This paper reads Jackson Mac Low's work of the 1970s as a hinge between the intermedia and early procedural practices for which he is best known and the work of the 1980s, where a self-consciously literary practice resonates with the ideo-linguistic experiments of Language Writing. Beginning with a hypothetical list of the common hallmarks of literariness from a Mac Lowian point of view, I offer a brief, comparative reading of the "Odes for Iris Lezak" and "Phone." This reading is then situated beside a debate that took place in the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E between Mac Low and Ron Silliman, which I argue illustrates the decade as pivotal with respect to the aesthetico-political predicates of literariness.
Paring Jackson Mac Low's oeuvre down to a particular decade generated one question that seemed counter-intuitive enough for me to pursue. What are the common hallmarks of literariness from a Mac Lowian standpoint? Here's a list of such hallmarks I devised by brushing my prejudices up against what Mac Low actually did in the 1970s. I'm calling them:
* prosodic responsibility (motivated by anterior contingencies, though the motivations then become intrinsic to his practice);
* subject matter congruent with a discernibly humanist/enlightenment/even bourgeois subjectivity (and whose materiality qua "subject matter" extends from narrative "content" all the way to aestheticized "form");
* accessibility to a readership, including publication in book form.
I say that asking the question of literariness at first seemed "counter-intuitive" to me, but I've come to consider it not only valid but an important way to understand a decade that is otherwise underrepresented by the concerns of the best available scholarship on Mac Low. But if it hasn't yet seemed to, here are reasons literariness matters:
* the dialectic between procedure and chance that came to a head in that decade produced a prosody that syntactically undercuts historical concensus and opens truth value to a socialized interpretative space. One of his most audacious engagements with literary source-texts, barring the coterminous Emily Dickinson series, Words nd Ends from Ez reads-through Pound's Cantos. The diastic variant he devised specifically for this project stems from 1978, though Jennifer Scappettone has convincingly read it as of a piece with his work into the 1990s, "grounding a Poundian tradition of multiperspectival archival impulses within livid landscapes brushed against in travel" (208). She means "travel" in both literal and figurative senses: as work composed on the go and as "a radical form of historiography." While the dialectic between procedure and chance helped to make Mac Low more responsible to and for his prosody than perhaps anyone else whose work was attuned to such literary values, it sympathetically and even correctively deranged the circuits of influence that we associate with any concept of "tradition";
* in 1983, Ron Silliman claims that Mac Low's proceduralism had the effect of resolving the "so-called problem of the subject" into the "mere sum of the writing" (40). But Mac Low might have argued that his work is too often reduced to the terms of the early reading-through procedures, and thus we avoid the work of lyric attribution as much as we miss the importance of "the subject" in his work;
* the book, not to mention the book trade, is so impoverishing a place for work that is performative at its core (in the sense of "indeterminate" Mac Low allowed: that is, not undecideable, but unpredictable). Though suddenly more bookish, a traditional "literary" reading of this work would be anything but conventional. It would demand attention to, as Dennis Tedlock put it, "gross acoustical features...or the effects of a 'complex network of subcodes'...to free semiotics from its subordination to linguistics" (214). Yet by 1985, Mac Low is explicitly "reexamining" his interest "in texts per se—works primarily for readers" and produced books, in fact, with the utmost bourgeois value in mind: beauty ("Introduction," Representative Works xvii, see also Thing xxvii-xxxvi).
Predation is the conceptual link between these hallmarks and their ramifications; it's what makes them, as I say, "common hallmarks." Indeterminacy as an ethical condition of predatory politics transcends the familiar paradox of democratic and autocratic values, where the former harnesses the power of indeterminacy qua radical ambiguity, often enough lapsing into political relativism and ambivalence, and the latter politicizes what Zukofsky called "predatory intent" such that revolutions can only be conceived as violent upheavals rather than spontaneous confluences. But there are no politics without predicates, since mere social encounter can't be legibly called polity until it envisions its future as a socius. Mac Low's most famous work does just this.
