Response to Piombino
Jackson Mac Low

[Presented here is a letter by Jackson Mac Low to Nick Piombino, revised for the Poetics List by Mac Low. Mac Low is commenting on Piombino's response to Dean Taciuch, which was posted on the list: "I wonder if it might help to approach Cage and Mac Low's writing to students with difficulties like this by introducing them to their music as a parallel effort at dealing with meaning in more oblique ways than is usually expected. I would like to suggest, in particular, Jackson Mac Low's amazing relatively new CD Open Secrets (1993 Experimental Intermedia Foundation 224 Centre Street, New York, N.Y 10013)."]

Your recommendation to let the students hear the pieces on Open Secrets is a good idea. What I do is a great deal different from what John [Cage] did. There isn't such an overwhelming emphasis on nonegoity in mine. In Anne & my performances (and in other performances of our pieces) there is a great deal of choice for performers (in Lucas 1-29 the performers compose their own parts in accordance with certain structural rules (based on a kind of number sequence called the Lucas sequence: 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18, 29 . . . , which determines both lengths of time slots and the number of different tones in the slots, the larger numbers being made practical by regarding notes in different tones or by using microtones).

Also, in John's pieces he wants each performer to be her/his own center and not relate with the others. In mine I encourage them both to be their own centers and to relate with everything they can hear--each other and environmental sounds.

I was much influenced by John's work and theories (as well as by himself--a wise and remarkable person), but, as he often remarked, "It's nice that we don't tread on each other's heels."

My "purely" chance-operational poetry (mainly Dec 1954 to Spring 1960) (see examples in Representative Works: 1938--1985, 16-70) and my "deterministic" or "algorithmic" nonintentional poetry--made by acrostic reading-through text-selection procedures (mainly from 1960-1963--see Ibid., 71-127, Stanzas for Iris Lezak [Barton, VT: Something Else, 1971], and Asymmetries 1-260 [New York: Printed Editions, 1980]) and diastic reading-through text-selection methods (see, for instance, The Pronouns--40 Dances--For the Dancers [New York: Mac Low, 1964; 2nd ed. London: Tetrad Press, 1971; 3rd ed., Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1979], The Virginia Woolf Poems [Providence: Burning Decl, 1985}, and Words nd Ends from Ez {Bolinas, CA: Avenue B, 1989] into the 80s and sometimes later--was made by methods quite different from John's. His mesostic poems--made by reading-through procedures that entailed certain choices (mainly of how many of the "wing words"--those on each side of the mesostic word, which was determined by his method), were begun in about 1968 or 69, and had some relation to my earlier reading-through methods, but were different in certain crucial ways.

Also, from 1955 intermittently on, I employed "translation" methods--ones through which the notes of musical notations were "translated" into words from source texts, e.g., my poem "Machault" (Representative Works: 1938-1985 [New York: Roof Books, 1986], 35-40) or vice-versa, i.e., the words of source texts were translated into music (e.g., my Milarepa Quartet for Four Like Instruments [unpublished]).

The work I did from about 1981 on was sometimes not systematic at all, but most often was composed freely, though mostly from the liminal zone between the conscious and the unconscious, which the British psychologist W.W. Winnicott called "the transitional space" and Silvano Arieti named "the tertiary process," since it is the area of intersection between the primary and secondary processes. [I owe knowledge of these terms to the revised and expanded version of Austin Clarkson's fine paper for the November 1995 Mills conference on Cage, "Divining the Intent of the Moment : John Cage and Transpersonal Aesthetics," which will be published with the other papers from the conference, edited by David Bernstein, by the University of Chicago Press.] Examples of this kind of work are the poems in From Pearl Harbor Day to FDR's Birthday (Los Angeles, Sun & Moon, 1982; 2nd ed., 1995), the first 2/3 or 3/4 of Bloomsday (Barrytown, NY, Station Hill, 1984---the last part is made up of nointentionally composed work--poetry, "stories," and music), and the "poems in prose" in Pieces o' Six (Los Angeles, Sun & Moon, 1992)--with a few diastic exceptions.

All of these--and other works of mine of other kinds that I haven't space to mention here--was quite different from any poetry or prose John ever wrote, but so was my "nonintentional poetry." For instance, even though we both made long poems by reading through [Ezra Pound's] Cantos, we did so in quite different ways. (John liked mine--made by nonintentional consecutive diastic selection of words & ends of words regulated by Pound's name) better than his own mesostic poem.)

