from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 193: American Poets Since World War II, Sixth Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Joseph Conte, State University of New York, Buffalo. The Gale Group, 1998. pp. 193-202. the Dictionary of Literary Biography

by Bruce Campbell


Jackson Mac Low

September 12, 1922-

Name: Jackson Mac Low

Nationality:  American

Genre(s):  Plays; Essays; Musical works; Experimental poetry

Biographical and Critical Essay
Representative Works
The Marrying Maiden: a play of changes
The Pronouns--A Collection of 40 Dances--For the Dancers
The Pronouns
22 Light Poems
Writings by the Author
Further Readings about the Author
About This Essay



  • The Twin Plays: Port-au-Prince & Adams County Illinois (New York: Mac Low & Bloedow, 1963, 30 mimeographed copies; second edition, New York: Something Else Press, 1966).

  • The Pronouns--A Collection of 40 Dances--For the Dancers (New York: Mac Low & Judson Dance Workshop, 1964; revised edition, London: Tetrad Press, 1971; revised again, Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1979).

  • August Light Poems (New York: Caterpillar Books, 1967).

  • Verdurous Sanguinaria (Baton Rouge, La.: Southern University Press, 1967).

  • 22 Light Poems (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1968).

  • 23rd Light Poem: For Larry Eigner (London: Tetrad Press, 1969); Stanzas for Iris Lezak (Barton, Vt.: Something Else Press, 1972).

  • Four Trains (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1974).

  • 36th Light Poem: In Memoriam Buster Keaton (London: Permanent Press, 1975).

  • 21 Matched Asymmetries: The 10 Bluebird Asymmetries, the 6 Asymmetries for Dr. Howard Levy, & the 5 Young Turtle Asymmetries (London: Aloes Books, 1978).

  • 54th Light Poem: For Ian Tyson (Milwaukee, Wis.: Membrane Press, 1978).

  • A Dozen Douzains for Eve Rosenthal (Toronto: Gronk Books, 1978).

  • Phone: A Poem & 10 Variations (New York: Printed Editions / Amsterdam: Kontexts, 1979).

  • Antic Quatrains (Minneapolis: Bookslinger, 1980).

  • Asymmetries 1-260: The First Section of a Series of 501 Performance Poems (New York: Printed Editions, 1980).

  • "Is That Wool Hat My Hat?" (Milwaukee, Wis.: Membrane Press, 1982).

  • From Pearl Harbor Day to FDR's Birthday (7 December 1981-30 January 1982) (College Park, Md.: Sun & Moon Press, 1982; corrected edition, Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995).

  • Bloomsday(Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1984).

  • French Sonnets (Tucson, Ariz.: Black Mesa Press, 1984; revised edition, Milwaukee, Wis.: Membrane Press, 1989).

  • Eight Drawing-Asymmetries [boxed serigraphs] (Verona: Francesco Conz, 1985).

  • The Virginia Woolf Poems (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1985).

  • Representative Works: 1938-1985 (New York: Roof Books, 1986).

  • Words nd Ends from Ez (Bolinas, Cal.: Avenue B, 1989).

  • Twenties: 100 Poems: 24 February 1989-3 June 1990 (New York: Roof Books, 1991).

  • Pieces o' Six: 33 Poems in Prose (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992).

  • 42 Merzgedichte In Memoriam Kurt Schwitters (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, 1994).

  • Barnesbook: Four Poems Derived from Sentences by Djuna Barnes (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995).


  • The Marrying Maiden: a play of changes, New York, The Living Theater, 1960-1961.

  • Verdurous Sanguinaria, New York, Yoko Ono's Studio, 1961; New York, Ag Gallery, 1961; Baton Rouge, Southern University, 1967.

  • The Twin Plays: Port-au-Prince & Adams County Illinois, New York, Hardware Poets Theatre, 1963; University of Exeter, England, 1968.

  • Questions & Answers . . . A Topical Play, New York, Hardware Poets Theatre, 1963.


  • "Statement" and "Some Remarks to the Dancers," in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (New York: Grove, 1973), pp. 384-385, 385-391.

  • "Short Statement in 'Elitism' after Reading Kathy's Piece on Me," Vort 8 (1975): 51.

  • "The Poetics of Chance & the Politics of Simultaneous Spontaneity, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Revised & Abridged)," in Talking Poetics from the Naropa Institute: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, volume 1, edited by Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb (Boulder, Colo. & London: Shambala, 1978).