It is through this wider lens that Louis Cabri has detailed the anarchist-pacifist roots of Mac Low's sense of individual and collective direct action, in fact placing it in a leftist tradition whose aesthetic roots Mac Low would variously claim in interviews throughout his career—especially the work of Gerard Manly Hopkins, Carl Sandburg, Eliot, Pound, Kurt Schwitters, and of course Aristotle. The latter provides the organizing principles for the form of direct action his early work was built to encourage—poetics statements appearing as early as 1965, namely "Statement" and "Poetry, Chance, Silence, Etc.," and revisited as late as 1980. His non-Tomist take on Aristotle eerily rhymes with Eliot's, in "The Perfect Critic": "Aristotle"provides an eternal example—not of laws, or even of method, for there is no method except to be very intelligent" (55). It takes an intellect to engage with contingency. So as Mac Low foregrounds this engagement in the 70s, the epistemological stakes appeared heightened.
The mid-1970s are pivotal years for Mac Low's development—at the time, the intermedial works of the 1960s were at last being published and thus promoted outside the relatively insular sphere of the NYC avant-garde. Mac Low's omission from the New American canon, as it were, was initially corrected: 1973's The Poetics of the New American Poetry features Mac Low among the New Americans, but also among their modernist elders—Hart Crane, H.D., Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and so forth. Additionally, Mac Low was about to enter into a period of composition utilizing self-consciously literary source texts. Of course, the first of the Stanzas for Iris Lezak—a signal work of the intermedia years a decade earlier—culled its "linguistic events" from none other than Moby Dick. But from roughly 1976-the mid-1980s, with books such as The Virginia Woolf Poems, Bloomsday, and Barnesbook, Mac Low's ostensibly epistemological concern was aestheticized so as to be nearly confused with literariness. These same projects, however, were embraced and even theorized by Language Writing in the course of its putative overthrow of conventional literary values, conventions which exacerbated the epistemologically lazy fetishization of the signified famously articulated by Silliman and others. Meanwhile, Mac Low was, as Barbara Baracks puts it in the second issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978), "crossbreeding" the "Gathas" he began composing in 1961 with the "Light Poems" that began appearing later in the decade, to produce "Vocabularies," visual works, large black and white prints suitable for framing, but activated by "indeterminate" means of performance. According to Baracks' bibliography, a First Book of Gathas: 1961-1978 was planned from Karl Young's Membrane Press, but it never did appear. In the fourth issue of the Ethnopoetics journal Alcheringa (1972), a generous sampling of his work includes a Gatha, a brief chronicle of a realization of "Thanks," and a flexi-disc featuring a "simultaneous performance" by David Antin, Spencer Holst, Lezak, Mac Low, their son Mordecai, Jerome Rothenberg, and Emmett Williams. Recorded in 1966, the text is culled from the Stanzas for Iris Lezak. Beyond his life-long priority of breath-based measures, the work is less akin to the ritualist incantation of Ethnopoetics than to the intermedial and conceptual language-art hybrids of the previous decade. Especially in the Ethnopoetic context, the work appears centered on the transgressive potential of the signified that language writing would exploit in so many ways. And language poets had, by the end of the '70s, established Mac Low as a prescient elder of their own practice.
But in the meantime, Mac Low was moving away from the working methods upon which they had assessed his importance. This doesn't diminish his importance as such, nor invalidate the influence, but it begs the question around which the dialectic of chance and procedure revolves. For Mac Low, performative indeterminacy and deterministic procedures were always poised against, as he put it, "transitory" elements that could be seen, from a Buddhist perspective, to contaminate the process of "let[ting] reality speak" (Thing xix). The discrepancy seemed to be between a kind rather than a degree of "reality"—between the universal transitoriness of a cosmological flow and a humanist individualism persisting in the literary tradition. "Personal tastes" along with that pernicious author-function which always-already held dictatorial sway over traditional, literary routines was more accurately a function of the failure to obey the procedural method's strictures, not to mention the irony in the fact that they were bound to influence the choice of the source text. In fact, if chance were weeded out, the results of a procedure would be entirely predictable—the procedure's design could replace the writing as a conceptual work in its own right. But this was almost never sufficiently "beautiful"—you had to make the thing. It had to become experiential, unpredictable, and communal in order to achieve the registers of literariness he had in mind.
