A RESPONSE TO JACKSON MAC LOW AND ANDREW LEVY
(c) copyright Alan Filreis; permission of the author required for quotation or reproduction
"Who needs poststructualism? He's so beyond that analysis it's not funny!"--Andrew Levy
Where else but at a PhillyTalks session--the post-reading discussion veering, digressing, everyone hearing their own stomachs, half-attending to the redolence of vegetarian lasagna in the Writers House kitchen--could Andrew Levy say he likes Jack Spicer because, of all things, there are "beings in his poems"? This was remarkable in itself. But then, what's more, he got away with it, and, still more, he and others and then Jackson Mac Low himself, extended the idea.
Mac Low had already offered his commentary on Levy in verse, by making his "Diastic Derived from Andrew Levy's Poem 'Struggle Against Misery," a non-intentional response to what Mac Low recognized was a very personal poem.<1> In the diastic derivation one cannot help but read Levy's original pronouns, personal in the poem about love ("my," "yourself"--lovers' I and you), as transposed to the relational space experimentally occupied by Levy and Mac Low. For example, the triad
My would yourself barely pull word I jump ""outside" something "desperation"? ("Diastic Derived from Andrew LevyAs PoemT")would seem now to be available as part of the dialogue between the two poets--indeed, as an aspect of the usual PhillyTalks convergence.
Now, with Jackson Mac Low sitting next to him, Levy seemed ready to move the conversation toward an idea of personhood in the poetic work of appropriation. Mac Low offered an instant admonition. "[T]hese," he said (presumably he meant Jack Spicer's words and phrases), are "dictated from outside"--they're "beamed down" not be'd. Louis Cabri is right to think Mac Low was here half-punning (being, beamed), but he was also of course quoting a bit of mass sci fi pop-cultural phrasing, the equivalent of "coming from nowhere." In any event, Levy pressed on, some in attendance joining him, making an impromptu case for a kind of personal being pertinent to the radically disjunctive poetics both these writers practice. And then, with Mac Low's final improvised commentary on "spirit" ("a word I never use," he said--whereupon we knew this was a significant occasion) we arrived at a grammatical politics of "saving," a gesture taking its meaning at least temporarily from the religious analogue.
Of course this is a notion of salvation that comes out the far side of the randomly constructed. By no means was this PhillyTalks event some rearguard action against the radicalism of Mac Low or of Ron Silliman (who briefly joined the conversation), or even against the well-developed anti-ego psychology in the poetry of Bob Perelman. Perelman, though absent, was passingly invoked by Mac Low this night as the guy, or perhaps as the sort of guy, who would remind us that Pound was a fascist and therefore the Pisan Cantos cannot be beautiful. (Silliman dodged Mac Low's attempt to bring him into this shrewdly obvious point, by contending that, well, the Van Buren cantos were politically worse. Perelman's The Trouble with Genius , in any event, contends otherwise about Pound.) MacLow's mention of what Perelman might say to someone taking seriously "Pound's better self" was a self-parodic but helpful bit of adherence to what no one in the room would have called political correctness.
How had we gotten to this point? I offer a pointed summary.
At first one heard some of the usual talk about whether "the culture" (at large) is "continuous with what's going on in poetry and art." In an aside he probably felt would lead nowhere, Levy noted that he is "still interested" in "self." Not, to be sure, the self of psychic or emotional (read: "lyric") personal expression. In his PhillyTalks 2 piece, his commentary on Mac Low's Barnesbook: four poems derived from sentences by Djuna Barnes (1996), Levy had observed in Mac Low's rendering of Barnes the "recontextualizings of fortitude" and other explicitly personal qualities; "innocence" was another. Here then, in the live discussion, Levy was rehearsing a persistent concern, only more generally. In response Mac Low insisted that in his Barnesbook he uses Djuna Barnes's words "strictly as material," a process by which he strips the words of Barnes's sentence-to-sentence and intra-sentence identity. Levy's question was: What is left of Barnes in this work? Levy was attempting to turn a corner, hoping more rather than less of Barnes has been "kept," observing that Mac Low did after all "keep" something from or, perhaps, of Barnes. (This is a key of, I would say, because it is an abstract idiomatic term of appropriation more from Stevens than from Pound or Williams. I am reminded of Marjorie Perloff's deliberately overstated but still acute consideration of whose era it was--Pound's or Stevens's.<2> "The era" is generally Pound's, to be sure--but Stevens I think silently supports Levy here, with his post-romantic, post-psychological language of of -- obscuring yet broadening the concept of accompaniment.<3> Mac Low's rejoinder insisted again that even names (proper names, fictional characters, etc.) "kept" or "saved" from Barnes' books in Barnesbook have come only by way of "certain" random-digit triplets<4>--by virtue of an unvaried machine-made pattern used to construct the new work.
