1999 caution sign – DU CALME: POETRY MAKES NOTHING HAPPEN9  – ironizes poetry’s usefulness as a political form, while also interrogating the modernist category of NOTHING as a space of unknown potential, or, as Charles Bernstein has asked, in reference to Lopez-Cuenca: “What is this nothing that poetry makes happen? What is this thing called poetry?”10 Watching Ono’s persistent newspaper reading, shuffling, painting, chewing, gazing, we likewise might ask: What is this nothing that Ono gets done, and in what ways does a (woman’s) body moving through space doing nothing ask to be read? What might it mean to read this nothing? No obvious evidence suggests that Ono’s persistent nothing-doing in the Let It Be footage was a scripted performance, yet Ono’s experiments with subjectivity and somatics throughout the 1960s and 1970s allow for the possibility that nothing she did in that era was not part of the performance (of nothing).11

Ono’s Grapefruit – its second iteration, published in 1970, is contemporaneous with the Let It Be footage and includes an introduction by John Lennon – is a collection of event scores or somatic procedures that induce or invite bodily engagements with the world beyond the page. These engagements are necessarily unknowable and unreadable – secondary poems that are implied but not realized by the instructions, which are themselves discrete, readable poems. Rob Fitterman’s and Vanessa Place’s Notes on Conceptualisms (2009) helps elucidate this distinction between instructions-as-poem and poem-grown-from-instructions in its discussion of the “pre-text” and “post-text,” where the former is an “extant idea – the constraint/procedure” and the latter a “document necessarily created by the pre-text.”12 The performative qualities of the post-text, they argue, make it inherently unpredictable and variably open-ended: “the distinction here is between post-texts that are illustrations of their pre-texts…and post-texts that are proofs.”13 In order to imagine what such scripted somatic engagements look like, and allowing for the obvious differences between how Ono herself might perform them and how you or I would (and you will have a chance to do so later in this essay), we might try to scrutinize the Let It Be footage to underdstand and read closely Ono’s “nothing.” In that scenario we would be reading a performance, or poem, with no script other than our intent to pay attention. In what follows, I want to ask how Grapefruit, understood as a volume of poetry, resists or complicates many of our essential literary critical postures, most especially the impulses to scrutinize or read a text closely and to assume that there exists a text in the first place. Grapefruit offers its readers two kinds of poem: the procedure – a speculative, artful inducement – and the subsequent unknowable poem it invites into becoming. Thus, a second provocation: What can it mean for a poem to be unknowable?

Ono’s eclectic work from the 1960s, especially Grapefruit, has received scant literary-critical attention, though Ono was a primary innovator in the genre of the event score, and the Grapefruit poems are emblematic of Situationist unrest and somatic defamiliarization, what Liz Kotz has dubbed the “Post-Cagean aesthetic.”14 Kotz notes that event scores were understood at the time as “almost absurd literalizations of 1960s critical claims for reading as an ‘activity of production,’” but their “overt transitivity” worked against this characterization and flummoxed critics attempting to classify the form.15 Ono’s event scores drew upon John Cage’s interest in absolute indeterminacy, as well as his sense of playfulness and the imperative to undermine conventional understandings of musical theory and artistic value. Like his “Water Walk,” for example, which Cage performed on live television with a series of household items and appliances, to raucous laughter,16 Ono’s scores likewise attempt to glorify the everyday and ritualize the banal. Yet Grapefruit grounds itself in language rather than musical notation. Ono’s procedures, in the inquisitive, self-reflective manner of the Buddhist koan,17 call for embodied engagements beyond the page, as in SNORING PIECE, which asks the reader to,

Listen to a group of people snoring.
Listen till dawn.
                                                                        1964 spring18

 and planetary thinking, as in EARTH PIECE, which instructs us to,

Listen to the sound of the earth turning.
                                                                        1963 spring19


Fig. 2. Still from filmed footage of Yoko Ono watching John Lennon listen to the sound of the earth with a stethoscope (1971).