  • "Something about the Writings of John Cage," in Writings about John Cage, edited by Richard Kostelanetz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), pp. 283-296; revised and expanded as "The Writings of John Cage up to the Late 1980s," in Here Comes Everybody, edited by David Bernstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming, 1999).

No American poet of this time has been more exemplary in extending the range of the forms of poetry than Jackson Mac Low. He has done this partly through the use of "nonintentional procedures," that is, systematic chance operations and three types of deterministic procedures: "translation" of musical notations into words and vice versa (from 1955 on), "acrostic read-through text-selection" (mostly 1960-1963), and "diastic reading-through text-selection" (from 1963 on--seldom in the 1990s). Nothing stands as a greater rebuke to ego-hugging poetry than the quiet work of Mac Low. However, this fact not only has but continues to make Mac Low a limited case for a certain kind of literary sensibility. As Jerome Rothenberg has pointed out, the resistance many poets feel toward Mac Low's work is itself a sign that something important is happening there. Mac Low has been extraordinarily productive. His activities have extended far beyond poetry: he is a composer, visual artist, and multimedia performance artist; he has written essays, radio works, and plays. The volume and variety of his poetry alone is staggering--all the more so if the wealth of unpublished material is included.

Born in Chicago 12 September 1922, Jackson Mac Low studied music from the age of four and began composing music and poetry at the age of fifteen. From 1939 to 1943 Mac Low studied philosophy, poetics, and literature at the University of Chicago. Though he had been doing graduate-level work in philosophy and structural criticism at the university, he left with only the Associate of Arts degree awarded to students who completed the "Two-Year College," which did not help him get jobs. In 1943 he moved to New York, where he has continued to reside ever since. In 1954 Mac Low wrote the music for the Living Theatre's production of W. H. Auden's Age of Anxiety (1947). He worked "intermittently as a factory or office worker, tutor, parents' helper, music teacher, or messenger--all for minuscule pay," as he says in the introduction to Representative Works: 1938-1985 (1986). He also coedited a pacifist anarchist newspaper and a pacifist magazine. At thirty-three he found the conditions of his life unsatisfying. Changes were in store, both for his writing and for his life.

In 1955 Mac Low went back to college to get a useful degree, studying classical languages at Brooklyn College and emerging in 1958 with an A.B. degree, cum laude, in Greek. Receiving his degree led to a series of reference-book editorial jobs in publishing. Later he taught at New York University for seven years. In February 1962 Mac Low married the painter Iris Lezak (dedicatee of his 1972 Stanzas for Iris Lezak). In March 1963 a son, Mordecai-Mark, was born; and in February 1966 a daughter, Clarinda. Mac Low and Lezak were divorced in 1978, and in 1990 he married the visual artist, poet, composer, and multimedia performance artist Anne Tardos. In 1963 Mac Low was copublisher with La Monte Young (Young was the sole editor) of An Anthology of Chance Operations (1963), designed by George Maciunas. An Anthology was a major force in the development of the art movement Fluxus. Through his involvement with Fluxus, Mac Low was able to have his work performed for the first time in Europe in 1962-1963.

Beginning with "5 biblical poems" (written December 1954 to January 1955) Mac Low has employed chance operations and deterministic nonintentional procedures. Most of the poems he wrote before 1954 bear little resemblance to the poems he wrote after. Although Representative Works covers forty-seven years according to its title, as "a consequence of the book's bulk," Mac Low said in a note in June 1995, only twelve pages are taken up with work from the first sixteen years, and only one was written in Illinois. As a consequence Mac Low is at some pains in his introduction to support his early work: "I can imagine a fairly substantial Selected Earlier Works." But more than a decade after he published these words, there is still no such book. Indeed, nothing in Mac Low's body of works is rarer than early work. While Mac Low has been able to publish rather prolifically over the last decade or so, that work, with few exceptions, has been recent. This means that there are still significant gaps in his published work. Consequently, a rather skewed picture of Mac Low may emerge (although Joel Kuszaí has begun an investigation of Mac Low's early works with a view to their book publication).

