November, 1997



Jackson Mac Low


A Response to “Struggle Against Misery: “to Jude” (Continuous Discontinous: Curve 2 [Potes & Poets, 1997], pp. 130-131)


            The first three words of the first line, “articulation of it.” – starting in the middle of an utterance, as indicated by the initial lowercase “a” and no antecedents or following predicate – seems to refer directly to the title: the poem will be an articulation of (presumably the poet’s) misery.  The rest of that line and the five lines that follow it,


                        … From my

world I jump through

my thoughts to what most

expresses my love

in the ‘outside’ that my heart

belongs what to do with words,


give the ostensible cause of the misery: the difficulty of expressing his love – in words – to that which is “outside” his consciousness.  One wonders whether he means by “outside” both the person loved and the rest of the world unconcerned with his love.  The syntax of that second sentence seems to enact the difficulty.  There are jumps within the sentence itself after “‘outside.’”  It breaks into two syntactically disconnected dependant clauses: “that my heart / belongs” and “what to do with words.”  The first begins to say what there is to express, but the second jumps to the difficulty of expression itself.  (And, as we will come to see, it is the dilemma at the heart of this poem.)

            The following three lines tell what is happening during their writing:


            My mind, if that’s it

            discriminates & verbs

            become something I can say.


First there’s a doubt that it is “my mind” or something else that’s “discriminating,” and then we notice that he’s already “said” several verbs: “jump,” “expresses,” “beings,” “do,” “‘s’” [=“is”], and “discriminates.” And the next line,


            The world of floods,


is a sentence without a verb.  What is happening is that “the world,” the “outside,” is flooding into the consciousness and preventing the expression of love that seemed to be beginning.  But why, then, doesn’t it come out as “The world floods in.” instead of the more indirect and abstract “The world of floods.”?



            My whole body

            becomes indistinguishable

            from that world.


Is it that the body becomes as “outside” as “that world” or that the self itself is dissolving in the world-flood?

            The following three lines seem in apposition to “that world”:


            The baggage good and bad that comes

            all that exists

            in the things filtering through.


What is it that the good and bad baggage is filtering through?  The mind-body’s skin?  The “discrimination” by the mind or something else?

            Then, after a strophe break, a doubting reflection upon the whole enterprise:


            I would not altogether trust

            every day and every hour for

            the writing of poetry.


It’s as if the whole attempt at expressing love is being abandoned.  It may be the wrong day and the wrong hour for the writing of any poetry – not only a poem expressing love.

            Then another jump to another clear reflection, seemingly couched in more abstract terms:


            Principles and the inner life

            are alibis the moment

            they cease to animate

            external and everyday life.


But they jump to the heart of the matter.  The inner life is not animating the external life.  It would seem, rather, that it is obstructing it.  Specifically, it is obstructing the expression of love.  Because he’s jumped through his thoughts to what most expresses his love, rather than just expressing it and not worrying about whether this action “most” expresses his love, it never gets expressed.

            But what “principles” are involved here?  And in what senses are they and the inner life itself “alibis”?  For not acting, but just thinking about action?

            Then a huge jump, but perhaps no jump at all:


            Walter Benjamin wrote,

            “A writer who does not teach

            other writers teaches nobody.”


Is the poet saying to other writers, “Don’t let your inner life paralyze your external life?”

            The last strophe on the first page of the poem:


            My lessons in a grey society                 

would be wearing the skins

            of myself and the ghost of yourself

            seeing the messages that give

            them Time.


is the most complex so far.  The lesson of this first page of the poem, what it seems to be teaching, especially to other writers, is that one should not allow the inner life and one’s principles (which to this reader, at least, remain unspecified) to become mere alibis for not living in the so-called external, everyday world.  (But we will see that it’s not only “not living” in the external world that is lacking, but also not doing something in it to change its nature.)

            The poet sees that the poem itself is not so much an expression of love as a clothing of the very lessons it embodies in the skins of himself and of his inner representation of the person he loves as they “see the messages that give them Time.”

            Many questions arise from these five lines: Why is this a “grey” society?  In what sense is it grey?  Is it that the society is one that encourages a barrier between the inner life and the outer, between the feelings and action, so that when one tries, for instance – the whole experience becomes an example of the kinds of dilemmas that arise in the society – to express love, one wanders away or floats away “upward” from the expression of love to articulating general lessons about the society in which all this is taking place?