I recently had the opportunity to enact the latter with a group of pre-readers at a kindergarten career day (I came as the Poetry Teacher determined to see what 6-year-olds would make of the event score). We read Ono’s EARTH PIECE, talked about how and why the earth turns, and then set about enacting/writing our own somatic poems. We put our ears to the floor of the classroom and reverently listened to the sound of the earth. I could not have predicted their descriptions of the experience – each description an emergent poem – nor their excitement in the telling: “I heard it!! I heard shhhhhh!” Some confessed that they heard nothing; sometimes planetary thinking produces an ambivalent poem about how the earth’s turning is imperceptibly quiet.

In keeping with the tenets of the “Situationist Manifesto” (1960), which urged “total participation” rather than “spectacle” in art, Ono’s scores embody a compositional practice built around what Debord calls the “organization of the directly lived moment.”20 Her procedural practice is not confined to the 1960s, however, as the last two decades have shown a resurgence in popularity, particularly in the art world, of re-enactments of Ono’s event scores, such as her 2003 performance of Cut Piece (c1964) or her 2019 Canadian exhibition, Liberté Conquérante / Growing Freedom 21 that included participatory works such as Mending Piece (c1966) – which provided visitors a table filled with broken pieces of pottery, twine, and glue to reassemble as they saw fit – but also launched the continuation of Arising (2013), a feminist procedural work that asks women to “SEND A TESTAMENT OF HARM DONE TO YOU FOR BEING A WOMAN,” along with a photograph “ONLY OF YOUR EYES.”22

Fig. 3: Photograph from Arising. Montreal, 2019. “At night I’m afraid to walk alone because I am a girl.”

Taking together the primary role Ono’s poetry played in the establishment of procedural methods in the post-Cagean era, with renewed critical interest in participatory poetic modes (in the work of Bernadette Mayer, CAConrad, and many others23 ), returning to Grapefruit allows for the elaboration of an undertheorized lineage of somatic poetry under the umbrella of the procedural. Ono’s event scores in particular, and procedural poetry more generally, present useful and productive challenges to the close reading apparatus that is fundamental to both our criticism and pedagogy because the processes and lived experiences her poems require invoke a realm of unknowable somatic gestures extrinsic to textuality as such. Thus the (unknowable) text, the performed procedure, remains in continuous dynamic tension with its past, present, and future iterations in the wider world of indeterminate experience.

As a conceptual practice, the procedural poem anticipates and allows for such new and unexpected encounters for both poet and reader, or as George Quasha explains, in reference to the work of Jackson MacLow, “procedural control [becomes] training wheels for something unknown and emergent.”24 Ono’s event scores rely on this sense of emergence, presence, and unknowability, and – in contrast to the conceptual turn of the last decade, an era of what Kenneth Goldsmith calls “uncreative writing,” or a poetics expressly devoid of lyric agency and subjectivity25 – they valorize the human subject, or body. As Gregory Laynor notes, Ono’s procedures are informed by “affective registers and sensory modalities” that many have “dismissed as unserious” precisely because they involve unpredictable bodies.26 Ono’s procedural poems are animated by chance operations, but they also ask the reader to engage in experiences beyond the page, to step out into the world and agir, become agents – to do, make, or perform in determined ways with wilfully indeterminate results. This procedural practice engenders a range of formal and affective outcomes from the aleatory, to the unplanned and unplannable, the cathartic, the insurgent, the whimsical, and the transgressive – each discrete version somatically and contextually distinct.

First published as an artist’s book in 1964 in Japan (in English and Japanese), Grapefruit was inspired by a series of classes John Cage offered on experimental composition at the New School for Social Research in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ono learned of Cage’s theories from her then husband, experimental composer Ichiyanagi Toshi. The poems that became the first edition of Grapefruit Ono referred to as “event scores” which, like musical compositions, could be performed by anyone with access to the text and notations, but unlike a conventional musical score, would yield wildly different performances. As Alison Knowles, a founding member of Fluxus, explains, the event score itself, a procedural mainstay of artists and performers such as George Brecht and dancer Merce Cunningham, is “built around simple actions, ideas, or objects from everyday life recontexualized as performance.”27 Knowles describes a kind of harmony or resonance between the idiosyncrasies of the performer and the open-endedness of the score: “event scores are texts that can be seen as proposal pieces or instructions for actions. The idea of the score suggests musicality. Like a musical score, Event Scores…are open to variation and interpretation.”28 She is known for producing some of the earliest examples of the genre, such as her famous 1962 piece:


Make a salad.29

Attempts to close read Knowles’, Ono’s, or indeed any somatic procedural poems are, to a certain extent, undermined by the presence of variables – a salad can be made so many different ways! – that are extrinsic to the language of the poems themselves.