Given the change in his poetry, which Mac Low himself draws attention to, and the difficulty of acquiring his early work, a reader might assume Mac Low is a more conventional poet than he has been. The earliest poem in Representative Works, "H U N G E R ST r i kE wh A t d o e S lifemean," rings changes on the sounds of words; "water," for example, becomes "whater" (as in "whater you thinking about?"). The visual element of the poem cannot be ignored, but sound drives the poem. "H U N G E R ST r i kE" is doubly "sui generis," as Mac Low categorizes it. Not only is it unique or atypical--this is Mac Low's meaning--but, given the typewriterly nature of the transcript, it is also a nonrepeatable work. As such, "H U N G E R ST r i kE" looks forward to Mac Low's later work, both as a work of sound environment and as an event, which, by definition, is unique. Still, space limitations enforce choices, and the choices made affect the reader's understanding of Mac Low. It is the Mac Low after 1954 who must interest the reader, if for no other reason than that is the Mac Low he has.

Mac Low himself seems a little curious about the changes. He reports himself to have been skeptical about "chance methods" when he first learned of their use in musical composition by John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff--rather ironically so, given Jerome Rothenberg's assessment in the preface to Representative Works that "Mac Low stands with John Cage as one of the two major artists bringing systematic chance operations into poetic & musical practice since the Second World War." There were influences, Mac Low notes--Zen Buddhism and the "post 1950 chance-operational and indeterminate" music of John Cage, to cite but two of the more important. Yet these influences quickly give way in Mac Low's accounting of the role of performance. "Why did I begin to view performance as central and texts as primarily notations for performance (if only by a silent reader)?" Mac Low does not offer an answer, but this central role of performance is a key difficulty in trying to consider Mac Low only as a writer. For example, it is questionable whether the poems in 21 Matched Asymmetries: The 10 Bluebird Asymmetries, the 6 Asymmetries for Dr. Howard Levy, & the 5 Young Turtle Asymmetries (1978) are nearly as effective in print as in performance. (In this they may be similar to Rothenberg's "Navaho Songs," which seem dry and prickly on the page but are mesmerizing in performance.) For the most part Mac Low's activities do not seem directed toward the book (at least as understood and codified by Western traditions). In this respect, at least, he is a post-Mallarméan writer, though the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé "has been a continuing influence and inspiration!"

The book, conceived as score (even if just for the silent reader), cannot be considered a final product. Perhaps this attitude is responsible for Mac Low's reader-oriented view of writing. And this perception may account, more than any other, for the generosity with which he has received the Language writers and they him. Indeed, by date of birth Mac Low belongs to that company of poets associated with the New American Poetry, although many of that company have actually been hostile to the Language writers. In Ron Silliman's judgment Mac Low is "the first American poet to throw over the so-called Problem of the Subject, showing it to be a mere sum of the writing."

Two points may be drawn from the pivotal "5 biblical poems." First, Mac Low uses the "event" as a unit of measure; "event" refers here to "single words or silences." Still, "event" is a reminder that Mac Low is a poet who received his first significant acclaim in the 1960s. Second, the systematic chance poem comes into the world defended by its own protocols (that is, prefatory material describing the methods employed in composition and the methods to be employed in reading/performing). This is one index that the poem is not written "directly" (as Mac Low later phrases it). Instead the poem is constructed through operations performed upon a source text--in this case, the Hebrew Scriptures. The effect may resemble that of the avant-garde freeing of words, but with a reservation. The protocols bind the procedure to a discipline. As the poet accepts a discipline, so must the reader. At the same time, there is often room in Mac Low for personal variation. Thus, in "And/ / / / / / / /statutes, | you: unto / / / /with/ / / / | / /twenty sanctified ox," each box represents a silence "equal in duration to any word the reader chooses." Variable or not, the silence involves the questions, which most of Mac Low's work makes explicit, of attention and the means to which attention is put. Mac Low, then, creates a work in which the reader must exercise his attention--"attention delight" as he puts it in "Night Walk." To this extent Mac Low cannot be dealt with by reading into the language he employs. The reader must always be concerned as well with the poet's stance--his attitude toward the work as well as toward reality. One might even say that to this extent Mac Low is the John Milton of his generation. He shows that one cannot read the poetry without being mindful of the poet's beliefs, for his stance toward language is his stance toward the world.

