PRINT February 2005


Jackson Mac Low

COMMON SENSE corroborates what psychologists have noticed in recent studies: The human brain prefers unpredictable pleasures, and the imagination is best activated by puzzles. The mind enjoys having to do its own work of making sense rather than being presented with prefab meaning. What wakes us up is a combination of noticing differences and having something to do. If desire and aggression are two major drives, curiosity is surely another. This insight has implications for the design of children’s toys (infinitely combinatorial blocks are better than objects with a limited number of obvious functions; better, certainly, than entertainments that stun a child into apathy), and it also relates to art like that of Jackson Mac Low, who died on December 8, 2004, at the age of eighty-two. His forms incorporate functional indeterminacy, thereby drawing the reader or listener into an active, even collaborative, making of meaning, while affirming the vital role of attention in everyday life.

The philosopher John Dewey argued for an essential connection between high art and everyday life in his 1934 Art as Experience. This idea, along with his theory of the experimental attitude as fundamental to all learning, had an important influence on the New York–based group of artists with which Mac Low (born in Chicago in 1922) was affiliated from the ’50s on. Dewey’s pervasive influence on Black Mountain College had also affected John Cage, whose seminal Composition of Experimental Music class at the New School for Social Research was, in turn, an incubator for Mac Low’s many approaches to indeterminacy and important for the collective that came to be known as Fluxus. This downtown intermedia scene, which quickly forged connections with an international avant-garde, was dominated by Buddhist-influenced, post–Black Mountain artists. Of course, Mac Low’s influences, like those of every interesting artist, were greatly overdetermined. In a 1975 interview with Barry Alpert, he counted them as—in addition to Cage and the American pragmatist aesthetic then “in the air,” as Cage put it—Zen, Kogen and Tibetan Buddhism, the Kabbalah, the I Ching, Taoism, Gertrude Stein, anarchism, and Dada (especially Kurt Schwitters). The pleasure principle, so integral to Stein, Schwitters, and Cage, was crucial for Mac Low. In 1999, he wrote, “The whole point of art is . . . the pleasure of making artworks and the pleasure of experiencing them. . . . It is probably a paradox that this can happen in a society in which many people and actions of people cause many kinds of pain . . . due to clumsy social, economic, and political arrangements.”

Dewey maintained that humans, despite our capacities for sensual pleasure and intellectual curiosity, are peculiarly subject to alienation, estrangement, and even death if radically separated from our environment. For Dewey, art’s chief purpose was to enliven us, to reconnect us with our sensory intelligences, through both an intense, childlike attention to the material of the world and the adult’s imaginative distance from it. Both child’s play and the production of art involve the very basic joy of making something out of the possibilities and constraints of a circumstantial given. To be present when Mac Low was composing, or to engage with him in conversational repartee, was to relish the knowledgeable humor of a passionate autodidact and virtuoso etymologist, spurred by the painfully compassionate social sensibilities of a political activist.

From the caesura in his surname (which creates its own puzzle and foils assumptions of a Scottish heritage) to the six-decade output of delightfully improbable, sometimes neologistic vocabularies, chance-determined (or not) caesural silences, and lettristic, phonemic, and other kinds of sonic and visual play that combined intentionality and indeterminacy, Mac Low’s brilliance and humor both augmented and complicated linguistic geometries of attention. His most radical compositions sensually amplify the material elements, energies, and semantic vectors of word. Although he worked with inventiveness in many genres and media, he was first and foremost a poet. Mac Low’s work was, along with that of Cage and others, responsible for expanding the field of what could enter (and leave) a poem, a piece of music, a drawing, a painting, a sculpture. Mac Low’s oeuvre included conventional stanzaic-declarative love poems, explicit references to the horrors of war, poems with procedurally or randomly selected vocabularies from source texts, scored performance pieces, instrumental works, speech-sound explorations, lettristic drawings, and poem-paintings like Trope Market, 1989, or Word Pair Poem, 1990, made with oil stick.

There is also the luster of language sans oil sticks. In Mac Low’s Forties—a largely unpublished series of 154 poems begun in 1990—textual units consist of words or phrases placed in a scintillating omnium-gatherum that radiates internal and disjunctive energies:

Gone is the trajectory of conventional readerly perspective. The point of most linguistic sequences, like the one unfolding in this sentence, is to move the eye with efficiency toward ex post facto vanishing points—periods or pauses—that, if the sentence is clear, consume all that precedes them. (If you’ve understood what you’ve just read, why look back?) The semantic sequences of Forties transform space-time relations to capture the reader’s gaze in an eros of decelerated, intensified attention.

The 1955 “5th Biblical Poem” is the first work Mac Low composed by applying chance operations to language, using the model of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. (Cage, who until then had used chance methods only for music, was inspired by Mac Low’s results to use them for his own poetry.) Determining, by the throw of a die, the number of places in each line, Mac Low decided in the same way which places would be occupied by words (drawn from the Hebrew Bible), which by silences. Not sure as he worked whether what he was doing would turn out to be of interest, he was close to quitting when the next throw of the die yielded the phrase “Bear up, mule.” He continued, discovering as Cage had, the particular gratification of coincidence in the midst of indeterminacy. Mac Low reminds us in his biblical poems that all sacred texts (those with a shelf life of centuries, if not millennia) are full of contradictions, ambiguities, and vague admonitions; are, in other words, laced with indeterminacy. The text below brings these realizations into the foreground with a dramatic shift in the geometry of attention from authority to liminal tentativeness:

Having been present at many Mac Low events (often performed with his wife, the poet and artist Anne Tardos), I find myself generalizing my response into the conviction that most poetry comes alive in extraordinary ways when well performed. Listening, as I have been for the past few days, to Mac Low and Tardos’s Open Secrets—a CD of ten pieces for multiple voices and instruments—I wonder why, despite a steadily growing international reputation since the ’60s and an unquestionable influence on most of the significant language artists of our time, there are not more people who count this piquant, humorous, politically charged work among their frequent enjoyments. The multitrack “Thanks,” in which utterances like “goat metaphysic” and “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” crop up, along with Hungarian, German, and French phrases by Tardos, is a rhythmically repetitive, anarchic piece that sounds like a zany tool for teaching foreignlanguage. Repeat after us: xenophon darling phlogiston, notion porridge, Rupert Murdoch devour, King Kong, Arrivé à Budapest, Pappa a disparu. Who knows what doors these words will open for you! “Thanks” is happily lucid while complexly layered; every time one listens, new delights emerge. Forty-two of Mac Low’s performance scores, representing the impressive range of his work, have been collected in the long-awaited Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces 1955–2002, forthcoming from Granary Books this year.

Mac Low instructed his performers to “listen and relate.” Tardos intends to have this inscribed on the stone that will mark his grave in a Jewish cemetery in Paramus, New Jersey. When he was twelve years old, Mac Low was (for the first time) told by his parents that the family was Jewish. His name, with its idiosyncratic caesura, is a neo-nominalism that bespeaks historical admixtures of pain, pragmatism, and humor. In the 1999 lecture “Poetry and Pleasure,” which can be read as a working through of these determinant ingredients of his life-work, Mac Low wrote, “The politically aware artist can hope that what gives her pleasure and what gives her pain will give others the kinds of pleasures and pains that may help engender more positive social arrangements. The point is still ultimately pleasure.” That of listening attentively, for instance, to the precisely evocative indeterminacies of Jackson Mac Low in a world where uncertainty need not be only a source of terror.

Joan Retallack is a poet and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Humanities at Bard College.