Jackson Mac Low - The poems feel completely strange and alien, but at the same time intimate; the challenging poems are both alienating and enthralling

Jackson Mac Low, 154 Forties, edited by Anne Tardos,  Counterpath Press, 2012.

The first publication of the complete series of Jackson Mac Low’s “Forties” poems. Written and revised from 1990 to 2001 with a method Mac Low called “gathering,” where he took into the poems words, phrases, and other kinds of word strings, and sometimes sentences, that he saw, heard, or thought of while writing the drafts, the poems include detailed markings of caesural spacing, timing, compound words (many neologistic), and metrical stress. Each of the poems adhere to what Mac Low termed “fuzzy verse form”: 8 stanzas, each comprising 5 lines (hence “forties”): 3 moderately long lines, followed by a very long line, and then a short line.
The book publication is being accompanied by an ebook project that will include scans of the original handwritten manuscript of the Forties as well as videoed readings of each of the poems by 154 artists and writers in the US and abroad, many of whom knew Mac Low. The videos are being posted to the web as they come in, here.
Jackson Mac Low (1922–2004) made poems, essays, and musical, performance, visual, and radio works. Author of about 30 books and published in over 90 collections, his works have been published, exhibited, and performed (often by his wife, the poet, visual artist, and composer Anne Tardos and himself) in many countries. Awards: Guggenheim, NEA, NYFA, and CAPS fellowships and the 1999 Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets. Recent books: Doings: An Assortment of Performance Pieces 1955–2002 (Granary, 2005) and Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works (University of California Press, 2008).

I remember asking Jackson, why 154 Forties? Why that number? Why not another? He never gave me a clear answer. Only after his death, while editing Thing of Beauty, did it dawn on me that he might have been referring to Shakespeare’s sonnets, which also number 154. Such a reference would indeed have to have been couched, if that’s what he was doing. And the more I think about the Forties’ format, the number of lines, long ones and short ones, the more I believe my hunch to be correct.
Mac Low wrote the 154 Forties over a period of ten years. He began writing them in 1990, and finished writing the first drafts in 1995, although he continued revising them until 2001. He wrote the first drafts into a notebook. The poems incorporated everything he saw and heard and thought of at the time. When in Europe, he freely included words from languages other than English. (In the few multilingual Forties, he included elements and notational methods from some of my own multilingual poems.) I remember Jackson writing during poetry readings, music and dance concerts, in cars, planes, trains, and boats. The poems’ end notes document the exact time and place of each poem and subsequent revision(s).
Back home, at his computer, he would type up what he had written. In his “Notes to 154 Forties” (below), he describes the prosodic devices he used to indicate reading tempo, stress, and dynamics. Jackson was, after all, a performance poet.
Many of the Forties have appeared in magazines and anthologies. Zasterle Press in the Canary Islands, published 20 Forties, in 1999. A selection of four poems was translated into French, by the translation collective in Royaumont, and published in 2001 by Un bureau sur lAtlantique as Les Quarantains (Extraits). This is the first time the Forties are collected in their entirety.
The Forties stand as Mac Low’s most important achievement. His encyclopedic knowledge, humor, and boundless imagination, are abundant in these poems. Who can resist a “perpendicular tofu cancellation” or “J. Edgar Hoover Blackmailed Transformational Linguistics,” the title of Forties 126. Each title is composed of the first word(s) of the first stanza and the last word(s) of the last stanza. These titles are a poem within the poem. The musicality of a line like “Toffee clinic alcohol-cadenza lyricism strife megalópia tank” is clear.
Had he not previously worked with systematic chance operations, he might not have been able to write these spontaneous and intuitive works. His transition from chance and deterministic methods to free writing, however, was not abrupt. Between his system-based works of the mid-1950s, Jackson also engaged in various mixes of chance and choice, as in the “Light Poems” and the “Presidents of the United States of America.” Among Jackson’s papers, I came across an unfinished letter in which he discusses the evolution of his poetics: “I don’t believe that poetics should be prescriptive, even though an artist may adopt or develop certain theories to guide her work at various times. I consider such theories to be ‘scaffoldings’ that help the artist make the works, but that may well be discarded and/or modified afterward. Ultimately, they may have little or no truth value (except as analyses) and may only indirectly embody or express ethical or political values.” Later he adds, “I am an empiricist, a pragmatist, and a metaphysical skeptic — in an embracing rather than a rejective sense. Mind and matter are two aspects of the same ‘thing.’ Consciousness may ultimately be explained by material causalities, and material phenomena may be explained by physical causalities.” Mac Low was continually defining and redefining his political, artistic, and philosophical beliefs. He also moved freely between art forms, often drawing and painting words and phrases, making collages and constructions. Exhibits of his visual artworks and lesser-known collages have been shown around the world. They are as complex and multifaceted as his poetry. The Forties, it seems to me, are a deeply engaged exploration of language. The nod to Shakespeare, if my guess is correct, is appropriate and modest. Mac Low never compared his Forties to the sonnets, but he did write 154 of them, perhaps leaving a subtle message for the readers of the future.
New York, 2012

Mac Low created this book of poems from 1990 to 1999, collecting and editing as he went. He claims to have only edited the caesural spaces; everything else written word after word, as they came to him. The poems feel completely strange and alien, but at the same time intimate; the challenging poems are both alienating and enthralling.