Such variables render them radically open-ended texts, or to offer a modernist analogue, they become, like Gertrude Stein’s “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass,” opaque, empty vessels that cannot be filled without a reader, or an orchestra of at least one performing them in the real world (or at least the world of the mind – more on that later):

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.30

Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), much like an event score, arrives before the reader as an assemblage of language with indicators, whose meaning was and is contingent upon that reader. What distinguishes the event score even from Stein’s radical language experiments is its necessarily absent, temporally and spatially deferred text – the variables of performance (and performers’ bodies) that determine its contours, impact, and legibility.31 We are not used to thinking about or reading poems this way, and, in the case of the event score, we have no choice but to confront the unknowability of our object of study. Such a poem avoids becoming the sacred object of formal scrutiny – no latent, secret meanings wait to be mined from the words themselves – nor does it lend itself to reading methods attuned to (lyric) subjectivity, historical/political context, or conceptual mechanisms. Rather, the event score as a poem, against the cultural milieu of it time, evinces what Lyn Hejinian calls a “flowering focus on a distinct infinity,”32 that is, the intent to defy reification and elude any fixed interpretation. In this way, event scores are the most radical iterations of the open text, as described by Hejinian:

The ‘open text,’ by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus,by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive. The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. The ‘open text’ often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compo­sitions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification.33

Hejinian foregrounds Stein’s writing in her discussion of the open text, a poetic practice that Stein arguably describes as an “arrangement in a system to pointing,” in which words are radiating signifiers whose meanings are utterly dependent upon the reader and the moment of being read,34 or as Hejinian explains: “The very idea of reference is spatial: over here is word, over there is thing, at which the word is shooting amiable love arrows.”35 In the instance of the event score, then, the space between arrows and target grows ever more vast; both thing and words used to describe it are somatically contingent, extra-textual unknowns.

Unknowability and unreadability have been theorized in various ways, particularly within the fields of media and intermedial studies, with the aim of creating a vocabulary for readers’ and viewers’ dynamic, unpredictable modes of apprehending interactive texts and media. In this context, a widening focus on the social or relational features of reading and writing asks us to consider readerly receptivity and activity alongside textual subjectivity, or as Craig Dworkin notes in No Medium, “media (always necessarily multiple) only become legible in social contexts because they are not things, but rather activities: commercial, communicative, and, always, interpretive.”36 Similarly, Nick Thurston’s work on the illegible offers the useful term “attentional approach” as a way to describe paying critical attention to “the peculiar instabilities of new media objects and environments,” since the “form, content, and context of what and how we write and what and how we read are now hyper-extended and hyper-situated.”37 Stein’s sense of the present-ness of reading, the “Now that is all” of Composition As Explanation (1926), for example, was modernism’s version of contingent poetic language – language that means nothing until it is read, or only when and because it is being read.38 Ono’s proceduralism from the 1960s and 1970s seems equally, preternaturally aware of the event score’s hyper-situated, unknowable features, its illegible embodied future.