Perhaps it is not by accident then that Mac Low's first successes occurred within the field of performance (through performance poetry or through plays). The Marrying Maiden: a play of changes (text composed in the summer of 1958; delivery regulations completed, summer 1959) was performed by the Living Theatre in 1960-1961, with music by John Cage. (Though not listed in the poet's bibliographies, a photocopy of the play, as well as a list of the accompanying action pack, "originally comprising about 1400 playing cards" with a series of commands, is available from the poet, thus making it a kind of unofficial publication). The typescript bears a dedication omitted in Representative Works, "For Alexandra Hontchar." "The Marrying Maiden" was composed strictly by chance operations involving the I Ching (or Book of Changes, an ancient Chinese text of Confucianism) and a random digit table. Indeed, "the marrying maiden" is the name of one of the hexagrams. In terms of measure it follows the "eventative verse" of the "5 biblical poems." There are many lines in the text that are either arresting or informative, though their grammar and syntax is hardly conventional. The "image The Taming Power of The Small" may be read as criticism of the then-current valorization of the image. However, this should not be taken to mean that Mac Low (or chance) eschews images for a "narrow street thru a whole day." But chance does unsettle any notion of gesture intrinsic in the action. "The actions in the Living Theatre production were determined by the director's ( Judith Malina's) scenario interrupted by 'action cards' given to actors at random intervals."

On 29 February 1960 Mac Low (in the midst of writing "Night Walk") began the "Friendship Poems" (both works "for VBW"). In these he reached a directness hitherto absent in Representative Works. The poet knew how unusual these were: "I have started to write poems that say things to people." But the greater surprise is the revitalization the poet felt, for chance "has opened my life now again / Again again again beautiful life opening up and blossoming when it seems to have died to the roots." The secret, if you will, is in the opening up, or being open to the possibilities; chance is finally "a simple turning toward."

From the middle of May to early October 1960 Mac Low composed a work that extends to nearly four hundred published pages (more than four hundred with the afterword), Stanzas for Iris Lezak (1972). Published eleven years later by Something Else Press (as one of their last titles), the work has gained a notoriety, not to say infamy, among certain readers--not only on account of its size but also because of its resistance to casual reading, perhaps even to readings of intent. The poet Michael Palmer in the audience-response portion after a talk by Lyn Hejinian once called it "claustrophobic." More positively conceived, the stanzas seem designed to thwart the reader's ego to reach "the is of non-ego."

Mac Low uses a variety of source texts and methods, religious texts, scientific texts, and newspapers--in short, whatever he is reading. Indeed, he has said that the most "personal" element of the work (aside from its dedications) is the choice of material. The religious--or meditative--texts render words and phrases which help provide a rationale for the procedure; the newspapers channel information concerning life led in New York in 1960 and elsewhere. Yet, despite the variety, the effect on most readers is one of sameness. Doubtless this results, at least in part, from the foregrounding structure of the work (and backgrounding content) and the reader's training, which equates meaning with content. "Principle sense is conjugation hearsay." To foreground structure in the way that Mac Low's works (particularly those of the 1960s) do is to nudge the reader into attending to aspects of a work he generally ignores. Still, this sameness is but the frequency employed to tune in to the various spectra of word life. (Charles Bernstein, after all, in Content's Dream has termed Mac Low a "natural historian of language.") Yet there is content in Mac Low's work. The words keep their normal reference, although placed in new contexts, the references at times shoulder each other. Attention is strained, for some of the passages make sense and some do not. Those reading for content are constantly filtering out what does not fit. There is an irony here. While systematic nonintentional procedures do not prevent readings of content, they do align content-reading with the reading of a Ouija board. The irony is doubled, for nonintentional text generation is also aligned with divinatory readings (which is one of the uses of the I Ching). This point is perhaps where the fetish of chance becomes most suspect, as Steve McCaffery has noted in an interview with Andrew Payne printed in North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986 (1986). Still, messages do get through. "Effects Crude state the and Crude is effects state"--the reflexivity proffers a kind of "what you see is what you get" economy, although the condensation of the line allows for multiple readings. Still, the state (and statement) of "effects" is "crude" because, in the interest of being definitive (that is, "the"), the principle of cause and effect rarely considers the reifying cycle in which the statement affects the state, and so on. Stanzas for Iris Lezak, then, aims at something "Pure as transferences: half-syllable / Open form."