“Jackson Mac Low (September 12, 1922 – December 8, 2004) was an American poet, performance artist, composer and playwright, known to most readers of poetry as a practitioneer(sic) of systematic chance operations and other non-intentional compositional methods in his work…” from Wikipedia.
(I wonder if the writer or editor let practitioneer slip as a portmanteau of pioneer and practitioner.)
Mac Low participated in Fluxus, and his work, like other Fluxers, shows the requisite influence of Cage, Duchamp, and others. However, instead of the performance based art that Mac Low created for Fluxus:

Tree Movie

Select a tree* Set up and focus a movie camera so that the tree fills most of the picture. Turn on the camera and leave it on without moving it for any number of hours. If the camera is about to run out of film, substitute a camera with fresh film. The two cameras may be altered in this way any number of times. Sound recording equipment may be turned on simultaneously with the movie cameras. Beginning at any point in the film, any length of it may be projected at a showing. 
*for the word ‘tree’, one may substitute “mountain”, sea”, “flower”, “lake”, etc.
January 1961 The Bronx (Found at artnotart.com fluxus debris)
Whereas art like this from his Fluxus days tends toward the conceptual, the poems in 154 Forties are lyrical. They are primarily concerned with immediacy and music. As a way of categorizing, where Tree Movie, above, is a performance for the future, in un-rhymed, unmetered prose, the Forties abandon grammar, syntax, indeed, denotation, and instead adopt abstract music.  It works both ways; music is foregrounded because the sense has been, for the most part, left absent. The best demonstration of how these poems can be interpreted and performed can be found here at Counterpath Press. This project includes Mathias Svalina saying “colostomy falafel”, and an all-star lineup including K. Silem Muhammad, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Hoover, Douglas Kearney, Juliana Spahr, and HTML Giant’s own Janice Lee performing most of the Forties.
In this book Mac Low turns language away from denotation, as my title, which is a line from one of the Forties, suggests. The poems sound alien because they are precisely not that; what Mac Low is trying to do is be as immediately human as possible, without adding any intervening or mediating narrative. This is the chance operation of tuned mind and ear listening for the strange in everything and composing spontaneous weird music out of those found sounds. The multitude of voices in these poems coalesce under the careful orchestration of Mac Low: it is not completely chance because there is this organizing constraint or music. The reader can forget that the words are attached to anything, which may be best, because that makes it even more exciting and surprising when from the hypnotic chant-like stanzas emerges a fragment of sense, a sentence, a few words that fit together in recognizable order.
That little bit of recognition is like the sight of land from your lifeboat. Or, the buena vista at the end of a long climb that makes whatever work you’ve done feel worth it. Like that good look, you have to figure out where the hell you are, find some landmarks, and maybe try to contextualize the work among others.
In that way 154 Forties is work; it’s not really pure spectatorial poetic entertainment (I suppose most poetry that gets written about isn’t.) It’s not that the collection is hopeless or hopelessly hard to enjoy; far from it. Just like the compositions by Cage, this work includes a lot of noise and space. It’s ambient instead of directional. The way you will feel about this collection may depend on your proclivity for noise. I would recommend this poetry to someone who enjoys Wolf Eyes, Finnegan’s Wake, Marina Abramovich, and a lot of other things.
While it’s great to hear other people perform these poems, you can also hear Mac Low reading, and briefly discussing, some of the Forties at PennSound. He uses the words “quasi-intentionally” and says that the only thing that he revised were “the caesura; the silences between words.”  Mac Low adopts a loose formal structure and even borrows the idiosyncratic practice of non-orthographic accent marks and caesural spaces from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “sprung rhythm” in order to convey precisely how they should be read. Ultimately experiencing these poems is in some ways more like reading sheet music than much contemporary verse. Here are the accompanying instructions to give you an idea of what you’re in for:

Caesural spaces = durations of silence and/or prolongations of
final phonemes or syllables:
4 letter spaces [    ] = 1 unstressed syllable;
8 letter spaces [        ] = 1 stressed syllable or beat; 16 letter
spaces [                ] = 2 beats;
none occurs between typographical lines; breath pauses at verse-line
endings ad lib.

Nonorthographic acute accents indicate stresses, not vowel qualities.
Each hyphenated compound is read as one extended word: somewhat more
rapidly than other words but not hurried. [ - ] indicates a
slowed-down compound (each member, one beat). Indented typographical
lines continue verse lines begun above them.

