5.30.2007

The Ghost of JACKSON MAC LOW

It’s Summertime! Time to look nice on the sandy beach.

The last thing he ever said to me was,
Just always be waiting
only the gay and innocent and heartless
who can fly. But the burst
of exulting certainty soon fled,
and was succeeded by again,
and we won’t talk about cats or dogs either
to prayer. There stood
the early settlers, those old illustrious ones,
she is such a nice soft thing to nurse
and she’s such a capital triumph
had hardened on them,
and made death so life-like
and so steeple of the meetinghouse
that gleamed upward to the sky.
This to devils
what love is to the blessed.
At times, the features of those hearers
mistook him for the visible presence of the
Fiend himself.
Poor Alice.
It was as much as she could do,
lying down
on one
like being that person.
I’ll come up, she said, if not, I’ll stay down



From time to time I open a piece of spam in the never-ending e-deluge, and I find language strung out by a randomizing word machine. The necklace of words always has a programmed syntax (if somebody knows how this is done, please send me news in the comment box). I get curious and start playing with the words and phrases, like this poem above which comes from a message trying to sell me cheap Viagra plus a guaranteed method to enlarge my 65 year old penis. The collection of words connected by the organism of syntax enchants me. So an hour passes, and I find myself still lost in the words, line breaks, phrasings, etcetera. And of course I think about Jackson Mac Low. I have his ghost to blame for this delicious aleatoric pleasure of mine.

Aleatoric? According to the online Merriam-Webster: Etymology: Latin aleatorius (Date: 1961): characterized by chance or indeterminate elements


Back in 1965 Paul Malanga and I started making a poetry magazine, From A Window. We were at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and Barney Childs was our teacher. Barney was a brilliant but peculiar guy. A curmudgeon, who most people avoided, even despised, but others like Paul and me admired ferociously, although we feared him. He taught us poetry with a musician’s ear. Barney had been to Oxford on a Rhoades Scholarship, he wrote semi-acceptable (he would approve of this statement) traditional poetry, he had been a student of Yvor Wintners at Stanford where he received a PhD in English Literature, but he bloomed as a composer of new music, which was his avocation. His day job, when we knew him, was being a professor of English Literature. He also taught Creative Writing, the only such course I ever took. Barney told Paul and me about Jackson Mac Low, among others (eg: Philip Whalen, Paul Blackburn, Carol Berge, Snyder, Frank O’Hara, etc). He knew Jackson through correspondence with John Cage. Barney lent us a staple-bound book of Jackson’s. The book had poem machines. Many of the words were already in place, but other words required a dictionary and a pair of dice. The reader had to complete the poems. We picked one of the poem machines, and each of us “wrote” our poem, following the rules. We threw the dice, we randomly selected pages in the dictionary, we counted down the appropriate number of words, and we insert the words we found.

The resulting two poems, I thought, were remarkable, not so much for their “poem-ness” but for what they said about poetics. If you knew Paul’s and my work at the time and you read our “productions” of the Mac Low pieces, then you would know whose poem was whose. This taught me an important lesson: it’s impossible to take the “self” out of the poem. So I asked myself other questions, like: What is this “self” anyway? Is there really a “self”? Very contemporary questions I was asking myself in 1965 because of Jackson Mac Low. Existential confrontation and confusion. Jackson understood. Indeed, he enjoyed this confrontation and confusion, and he made his poetry seriously and playfully.

By the way, somebody might also ask: Why were Paul’s poem and my poem so much like “ourselves”? Well, like all young men, we cheated. We found the words on the page that we wanted.


Here I wanted to insert images of the poems and the original Mac Low poetry machine, which we published in From A Window, but I’ve searched high and low but cannot find that issue (#2 out of 6 issues). Shit. Instead I found the Jackson Mac Low Issue of Gil Ott’s Paper Air (v2, #3, 1980). Besides the cover with Jackson’s portrait, I’m pasting below one-half of “A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore.” This is a chance-driven performance piece of voices and instrumentalists. A long time ago I brought Jackson to El Paso and performed in one of these pieces. It was an exhilarating experience. A bit of his instructions for performance of this piece are worth noting:

Procedure: Each performer “moves” freely from one word to another: Looks at the entire word field, any side up, & chooses a word or string of words to speak, sing or play as a sequences of instrumental tones (&/or chords); listens attentively; chooses another word or string from the field & realizes it…etcetera. Every so often each performer’s copy of the word field shd be rotated 90 degrees or more in order to change orientation & bring new words to attention…

2 comments:

Ron said...

It's Mac Low, two words, no "e"

Ron

Bobby Byrd said...

Egads. Fyxed. Thanks.
Bubby