            The last two lines are a little obscure to me – at least up to this “point in time” when I am writing the concluding words of my response to the first page of the poem.  How do these messages – essentially, it occurs to me now, the major “message” [of this page of the poem] is that of Lambert Struther in Henry James’s meditation on similar dilemmas, The Ambassadors: “Live!” – how do these messages “give” the poet and his representation of the person he’s addressing “Time”?  Do the “messages” make them aware of the present, of the contingent, of what is happening at each moment in the world that is always both internal and external?

            I don’t think these questions are answered or were meant to be.  Once the “grey society” has been allowed explicitly into the poem, quite other things begin to happen:


            Thoughts just barely themselves

            before they too begin to change.

            Machines of thought do not exist.

            Reproductions do.


Is the poet referring to his own thoughts as they were happening during the writing of the poem?  It seems so.  Strong general statements occur now, averring the nonexistence of “machines of thought” and the existence of “reproductions” (presumably of thought).  The latter declaration inevitably – because of the earlier reference to Walter Benjamin – brings to mind the latter’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which has become overwhelmingly a propos during the years since Benjamin wrote it.  Works of art are not only increasingly and more accurately being reproduced – they often include within them (as in the works of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) both accurate reproductions of earlier works of art as well as ones made deliberately less accurate by fragmentation, blurring, partial obliteration, and similar processes of image-degradation.  Often now, reproductions constitute many works’ only existence.

            These reflections and others take their places in the “preconscious” of the poem.  The poet rebels against the supersession of thought by its “mechanical reproduction.”  It may  be all very well that the “aura” of works of art be dissolved by the processes of reproduction (as Benjamin averred in middle ‘30s).  Few except art dealers and buyers and museum curators value “authenticity” nowadays.  Both the “authentic” works and their reproductions are valuable commodities, though the former are still much more valuable than the latter in the marketplace.  Which leads directly to the next strophe:


            It must not turn

            into an object of consumption.

            Nothing exists inside the marketplace.


Here Marx’s observation that the processes of capitalism dissolve all existing things into thin air by the process of commodification thrusts its way into the poem.  This very strongly prescriptive strophe is declaring that thought must not be allowed to be dissolved into an “object of consumption” in the marketplace.  Thought would cease to exist.  With this forceful precept the whole tone and atmosphere of the poem changes.  This thought is fully itself!

            Then he turns to the quality of life of those existing (or dissolved into commodities!) in the market society:


            Buried in work.  Is that diligence

            central in men and women?  Did anyone,

            without external reference, ever find

            peace in poems?  Has that elegance

            headed ‘the ink’s desperation’?


But the poem turns again, within the oppressive representation of the commerce-driven “grey society,” to the writing of poetry.  A despair that it may ever lead to peace.  (or secondarily, that reading it may do so).  Or – does the despair come from its being “without external reference”?  ─ Does “the ink’s desperation” come from the lack of connection, between the poetry, “the inner life,” and the “external”: if the “inner life” does not “animate / the external, the everyday life,” it is like isolated sterile “principles” are mere “alibis.”  For what?


An immaculate imagery

must be a fiction.  It is

time to choose.  The lights burning out

pull down the shades.  Not metaphor.


Tend to your business.


Alibis for inaction! It is time to choose whether to make “immaculate” nonreferential poetry or to do something, presumably in one’s writing, as well as in one’s life. Here “fiction” means mere fiction - it is a worthless fiction when the lights are burning out. The poet has to do more than make metaphors. The poet’s “business” is to “animate the external and everyday life” - all that is real - authentic thought as well as all other things of intrinsic value must be must be rescued from the marketplace.

Not “business” ─ the business of the commerce-driven grey society of the marketplace ─ but helping effectuate our rescue from it, to resurrect men and women from the grave of work and consumption in which they are buried, from the grey society which has dissolved everything into thin air except its “busy” self ─ this is the poet’s business, and the poem ends with that ominous and urgent admonition: “Tend to your business.”


New York: 26 - 27 October 1997


“My whole body

becomes indistinguishable

from that world.”