If Stein’s open texts are rooted in a polysemous, liberating syntax,39 procedural poems reject even further the expectation of coherence within a text, which is to say that Steinian grammar, still grounded in the space of the page, gives way to a grammar of arbitrary imperatives: Do this with your body; try that; experience this; think about it.40 None of these instructions are guaranteed to be followed – I have so far only enacted a very few of Grapefruit’s procedures – but if and when they are, new, lived poems come into being, by which I mean lived experience as post-text. The result of the procedure – “I heard shhhh!” for example – cannot be inferred simply by reading the instructions. Thus these lived poems can only be described and/or read a posteriori, via reflection, description, interaction, and discussion. If the close reading apparatus, or indeed the critical function itself relies on intrinsic, tangible, or perceptible textual experiences – the encounter between the reader and language or visual cues – Ono’s event scores inaugurate extrinsic, intangible, and imperceptible somatic experiences. The spectral content and form of these lived poems fundamentally challenges the reading tools to which we are deeply attached. Thus somatic poetry, the poem of the body acting arbitrarily in space according to a known procedure with an unknowable result, exists beyond the realm of the page, in much the same way that the Aristotelian concept of catharsis exceeds the dramatic form itself.41 Catharsis is the noble goal of the dramatic text, but the experience of it is utterly extra-textual, excessive and unmanaged.

To read and understand Ono’s event scores in this way – as unmanageable and excessive – we might turn to SNOW PIECE, for example, and register a shift as the language transitions from what I call poem-time to a somatic time that exceeds the page:

Think that snow is falling.
Think that snow is falling everywhere all the time.
When you talk with a person, think that snow is falling between you and on the person.
Stop conversing when you think the person is covered in snow.
                                                                        1963 summer42

At first glance, we might appreciate the poem’s imagist simplicity and Buddhist referentiality or note the sonic effects of the repeated imperative “Think that snow.” Moving closer, the first two lines invite us to inhabit the temporal space of the poem: We are told to think (right now, as we are reading) that snow is falling and then to imagine it is falling everywhere all the time. Both of these imaginary scenarios can exist sequentially in poem-time; we encounter the imperative verb “Think,” acknowledge that we are the understood “you” in the sentence, and respond, much as one does when asked NOT to think about an elephant, by producing a mental image first of snow falling, then of snow falling everywhere all the time, however that may look. Yet the third line’s imperative acquires a contingency: think that snow is falling, but only when you are talking with someone, and furthermore, think that that snow falls between the two of you. This contingency is not imaginatively insurmountable. In poem-time, we might still create an immediate and internal scenario that fulfills the requirements of the score, but by this point, we are also unable to fully follow the instructions without an interlocutor. Identifying and interacting with this interlocutor pushes the poem to grow beyond the page, from the private space of readerly encounter to a resonant space of relationality, an effect that is heightened further by the last line’s command to “stop” the conversation once the imagined snow has obscured the interlocutor. This event score necessitates, at the very least, a second agent or body, witting or not, in order to complete the procedure; the shift from poem-time to a future conditional “when” propels it into an unknowable space-time that cannot be the now of reading.

If Ono’s somatic procedures invite individual (inter-)actions with(in) social space that produce extrinsic, unreadable texts, they likewise can produce narratives about these experiences that lend themselves quite well to collaborative reading scenarios, especially in the classroom. During the pandemic, in an online course entitled “Wandering in Place,” whose goal was, in part, to mitigate quarantine-induced alienation, I promised my students at the Université de Montréal – many of whom were in other countries because of visa issues and restrictions on travel – that we would “wander alone and share our findings, wander together in cyberspace, and occupy the same virtual space for three hours each week.” We examined a wide array of texts about physical and metaphysical wandering, from Dickinson to Breton to Rankine; we visited cities and museums virtually, and in our final week, we read Ono’s Grapefruit: A Book of Instruction and Drawings. Approaching Ono’s event scores as somatic experiments with human variables, we wondered what would happen when these procedures were attempted both together and in solitude (since both being together and being alone had taken on new, ambivalent meanings in the COVID era). Together, we settled on one event score to test the former; aware that our virtual class constraints (and personal boundary issues) excluded such humorous procedures as TOUCH POEM FOR A GROUP OF PEOPLE:

Touch each other.
                                                                        1963 winter43

we landed on FILM SCRIPT 5:

Ask the audience the following:
1) not to look at Rock Hudson, but only Doris Day
2) not to look at any round objects but only square and angled objects—if you look at a round object watch it until it becomes square and angled.
3) not to look at blue but only red—if blue comes out close eyes or do something so you do not see, if you saw it, then make believe that you have not seen it, or punish yourself.
–from SIX FILM SCRIPTS BY YOKO ONO, Tokyo, June 196444