(154 Forties, XIV)
This collection is not going to offer strong narrative threads or even really themes, moods, clear intentions, or messages. But it creates its own kind of epic; there’s even an appropriately lengthy index. The book is 313 pages long. Each one of the 154 poems (coincidentally the same number of the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote as pointed out by Mac Low’s partner and editor Anne Tardos in the introduction) take on the form of “eight stanzas, each composing three rather long verse lines followed by a very long line (typically occupying more than one typographical line) and then a short line.” (154 Forties, XIII) Mac Low is obviously concerned with not just the aesthetic of sound but also that of print; however, where Mallarme, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and visual poetry seems somehow a departure form lyric, and uncreative writing or appropriation can sometimes feel limited by its own concept, these “forties” are enveloping, friendly to all approaches.
This enveloping approach, allowing the ambient into the work, probably feels familiar to most people who have written poetry. Here in 52nd Forty, called “ISELTWALD            TOP OF TREES         DIE DIREKTION,” Mac Low winds up focused on the physical instrument of writing, after orbiting quietly around the Swiss village like a disembodied bird:
PILOT precise       Rolling Ball V5            Extra-Fine       someone-left-
ón a huge           faucet
running a bath        cookie-for-the-bóatride          sitting in the sun by
Abfahrt Richtung
railway conductor waiting with mústache             five      open compartments
Giessbachbahn Retourbillet eight in each compartment 40 Personen
two others
      wáiting-here Dash Betreten der Bahn anlagen ist verboten!
Bahnpolizeigesetz Art. 1 66 Die Direktion
(154 Forties, p.105)
It seems like Mac Low is doing something akin to the curatorial work of Joseph Cornell… or again the ready-mades of people like Duchamp and Beuys. And sometimes, just like when I’m looking at most artworks that are conceptually challenging, I think of this book as a kind of taunt or prank. If Mac Low is saying something, it sounds to me like, “Here’s what an epic looks like in the 1990s. Take it.” In that way it is a very generous work of art. - Leif Haven

 Finding your own     level of hell     with cultural signifiers glowing in
         the lamplight
giving a safe     suntan     both opaque and transpárent-in-a started
of-your-fírst  -  bánd in a hip commúnity-where áll will be one -
         foréver-in-a whóle-new-cán
better-than-a-dog with a túrnip-and-a bée in the building collecting
         money-for-the-French - overcapacitátion-of-a-secret stár on a
         favorite yacht on a ledgelike evening
telling your stories through me
Showing-mé to mé     emptying texture from things-from-which-I-
as it clings to a lóng-wooden-táble     tagging someone to-spéak-
with two more eyes along its flank     as-lócal-as-a-memorial-
overjoyed and meaningless     as the sort of political process I try
         to shrug off     foreshadowed-in-a-book of mémories     it came
         through the door that was found
in the sky     moving-acróss-itself
Delayed by an-impróperly-drawn-cóntract inscribed on a falling
a free-lance composer loves móst     to-be-writing-as-he-spéaks
difficult to see - any-resúlts     to-talk-about-lífe - próblems     to
         be free     he released
a work for chorus one-hour-lóng and one for sólo voice to fínd
         - tíme to bréathe   tén - páges a dáy to keep up the pace     one
         minúte a day     two or three hours to copy
two or three seconds of music
To concretize that thinking with nón - Wéstern elements       nót
         the reason
dimensions of time and space     a little at first in numerous
         currents of time
now the single unrelenting-units-of-our-líves in ábsolute time
         but óther     courses of time
defy     measurement-by-digitalized-únits     always shifting
         don’t-have-any-room-to-compláin every-minute-of-the-dáy
         caught up in grand ópera
Japanése musical groups     don’t have conductors
Each with a time of their own     they produce their beat-by-
of different tíme-frames     time-spáce difference breaking down
they-interséct-each-other unlike the gardens-of-Versáilles
meant to be wálked-through and seen-from-different-
         víewpoints     they mutually reinfórce-one-another       spring
         summer       autumn and wínter
Japanése     gardens are the-sun-and-the-móon togéther
The not-twó-entity      the spáce here óne        overall-strúcture
concretely-bound-togéther      spring’s direction is east     its
         pitch is G
rereading-them-in-a-módern cóntext        getting-lóst in
         today’s     society
not simply relics-of-the-pást        reintegrated-in-the-fúture
         strongly pulled toward     Wéstern things        how-can-that-
assimilating Western rational thínking
Shine the Light Internátional        the best of the West and
         the East together
the reception after the concert        the theories        the experi-
         ences        the caréer
dréad      doesn’t-seem-to-have-múch     to-dó-with-it     just
         surprised        not very large
lots of electrical óutlets      nóne of this is part of our start
         to restóre it          I’m sórry about it           we each have our
         níche and are própped-in-it     at a wonderful móment
deep-appreciation-of-the-Ásia Society
Twó      páckages-like-Chrístmas presents     Martin-Luther-
         Kíng        the Pówer-Structure
Panther        a wéekend - house       the-Fóur – Séasons     a
         hillock of stone     in-the-sáme-bréath
swatting-out-mosquítoes     luck or hábit     the ending
         fire a rainbow        the scenery
encased in the clouds with the birds in-the-middle-
         dístance          a cóal-stove           existence-that escápes -
         yéars - after-we’re-góne just-a-little-bit-senti-
beside a lake without a náme
New York: 18 –25 February 1995;
1–15 September 199

Jackson Mac Low to Kristin Prevallet. (pdf)


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