Showing posts with label Jackson Mac Low. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jackson Mac Low. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Monday, January 14, 2008

Thing of Beauty truly is. The first real attempt at a comprehensive selected poems by Jackson Mac Low since the 1986 publication of Representative Works 1938 – 1985, half of this new volume, impeccably edited by Mac Low’s longtime partner & collaborator Anne Tardos, was written after the completion of that earlier book. Thus the subtitle New and Selected Works.

Thing of Beauty carefully lays out the scope of a great career that lasted just shy of seventy years. Indeed, Mac Low had just turned fifteen when he composed the volume’s title poem. It’s a lyric such one might expect of a boy. Yet already we see the impulse toward systematic changes that will lead Mac Low to become the great champion of chance and anti-ego-centered techniques in American poetry as well as the anti-war commitment that he carried without hesitation throughout his life:

It was a thing
of Beauty;
Small, precious
Not strong nor large,
But beautiful.

She was a thing
Of Beauty;
Slender, graceful
Not strong nor tall,
But beautiful

He was a thing
Of Beauty;
Tall, manly
Not small nor delicate
Like the other
Beautiful things,
But beautiful.

Came War
Came Slaughter
And Destruction;
Wrought for holy causes –
They said.

Both sides fought
For the Good
Of Mankind
By destroying
The things
Of Beauty

The Small and Precious
The Slender and Graceful,
The Tall and Manly;
Transformed by men;
It, to a meaningless
She, to a shapeless,
Jellylike Mass
Of Matter
He, to a festering

The good of Mankind
Was served –
They said.

This poem actually occurs earlier than any in Representative Works. That volume starts with what is the second poem here – Mac Low has just turned sixteen and already is using typography in ways that other poets would not catch up with for forty years: HUNGER STrikE   wh At         doe S         lifemean is the title.

It’s that lag process, being so far out in front of everyone else, that gave rise to Mac Low’s reputation in the early 1960s as a “slow starter.” By the time he was 48 years old – 1970 – he’d published just four books. One of these, fortunately, was 22 Light Poems from Black Sparrow. That collection must have been a strategic act on Mac Low’s part – and very probably on the part of publisher John Martin as well – since Mac Low’s process in the Light Poems of writing poems employing randomly chosen modes of light (from a list of “280 kinds of light, plus eight ‘extras’” deployed using playing cards plus the RAND Corporation’s A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates) yielded texts that were sweet & quirky, but entirely readable by anyone with no familiarity whatsoever with these kinds of ultra-avant shenanigans. Three years later, Dick Higgins published what at the time seemed to be Mac Low’s magnum opus, Stanzas for Iris Lezak.¹ Between the two books, Mac Low had become both famous & widely read, if not yet widely understood. Twelve years later, tho, Mac Low’s sixtieth birthday was celebrated with a festival in Greenwich Village – it was jam-packed with younger poets & performers who had learned from Mac Low² who by 1982 was one of the most influential writers alive. And not coincidentally, one of the most generous with his time, advice & work.

Thing of Beauty differs from Representative Works in some important ways beyond its generous representation of material from the last two decades of Mac Low’s life. Its selection from the early years, literally 48 years of writing, is necessarily 100 pages shorter than the earlier book. But even more important, Tardos has done a much better job than Mac Low himself in organizing these materials to create a coherent path through one of the largest & most ambitious oeuvres ever. Perhaps Jackson was just too close to his own projects – one can sense the level of anxiety he often felt about pieces from his lengthy performance instructions & even some of the more elaborate copyright notices he insisted upon over the years. (Alternately, I can imagine some reader kvetching that TofB lacks the inherent messiness that was a characteristic feature of everything Mac Low seemed to produce.)

Tardos’ organization makes this a perfect “first book” for anyone who may be interested in starting to explore Mac Low’s work. My own sense is that you will quickly want to turn from these brief selections – there are just ten Light Poems (of which no “complete” edition has ever appeared in print), just seven of the 100 poems that compose The Twenties, just forty pages to represent the 424 of Stanzas for Iris Lezak, etc. – and start a collection of everything you can get your hands on. Reading Thing of Beauty is really both wonderful – the work is so good, so varied, so well-intentioned – and yet it left me longing. Both for what’s not here in terms of the text, and for Jackson himself – it’s the best representation of the whole person he ever had.