Directly after Stanzas for Iris Lezak, Mac Low composed a group of performance poems, Asymmetries 1-501, in 1960-1961. Thus, in a little less than a year Mac Low produced something like nine hundred pages. (However, although the first 160 were published in 1980 as Asymmetries 1-260: The First Section of a Series of 501 Performance Poems, the last half have never been published as a single book, although 121-127 appear in Representative Works and in An Anthology (1963), edited by La Monte Young. Without Dick Higgins, founder of Something Else Press and Printed Editions, perhaps neither Stanzas for Iris Lezak nor part of the asymmetries would have been published.) In formal terms the asymmetries are directly opposed to the preceding work, since they are asymmetrical while the stanzas were symmetrical. They are also more insistently performing texts--hence the use of "performance poems" in the subtitle. The asymmetries are a form of "lip-Zen" in which "absence became sensible." It is easy to forget how long it has been since they were composed; "nerve Eisenhower" was no historical reference. The asymmetries are a kind of "reason event" in which "need employ enclosure direction." But the reason of the asymmetries is hardly that of logic or science. They are instead a kind of readjustment necessitated by "educational dislocation" (as "Asymmetry #354" expresses it). They provide examples of "melted / presence; Thru sense / transmigration realization / . . . . / regard existence glad accidentally / read discover." Reading is important in this passage, even if the reading is a form of divination.

Written January through February 1961 by means of chance operations involving twenty-six dictionaries, Verdurous Sanguinaria (1967) was premiered that same year at Mac Low's first concert of poetry, plays, and music in Yoko Ono's loft in a series organized by La Monte Young. It later became Mac Low's fourth book and the first published by a university press (to date, the only one). Although there are six acts in the play (by mistake only five were printed in the Southern University Press edition; a correct edition will appear in 1999 published by Sun and Moon Press), it is based on only twenty-six words, names, and two-word phrases. The limited vocabulary introduces severe restrictions. In January 1961 Mac Low composed a plan, titled "Tree* Movie," in which a stationary camera was to film a tree for an extensive period of time. (The "*" in the title serves as a reminder that other things can be the subject of the film in place of the "tree.") The plan (included in Representative Works) shows a different aspect of the Mac Low corpus; it serves to remind readers how limited, in the case of Mac Low, the focus on poetry is. "Tree* Movie" led directly to Andy Warhol's static movies, though "Warhol never acknowledged this," according to Mac Low and several movie critics.

In 1966 Mac Low's first printed book (excluding mimeo productions) appeared: The Twin Plays: Port-au-Prince & Adams County Illinois from Something Else Press in their Great Bear pamphlet series. Many of the Great Bear pamphlets concern "happenings"; the seventh is, in fact, a selection of scenarios by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of the Happening concept. Begun 21 March 1962 and completed shortly thereafter, the two plays are identical in structure. However, the language differs. In "Port-au-Prince" Mac Low has drawn words by chance operations from a list he made of partial anagrams of the title; in "Adams County Illinois" he has drawn by chance operations folk sayings from Folk-Lore from Adams County Illinois written by Harry Middleton Hyatt and published in 1935, a book given to Mac Low by writer Spencer Holst. Identical structure can, in such circumstances, lead to rather different results.

On 4 November 1961 Mac Low composed his "Word Event for George Brecht." In this scenario someone says a word and then analyzes it into successive phonemes and then into phonemes representable by its successive individual letters. Then "he orders phonemes from both series in random orders." "A later version, 'Word Event(s) for Bici Forbes,' frees the performer greatly and is based on actual performance practices." It is, Mac Low writes in a footnote added seven years after the composition, the third step that is the heart of the event. The "Word Event," therefore, is about permutations and "performers making spontaneous choices" as much as it is about an event. Mac Low's early interest in the use of computers for generating poetry is, therefore, not surprising. (In 1969 he participated in the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: with the aid of a programmable film reader he composed the "PFR-3 Poems." This interest has only strengthened in the last decade.) Indeed, 42 Merzgedichte In Memoriam Kurt Schwitters (1994) is a series of poems comprising words, phrases, and sentences by and about Schwitters. The first Merzegedicht--originally no. 32 of Pieces o' Six: 33 Poems in Prose (1992)--includes materials drawn by "impulse-chance" from source texts, together with some statements by the poet. The second through thirtieth comprise materials drawn by computer-aided chance operations from the first poem as well as other words and phrases from the sources. In the last twelve, materials from some of the earlier ones were recombined and transformed by computer programs.

