[Presented here is a letter by Jackson Mac Low to Nick Piombino, revised for the Poetics List by Mac Low. Mac Low is commenting on Piombino's response to Dean Taciuch, which was posted on the list: "I wonder if it might help to approach Cage and Mac Low's writing to students with difficulties like this by introducing them to their music as a parallel effort at dealing with meaning in more oblique ways than is usually expected. I would like to suggest, in particular, Jackson Mac Low's amazing relatively new CD Open Secrets (1993 Experimental Intermedia Foundation 224 Centre Street, New York, N.Y 10013)."]
Also, from 1955 intermittently on, I employed "translation" methods--ones through which the notes of musical notations were "translated" into words from source texts, e.g., my poem "Machault" (Representative Works: 1938-1985 [New York: Roof Books, 1986], 35-40) or vice-versa, i.e., the words of source texts were translated into music (e.g., my Milarepa Quartet for Four Like Instruments [unpublished]).
The work I did from about 1981
on was sometimes not systematic at all, but most often was composed
freely, though mostly from the liminal zone between the conscious
and the unconscious, which the British psychologist W.W. Winnicott
called "the transitional space" and Silvano Arieti named
"the tertiary process," since it is the area of intersection
between the primary and secondary processes. [I owe knowledge
of these terms to the revised and expanded version of Austin Clarkson's
fine paper for the November 1995 Mills conference on Cage, "Divining
the Intent of the Moment : John Cage and Transpersonal Aesthetics,"
which will be published with the other papers from the conference,
edited by David Bernstein, by the University of Chicago Press.]
Examples of this kind of work are the poems in From Pearl
Harbor Day to FDR's Birthday (Los Angeles, Sun
& Moon, 1982; 2nd ed., 1995), the first 2/3 or 3/4 of Bloomsday
(Barrytown, NY, Station Hill, 1984---the last part is made up
of nointentionally composed work--poetry, "stories,"
and music), and the "poems in prose" in Pieces o'
Six (Los Angeles, Sun & Moon, 1992)--with a few diastic
All of these--and other works of mine of other kinds that I haven't space to mention here--was quite different from any poetry or prose John ever wrote, but so was my "nonintentional poetry." For instance, even though we both made long poems by reading through [Ezra Pound's] Cantos, we did so in quite different ways. (John liked mine--made by nonintentional consecutive diastic selection of words & ends of words regulated by Pound's name) better than his own mesostic poem.)
Twenties: 100 Poems
(New York: Roof Books, 1991) & 154 Forties
(work in progress since 1990) are different again, adhering to
certain "fuzzy verse forms" [giving the secondary process
a bone to gnaw on], and gathering into them--mainly by liminal-zone
processes--materials from what I heard, saw, and spontaneously
thought of while writing their first drafts. Poems in both series,
but especially the Forties poems are subject to later revision.
This is a very complex way of working, mainly in the liminal (or
tertiary) area, even though there is a certain amount of deliberate
choice involved. The choices, however, do not come from an attempt
to "say" something definite, but from intuitions in
relation to local sound & meaning rather than to a global
meaning of the whole poem. Both those collections are sometimes
used as sources of chance-operationally made mixes which I run
through computer-automations (by Charles O. Hartman) of my diastic
The thing is that there is too much pairing of John's and my work, despite our strong mutual regard. We're both concerned with intentionality and nonintentionality and started doing this sort of work from understandings of Buddhism, especially Zen & Kegon as taught by Daisetz Suzuki at Columbia University in the 40s and 50s. But I seldom used "pure" chance operations after 1960. My algorithmic work is often mistakenly thought to be chance-generated, as they say, and I too used to think it was "chance-generated" work, but I realized sometime in the 80s that the only chance involved is in the making of mistakes (and after a certain point--especially book publication--the mistakes must be accepted as integral to the works). Otherwise, whatever gets into the poetry is determined by the generative method & lies there waiting in the source texts.
I might add that I have been working
with many other kinds, and sometimes mixtures, of intentionality
and intentionality since 1954. In addition to the methods and
processes I've mentioned, some works, e.g., my over 65 Light Poems,
e.g., 22 Light Poems (Los Angeles: Black
Sparrow, 1968), "The Presidents of the United States of America"
(Representative Works, 152-67), and the "From Nuclei"
poems (Ibid, 128-31) involve "nucleus" words--systematically
determined by chance or other means--between which I wrote freely.
And the performance works are realized by a complex mix of "deliberate
choice" and "intuitive (tertiary-process) choice, though
many were composed by strict chance operations.
Let me add that in my recent 42 Merzgedichte in Memoriam Kurt Schwitters (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1994), the first poem -- which is also in Pieces o' Six (168-75)-- was written by impulse-chance-selection from sources about and by Schwitters, the 2nd through the 30th by computer-aided chance operations, and the 31st through the 42nd by computer-automated diastic methods, which in some of the last Merzgedichte were supplemented by use of Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke's program TRAVESTY, which produces what Kenner calls "pseudo-texts," determined by lettter-group frequencies in English.
Thus I never "abandon" earlier ways of working, certainly never repudiatethem. It is to be noted that before late 1954 and from time to time from1954 to the present, I have written poems by something like the "ordinary"methods--so-called direct writing. However, many of my pre-late-1954 poemswere written from the liminal area of the mind (see examples in Representative Works, 3-13). Thus my recent poetry has certain resemblances with some of work written in the 30s and 40s.
Jackson Mac Low, June, 1997
I wonder if it might help to approach Cage and Mac Low's writing to students with difficulties like this by introducing them to their music as a parallel effort at dealing with meaning in more oblique ways than is usually expected. I would like to suggest, in particular, Jackson Mac Low's amazing relatively new cd "Open Secrets" (1993 Experimental Intermedia Foundation 224 Centre Street,New York,N.Y> 10013). Here are some of the cuts:
1. 1st Milarepa Gatha
2. Milarepa Quartet for Four Like instruments
5. 38th and 39th Merzgedichte in Memoriam Kurt Schwitters
6. Phoneme Dance in Memoriam John Cage
This album is an amazing mix of pure music (as in Winds/Instruments, which evokes an almost melodically harmonic,lyricized Webern) and the Milarepa Gothas which are spoken word, but for many voices, prominently Ann Tardos, all of which show the presence of Mac Low's precision of unexpectable soundings. The Winds/Instruments particularly reminded me of something Mac Low once said to me when he and I did a collaborative reading with Charles Bernstein at the Living Theater some years ago.The direction he kept coming back to was:"Real silences."
On Sat, 21 Jun 1997, Dean Taciuch wrote:
Another way to frame the "abstract vs personal" or "concrete vs personal" discussion might be to consider separable or paraphrasable content. "Personal" might (might) be considered as something which the work can be said to be "about" if there is an "about" to it. That is, representation vs nonrepresenation, as David Israel has posed it. Representational work has separable content, nonrepresentational work doesn't (or its separable content is unimportant).
I'm seeing this question of content come up in my classes, as
I'm trying to cover Mac Low and Cage. . .there is a resistance
on the part on the students (undergraduate), which I think is
due to their not being able to say what the poems are "about."
At least that's how they've expressed the discomfort to me. The
work seems "abstract" to them because there's no separable
content, nothing they can paraphrase when someone asks them "what's
that poem about" (of course, that's not the question I ask
them. That's not the question at all)