I take it that the only reason a minor disagreement here produced a new and more interesting agreement--Mac Low's idea of remnant spirit as an element of resistant politics--was because of the social-aesthetic compact implicit in the design of the PhillyTalks series itself. In the PhillyTalks series at The Writers House, somewhat unlikely pairs of "more senior" and "more junior" experimental writers are brought together to produce a new if only momentary combination. Levy's modest resistance to Mac Low -- "but you kept" something of Barnes -- had to be politely accommodated. Yet I noted with interest that this occasional disposition induced Mac Low to recall the cold-war languages of the 1940s and 50s, while at the same time it seemed to take him to a new approach to an old question. Just as these two writers were talking about Mac Low's appropriation of Barnes, and of Spicer's of Lorca, they had of course come to Philadelphia to work through MacLow's of Levy. So where was Levy in all this? "Diastic Derived from Andrew Levy's Poem 'Struggle Against Misery'" and the two "travesties" of that very diastic, vintage performative Mac Low, "kept" less of Levy than apparently Levy now felt was apt. For Levy of*Mac Low there is only an inside, not even the "outside" Mac Low claims to know in his use of the phrase "beamed up." He beamed up Levy as he had beamed up Barnes--and then what? PhillyTalks--especially during the collaborative chat after the double reading--stages the social compact more forgivingly than diastic or other mutual appropriations that precede the day. Mac Low's mild rebuke ("Well," he said, "those names are words that came into the poems where they did because certain random-digit triplets...") didn't get the last word. Cabri and Mike Magee come to the aid. Is the singular "I" an organizing point? Can one come to see the Barnes piece as having some of the qualities of personality? And implicitly: Is what is "kept" of Levy in the diastic derivation analogous to a kind of person? They and others were doubtless thinking of Mac Low's relationship with Barnes as described in the Afterword to Barnesbook: "it is only a dialogue by courtesy," that "only" being somewhat haunting in its impersonality.<5>) Levy could now comment on the "poem-as-person" as developing, always never-quite-arrived. Aided again by Cabri, Levy then offered his disarming assertion that there are beings in Jack SpicerAs poems. Mac Low stole the show for a moment by talking about "beaming down," as noted earlier. But Levy only reasserted that appropriations are occasions that are dialogues with the source materials, likened to a "dialogue with another person." Heather Starr then anchored the point with a footnote, citing the claim that in some modern painting a shape interacts with another shape on the model of relationships between people. Levy then felt the need to predate postmodernism by many centuries, citing Basho among others, in a gesture meant to be a small ironic victory over all the gloating about the special achievements of contemporary writing. A stage was set for the "saving"--in the earlier, milder term, for the "keeping"--of the politically good via the syntactically disjunctive.
By the time Mac Low came finally back, offering a long statement near the end of the evening, he was prepared to re-describe his process in a political language that I take to be a significant interpretive tool in the work of understanding Mac Low's sensibility in relation to the cold war, and the origins, in the 1950s, of his radically appropriative manner.
Mac Low said he believes he is "saving the sparks" of the creator's "spirit" when he works from inside "a book that was composed for some horrible reason." In this respect Mac Low was bearing witness to the formation of an internally resistant, self-consciously radical political logic that postdated modernism but predated the new left. He and his method came of age, in the late 1940s and '50s, when the Rand Corporation invented, among other texts, its random-digit book to achieve "mad" military objectives. Who were the authors? "Good mathematicians," he reminded us, whose relationship with the Navy's cold-war leader, James Forrestal, was in this special sense textual.