Perhaps the most telling absences here are those that would more properly have appeared on a CD & a DVD, documentation of Mac Low’s performances, the intersection between poetry & contemporary post-classical music that is so important for Mac Low (He is alleged to have taught chance technique to John Cage & certainly Mac Low is a much more powerful user of these tools in the field of literature). Also, the crisp page design of UC Press, terrific for traditional text, even when composed in the least traditional of methods, doesn’t fully suit the holographic vispo manuscripts that Mac Low created for many of his performances. Granary Press’ Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces, 1955 – 2002 is an excellent choice for the person who has finished Thing of Beauty and then asks the inevitable question: Which book should I read next?

What we really need, ultimately, is the Complete Jackson Mac Low, a multi-volume multimedia project on the scale of the works, say, of Walter Benjamin or Charles Olson or Gertrude Stein. Thing of Beauty is a good first step in the direction of creating that broader picture, but it’s only the tip of a far more vast canon on the part of the most broadly brilliant innovator of – at the very least – the last half century.


¹ I once took a job at an alternative weekly newspaper in San Francisco just so I could get hold of its review copy of Iris Lezak. Fortunately for me, the paper soon folded, since in my mid-twenties I would have had no clue how to address Mac Low’s juxtaposition of chance technique & found language. At the time, this was probably one of three hardback books of poetry I owned, other two being Pound’s Cantos and Duncan’s Bending the Bow.

² This is, I believe, the only time ever that all five contributors to the collaboration Legend – Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, Ray DiPalma & yours truly – were ever in the same room simultaneously.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

I sat down with yesterday’s post to the blog from K. Silem Mohammad & Tom Orange & just listed the points to which I personally wanted to respond: my list came to three pages single spaced. It’s just not possible in blog form to approach anything with such obsessively pointillist detail, so I thought instead to group these sometimes disjunct ideas, each one of which could spark a more thorough discussion somewhere,  & came up with two intersecting axes of concern:

          My definition of abstract lyric – “bounded by modest scale and focused on the elements within”
          The role of “the social” within & around poetry, a question that has been raised by Louis Cabri & others
Hovering around these two axes I find a third key issue: the role of close reading & “bean counting” in thinking through issues of poetry. I want to approach this one first, because I think its implications impact what can be said about either of the other two.

Close reading’s association with the New Critics (NC) is often treated as grounds for distrust because of NC’s alignment with a reactionary aesthetic tendency in the United States – one that joined the poetics of the Southern Agrarians to those of the Boston Brahmans – but it is worth noting that key NC theorist René Wellek’s training in critical practice came through the Prague Linguistics Circle, founded in 1926 by a group of scholars that included Roman Jakobson & incorporated many of the tendencies that originated within Russian Formalism (& in relation to Russian futurist poets, from Mayakovsky to Khlebnikov). Unless one adopts the dual theory that (1) structural elements have inherent political biases – an argument that would be kin to an equation of, say, Poundian metrics with fascism &/or that (2) aspects of the Prague School itself were part of a larger historical drift of a rightward moving avant-garde, the way the Trostskyists of the 1930s New York Intellectuals transformed themselves into the Neocons of the 1970s (the history, say, of Partisan Review) – an argument that again puts close reading into a fundamental(ist) relation to a political tendency – then in fact one needs to look at the practice of close reading in the light of its materialist roots.

The process of bean counting – a phrase I really like, by the way – is predicated on the reality that beans exist. Signifying elements (that could be saying anything) actually are present & countable in a poem (as in a novel or any other social product). One major – and characteristic – failing of much bad critical writing (which is in fact most critical writing) is that, in literal terms, its practitioners don’t know beans. That is, they make sweeping generalizations that cannot be tested because if they could, their assertions would collapse from the weight of contradictory data. Again, let me pose the example of M.L. Rosenthal & confessional poetry. Rosenthal’s attempt to bind together disparate tendencies of poetry in an attempt to rescue the direct inheritors of NC’s aesthetic program from a fate it so richly deserved would fuel concepts such as Jim Breslin’s likening American poetry to a land of many suburbs, absent conflict & ultimately lacking shape & content, sort of a Columbine of the heart. Dana Gioia’s terribly incomplete (& too often inaccurate) social history of the institutionalization of poetry in “Can Poetry Matter?,” is merely that same argument presented with a Music Man exhortation for the masses to go out & buy trombones. Not coincidentally, many of the arguments made about langpo over the past three decades – that it is theory driven, humorless, anti-referential, anti-narrative, self-consciously difficult, etc. – are all disprovable simply by actually looking at what is there. So, yes, I will continue to favor the enumeration of beans. I think it’s the most materialist critical practice available, when used appropriately, & an excellent inoculation against all manner of mythology & self-interested hokum.

