Mac Low, Jackson

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MAC LOW, Jackson

Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 12 September 1922. Education: University of Chicago, 1939–43, A.A. 1941; Brooklyn College, New York, 1955–58, A.B. (cum laude) in Greek 1958. Family: Married 1) painter Iris Lezak (divorced 1973), one son and one daughter; 2) Anne Tardos in 1990. Career: Freelance music teacher, English teacher, translator, and editor, 1950–66; reference book editor, Funk and Wagnalls, 1957–58, 1961–62, and Unicorn Books, 1958–59; copy editor, Alfred A. Knopf, 1965–66, all in New York; instructor of English, Mannes College of Music, New York, 1966; instructor, American Language Institute, New York University, 1966–73; instructor, Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, 1975, State University of New York, Albany, 1984, State University of New York, Binghamton, 1989, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1989, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1989, Schule fur Dichtung in Wien, Vienna, Austria, 1992, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1994, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1994, University of California, San Diego, 1990, and University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1997. Member of the editorial staff, and poetry editor, 1950–54, Why? (later Resistance), a pacifist-anarchist magazine; poetry editor, WIN magazine, New York, 1966–75. Awards: Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1973, 1976; PEN grant, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1979; Guggenheim fellowship for poetry, 1985; book award, San Francisco State University Poetry Center, 1985; Fulbright Travel grant New Zealand, 1986; Composer's grant, Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, 1986; fellowship in poetry, New York Foundation for Arts, 1988; Fund for Poetry grant, New York, 1988, 1991, 1998. Address: 42 North Moore Street, New York, New York 10013, U.S.A.



The Pronouns: A Collection of 40 Dances—for the Dancers—6 February-22 March 1964. New York, Mac Low, 1964; London, Tetrad Press, 1970.

August Light Poems. New York, Caterpillar, 1967.22 Light Poems. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1968.

23rd Light Poem: For Larry Eigner. London, Tetrad Press, 1969.

Stanzas for Iris Lezak. Barton, Vermont, Something Else Press, 1972.

4 Trains, 4–5 December 1964. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1974.

36th Light Poem: In Memoriam Buster Keaton. London, Permanent Press, 1975.

21 Matched Asymmetries. London, Aloes, 1978.

54th Light Poem: For Ian Tyson. Milwaukee, Membrane Press, 1978.

A Dozen Douzains for Eve Rosenthal. Toronto, Gronk, 1978.

Phone. New York, Printed Editions, 1978.

Asymmetries 1–260: The First Section of a Series of 501 Performance Poems. New York, Printed Editions, 1980.

Antic Quatrains. Minneapolis, Bookslinger, 1980.

From Pearl Harbor Day to FDR's Birthday. College Park, Maryland, Sun and Moon, 1982.

"Is That Wool Hat My Hat?" Milwaukee, Membrane Press, 1983.

Bloomsday. Barrytown, New York, Station Hill Press, 1984.

French Sonnets, Composed Between January 1955 and April 1983. Tucson, Black Mesa Press, 1984.

The Virginia Woolf Poems. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1985.

Representative Works 1938–1985. New York, Roof, 1986.

Words nd Ends from Ez. Bolinas, California, Avenue B, 1989.

Twenties: 100 Poems, 24 February 1989–3 June 1990. New York, Roof Books, 1991.

Pieces o' Six: Thirty-three Poems in Prose, 1983–1987. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1992.

42 Merzgedichte in Memoriam Kurt Schwitters: February 1987-September 1989. Barrytown, New York, Station Hill, 1994.

Barnesbook, from works by Djuna Barnes, cover art by Anne Tardos. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1996.

20 Forties: 20 Poems from the Series "154 Forties" Written and Revised 1990–1999. Gran Canaria, Zasterle Press, 1999.

Recordings: A Reading of Primitive and Archaic Poems, with others, Broadside; From a Shaman's Notebook, with others, Broadside.


The Marrying Maiden: A Play of Changes, music by John Cage(produced New York, 1960) Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1999.

Verdurous Sanguinaria (produced New York, 1961) Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Southern University, 1967; Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1999.

Thanks: A Simultaneity for People (produced Wiesbaden, 1962)

Letters for Iris, Numbers for Silence (produced Wiesbaden, 1962)

A Piece for Sari Dienes (produced Wiesbaden, 1962)

Thanks II (produced Paris, 1962)

The Twin Plays: Port-au-Prince, and Adams County, Illinois (produced New York, 1963) New York, Mac Low and Bloedow, 1963.