Mac Low's interest in event undergoes a new expression in The Pronouns--A Collection of 40 Dances--For the Dancers. Its initial appearance is as a self-produced mimeograph in 1964. It has been republished twice, each time with revisions, once in Great Britain in 1971 and again by Station Hill Press in 1979. The Pronouns can be seen as a development of the "action pack" for The Marrying Maiden by way of a performance card pack, "Nuclei for Simone Forti" (the dedicatee is a very innovative and influential dancer, choreographer, and improviser). Typed on each card are single words drawn by chance operations from the BASIC English Word List and action phrases from a separate pack made up of words similarly drawn from the BASIC list. After Forti had improvised around some of the "Nuclei" cards in 1961, the dancer-choreographer Trisha Brown did so in 1963 and borrowed the pack for teaching purposes in California. The dancer Fred Herko, who had seen Brown's performances, asked to use the pack before Brown returned it to Mac Low, so the poet wrote a "He" poem for Herko by a deterministic (non-chance) procedure applied to the pack of action phrases that had "fed into" "Nuclei." Then he wrote a "She" poem for Forti, Brown, and other women dancers and subsequently thirty-eight other poems, each centered on another pronoun or pronounlike noun. Written February-March 1964, the forty dance-instruction poems have frequently been performed and published in magazines and in anthologies as well as in their three editions. Lanny Harrison and other performers have improvised around "Nuclei" cards in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Pronouns is a book of poems that are also scores for actions. Alliances of poetry and painting are more familiar than those of poetry and dance. Still, Michael Palmer has had an association with the Martha Jenkins Dance Company of San Francisco, and the poet and critic Bruce Andrews has collaborated on scores for movement with dancer-choreographer Sally Silvers. And yet there are differences between a score for action and a score for speech. Consequently, the words read might not be precisely what is seen, even though one method allows a dancer or another person to read the words while a dance is performed. The Pronouns is an inaugural text, for here word is made event. There is, thus, a ritual element which corresponds well to the poetic milieu created by the tribal anthologies of Rothenberg, in particular his Technicians of the Sacred (1968) and Shaking the Pumpkin (1972), although, as with Rothenberg, this is ritual fed through the filters of an historical avant-garde. In other words, even here Mac Low employs nonintentional methods: "I let the title letters 'select' the successive actions from the sets of one to five actions as they showed up. For example, in the '37th Dance--Banding,' the 'B' selected 'being flies,' the 'A,' 'having examples, the 'N,' 'doing something consciously," the 'D,' 'saying things about making gardens,' &c." The effect of using pronouns is to "take hold of those old workhorses of our language and, in a play with living nouns and verbs, make them come alive and enter a triumphant dance for all dancers," as Rothenberg explains. The Pronouns is still perhaps Mac Low's most widely appreciated work, parts of which often have been anthologized.

Beginning in June 1962 Mac Low began a series of poems he has continued over the years. Named Light Poems, the first twenty-two were published in 1968 by Black Sparrow Press, well-known for their publications of the works of New American Poets. 22 Light Poems (1968) employs a variety of methods, usually incorporating chance elements with moments of extreme directness. That each poem is written for someone (as recipient) indicates the communal nature of Mac Low's work. Those who do not share this community often castigate such gestures as being intended simply for friends. Rather than being seen as exclusive, however, these gestures should be seen as a part of the sustaining dialogue of any artistic community. For the Light Poems, as with other works by Mac Low--particularly the performance scores he calls "Vocabularies"--the name of the recipient affects the choice of language. "The light names were drawn from a chart; materials between them were freely written." Using a chart of the light names, Mac Low often selects light names based on the letters of the recipient's name. The name is thereby encoded in the poem.

It may well be that Mac Low's most personal work, the "Odes for Iris," written during the breakup of his first marriage, from July 1970 to November 1971, is one of his least-known works. The lack of availability is a simple reason for this. The poems have never appeared in book form. Six odes appear in Representative Works, and several have been published in magazines. These are likely to be the most that readers have seen of them. (Rothenberg writes that, in odes not included in Representative Works, Mac Low "out-confesses the 'confessionals.'") The formal nature of the odes (strict syllabic verse) is likely to be overlooked in view of the rather naked emotions. This work presents, then, the same reading lesson as the Stanzas for Iris Lezak (written ten years earlier), though from the opposite spectrum. Here the content may well overshadow the reader's response to the structure. Even if the lesson is the same, the experience is not. To take the two Iris books together is to glimpse the range Mac Low has achieved.