Twenties: 100 Poems (New York: Roof Books, 1991) & 154 Forties (work in progress since 1990) are different again, adhering to certain "fuzzy verse forms" [giving the secondary process a bone to gnaw on], and gathering into them--mainly by liminal-zone processes--materials from what I heard, saw, and spontaneously thought of while writing their first drafts. Poems in both series, but especially the Forties poems are subject to later revision. This is a very complex way of working, mainly in the liminal (or tertiary) area, even though there is a certain amount of deliberate choice involved. The choices, however, do not come from an attempt to "say" something definite, but from intuitions in relation to local sound & meaning rather than to a global meaning of the whole poem. Both those collections are sometimes used as sources of chance-operationally made mixes which I run through computer-automations (by Charles O. Hartman) of my diastic methods.

The thing is that there is too much pairing of John's and my work, despite our strong mutual regard. We're both concerned with intentionality and nonintentionality and started doing this sort of work from understandings of Buddhism, especially Zen & Kegon as taught by Daisetz Suzuki at Columbia University in the 40s and 50s. But I seldom used "pure" chance operations after 1960. My algorithmic work is often mistakenly thought to be chance-generated, as they say, and I too used to think it was "chance-generated" work, but I realized sometime in the 80s that the only chance involved is in the making of mistakes (and after a certain point--especially book publication--the mistakes must be accepted as integral to the works). Otherwise, whatever gets into the poetry is determined by the generative method & lies there waiting in the source texts.

I might add that I have been working with many other kinds, and sometimes mixtures, of intentionality and intentionality since 1954. In addition to the methods and processes I've mentioned, some works, e.g., my over 65 Light Poems, e.g., 22 Light Poems (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1968), "The Presidents of the United States of America" (Representative Works, 152-67), and the "From Nuclei" poems (Ibid, 128-31) involve "nucleus" words--systematically determined by chance or other means--between which I wrote freely. And the performance works are realized by a complex mix of "deliberate choice" and "intuitive (tertiary-process) choice, though many were composed by strict chance operations.

Let me add that in my recent 42 Merzgedichte in Memoriam Kurt Schwitters (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1994), the first poem -- which is also in Pieces o' Six (168-75)-- was written by impulse-chance-selection from sources about and by Schwitters, the 2nd through the 30th by computer-aided chance operations, and the 31st through the 42nd by computer-automated diastic methods, which in some of the last Merzgedichte were supplemented by use of Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke's program TRAVESTY, which produces what Kenner calls "pseudo-texts," determined by lettter-group frequencies in English.

Thus I never "abandon" earlier ways of working, certainly never repudiatethem. It is to be noted that before late 1954 and from time to time from1954 to the present, I have written poems by something like the "ordinary"methods--so-called direct writing. However, many of my pre-late-1954 poemswere written from the liminal area of the mind (see examples in Representative Works, 3-13). Thus my recent poetry has certain resemblances with some of work written in the 30s and 40s.

Jackson Mac Low, June, 1997

Mac Low's letter is a response to these two posts:

Date: Sat, 21 Jun 1997 19:24:34 -0400
From: Nick Piombino <>
Subject: Re: representation

Hi Dean Taciuch,

I wonder if it might help to approach Cage and Mac Low's writing to students with difficulties like this by introducing them to their music as a parallel effort at dealing with meaning in more oblique ways than is usually expected. I would like to suggest, in particular, Jackson Mac Low's amazing relatively new cd "Open Secrets" (1993 Experimental Intermedia Foundation 224 Centre Street,New York,N.Y> 10013). Here are some of the cuts:

1. 1st Milarepa Gatha
2. Milarepa Quartet for Four Like instruments
3. Thankss
4. Winds/Instruments
5. 38th and 39th Merzgedichte in Memoriam Kurt Schwitters
6. Phoneme Dance in Memoriam John Cage

This album is an amazing mix of pure music (as in Winds/Instruments, which evokes an almost melodically harmonic,lyricized Webern) and the Milarepa Gothas which are spoken word, but for many voices, prominently Ann Tardos, all of which show the presence of Mac Low's precision of unexpectable soundings. The Winds/Instruments particularly reminded me of something Mac Low once said to me when he and I did a collaborative reading with Charles Bernstein at the Living Theater some years ago.The direction he kept coming back to was:"Real silences."

Best wishes,

Nick P.

On Sat, 21 Jun 1997, Dean Taciuch wrote:
Another way to frame the "abstract vs personal" or "concrete vs personal" discussion might be to consider separable or paraphrasable content. "Personal" might (might) be considered as something which the work can be said to be "about" if there is an "about" to it. That is, representation vs nonrepresenation, as David Israel has posed it. Representational work has separable content, nonrepresentational work doesn't (or its separable content is unimportant).

I'm seeing this question of content come up in my classes, as I'm trying to cover Mac Low and Cage. . .there is a resistance on the part on the students (undergraduate), which I think is due to their not being able to say what the poems are "about." At least that's how they've expressed the discomfort to me. The work seems "abstract" to them because there's no separable content, nothing they can paraphrase when someone asks them "what's that poem about" (of course, that's not the question I ask them. That's not the question at all)


Rev. February 1998