Questions and Answers … A Topical Play (produced New York, 1963) New York, Mac Low and Bloedow, 1963.

Asymmetries No. 408, 410, 485 (produced New York, 1965)

Asymmetries, Gathas and Sounds from Everywhere (produced New York, 1966)

A Vocabulary for Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim (produced New York, 1977) New York, Mac Low, 1968.

Two Plays (includes The Marrying Maiden and Verdurous Sanguinaria). Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1999.

Performance Scores and Broadsides (published New York, Mac Low): A Vocabulary for Sharon Belle Mattlin [Vera Regina Lachman, Peter Innisfree Moore], 1974–75; Guru-Guru Gatha, 1975; 1st Milarepa Gatha, 1976; 1st Sharon Belle Mattlin Vocabulary Crossword Gatha, 1976; Homage to Leona Bleiweiss, 1976; The WBAI Vocabulary Gatha, 1977, revised edition, 1979; A Vocabulary Gatha for Pete Rose, 1978; A Notated Vocabulary for Eve Rosenthal, 1978; Musicwords (for Phill Niblock), 1978; A Vocabulary Gatha for Anne Tardos, 1980; Dream Meditation, 1980; A Vocabulary Gatha for Malcolm Goldstein, 1981; 1st [2nd] Happy Birthday, Anne, Vocabulary Gatha, 1982; Unstructured Meditative Improvisation for Vocalists and Instrumentalists on the Word "Nucleus," 1982; Pauline Meditation, 1982; Milarepa Quartet for Four Like Instruments, 1982; The Summer Solstice Vocabulary Gatha, 1983; Two Heterophonics from Hereford Bosons 1 and 2, 1984; Phonemicon from Hereford Bosons 1, 1984.

Radio Writing: Dialog unter Dichtern/Dialog among Poets, 1981, Thanks/Danke, 1983, Reisen/Traveling, 1984 (all Germany); Locks, 1984.

Composer: Incidental music for The Age of Anxiety by W.H. Auden, produced New York, 1954; for The Heroes by John Ashbery, produced New York, 1955; for his Words nd Ends from Ez; The Ten Bluebird Asymmetries, 1967; Tranverse Flute Mime Piece, 1981; A Bean Phenomenon for Alison Knowles, 1984; The Birds of New Zealand, 1986; Iran-Contra Hearings, 1987; Ezra Pound and 99 Anagrams, 1989; Fieldpiece, 1996; Dream Other People Different, 1997.


Critical Studies: Jackson Mac Low issue of Vort 8 (Silver Spring, Maryland), 1975, and Paper Air (Blue Bell, Pennsylvania), 2(3), 1980; "Jackson Mac Low: The Limits of Formalism" by Ellen Zweig, in Poetics Today (Durham, North Carolina), 3(3), summer 1982; "Jackson MacLow: Samasara in Lagado" by Steve McCaffery, in North Dakota Quarterly (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 55(4), fall 1987; "Poetics of 'Systematic Chance' and 'Instructions': 'Gatha' Series by Jackson Mac Low" by Nasashi Nosaka, in Language and Culture (Sapporo, Japan), 21, 1991.

Theatrical Activities: Actor: Plays —in Tonight We Improvise by Pirandello, New York, 1959, and other plays.

Jackson Mac Low comments:

I consider myself a composer of poetry, music, and theater works.

I do not think that I belong to any particular school of poetry, but my work, especially that of 1954–80, is closely related to that of such composers as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and La Monte Young, and it has close affinities with the work of such concrete poets as Emmett Williams.

While my earliest work (1937–40) uses mostly free verse and experimental forms, the poems between 1940 and 1954 tend to alternate between traditional metrical forms (and variations on them) and experimental forms, most of which are varieties of free verse. From 1954, however, the poems, plays, and "simultaneities" incorporate methods, processes, and devices from modern music, including the use of chance operations in composition and/or performance, silences ranging in duration from breath pauses to several minutes, and various degrees of improvisation by performers. Many of the works are simultaneities—works performed by several speakers and/or producers of musical sounds and noises at once. These range from completely instrumental pieces (e.g., "Chamber Music for Barney Childs," 1963; "Winds/Instruments," 1980) through works combining speech and other sounds (e.g., Stanzas for Iris Lezak as simultaneity, 1960), to ones involving only speech (e.g., "Peaks and Lamas," 1959). Other features include indeterminacy (the quality of a work that is in many ways different at every performance) and various degrees of "syntacticalness," ranging from structures that are essentially strings of unrelated words to ones that are partially or fully syntactical in the ordinary sense of the word. Works after 1960 use various proportions of chance and choice in composition and performance. Some performance poems (e.g., "Velikovsky Dice-Song," 1968; "A Vocabulary for Annie Brigitte Gilles Tardos,"1979) incorporate multiple slide projections or films.