Thus I am isolating the 1970s to illuminate how the literary per se was reconfigured as a kind of permission that reinscribed, rather than overthrew, a certain relation between either "tradition" and "the individual talent" or beauty and knowledge. The allusion to Eliot's notion of impersonality is not meant to liken Mac Low's work to the literary criterion of knowledge Old Possum set, although it was an explicit influence in his early development. Eliot rather prescriptively said of "tradition": "Someone said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know" (40). "[T]hat which we know" was a constant concern of Mac Low's work. Hence his provocative generation of new ways of knowing, frequently concerning how we know our literary tradition. If as the 1970s progress this work threatens to become literature, it stands to reason that upheavals in received wisdom and established forms will be plenty.
So as the 1970s saw his procedural and intermedial works transposed to books—Stanzas for Iris Lezak, Asymmetries 1-260, and The Pronouns being the major ones—Mac Low had moved on to three general areas of poetic practice best categorized by the kinds of works they produced. First, he was writing the aforementioned "Odes" and other highly personal, lyrical, and largely blank-verse poems. Second, he continued to explore performance and procedural composition, enhanced by early use of computers and more familiarly "aesthetic" technology such as film, video, and analogue audio reproduction. Third, he pursued the aforementioned "Gathas" and "Vocabularies"—extensions of the "Drawing-Asymmetry" series composed over a decade earlier. Both the Gathas and vocabularies are as much performance scores as works of 2D visual art based on a letter-to-sound and word-to-shape sort of transposition that would inform the French Sonnets of the early 1980s. The 2nd and 3rd areas frequently overlap, as in the widely available mutli-tracked audio recordings of the "Black Tarantula Crossword Gathas." Since the 2nd & 3rd areas support well-known characterizations of his oeuvre, I'll close by comparing the "Odes for Iris Lezak" and "Phone" to the negotiation of the conceptual link between the hallmarks of literariness described above, as it emerges in the course of his adoption by the language milieu. The "Odes" and "Phone" are examples from the category of what he called "intuitive" or "freely written...personal" poetry; they bookend the '70s, respectively, and illustrate the decade as pivotal with respect to the aesthetico-political predicates of literariness.
The Odes for Iris Lezak generically announce their literariness—no longer mere "stanzas," these poems are honed lyrics in Creeley-esque quatrains, addressed to an absent lover, or one drawing apart from the narrator, an occasion that contrives to question his heretofore disinterested practice. The traditional "poetic" markers are numerous. Anaphora:
What breaking of barriers,
what healing of old traumas,
what awakening of faith,
can come to pass, becoming
ourselves being together (Thing 150)
Assonance and alliterative effect:
--I'll hunt girls
to fuck, stroke, suck, lick, & love,
when I can't have you enough
to feel love or satisfied. (151)
Positively Shakespearian conceits:
Now I know why God gave me
the gift of verse!—to help me
actively love you when not
making love! (152)
And imagistic rumination tinged with epiphanic moments straight out of Hopkins or the Lake Poets:
vibrant air, & all those shades
of green, tan, yellow, orange,
gray, silver, white—lightning flash
split the sky
—& black—yes, several shades
of black! Yes, lovely painter,
black's in nature just as much
as green is!
Profoundly dispirited by the disintegration of his marriage, chronicled in these odes, he is "not surprised to find / 'existential poetry' / the only kind I seem to / want to write":
I only feel like writing
is all I write, despite years
of so-called "egoless art"
which he goes on to call a "noble daydream / of the proud // who disdain to dump soul-shit / on unwary customers" (154). Examing what "inward" qualities might have predetermined the sad "soul-shit" he credits with turning his lover and companion off to the marriage, he calibrates his work's means to its ends in a newly self-interested way:
...my works are my pleasures
I'm social enough to share
--not to care
whether someone doesn't find
my pleasures pleasurable:
"If you don't like my fruit, don't
shake my tree!" (155)
Eventually, he contemplates the dreaded transitory aspect of love itself, as embodied in his own identity, which has by this time, over 100 odes into the series, become indistinguishable from that of his lover and, in turn, that of his aesthetic practice, "the me / I once was" (158). Comparatively atonal echoes of Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" are abundant. This is how the decade began, in blank (not free), occasional, not "eventual" verse—"eventual verse" being the title Mac Low gave to the form of the Stanzas for Iris Lezak, poems prosodically led by linguistic "events" instead of beats. The "Odes" are led by conventions of the Pindaric Ode—4, 4, 4, & 3 beats per stanza, etc.