Mac Low then is a formal poet: his emphasis is on form. One effect of his formalism can be measured by his Representative Works: his poems unallied to the larger projects tend to get overshadowed. Given the emphasis outside Representative Works on the larger projects, Mac Low's more occasional works tend to be rather fugitive. Representative Works represents most of the forms he has engaged in. The use of "representative" in the title allows him to accomplish two things: it avoids the deleterious connotations of a "selected poems," and it foregrounds the formal nature of his writing. Both are accomplished because the examples represent forms or genres rather than types or content. Some examples represent two or more forms or genres at once: for example, the fifth of "5 biblical poems" is also both "the 1st biblical play" and Mac Low's first "simultaneity" (in this case, three voices speak three poems simultaneously), and The 54th Light Poem for Ian Tyson is at once both a Light Poem and a Gatha. The Gathas are a series of performance poems written on graph paper. Each square is either blank (and that may be interpreted as silence) or filled with a letter. The letters spell words. At the beginning of the series (1961) the words are mantras. In 1973, however, Mac Low began to use nonmantric English words, beginning with The Black Tarantula Crossword Gathas, drawn from an extensive series of Kathy Acker's The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1975).

A separate series (produced as single sheets) of Vocabularies, beginning in 1968 with A Vocabulary for Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim (a conceptual painter and sculptor), has a more insistently visual quality, most of them beginning as drawings. These too are performance texts. Each performer chooses and speaks or sings any of the words in any desired order and/or "translates" his letters into musical tones on an instrument (some Vocabularies include musical staves). As with the Gathas, there is no predetermined starting point or direction. The Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore (February 1974-July 1975) is an excellent example of how one can become "thrown" into the work. This drawing/score pulses on the page, a labyrinth of language; varying sizes of lettering tip in various directions. (The fact that it is hand-lettered is important, as well.) But perhaps the most seminal of the Vocabularies is the Vocabulary for Annie Brigitte Gilles Tardos, a project commissioned by the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, Inc., "for exhibition as the 'Poetry Room' of 'Sound at P.S. 1,'" in Long Island from September 30 to November 1979.

Each Vocabulary is an array of as many partial anagrams as Mac Low could find and fit onto a single sheet of drawing paper or typing paper. Other poems may be made from words in each Vocabulary. (For instance, "Antic Quatrains" is generated by chance operations from the Vocabulary for Annie Tardos.) The poem exists in a larger context, the result of which is to encourage the reader to open his or her eyes and ears. Indeed, the most general discipline advocated by Mac Low has always been to "listen & relate." First formulated in relation to the poet's simultaneities (performance works in which two or more people speak, sing, and/or play instruments simultaneously), "listen & relate" has important ethical connotations for a poet who has no wish to be a dictator. But Mac Low doesn't wish simply to discipline the reader (or performer), nor should the discipline be seen as the goal. Instead Mac Low wants to "empower" the reader, as he phrases it in the preface to Twenties: 100 Poems: 24 February 1989-3 June 1990 (1991). The reader is not someone who simply gazes upon the work or arrives at a prefabricated meaning; the reader helps to make the meaning. But this also means there can be no definitive reading (or performance) of a Mac Low work.

That the Vocabulary for Annie Tardos--the subject of which is a filmmaker, poet, composer, performance artist, and visual artist--should be so generative is hardly surprising. Its dedicatee (whose name yields all the letters in it) is Mac Low's present wife and most frequent collaborator in making and realizing performance works. She is also the dedicatee of the "58th Light Poem," written in 1979, eleven years before their marriage, and published in Representative Works), which begins "I know when I've fallen in love I start to write love songs / Love's actinism turns nineteens to words & thoughts in love songs / as your 'A' & the date made 'actinism' enter this love song." In his introduction to Representative Works Mac Low expresses sympathy for his 1950s self. If he had undergone changes in the mid 1950s (which, poetically, led him into systematic nonintentional procedures), by 1981 he was undergoing changes once again. One of the first indications of such a change in his writing is his first publication with Douglas Messerli's Sun and Moon Press (at that point still located in College Park, Maryland, but soon to move to the West Coast): From Pearl Harbor Day to FDR's Birthday (7 December 1981-30 January 1982), published in 1982. In this work the writing is usually "direct," although his "directness" is not the directness of the Odes for Iris nor that of most other poets. It connotes, instead, a text written without the mediation of source texts or systematic procedures--as opposed to, for example, the Words nd Ends from Ez (1989), a diastic reading through Ezra Pound's Cantos that yields a flux of letters, words, and syllables. Mac Low calls most of the works in Bloomsday (1984) and Pieces o' Six, Twenties, and 154 Forties--Mac Low's latest project--"intuitive" or "spontaneous," but a few in Bloomsday and Pieces o' Six were composed by nonintentional procedures.