This event score refers to Michael Gordon’s 1959 film, Pillow Talk, starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, about a party line mix-up that turns two strangers forced to share a phone line into real life lovers.45 Preserving the spirit of Ono’s score, but in the interests of time, we decided to apply her procedure to the trailer for Pillow Talk. (I have put a link to this trailer here and in the note at the end of this sentence, if you have a few minutes to watch it yourself.46 ) After committing Ono’s basic constraints to memory, we watched the trailer and tried to retain a sense of what it was like to follow and/or transgress the procedure. Among the many observations that arose during the subsequent discussion, there were several complaints about how difficult it was not to look at Rock Hudson or not to notice round, blue objects on the screen, perhaps because we were explicitly told not to. Some students found the exercise laughable, and others took it very seriously and described developing an attachment to Doris Day’s face after seeking it out constantly. 

Fig. 4: Still from Pillow Talk (1959).

Nearly all enjoyed the facetious directive to “punish yourself” if unable to adhere to the procedure; we wondered whether the anxiety caused by constant avoidance while watching the trailer was punishment enough.

To address the second scenario and the more elusive poetic text – a procedure undertaken alone – I asked my students to pick any poem from Grapefruit that was feasible for them to perform, then to attempt that performance in the world, whether that meant outside or in their living spaces, and finally to write a short reflection on the experience. Here are a few excerpts from their (sometimes ambivalent, often poetic) written responses:

After the first staring session, I was starting to feel bored of the painting.

I actually even tried to put my head on the soil and listen to the sound of earth, but that was not very successful.

It is as if I became in a way the starfish’s space, which has, in a way, given me the impression that I could be a mind, and the starfish a wandering thought.

I decided that I would step in places where water usually accumulates, like holes, slight inclines, and cracks on the streets and sidewalks.

To achieve the goal of being absolutely quiet, I am no longer myself.

I pushed my bed to the furthest wall right under the window, closed my eyes, and listened.

For this experiment, I went to my terrace and pretended to fly. 47

Again, many students were sceptical about this experiment from the outset – they found it humorous, ridiculous, even embarrassing or pointless – but nearly all of them described a change in perspective once they tried more seriously to follow their chosen procedure’s instructions. Some found themselves noticing unexpected details about their environments or even engaging in unanticipated conversations with inquisitive roommates – “We all started sharing our stories about damaged clothes and how we managed to repair them (or not)” – or strangers wondering why they were staring into a puddle, for example. Others described experiencing a sense of estrangement from themselves: “It’s impossible to watch myself without feeling my own presence.” Ultimately, we considered what new lines of inquiry emerged when we are able to access or glimpse important fragments of these lived poems, and several students asked what it would mean for them to “become the poem.”

We might not yet have a fully fleshed vocabulary to describe this manner of reading – utterly bound to speculative, subjective experiences, but not strictly impressionistic or uncritical. Yet I cannot emphasize enough how these shared somatic experiences, taken as a supplement to the more familiar modes of critical exchange, heightened the pedagogical stakes of the class, particularly in the context of the pandemic and the many ways (temporal, spatial, etc.) we have since had to reimagine learning environments and re-examine how we read together in a world where sometimes, as artists Shinobu Akimoto and Matt Evans proclaim in their recent manifesto about idleness, “We are all on hiatus.”48 Thus a final provocation: the only way to read the unreadable is to experiment with embodied performance, in classrooms and other social spaces. For me, that has meant teaching the unreadable. Ono’s event scores and all instruction-based poetry – particularly that which anticipates somatic engagement with the extra-textual surround – can refocus our critical attentions on new and emergent texts and push us to produce a lexicon for this whimsical, elusive corpus. In other words, this essay has been an invitation to think about the nothing and everything that somatic poetry gets done. Just like our attention to Ono at the margins of the Let It Be tapes, our critical optics can and should adjust and expand to include the space of reading beyond the page, perhaps especially the pedagogical space. Equally, this kind of recalibration would allow us to pay closer attention to what it means to be a (student) body in the classroom and not in the classroom; to be a body doing things and doing nothing.49 As the temporally displaced somatic text emerges in these classroom spaces, one key way to read the unreadable is to engage in collective, collaborative discussion about it. The discussion is the poem.