Kasey states that he is “skeptical about such designations as ‘social’ and ‘asocial’ as polarized ways of conceiving lyric formally.” That’s not precisely what I had said – although it is close to Tom Orange’s paraphrase – but the concept as such is worth pursuing. Tom’s own argument was rather the reverse: for him, a work that could be unpacked hermeneutically is less transgressive than one that resists by presenting an impenetrable surface of signifiers. It’s a logic by which Christian Bök’s Eunoia or the poetry of Sheila E. Murphy or Peter Ganick might be seen as more social than Louis Cabris’ The Mood Embosser, Barrett Watten’s Bad History or Bob Perelman’s The First World.

From my perspective, lyric is a formal category, neither a pejorative nor an adulatory term. There are lyric poets whose work is wonderful (Joseph Ceravolo, Kit Robinson, Barbara Guest, the Zukofsky of Barely and Widely) & there are lyric poets whose work would make any sensitive reader cringe (fill in the blanks). Contrary to Tom’s argument, however, I do not think that the capacity of a poem to be unpacked hermeneutically is by definition the determination of what is or is not a lyric. Rather, it is the poem’s sense of its own boundaries vis-à-vis the larger world. The New Critics’ passion for the lyric is separate from their own use of methodology to demonstrate why this or that lyric, this or that poet should be anointed. As I tried to demonstrate awhile back with the poetry of Bruce Andrews, any text can be unpacked through close reading – that is a condition of the reading mind, not something to which only some poets are subject to some of the time. Eunoia is as much subject to such a process as would be The Mood Embosser or Barbara Guest’s “Defensive Rapture.” What privileged the lyric for the New Critics was not any hermeneutic depth, nor any relation to personal expression, but rather the lyric’s sense of itself as aesthetically contained – “focused on the elements within” – which spared this genre entanglements with the social, a category that in the 1930s was at least as charged & problematic as it is today. It was containment precisely that enabled the New Critics to claim that they were reading only what was in the poem & nothing extraneous that might “pollute” the critique. Only lyric could thus verify their claim to be specialized – and hence professional – readers, the position that in turn enabled them between 1935 & 1950 to become the dominant power within American English departments.

Guest, on the face of her poetry, is clearly a lyric writer. That she elsewhere has been active in service to the field, as biographer & teacher, doesn’t actually alter what is on the page, any more than Jack Spicer’s or Ezra Pound’s notoriously antisocial comments & activities in the real world erases the value of their poetry. In this sense, Kasey is quite correct in asserting that the social is not a formal term. Where form does intersect with the social, however, has to do with the poem’s own sense of its permeability vis-à-vis the world. This has less to do with reference in the sense of “this poem is about the struggle of the heroic people of Lichtenstein” than it does with language sources, image schemas & -- the deciding factor for me – the way in which the poem structurally defines itself.

The most interesting instances in this territory (as in many others) are those that situate themselves ambiguously along the border. Larry Eigner is an excellent case in point. His poems are as contained & formally balanced as any written over the past 50 years:


      the idea of dancing


                       making room

This untitled piece from The World and Its Streets, Places (Black Sparrow, 1977) could be analyzed in exactly the same kind of formal terms that I used with Barbara Guest on November 3. The poem proposes itself almost as the essence of lightness, with extra spacing between lines & the characteristic Eigner sweep down across the page. Its use of suffix & sound organizes the prosody: hear the k move from walking to making & the elegant use of the liquid m from time to making & finally to room. There is nothing apparent within this text to suggest anything other than what is on the page – even the casual or unfamiliar reader will recognize that the relation between walking & dancing (think of a choreographer like Simone Forti or Sally Silvers) could be very adequately characterized as time making room. & yet here is a poet who could not walk, who spent his life confined to wheel chairs. Nowhere is that mentioned: the fact simply haunts the poem for anyone who ever knew Eigner or knew of him well enough to know how cerebral palsy shaped & limited his physical vocabulary. At what level is this poem a lyric?