After November 1981 most of my poems and prose works have been written directly (without use of chance operations or similar systems), although some chance operations have been employed in composing performance works. Performers' choices usually figure largely in performances of the latter. I have also written and recorded four radio works—three for Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne (1981, 1983, and 1984) and one for a production group in New York (1984).

*  *  *

Jackson Mac Low's multifarious activities as an artist are all directed toward the exploration of limits and boundaries, the boundaries between poetry and music, poetry and drama, even poetry and dance, or, taken differently, the limits of the ego, of will, of meaning, of significant order. Although he has written in traditional metrical forms and continues to write in an uninhibited variety of free verse that he calls "spontaneous expression," his most characteristic work is an investigation of indeterminacy, chance, and improvisation. His language frequently breaks down to the phonemic level and becomes pure sound. Its meaning derives directly from its structure rather than—like traditional poetry—from its semantic content. In a world in which all meaning appears to become increasingly statistical, the evidence of Mac Low's poetry is of central importance.

The sources of Mac Low's work are diverse. He was educated as a neo-Aristotelian at the University of Chicago, and in a sense he remains a classical formalist. He is, however, also a self-proclaimed anarchist and, like John Cage, has been heavily influenced by Buddhist thought. His practice embodies these ideas in microcosm with remarkable consistency by creating works, as he says, "wherein both other human beings & their environments & the world 'in general' (as represented by such objectively hazardous means as random digits) are all able to act within the general framework & set of 'rules' given by the poet 'the maker of plots or fables' as Aristotle insists—not necessarily of everything that takes place within that framework!"

At its simplest Mac Low's theory produces work like "The Phone Poems," a suite of randomly generated variations on one of his spontaneous poems. Mac Low, however, is primarily a performance poet, and many of his most characteristic works—the gathas and other similar pieces written on graph paper, for example—are not well published. ("5th Gatha" in America: A Prophecy, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha, 1973, is one of the most widely available examples of these works.) In the grid poems he typically selects words or phrases at random from a vocabulary source and arranges them on the grid by predetermined rules. In performance this "score" becomes the basis for rule-governed improvisation. Although the rules vary from piece to piece, Mac Low always insists that it is an exercise in listening, and the performers are asked to give careful attention to the overall form as it develops and to try to contribute to the dynamics of the whole. The performance, in other words, becomes an exploration of group psychology and social order.

In 22 Light Poems, which is perhaps Mac Low's most beautifully conceived book, the central device is a more or less randomly prepared chart that is keyed to playing cards. "1st Light Poem" is purely a result of random selections from the chart. Others admit "coincidental" input from the environment in which the poem is written (a radio, for example), allow concrete events to stand in place of poems, or freely mix the poet's own spontaneous expression with random material. In one of the light poems written after the publication of the book Mac Low allows his numerous typing errors to stand. Despite the indeterminacy, however, 22 Light Poems, as well as imaginative realizations of the dances in The Pronouns, withstand rigorous formal analysis. Order, given an opportunity, thrives.

Since the early 1980s Mac Low has written increasingly without the employment of the chance methods that had earlier been a primary feature of his work. The effect of the change is not as dramatic as one might expect. The newer work is as startlingly abrupt and surprising as the old. The random and the chosen converge on a space of language that seems to be itself a powerful source of creative production. The poem entitled "Various Meanings" begins,

   The bottom of a green arras extends a vocabulary
   whose rest is deep and boundless moving through space
   and the stars. From time to time we lost the noise of an edge
   where we were plagued by nocuous effects and then moved on
   toward a dominant object.

At once self-reflexive and completely unpredictable, the poem unfolds by finding its cues for continuation from its own vocabulary and rhythm.

Mac Low's work adduces cogent evidence that the classic Western attitudes toward meaning derive from categorical distinctions that result alternatively in the radical isolation of consciousness and in ruthless exploitation of the external world. As Mac Low conceives it, the act of the poem, rather than isolating the poet in his vision, opens free and useful intercourse between the poet and the external world.

—Don Byrd