Phone, published as a chapbook in 1979, though begun five years earlier, shares with the Odes the conceit of the frustrated lover, though the existential impact of the conceit is humorously tempered by the mundane scenario of the bachelor waiting for the phone to ring, which it, of course, never does. Oddly for Mac Low, anger is the primary affect. The book begins with a short lyric poem whose initial line-letters are set off in red type, producing a fuzzy diastic axis. The axis becomes "code" (having not been born from a discernable seed text—that is, having no received semantic value) before drilling back down into "pleasures / "social enough to share"—that is, a final lyric poem, just like the first, expressing essentially defeat and aesthetic solace. On its way to this resolution, the fuzzy diastic recombinatory method has produced several pages of David Melnick-like asyntactic and asemantic verse lines—the impulse is, however, finally toward lyric tropes: "Here I say it / I say love's sound" (Thing 174).
Giving due to these lyric works of the 70s which, unlike those of the intermedial varieties where the link beween the author-function and indeterminacy profoundly defamiliarize the lyric attributes of the language, allows us to mark a pivot point. From "tradition" Mac Low inherits a sense of unease with the range of epistemological investigations conventional forms provide, but one which he determines to inhabit in order to expand. Indeterminacy turns from being a structural system to a thematic concern.
This pivot is echoed in the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Addressing questions submitted by Charles Bernstein in the 2nd issue (Dec. 1977), Mac Low declares he is currently,
most interested in works having "content," even "subject-matter," tho not always as words are commonly used. Hannah Weiner's "Clairvoyant Journals" convey her life experience while radically transforming usual formats (verse/prose/&c) to do so, Bernadette Mayer's work has done so for years. Also, your own work, as well as that of Emmett Williams, Dick Higgins, & Ron Silliman, & the recent work of Peter Seaton (to mention only those who quickly come to mind"), while not referring to experience with the same directness, seems "to have content" even tho the "subject-matter" may often be shifting & elusive. Interest, however, is not at all synonymous with value judgment, & when I hear more purely language/structure work, such as John Cage's "Empty Words" or the works of Clark Coolidge, I'm often completely enthralled, even tho I do not return again & again to the pages from which they read.
In an extensive 1974 interview with Barry Alpert, there is a curious exchange regarding the syntactically disjunctive nature of what he would come to call, three years later, "language/structure work." Alpert asks:
Do you think of yourself as hostile to syntax?
A. No...Syntax is a part of language.—I sometimes doubt that such units as single words really exist in speech. I sometimes think that they, like phonemes, are merely products of linguistic analysis, and that only utterances—sentences, complete or incomplete—really exist in speech. (20)
Where linguistics is concerned, Mac Low is a pragmatist. And it is a pragmatism based on a Bergsonian distinction between intuition (as a method of being with phenomena) and analysis (as holding oneself apart from its completed form, its inherently unpredictable results). This distinction clearly informs his ever-widening desire to engage with contingency.
This engagement with contingency extends to the presumptive political efficacy of "language/structure" practice, as Mac Low's most provocative contribution to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E indicates. In the 13th issue (Dec. 1980), he responds to Silliman's attempt to equate their aesthetico-political predicates.
If the working class in this country should seize and exercise state power...why would it tolerate the continuance of bourgeois art activities such as Ron's or mine, even though such activities constitute implied critiques of alienated language usage? This would require that a bourgeois society would have educated its working class to such a level that a majority would understand that such art activities were in harmony with (or at least not opposed to) its revolutionary aims. If such were the case, the revolution itself would have largely been a mere formality...
To all arguments for...Marxist-led revolution [toward] a desirable state...of society which would...be "classless"—I can only reply with the question: "Why do you think so?"
As against those who have undergone the Marxist gnosis, I do not know how such a society could be brought about or even whether it is possible, except in part. Ron is quite right in noting that...I have no program.