Eigner is justly famous for his use of simple nouns – wind, tree, sun, sky – and yet it is relatively rare in his poems for these items to exist as abstractions. The presence of the human world repeatedly invades & contextualizes.


    the birds chorusing

           clouds moving the sky

                                the haze

                   blast the foghorn
                 through the trees

Bounded at either end by couplets, the birds anthropomorphized, clouds assigned intentionality, the key verb blast is as much a curse as a description of sound. Nature, in Eigner, is never innocent. Nor at times is it even nature. Another poem in the same book reads

the rain and the stars

                            in the head
                            in the head


                              slow clouds, the dark

Where exactly does this take place? What is the ontological status of the dark?

Not all of Eigner’s poems work like this, but a substantial majority of them do. While his palette is very much that of the lyric, these poems are not contained but are often, as with these three, records of an intense struggle against constraint. These poems are in fact social very much in the same way that Olson’s Maximus, or Pound’s Cantos or Du PlessisDrafts are. They take as a given their interactions with the world.

Another poet who very much straddles & plays with these borders, albeit in a very different manner, is Jackson Mac Low. Characteristic of his approach is the book Twenties (Roof, 1991) in which each of the 100 twenty-line poems is fixed not just formally, but in time – each text both as to the date of composition & the location. Here are the first two stanzas of 44, written on March 2, 1990, in “Dr. Wadsworth’s consulting room”:

Certainty       tardive dyskinesia   Pascal   quilt
swift adjacency    directed   cliff     waltz
nostrum     Galatians       seed difficulty      inert
parse quelled draft marzipan            pileate

Zesty quaff varnish      nice ol’ obedience
lira ingression       price of ineptitude   readiness
lean-to fortunate obligation        needle paddle
assignation league         reach    Portugal

Each poem in the book is composed of exactly five such stanzas, almost all of whose lines also exhibit a spatial caesura. Exoskeletally, the poems are as fixed or closed as any sonnet series. Aurally, they’re a riot, sounding like a calliope heard under the influence of some bad psychotropic, with just a hint of the Daytona 500 buzzing in the consonants. To call them “lyric” in the prosodic sense is to parody the notion, which I think is part of the point. Most significantly, however, is the range of possible linguistic inputs into this verbal machine. Its first line consists of an abstract state of belief; a chronic condition resulting from anti-psychotic medications, characterized by uncontrollable chewing motions; a philosopher whose most famous work’s title could be translated into English as Thoughts; and a homey object – one that very often is composed of a limited set of repeated patterns – associated with craft more than art.  At one level, Mac Low is playing with our definition of the work itself. At another, he is pulling material in from everywhere – there is no part of the human experience that cannot be sucked into this process, & like both tardive dyskinesia & Pascal, many of the individual words & phrases by their very nature function as barbs or hooks to the social universe.

If Eigner gives us what we expect in a New American lyric form, he does while continually problematizing & subverting the notion. Mac Low on the other hand fulfills the social contract for a lyric work with the passion of an obsessive compulsive. The poems are closed formally. At one level their sense of containment is complete. But at another, the world is traveling through these Twenties like so much Port Authority traffic at rush hour. Mac Low gives us the outer structure, but violates its implicit (or possibly hidden) assumptions with an abandon that is often breath-taking.

Mac Low & Eigner each raise the question of lyric containment, but do so in ways that raise the stakes for the genre considerably. Like Rae Armantrout (who might be thought of as a third front in this assault on the lyric), they demonstrate how a poetic palette – a set of traditional devices – developed to insulate the poem from the dirty world can itself be socialized & that, in fact, there is not just one right way to go about this. They functionally disprove the core tenet of New Criticism & have expanded the possibilities of the poem not just for our time, but for the future.