George Quasha: from 'Poetry in Principle' being a mind-degradable manifesto with some thoughts on Mac Low, Antin, and others
I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to issue a manifesto like in the good old days, but any such assertion nowadays always seems to splinter into its ambiguities, leaving the motivating impulse unmanifest. The burden of poetic process is how easily it spoils even the finest dogma. However, if one located a principle that exists outside as well as inside art, stating it would not be a manifesto but a poignant observation.
Heroes of Mind-degradability
We’ve lost so many of the greatest (re)thinkers of poetic possibility in recent years that it’s important to keep reading out from their gifts and to rethink our own work in relation to them. Powerful among these are certain poets whose work literary critics and historians once doubted was poetry at all (deniers remain) — a distinction not in itself limiting, as there are ample instances past and present: Blake’s Milton and Jerusalem had virtually no readers in his time. David Antin and Jackson Mac Low are especially on my mind here, along with Franz Kamin, the latter by far the least known of the three. Their work was not based on literary models but an exploration of principles that required a radical revisioning of language. Some of these principles are hardly limited to language art, narrowly defined.
It’s a curious moment to be thinking about these matters as we awake daily to find out what major mischief our country is falling into now. It takes a special effort of mind to keep a focus — a double vision really — that both recognizes a terrifying process underway and nevertheless stays tuned to another vision of possible being. Yet we return to this and related sites for what goes by the vexed name poetry — a name in dispute from many sides and within itself, ranging from accusation to Mental Warfare, Blake’s term for the crucial alternative to Corporeal Warfare. Which of these represents the recurrent and newly resurgent Poetry Wars?
Poetry has always excited antithetical passions, which pretty clearly attests to its fundamental power, however little it figures in the consciousness of our society at large. There’s the ever-present question, which heats up at times like this, of how poetry can have an effective social role or “be relevant,” and the discussion reflected recently in social media shows that many think the issue can be resolved by leaving behind one kind of poetry, say, Conceptual writing, and embracing another, like a species of socially engaged writing. Often poets still seem to believe in these abstract distinctions as what matters, that a particular group or movement will make the difference, or that one approach or theory will win the debate. There’s no escaping ideology and there’s no denying the charge it carries. Yet when we look at powerful work it’s not so easy to characterize its genre or social position; it might have taken the charged issues into its language body and done something outside the categories we use in order to think.
I’ve written about Jackson Mac Low (1922–2004) on this site before in conjunction with John Cage, but I want to think of him now in the context of a poetry of principle. We call him not only poet but composer, performance artist, playwright, and in addition to the usual string of identifiers we could add political activist, anarchist, experimentalist, artist, and more. It’s hard not to use these abstract framing terms in our zeal to represent intricate identity in so radical and influential a practitioner, but he deserves better: we need to read him beyond what we already know. His work is hard to encompass in categorial description because he was always working on the outside of definition, even his own. Despite what some may think encountering his work, or the poet’s often elaborate notational commentary, it was not the product of concepts, rules, and theory as such; he used strict procedures to work through and test out theories and concepts connected to philosophical issues that excited, preoccupied, and perplexed him, and he oriented them toward opportunities for unrepeatable solo and group performance, which emphasized refined listening. His body of work is huge and, true to the person, full of contradictory extremes with contrasting dynamics — e.g., the systematic chance operations of Stanzas to Iris Lezak vis-à-vis what at the time was an almost alarming intimacy in Odes to Iris; performance “vocabularies” and processual thinking in the Light Poems, etc. At the center of all this was a writing practice serving as full-scale pervasive life practice. It was driven by a commitment akin to religious devotion yet without dogma or even belief; in fact, it was simultaneously meditative, mantric, proto-Buddhist, fiercely skeptical, politically activist, philosophical at root, and intimately personal. He’s viewed as a forerunner of/influence on Language poetry (a term he respectfully argued with) as well as Conceptual writing, included in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, an invaluable and historically revisionist collection edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (2011). You could say Mac Low contained multitudes including the poetry wars in his own body electric, although he was too modest and thoughtful to say a thing like that about himself. In my experience with him, he was uncontentiously responsive to the work of others beyond genre or fashion.
