With Jackson Mac Low: The Light Poems and other matters (personal, literary, political) 2003–2004

An exchange of emails with Jerome Rothenberg

Portion of the “light chart” by Jackson Mac Low
Portion of the “light chart” by Jackson Mac Low

01:18 PM 5/31/03 -0700

Dear Jackson —
I’m setting up a workshop for Naropa — two weeks from now — and I’m planning some reference to your works & methods as part of that. It all goes well except that I want to confirm your method for composing the Light Poems and can’t locate instructions for that. The names of light seem to conform to those in my Thesaurus though you might well have used another list, but I’m unsure what followed from that in selecting light names to go with names of those to whom poems are dedicated. I can guess this and could certainly give them (the students) some kind of modus operandi but I’d prefer that they learned precisely what you were doing.
Anyway, if too much trouble, just ignore this, but a short reply would otherwise be very useful.
Okay, & much love to you and Anne,
as always,


Monday, June 02, 2003 1:03 PM


Hi, Jerry

All the answers to your qq are printed on the last 6 pages of 22 Light Poems, including the list of  kinds of light. They’re very detailed, with an account of all relevant information as to the making of each poem. (For instance, in making most but by no means all of the poems, I drew the names of kinds of light from my 14-columned list via both the letters in each dedicatee’s name and playing cards. It would be much simpler if you could see the lists and descriptions/histories. 

If you have access to a copy of 22 Light Poems, just read those last 6 pages. You’ll learn all you’ll ever want to know about my makingways. If you do not have access to a copy of the book, I’ll have to xerox them and mail them to you. However, I’d rather not risk putting the book in the xerox machine or in the scanner. It wd probably come out ok, but I’d rather not take the chance if it isn’t necessary, though I will if you can’t locate a copy of the book. The book is well bound, so it’ll probably be ok.

No thesaurus had a look-in. I made up most of the light names but sometimes used names already in use. As I say in the first of the 6 pages, “The fact is that I used many different methods, ranging from ‘pure’ systematic chance to spontaneous expression …” The last 3 pages of the book provide a detailed description and history of each light poem’s making, etc.

I’ve made use of extremely complicated and time-consuming writingways for many years. The complications are still present but of different kinds than most of those of the ’50s thru the ’80s.

Each of the 14 columns of the list of kinds of light accords with one of the 14 different names of denominations of playing cards (ace to king + jokers), and with one of the 14 different letters in Iris and my names. All of the names of kinds of light in the poems begin with letters in our names.

If you can’t locate any copy of 22 Light Poems, I’ll xerox or scan the last 6 pp for you. Let me know. I’d be surprised if there’s no copy in the UCSD library or in your own. If not, I’ll copy the 6 last pages of the book and mail them to you. Please email your answer so I’ll have enough to time to photocopy the pages. Scanning is possible, but it would be complicated for me to do. I’d have to make photos and relearn how to make pdf files. So photocopying and mailing would be much less time-consuming.

Love to you and Diane from Anne and me. Hope you have a good time in Boulder.


06:27 PM 6/3/03 -0700

Dear Jackson —
Unfortunately my copy of walked” a few years ago, although I do of course remember that there was an account of procedures in considerable detail. What I’ll do first chance — probably tomorrow — is see whether the Library’s copy is still in place, and if not I’ll appeal to David Antin to see if his is. It also just occurs to me that the internet may also be a source, though they probably can’t get it to me in time to serve my needs at Naropa. But anyway I’m very grateful for your reply and the information you pased along and your willingness to xerox for me, which I’m hopeful and confident will not be necessary.
With much love to you and Anne,



Wednesday, June 04, 2003 7:45 AM


Dear Jerry

I'm afraid that most of my methods except free composition, e.g., the light poem for Spencer, Beate, etc. Holst, require a preliminary preparation such as the huge list of kinds of light. That involved both imagination and looking up kinds of things that could be used etc. to make light (minerals, lamps, etc.).

I used a simpler method that occurs to me (which I never wrote down) which I sometimes used in the ’70s.

