4. READERS AT WORK
|We feel that if we read the radically disjunct poems
often enough we will begin to feel, if not define, an underlying meaning
connecting the disjecta membra. But contrariwise, we may sometimes suspect
that the connections and meanings we sense may be our own projections, and
that even the poems that seem to be intimate personal statements may really
be at least as disjunctive semantically as they are rhetorically.
("Charles Bernstein & His Shade" 57)
The very vagueness so characteristic of the Chinese style of writing is in fact its strength: mere points of reference are given, and as how to connect them, to yield a meaning, the knowledge and feeling of the reader are the real determinant.
Democracy in action: the reader as co-creator of meaning. No mere passivity as the author totally encodes the reader's experience of the text. There's also the implication here that even in the most tightly controlled work the reader still has a hand in the final outcome, although that usually remains a mere potentiality rather than a realization of the constructive powers of the reader. "When sitting, just sit"? Mac Low seems to be searching for an action-Zen, not simply a mode of contemplation; the reader must respond to the phenomena she perceives. Here's an activist use of the notion of "reader response"the reader must be response-able.
As I suggested earlier, environment is never neutral; it is always already coded. Mac Low exhorts us to take a hand in that organization, to recreate our own environment by listening, relating, and responding. The reader/performer creates a provisional whole out of the dispirate elements around them. (For a justification of this pronoun usage, see "The 'THEY' Manifesto" in The Pronouns, page 76.; another example of Mac Low's desire to reorganize our perceptions for a more democratic outcome.)
|Schematically, this "whole" can be represented by
concentric spheres: the inmost is that of the individual performer; next,
that of the whole performance group; next, that of the larger social group,
including audience as well as performers; next, that of the performance space,
including room acoustics, electronics, etc.; and finally, the larger spaces
within which the performance space is situated: the rest of the building,
the surrounding streets, neighborhood, city (or rural area), etc., all of
which may affect significantly the aggregate of sounds heard by each individual
at each moment. The spheres are best conceived as transparent and
interpenetratingnot as static shells but concentric ripples travelling
simultaneously out from and in toward each center.
Subsequent readings of the "same" work will in fact be the readings of different works, the score (the text) of each work being realized in different ways, in different contexts (different concentric spheres). A reading of a particular work in New York City will be a different work than that which is read in Albuquerque. The poem is an utterly social construct which we may choose to reconstruct in various ways to suit varying purposes.
But how, specifically, may a reader reconstruct works which on first sight seem totally meaningless? How is meaning to be realized? Mac Low gives the following advice:
|Performers should understand the syntax of each sentence
and speak it in such a way as to make the syntactical relations between its
component words clear. To do this they will sometimes have to solve word-class
ambiguity problems, that is, decide to which of two or more possible parts
of speech (noun, verb, adjective, or adverb) particular words in a sentence
must belong in order for the sentence to cohere structurally, even when the
sentence is (at least existentially) absurd. All sentences longer than single
words or short phrases must be assumed to form structurally complete statements,
questions, or requests. Each sentence should be spoken with the inflections
appropriate to its meaning and sentence type and with one of the sentence-final
intonation contours appropriate to its end mark.
Thus Mac Low sees his work, as well as much by some so-called "Language Poets," as perceiver-centered. Meaning is an effect of the reading/performance process. "This should come as no surprise . . . " ("'Language-Centered'" 26).
A Little Sermon on the Performance of Simultaneities by
Jackson Mac Low, Written on his 44th Birthday
(12 September 1966)
Firstly: Listen! Listen! Listen!
Secondly: Leave plenty of silence.
Thirdly: Don't do something just to be doing something.
Fourthly: Only do something when you have something you really want to do
after observing & listening intensely to everything in the performance
& its environment.
Fifthly: Don't be afraid to shut up awhile. Something really good will seem all the
better if you do it after being still.
Sixthly: Be open. Try to interact freely with the other performers & the audience.
Lastly: Listen! Listen! Listen!
Legge, James, trans. I Ching, Book of Changes. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel, 1975.
Mac Low, Jackson. Asymmetries 1-260. New York: Printed Editions, 1980.
---. "Charles Bernstein & His Shade." The Difficulties 1, 2
---. "'Language-Centered.'" L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 4 , rpt. as Open Letter 5,1 (Winter 1982): 23-6.
---. "Museletter." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.
---. The Pronouns. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1979.
---. Representative Works: 1938-1985. New York: Roof, 1986.
---. "Statement." The Poetics of the New American Poetry. Ed. Donald Allen & Warren Tallman. New York: Grove Press, 1973.
The Rand Corporation. A Million Random Digits With 100,000 Normal Deviates. New York: Free press, 1955.
Suzuki, D. T. Zen Buddhism: Selected Essays by D.T. Suzuki. Ed. William Barrett. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1956.