Of course he does have a program, one that offers an aesthetic rejoinder to leftist political aims, that is in fact motivated by the very sort of alienation of which Silliman has spoken. But he does not share the epistemological predation of "the Marxist gnosis." It is in this sense that he cites Milovan Djilas' notion of an "agnostic" politics:
To say, as Ron does, that a political agnostic is "ungrounded" is either a tautology ("not to know" = "not to be grounded") or an unwarranted kind of name-calling. To say that I believe in "maintaining" poverty, exploitation, and war because I don't know of any political economy without them or any political-economic "program" likely to abolish them is an astonishing misuse of language.
Perhaps, from the viewpoint of this pivotal decade, the most "astonishing" thing is that the forms Mac Low was devising to engage with contingency—"contingency" writ large—not only come out of aestheticized "soul-shit" but also produced critiques of alienated language use such as 1983's "Trope Market"—really, as vivid an example of language writing as one is likely to find. The literariness of his practice was soundly reinscribed when "Trope Market" and other works composed from within the language milieu were published in Bloomsday, a collection occasioned by Joyce's masterpiece. The preceding poem in that collection, "Entropy Identity Claims" (1983), revises the Shakespearian conceit to sanctify the challenge to the liberal arts that seem to characterize the 70s: "Such are the makes stuff is dreamed within" (60). We have come to a New American tradition once, by epistemic necessity, slung over the shoulders of Old Possum's giants—"They are what we know"—to an agnostic poetics which undermines any attempt to corral Mac Low's practice into any program other than those variously "beautiful" pages of literary history.
Alcheringa #4. Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock eds. New York: Alcheringa, 1972.
Allen, Donald and Warren Tallman. Poetics of the New American Poetry. New York: Grove Press, 1973.
Cabri, Louis. "Rebus Effort Remove Government." Crayon 1: A Festschrift for Jackson Mac Low's 75th
Birthday. Harrison, Bob and Andrew Levy Eds. New York: Crayon, 1997: 45-68.
Eliot, T.S. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Frank Kermode ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Andrews, Bruce and Charles Bernstein Eds. Rpt. Eclipse. Craig Dworkin Ed.
Mac Low, Jackson. 22 Light Poems. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1968.
-----. 36th Light Poem in Memoriam Buster Keaton / 4:50 — 6:18 A.M. Sat. 1 Jan. 1972. London: Permanent
-----. Asymmetries 1-260. New York: Printed Editions, 1980
-----. Barnesbook. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1995.
-----. Bloomsday. Barrytown: Station Hill, 1984.
-----. Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces 1955-2002. New York: Granary Books, 2005.
-----. French Sonnets. Tucson: Membrane Press, 1989.
-----. Interview. The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from the New York Quarterly. William Packard Ed. New
York: Doubleday, 1974: 225-263.
-----. Interview. Vort Twenty-First Century Pre-views: Jackson Mac Low / Armand Schwerner. Barry
Alpert Ed. 3.2 (1975): 3-33.
-----. Phone: A Poem & 10 Variations (Written 4 June 1977). New York: Printed Editions, 1979.
-----. "The Poetics of Chance and the Politics of Simultaneous Spontaneity, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus."
Talking Poetics from the Naropa Institute. Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb eds. Boulder:
Shambhala, 1978: 170-92.
-----. "Poetry, Chance, Silence, Etc." Claims for Poetry. Donald Hall ed. Ann Arbor: U. Michigan Press,
-----. Representative Works. New York: Roof, 1986.
-----. Words nd Ends from Ez. Bolinas: Avenue B, 1989.
-----. "An Essay Begun in 1965." Paper Air 2.3 (Blue Bell PA: Singing Horse, 1983): 29-43.
-----. Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works. Anne Tardos Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press,
-----. Twenties. New York: Roof, 1991.
-----. The Virginia Woolf Poems. Providence: Burning Deck, 1985.
Scappettone, Jennifer. "'Pił mOndo i: / tUtti!': Traffics of Historicism in Jackson Mac Low's
Contemporary Lyricism." Modern Philology. (forthcoming)
Silliman, Ron. "While Some Are Being Flies, Others Are Having Examples." Paper Air
2.3 (1983): 39-41.
Tedlock, Dennis. The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
Zukofsky, Louis. "An Objective." Prepositions + The Collected Critical Essays. New York: Horizon,
1967. Rpt. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2000: 12-18.