  1. Amanda Hess, “The Sublime Spectacle of Yoko Ono Disrupting the Beatles,” New York Times, December 8, 2021, (accessed March 17, 2022). 

  2. Hess, “Sublime Spectacle.” 

  3. Yoko Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Instruction and Drawings, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, c1964, c1970). In this essay, I refer mainly to the second edition of Grapefruit from 1970, introduced by John Lennon, which includes, in addition to the five original sections – MusicPaintingEventPoetry and Object – two additional sections on Film and Dance. Note on the text going forward: Grapefruit does not have page numbers, so citations will reference the section in which a poem appears rather than a specific page. 

  4. Debate continues about what constitutes the Beatles’ final album, as there was some overlap in the recording of the two albums. Let It Be, recorded in February 1968, January 1969, and January and April 1970 was the band’s final album release, in May 1970. Abbey Road was recorded from February to August 1969 and was released in September 1969. 

  5. Peter Jackson, The Beatles: Get Back Episodes 1-3, Disney+, 07:48:00, November 25, 26, 27, 2022, 

  6. Joseph Jonghuyn Jeon, Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012) xvii. Jeon elaborates on Ono’s reception, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s: “The name Yoko Ono thus came to signify simultaneously a specifically Asian form of insidious instrumentality, at a time when rapid Japanese capitalist development seemed increasingly threatening to the United States, as well as an avant-garde impenetrability that dovetailed with Asian inscrutability” (xvii). 

  7. Hess, “Sublime Spectacle.” 

  8. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999) 9. 

  9. Rogelio Lopez-Cuenca, “[Untitled],” boundary 2, Volume 26, no. 1 (1999), 184, (accessed May 12, 2023). 

  10. Charles Bernstein, Pitch of Poetry, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) 16. 

  11. For more background on Ono in the 1960s, see: George Maciunas, The Dream of Fluxus: An Artist’s Biography, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007); Klaus Biesenbach and Christophe Cherix, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show 1960-1971, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2015); Donald Brackett, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, (Toronto: The Sutherland House, 2022). 

  12. Rob Fitterman and Vanessa Place, Notes on Conceptualisms, (New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2009) 23. 

  13. Fitterman and Place, 23. 

  14. Liz Kotz, “Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the ‘Event’ Score,” October, Vol. 95, Winter (2001), 54-89. On the lack of attention to Ono’s “language art,” Kotz explains that “it is not only the instability of genre, or the relation to live performance, but the problem of medium, of unconventional material support” that has driven critics mainly to discuss Ono in the context of music theory and conceptual art (60). 

  15. Kotz, “Post-Cagean Aesthetics,” 59. 

  16. John Cage, “Water Walk – I’ve Got a Secret – CBS 1960,” YouTube video, 3:58, October 2, 2014, 

  17. For more on Ono’s early life and the influence of Buddhist tradition on her work, see Donald Brackett, “Stillpoint: Buddhism and the Avant-Garde, xhibit Magazine, February 4, 2022,, accessed on May 10, 2023. 

  18. Ono, Section 1: Music. 

  19. Ono, Section 1: Music. 

  20. Guy Debord, “Situationist Manifesto 17 May 1960,” Internationale Situationiste No. 4, June (1960), Trans. Fabian Thompsett, (accessed May 1, 2023). 

  21. Yoko Ono: Liberté Conquérante/Growing Freedom, April 24-September 15, 2019, Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain, Montreal, Canada. 

  22. Yoko Ono: Arising, October 9, 2021-May 1, 2022, Vancouver Artgallery, Vancouver, Canada. As Ono notes in the description of Arising, first staged in 2013 and ongoing since: “THE INSTALLATION ARISING WILL CONTINUE TO GROW AND WILL BE EXHIBITED IN MANY COUNTRIES.” 

  23. See CAConrad, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics, (Seattle: Wave Books, 2012); Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness, (Seattle: Wave Books, 2014); While Standing in Line for Death, (Seattle: Wave Books, 2017). See also Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Catskill, NY: Sigilio, 2020, c1971). 