Choose a kind of object, etc., == any kind of abundant things with names. (E.g., kinds of light.) Then make up instances of that kind of thing and work it into poems. Except for the first Light Poem, I think I simply composed the sentences within which the names of kinds of light appeared. I used the big chart of kinds of light in the ’60s and early ’70s, but after that I just made them up as I went along. That would be easier for Naropians. They can tell stories and everything else. They can use their imagination (as I had to do when making up the names of kinds of light and how to work them into the poems). The first light poem is (I think) is the only one wherein I simply listed kinds of light as they were given to me from my chart by both playing cards or the letters in people’s names or a combo thereof, and a random digit book (or similar means) to determine which item in the column to use in the poem.

Very few if any Naropians wd have the patience and obsessiveness to work as I did in the ’50s and ’60s. You gotta have the temperament and madness.

I lost my beautiful chart of kinds of light when someone made off with lots of my archival stuff when they took care of our loft and our cat while went to Europe. There’s a condensed form of the chart in 22 LP, which I’ve never expanded into its original form again.

Now that I’ve gotten the bug in my head, I’ll probably use our trusty Canon to make copies of the last 6 pp of 22 LP for my own use. But I’m kneedeep in a peculiar poem I’ve been working at for weeks —materials initially gathered from several widely different sources, but freely edited and revised in many ways. (Lexical words are seldom used in the forms they had in the sources.)

Love to you and Diane


03:29 PM 6/6/03 -0700

Dear Jackson —
Yes, I was over to the library and had the Special Collections people xerox the 6 pages from Light Poems. My own inclination is also to simplify with students but I would like them to have a sense of the more complicated procedures — at least a look at them.
I was also very happy to get your other messages — and especially the poem, which I’m reading with pleasure.
There seems to be no let-up in the work, and the work continues to delight me.
With love to both of you,
P.S. You’re right about the Malcolm/Stein New Yorker piece — not terrific on the poetry (awful in fact) but of considerable interest concerning the mystery of Gertrude’s and Alice’s survival under those circumstances. I’m surprised that she doesn't mention the Stein/Toklas grave site at Pere Lachaise — the usual large memorial stone for Gertrude and an unmarked grave beside it for Alice.  (But that must have been Alice’s doing at the end, having survived Gertrude by that many years.)
    The politics I more or less knew about from other sources, and I’m aware too of some of Gertrude’s sillier comments. But the poetry and other writings still knock me out.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003 3:22 PM


Dear Jerry

I’m glad you were able to photocopy the last 6 pages of 22 LP at the UCSD Special collections. They probably know how to do so without damaging the books.

Yes, for information, it’s good for them to learn what relatively labor-intensive work so-called chance operations and kindred methods may entail. Also, the ways in which personal choices enter such “impersonal” methods. Even the “strictest” following of given methods has always been for me crisscrossed with artistic choices, often ones made at liminal and subliminal levels. Such was the choice of source texts in my solely chance-operational poems such as those in Stanzas for Iris Lezak.

Because I trusted the typing from my notebooks by a woman who seemed very serious (the girlfriend of a composer friend of mine), is crammed with typos. A friend and I determined these in the early ’70s and made a large bunch of errata cards for the book, but I never had the time or opportunity to publish them. I’m not sure whether they survived the big theft of many of my archives while Anne and I were in Europe in the early ’90s, which I didn’t realize till Anne and I got together manuscripts, etc., to be sent to UCSD when they bought my archives up to 1993.)

I knew nothing about Stein’s and Toklas’s politics when I read Malcolm’s article. She’s a rather philistine ignoramus when it comes to Stein’s writings, but I’m glad she somehow ran into Ulla and her work (and Bill Rice’s invaluable help — he’s an interesting painter). I never heard about Burns before and thus haven’t read the book he and Ulla edited.

I’d only heard of previously Fay (my computer doesn’t know how to print umlaut-y’s or whatever they’re called) as a pal of GS. He must have been very agile to have survived even as a collaborator in occupied France since he was gay. (Cocteau, of course, also made it.) Despite all, I’m glad he was there, wreathed in evil, to help G & A. The worst political shock was not that they had a helpful friend who was a collaborator but that G at least was pro-Franco. Reactionary US politics is one thing, but Franco! (Of course I continued to correspond with Pound for a decade after I knew he had been pro-Mussolini and continued to be for years. {He claimed that he wasn’t anti-Semitic — that he’d “never bitched Louis [Zukovsky] or Mina Loy (Levy) — [almost right] and indeed when Jewish friends of mine visited him in the hospital, he was very cordial. We fell out in a bout ’55 when I pushed him on his antisemitism. Up till then I’d decided it was wrong to attack an old man in his paranoia.}

I’m glad you like that curious first poem in my new HSCH (Hartshorne, Stein, Carroll, Hopkins) series — I resubtitled it — it’s now HSCH 1 and I’m now at work on HSCH 2 which is quite different in both form and content.

