Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, Jackson Mac Low. University of California Press. 507pp, $34.95.
Besides being released the same year by the same press, Thing of Beauty by Jackson Mac Low and Leslie Scalapino’s It’s go in horizontal share a number of other commonalities. The primary is that they were written as a response (Scalapino’s once removed) to the New York School of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara; another is that each is an attempt by the author to free him or herself from the tyranny of the ego—Mac Low through chance techniques, Scalapino through language poetry.
Jackson Mac Low, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 82, was a rather prolific poet, his Selected and New Works taking up over 400 pages. John Cage and Zen Buddhism began to influence his work by 1954; prior to that, although he did write traditional free form and structured poetry, he also investigated Cubism, Surrealism, and Dadaism. He must have encountered the works of such Dadaists as Tristan Tzara and Kurt Schwitters quite early as, when he was 16, he wrote the sound poem “HUNGER STrikE whAt does lifemean” where he riffs, in part, on the word great: “Fire in grates are greates/Ingrates in grate/great ingrates in great grate/ great grate greasy great grate/grating.” This play of homonyms will form part of the language poetry of Bernstein, Hejinian, and others. “Scene” shows an acquaintance with Apollinaire’s typographically innovative collection, Calligrammes, or perhaps e.e. cummings in the way words are spread out on the page and are repeated in various permutations, although there is no attempt here to define a shape as Apollinaire or cummings did.
So, early on, rather than experimenting with form, as many of the budding poets of his generation would do, Mac Low experimented with style, showing an early affinity for the avant-garde. But the events of 1954 and his encounter with Cage would define his future, where he would become a leader rather than a follower. His initial effort at chance poetry, “22.214.171.124.126.96.36.199,” the title of which counts the number of syllables in each successive line of each stanza (was this an influence of Marianne Moore?), was not wholly successful. Examining the first couple of lines:
thither /___/ to /___/
not /___/ /___/ tribe /___/
we may be seeing the influence of Cage’s “4’33,” which premiered in 1952. Although Cage could rely on the concept of ambient sound arising from silence, there is nothing ambient about /¬___/, there is nothing to be heard or seen other than the depiction of a blank space. If this were all there was to Mac Low’s experiments in chance poetry, his name would have been buried along with him. However, this initial attempt led to the creation of the two techniques which would dominate his oeuvre—the acrostic and the diastic. Mac Low didn’t consider these methods as chance but rather as deterministic. Describing these techniques in his essay “Poetry and Pleasure,” which serves as an introduction to this work, he says:
Two groups of deterministic methods that I’ve often utilized make use of two texts—a source text and a seed text. . . . Unlike chance operations, their outputs, when they’re used correctly with the same source and seed texts, will always be the same.
He describes the acrostic method:
The writer reads through a source text and finds successively words, phrases, sentence fragments, sentences, and/or other linguistic units that have the letters of the seed text as their initial letters.
An example of this acrostic method, “A Child’s Garden of Verses Robert Louis Stevenson with illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith,” where Robert Louis Stevenson’s book A Child’s Garden of Verse serves as the source text and the title the seed text:
A float in the meadow by the swing.
Crow, hands, if two may read aright these rhymes of old delight and house and
garden play, look kindly on. Days swing.
green—afloat in the meadow by the swing, returns at last, double-quick, end
Each “sentence” begins with the beginning letter of the next word of the seed text—’a', ‘c’, ‘g’, etc.
The diastic method is described as:
The writer reads through the source text and successively finds words or other linguistic units that have the letters of the seed text in positions that correspond to those they occupy in the seed text.
It’s used in “Quatorzains from & for Emily Dickinson,” where the seed text is the name Emily Dickinson, the source text being unstated:
Elysium is as far as to
IMpregnable of Eye-
ThIs was in the White of the Year-
NegLected son of Genius
RuddY as that coeval Apple
Mac Low used a number of other techniques over the length of his career, all of which are well described and supported by examples in Thing of Beauty, which is, in fact, just that. Like the Cubists, Surrealists and Dadaists before him, Mac Low has carved out a new space for poetry, a new space in which future poets may explore. Some have already entered this domain. But too few. Perhaps with the publication of this volume, Mac Low’s techniques will become more familiar and understood—particularly with the excellent introduction by his long time partner, Anne Tardos, and her extensive inclusion of his explanatory prose to many poems and poetic sequences. Perhaps we will begin to see little Mac Lows populating the poetry scene. As such, and in preparation for that event, this is a book well worth having in any poet’s collection.
Let us turn now to Leslie Scalapino . . .
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