  24. George Quasha, “MacLow, Cage, Root Poetics,” Poetry Foundation, April 3, 2014 (accessed May 10, 2023). 

  25. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). See also, Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, Eds., Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2011). 

  26. Gregory Laynor, “The Making of Intermedia: John Cage to Yoko Ono, 1952-1972,” PhD dissertation, (University of Washington, 2016) 7. 

  27. Alison Knowles, “Event Scores,”, accessed May 10, 2023, 

  28. Knowles, “Event Scores.” 

  29. Alison Knowles, by Alison Knowles, A Great Bear Pamphlet, (New York: Something Else Press, 1965) 3. 

  30. Gertrude Stein, “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass,” Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, (San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2014 c1914) 11. 

  31. I had thought to use the word “soma” throughout this essay, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as, “the body as distinct from the soul, mind or psyche,” in order to emphasize that somatic procedures require the physical body, and not just the mind, to act in the word. The word is useful to recuperate tangible bodily experiences, as distinct from mental or emotional experiences, yet I have generally preferred the word “body” throughout, as a way to integrate physical and metaphysical actions. 

  32. Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” The Language of Inquiry, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 42. 

  33. Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” 43. 

  34. Modernist critic Laura Riding, one of Stein’s first champions, describes this phenomenon in her book of essays, Contemporaries and Snobs (1928). 

  35. Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” 50. 

  36. Craig Dworkin, No Medium (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013) 28. 

  37. Nick Thurston, “Introduction,” Amodern 6: Reading the Illegible, July 2016. Accessed May 30, 2023, 

  38. Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” A Stein Reader, Ed. Ulla E. Dydo, (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1993) 503. 

  39. See, for example, Ron Silliman’s description of polysemy in “The New Sentence,” The New Sentence, (New York: Roof Books, 1987). Silliman writes “the new sentence is a decidedly contextual object. Its effects occur as much between, as within, sentences” (92). 

  40. Gregory Laynor writes about how performances of Stein’s operas and plays achieve a similar effect to Ono’s procedures (also subjects of interest in his work) whereby the “processes through which making and hearing the sounds of words occurs as a material event…Stein offers ways of being untroubled in the process of experiencing the making of sense as an ongoing occurrence” (59). 

  41. Aristotle, Poetics, (New York: Penguin, 1997). If the dramatic form achieves the organic unities of Time, Action, and Place, it can induce a cathartic reaction in the audience that is beyond the dramatist’s text. 

  42. Ono, Section 1: Music. 

  43. Ono, Section 4: Poetry. 

  44. Ono, Section 5: Object. 

  45. Pillow Talk, directed by Michael Gordan, Arwin Productions, 1959. From the early days of the telephone, party lines – local loop telephone circuits shared by multiple people – were used to provide discounted service to residential customers. 

  46. “Pillow Talk Official Trailer #1 Rock Hudson Movie (1959),” YouTube video, 2:18. January 10, 2012.  

  47. I told my students from this course about the essay I was writing and secured their permission to use these excerpts from their response papers and discussion, the latter of which was recorded to allow for asynchronous learning (via Zoom recordings) in May-June 2020. 

  48. Shinobu Akimoto and Matt Evans, “#weareallonhiatus,” Residency For Artists on Hiatus, accessed May 10, 2023, See also an interview with Akimoto and Evans: #weareallonhiatus, Obieg, June 26, 2020,, accessed on May 10, 2023. 

  49. The stakes for paying attention to student absence and presence have never been higher, as incidents of mental health crises on campus, ranging from the unmanaged to the catastrophic, have escalated dramatically due to the COVID pandemic and its aftermath, and universities are very slow to respond. Susan M. Schultz’s recent essay on the unprecedented scale of campus mental health crises, provides key insight into the problem. See, Susan M. Schultz, “Loving Yourself Workshop: A Poem,” Psyche On Campus: a blog about teaching psychoanalysis in the undergraduate classroom (and beyond), University of Pennsylvania, December 4, 2021, accessed on May 10, 2023. 

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