How does one read that relationship, or unread it? Mac Low told us about Forrestal (1892-1949), correctly pointing out that the Secretary was "literally mad, paranoic and extremely depressive, and ended up by throwing himself from the window of a mental hospital."<6> This capsule cold-war biography had an essential but partly hidden purpose in the Mac Low-Levy transaction. It was a sage chiding, and also an invitation. It has become too easy just to assert that (without saying specifically how) disjunctive poetics enabled avant-gardists in a time of anti-radicalism, in that period when old left was disintegrating and new left hadn't been born, to refuse belief in cold-war rhetoric at the level of the paragraph, or even of the sentence or phrase--to show how they got behind the very syntax or structure of the way things were being meant and accepted as meaningful.<7>
Mac Low is reminding us that in a sense the making of his own disjunctive style entailed something like the salvation of good mathematicians as creators of literal doomsday language machines. That Mac Low so completely apologized for such talk ("spirit" is a word "I never use, and here I'm using it in public!"; "This is awfully spooky! I don't usually talk about such things") makes this vital testimony to the idea of looking back to the political origins of the urgent need to dislocate the poetic "being" from or from within the state--to avoid the textual fate of the "good mathematicians." When Mac Low teaches us about "this kabbalistic idea of 'saving the sparks,'" he is not the least bit contradicting himself in response to Andrew Levy's sensible ethical desire for a modestly more personal or "conservative" concept of the self in contemporary writing--to "keep" something of Barnes when appropriating her. Jackson Mac Low is consistently contending that the main work is not in the whole thing itself ("the project," we like to say), but, sometimes, in the chips and bits that fall from the workbench of Rand's and other shops' projects. In these bits, which can be assembled, are something like the vestiges of people. "When you do this," Mac Low told us, "you're . . . making artworks, that is to say, persons out of them."
Mac Low provides the terms of his own saving as well. As Levy points out, via Robert Kocik, "The poet's place is at the point of pure research in any materialization."<8> Mac Low's cold-war anecdote about the Rand/Navy work serves to warn us of the risk of "pure research" in this sense. After all, such abstractions can be taken in right or left directions.
<1> Mac Low's prose commentary on LevyAs poem, which he read aloud at the PhillyTalks 2 event, makes this perception clear.
<2> Marjorie Perloff, "Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?" New Literary History 13:3 (Spring 1982): 485. The title obviously responds to Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era (1971), and to counterclaims made against KennerAs presumption.
<3> Stevens used "of" repeatedly to signify distinctions between inherence and about-ness. For instance, "The poem is the cry of its occasion," not about ("An Ordinary Evening in New Haven"). Levy's phrase-by-phrase rhetorical debt to Stevens is worth, I think, some examination in itself. I'd contend that Stevens is surprisingly quite vocal in Levy's poetry, for example in this stanza from "Struggle Against Misery":
An immaculate image must be a fiction. It is time to choose. The lights burning out pull down the shades. Not metaphor.Quoting these lines in his PhillyTalks 2 piece about Levy's poem, Mac Low keenly noted: "Here 'fiction' means mere fiction," himself appropriating the Stevensean phrase, modest diction in an immodest claim.
<4> See Barnesbook: four poems derived from sentences by Djuna Barnes (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1996), p. 501, for Mac LowAs description of the process.
<5> Barnesbook, p. 53. Levy himself, in his PhillyTalks 2 piece, quoted this phrase.
<6> Forrestal had become Secretary of the Navy in 1944, and, after the army and navy were merged, served as the first Secretary of Defense. Depressed by, among other things, what he regarded as unfair criticisms of his handling of the air force, he entered the Navy hospital to be treated for what was publicly called "nervous exhaustion"; in May 1949, though he appeared to be recovering, he leaped from a high window in the hospital.
<7> It is somewhat similarly insufficient, I think, to praise the political-historiographical acuity in Robert Lowell's use of John Foster Dulles's euphemistic phrase "agonizing reappraisal" in a poem, referring to aggressive diplomatic fibbing about U.S. first-strike nuclear policy, as merely have a relation to the relaxing of Lowell's poetic line in Life Studies.
<8> Kocik is being quoted from memory by Levy in his (Levy's) PhillyTalks 2 piece.
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:13 EDT