There are three facts, finally, to note about Mac Low. Few poets have been as varied and prolific throughout their careers. The lacunae in his body of works interfere with the reader's attempt to get an adequate sense of his achievement. And Mac Low may well be the first systems poet. Ron Silliman has observed, "Mac Low was more or less alone in the 1950s in his explorations of poetic form as system (to my mind a far more important implication of his work than his use of chance operations, which are merely one type of system)." In the face of immense difficulties, Mac Low has persevered to create a resource in American poetry. He will not be a guiding light for all, of course, but many writers will find that they quite simply could not do the work they do without the example set by Jackson Mac Low.

Papers:  The library of the University of California, San Diego, has archives of Mac Low's papers.



  • Manuchehr Sassoonian and Layle Silbert, "Craft Interview with Jackson Mac Low," The Craft of Poetry, edited by William Packard (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 224-263.

  • Barry Alpert, "Jackson Mac Low, An Interview conducted by Barry Alpert, The Bronx, New York, April 6, 1974 (revised January-February 1975 by JML)," Vort 8 (1975): 3-33.

  • Gil Ott, "Dialog (with Gil Ott)," Paper Air, 2, no. 1 (1980): 18-29.

  • Kim Rosenfield, "Kim Rosenfield Interviews Jackson Mac Low," Shiny, nos. 7/8 (1992): 5-25.

  • Kevin Bezner, "Jackson Mac Low, Interviewed by Kevin Bezner," New American Writing, no. 11 (Summer/Fall 1993): 109-124.

  • Barrett Watten, "Poetic Vocabularies: A Conversation between Barrett Watten and Jackson Mac Low KPFA, Berkeley, CA 24 October 1985; edited and revised by Watten and Mac Low in 1992," Aerial, 8 (1995): 107-120.

  • Nicholas Zurbrugg, "Jackson Mac Low," in Positively Postmodern: The Multi-Media Muse in America (Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press, forthcoming).


  • Charles Bernstein, "Jackson at Home," in his Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986).

  • John Cage, "Music and Particularly Silence in the Work of Jackson Mac Low," Paper Air, 2, no. 1 (1980): 36-39.

  • George Hartley, "'Listen' and 'Relate': Jackson Mac Low's Chance-Operational Poetry," Sulfur, no. 23 (Fall 1988): 189-203.

  • Charles O[ssian] Hartman, "Essay Ending with Six Reasons to Read Jackson Mac Low: Representative Works: 1938-1985 and The Virginia Woolf Poems, [by] Jackson Mac Low" in Prairie Schooner, 62 (Spring 1988): 115-120.

  • Andrew Levy, "Introduction: Festschrift for Jackson Mac Low's 75th Birthday," in Festschrift for Jackson Mac Low's 75th Birthday, Crayon ([Fall] 1997).

  • Steve McCaffery, "Jackson Mac Low: Samsara in Lagado" in North Dakota Quarterly, 55 (Fall 1987): 185-201.

  • George Quasha, "A Concrete Dialog with Myself on, and for, Jackson Mac Low," Paper Air, 2, no. 1 (1980): 55-63.

  • Jerome Rothenberg, Representative Works: 1938-1985 (New York: Roof Books, 1986).

  • Ron Silliman, "While Some Are Being Flies, Others Are Having Examples," Paper Air, 2, no. 1 (1980): 39-41.

  • Henry Taylor, "Jackson Mac Low: Gristlier Translations, Arcane Pronouns" in his Compulsory Figures (Baton Rouge, London: Louisiana State UP, 1992), pp. 245-266.

About this Essay:  Bruce Campbell, University of California, Riverside

Source:  Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 193: American Poets Since World War II, Sixth Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Joseph Conte, State University of New York, Buffalo. The Gale Group, 1998. pp. 193-202.

Source Database:  Dictionary of Literary Biography