Paper Air: Jackson Mac Low

Maryrose lent me a copy of Paper Air, Vol. 2, No. 3 (1980), all about Jackson Mac Low, who has been a gangly influence on me as a poet. I finally sat down and read it, since I'll have to give it back soon. Here are a few notes, in case you don't have your own copy. Hopefully no one will mind that I'm copying reasonably large chunks of it -- if you do mind, let me know.

1. From an interview with Gil Ott:

GIL: To what extent do you consider your writing a political act?

JACKSON: [...cutting a bit about the langpo attitude to politics and writing...]

But I'm not clear as to how writing is a political act. If any act that involves other people is political, and thus any public use of language is political, mine must be political. However, it is more directly political when I compose performance works that give performers a great deal of freedom within a given structure and when I deal directly with political issues. [...examples of texts that use political texts as source materials...]

GIL: Is any use of language not political? Is Wordsworth nonpolitical?

JACKSON: Oh, Wordsworth was often directly political! He wrote political poems, both radical and reactionary. Early in life, he wrote several poems sympathetic to the French Revolution, but when he was older, he wrote a long sonnet sequence in praise of capital punishment!

Then again, if you mean by politics something that affects other people, working with language in ways other than the usual ones is political because it can affect people in unexpected ways, change the views of language, of thought -- even of society or of human relationships in general!
But is that what we mean by politics? When people make claims that poetry is politically effective, I suspect they mean something a little stronger than "it affects other people". They seem to mean that it's especially effective in affecting people. After all, what stimulus doesn't affect people?

(If anyone knows the name of that capital punishment sonnet cycle, let me know.) (UPDATE: Sonnets upon the Punishment of Death.)

2. There's an essay by Ron Silliman about how, with so little of Jackson's work published at that point (and much of it is still unpublished, I believe), it is difficult for people not in New York (where Jackson lived; Silliman was in the Bay Area at this point) to fully appreciate or even have a sense of the scope of Jackson's project.

There is also this:
If [some of Jackson's] texts are to be understood as scores, however, they are of a unique type. Robert Bly is equally a poet of performance, yet his presentational vocabulary is so narrow in comparison to Mac Low's, and his texts so thoroughly adequated to the imaginative life of college undergraduates, that one can approach his writing with virtually no previous contact with poetry and find something. The texts of the projectivists were likewise scores, always aimed, however, toward a model of heightened ordinary speech. Speech in Mac Low's work, on the other hand, is a tool, not a goal. It can be, and often is, substantially altered, in pace, pitch, duration and volume.

Oral manipulation (not identical with sound poetry, although certainly moving in that direction) has no major precedent in American literature. [...examples of possible but not quite good enough precedents by Jerome Rothenberg and Celia Zukofsky...]
Silliman is always already Silliman. There will always be a Silliman.

Well, it's unclear that Bly's use of a limited (constrained) vocabulary in order to have a (political?) effect on an audience (one that is not limited to the poetry-loving cognoscenti) is less of a "tool" than Jackson's use of that same vocabulary on a different audience. I also suspect that Jackson's poetry seems to employ a broad variety of strategies and vocabularies for those of us who have a taste for it; to those who don't, it probably is all one strategy and vocabulary: Noise. (Except for the Light poems, right?) Similarly, I suspect Bly's poems, so homogeneous to us Mac Lovians, seem nauced and varied to those who are knee-deep in them. This seems like the poetic equivalent of "All [people of some other ethnicity] look alike."

Also, I never expected to be defending Bly against Silliman. I feel really old all of a sudden. But I own almost all of Silliman's books and none of Bly's: But you can't make statements like that based only on your taste, right?

Later in the essay:
Here is the man who demonstrated, fifteen years ahead of Clark Coolidge, that content is texture.
"Content is texture" is a nice angle on Jackson (or writing in general), and puts content in its place. But -- oh yes, it was Clark Coolidge who was the only other person to use content as texture! That was who we thought first came up with that idea! Not Gertrude Stein, not Laurence Sterne, not whoever came up with lorem ipsum... Semper Silliman.

3. In the middle of all these densely typeset pieces that run far longer than any blog post would, there's a small and typical Larry Eigner poem. It is slight and touching, like most of his work, and an enormous breath of fresh air after the density of what surrounds it. Remind me to employ that strategy more often.

4. Armand Schwerner's essay is perhaps my favorite of the the lot, though I'm not sure how much additional light it sheds on Jackson -- really, I'm not sure how much light any of this sheds on him, for those of us who have lived with his work for a decade or so, though it probably shed a good deal of light when it first came out. But in Schwerner's essay there is a simplicity, a clarity, and a hesitance to make any too-broad statements, or pin too much down on his own sense of the world, that I like. There is a humility.

"The poet's not a literary historian, not primarily in any case." Which is true enough, although they often do a better job of it than the professional literary historians. But poets can get bogged down -- not to pick on Silliman too much (though I suspect he relishes it), but his recent look at the conceptual vs. flarf kerfuffle, with its zealous attempts to align this current movement with that historical movement and to fully flesh out the mapping, is a good example of the problem -- a possibly helpful historical analogy gets overdeveloped past the point of usefulness, to where odd statements are made:
Like Personism, [Conceptual Poetry is] not about individual works of great art. It doesn’t overvalue personal creativity. It opts for fun. And it’s nostalgic for traditional forms – Kenny Goldsmith & Christian Bök, to name two, are deeply retro in terms of the projects they choose. Their relationship to fluxus & dada are as direct as Ashbery’s are to Stevens & Auden. All they’ve done is to switch the nameplates.
So remind me which of those qualities is not true for flarf? Silliman, like many poets, can't pass up a ludicrously extended metaphor, because it makes for good and fun writing, even if it makes for terrible and implausible historical analysis.

Annnnyway. More Schwerner, on a topic I've broached here before:
I have often enough experienced -- what? boredom? at poetry readings. No that's not exactly it. It was a vague guilt at the fact that my attention would wander and I'd go in and out, guilt because I was supposed to 'pay attention', be fair, give myself to the work. I've talked about the situation with a number of poets recently, Chuck Stein comes to mind, and Maureen Owen, and of course I find I'm not alone. Some comfort? For two minutes. But what if the 'poem' is of such a nature as not to require implicitly the kind of attention we, most of us, assume is demanded of us? Suzuki Roshi says, in a discussion of concentration in a Zen context, 'To concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose of Zen is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes...' Now if are members of an audience listening to a string of sentences connected through rational essayistic modes, we know how to listen an drefer ourselves to the minor sub-system of logic, and stay with it. The listening to poetry however sets up a field of vaster potential occurrences, closer in their nature to the swinging door of consciousness which process itself clarifies the illusory nature of an apparently solid 'I'. In addition we are animals which react more powerfully to the mantric particularities of hearing words and sounds than to the processes of reading them? Poetry's originally chant or song; writing comes late, and reading. So to David Abell's comment, 'Why do I find the STANZAS FOR IRIS LEZAK electrifying when Jackson reads them and why are tehy more inert on the page? Is it their nature or our experience of them? Perhaps what they do is bring you to yourself more.' And in fact the STANZAS are explosively telling at suddenly experienced nexuses, persistent in their overtones, which surface in the memory unexpecedly like dream fragments without keys. 'Tuberous begonias...'
So, that is nice, and might be worth keeping in mind when you come hear me read tomorrow -- not that I'll read anything as effective as the Stanzas. But he throws out David Abell's name there as if we'd know who he was. But, of course, those of us in Portland do know David Abel very well, and we know how to spell his last name...



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