At twenty-two in NYC I met Jackson at the same time as David Antin (along with Jerome Rothenberg, Paul Blackburn, Diane di Prima, Diane Wakoski, Armand Schwerner, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, et al.) at Café Le Métro on 2nd Ave. where as a senior at NYU editing the student magazine Apprentice (begun by Blackburn years before) I would go most weeks to the readings. They fascinated and tormented me. At fourteen in Miami, Florida I had suddenly realized I was a poet the moment I heard the mysterious and to me incomprehensible words, read aloud by a friend late one night, “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past …,” and years later I was still carrying The Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens in my back pocket; so I kept returning to Le Métro to find out why this also was poetry. It hit home one day that its not seeming to be poetry was one of its actual powers.
Jackson had set up a reading in which there was no apparent reader, as readers were spread out through the ample audience and uttering fragmentary phrases in no discernable pattern; it was eerie to me as I’d never conceived of such a thing. But not only to me. A cop came in to inspect the place under orders from “City Hall” to crack down on cafés as violators of the cabaret law, which required an expensive license (out of range to coffee-serving establishments patronized by indigent poets, some even sneaking in whiskey). I was standing in the back, all seats already occupied, and happened to see the cop, obviously confused and nervous amidst sourceless voices in unaccountably reverent quiet, go up to Moe, the proprietor, and say, “I’m issuing you a citation!” “For what?” countered Moe. “I don’t know but it ain’t right!”
Jackson wasn’t the only enigma; David and others read texts that I found perplexing as well. After all, I was spending the rest of my week reading the Metaphysical poets, Chaucer, Beowulf, and the like. The turn came one day as I was walking along Waverly Place and it suddenly hit me with startling force that I could no longer deny that Jackson Mac Low and David Antin et. al. had changed everything for me. Like that day in Le Métro, the chair where the poet sits was empty but new sounds were everywhere. I was at a loss to say what it all meant but it no longer mattered.
My story is not particularly remarkable except as an instance of the way poetry can be powerful in a certain frame, which is to say not only in the grand categories of understanding and influence but in discretely important ways to oneself at a given time and place. Beyond the “personal” but not beyond the experiential. Poetry at different points has reoriented my sense of myself and what it means to have a life work centered in questionable language. Poetry may be a life accident waiting to happen and poets are probably born and made, trapped and liberated by the prison-house/stormed-Bastille of language, and subject to unanalyzed psychonautic insight. Whatever its possible social function it could never not be the site where being sees what it is, or as Stevens wrote, “The poem of the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice….”
What sort of mind-action is the poem and what are the implications?
The strong devotion many of us still feel to Jackson Mac Low is due in part to an experience of his readings and performances, which bespoke a path in poetry but also a way of being grounded in listening. After performing with him or being present in a performance we heard language differently, as materially different as going from New York’s air to the Yucatan’s where you breathe the ocean at one moment and a Mayan ruin at another. To listen was to be instructed. Jackson’s reading did not strive for stylistic effect or attempt to persuade or impress but to realize actual qualities of voiced language that require “the body itself — one’s own ‘corpus,’” as Charles Olson said in Proprioception, “the cavity of the body.” The principle that drives this level of realization is hard to characterize but it has to do with an actual power of the poetic that recreates the reader/listener — creates not by way of a literary persona but an impersona, a new and possible receptive intelligence inside one’s own body and mind. You could describe it as momentarily getting free of one’s own identity just by being fully present there in the performative language sounding in space.
Early on Mac Low had the issue of getting beyond ego or the limitations of self, which had a Buddhist and anarchist resonance, and it motivated the procedural work with systematic chance operations. But he noticed that the self did not change much, let alone disappear. In my view he accomplished what is most important in that concern, namely, that by realizing an intention of the work to be itself transformatively, the issue of self faded away or, rather, woke to a species of non-duality by which self and non-self, poem and world, language and mind are experienced as inseparable. His performance work as well as his textual realizations took the powerful lessons of the procedural work into his greatest reinvention of writing. I first became aware of this development in Bloomsday, which we published at Station Hill Press in 1984, but it continued in a number of works after that and found its fullest realization in Forties, which Franz Kamin alerted me to as the “greatest Mac Low”; the first book was 20 Forties (Zasterle, 1999) and the final magnificent full edition edited by Anne Tardos, 154 Forties (Counterpath, 2012). What was so startling and for me reorienting was that the procedural work had transmuted into an unheard of species of processual, intuitive, spontaneous textual performativity. Jackson’s “language mind” now fully embodied the long-evolving experience of his work. This helped me conceive what I was understanding as principle — especially an axial principle of radical centering within language and the voice. It’s self-organizing with a free-moving zero point, and “self” discovers self-variance in response to the surround.
[Reposted from the full essay, which can be found at the Harriet web site: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/04/poetry-in-principle/.]