I don’t know why I didn’t mention Duncan’s name in referring to its form, although I think it was only when I’d written most of it that I realized the lineage. Pound of course was also a source of that kind of placement of lines and sentences, but I realize that I’d done all of the basic writing of the poem before I realized wherefrom that kind of text placement entered my writingways. He turned up not only the first day I got to NYC on my 21st birthday [my U of Chi girlfriend met me at the bus station and insisted that I go with her to the apartment of Charles Glen Wallace on Bedford Street. Robert and his erstwhile wife, Marjorie McKee were there and he took over the afternoon in true voluble Duncan fashion — reading from his journals, telling gay jokes that ended with his jumping in the air holding his buttocks, remarking from his journal that Robert Frost was a fairybaiter, etc. (The latter, as well as other shocking remarks RD made then and later, all turned out to be true.)

I visited them with Charles GW a little later when they’d move to an apartment of their own, and then I ran into Charles in the village one night and he told me Charles had died by falling from a friend’s window on Leroy St. during a party. Robert also turned out to be a close friend of the woman I lived with for several years in the Village and often visited us. It turned out that Robert’s wife had “run away” with my girlfriend’s husband, so RD and I were “brothers out of law.”

And when I began to work with the pacifist-anarchist group that got out the paper Why? (later Resistance) for about a decade, he often turned up at our Saturday discussion meetings (at a Spanish anarchist loft on Broadway between 12th & 13th sts), Robert often showed up until he moved to San Francisco (he’d been born in California). Many of the founders (in 1944 of our group also moved to San Francisco. A few nights ago I attended a concert at Riverside Church in which a daughter of two of the founders — a very fine professional flutist named Diva Goodfriend-Koven — played in some of the pieces.

After Robert moved to SF (about the time that many founders of the A-P group moved there in the late ’40s), I only saw him when I was doing readings or lectures in SF. I think the last time I saw him was when he was already ill. He came to either a reading or a talk that I did at Langton St. (or both). Not long before his death, he came to NYC and Quasha wheeled him around in a wheelchair at the Met Museum and Robert called me from there and we talked for a short last time.

Curiously, the last time I spoke to Bob De Niro (father of the actor, who I met when he was a baby in 1944 because his parents [both painters] were friends of the lady I lived with then), I saw him waiting to hail a cab in front of his building on W Broadway and he said “Marjorie McKee [Robert’s erstwhile wife] is in town.” Bob died not long after that. His son own a lot of Tribeca and just put on a film festival here; he owns the building 2 doors north of ours and I think he still lives in what used to be the top-floor apartment of the man who owned our building when I moved here.

I’m interested in the degree of choice that entered the making of the LPs. And the variety of writingways and subjects. I think that even though many names of kinds of light in most of the early LPs were drawn from my big chart by random-digit and playing-card chance operations, much or all of the text between light names was freely composed. (And most if not all of those light names were made by me.)

I wish I still had the big chart from which I gleaned the kinds of light when writing many of the LPs via both random digits and playing cards (That too went with the big theft.) The lists in the book are in a condensed form necessitated by the amount of available space in the back of the 22 LP book. I wrote many LPs after I wrote those 22.

Enough of this. Are you going to photocopy those pages and hand the copies out to your students?

Love to you and Diane


[Mac Low’s web site can be found here, and my own introduction to his works appeared in my Poetics & Polemics (University of Alabama Press, 2008) and originally in Representative Works (Roof Books, 1986), if still available.]



Another installment



----- Original Message -----

From: Jackson Mac Low

To: Jerome Rothenberg

Sent: Friday, October 22, 2004 11:22 AM

Subject: Re: your letter


Dear Jerry

Thanks for your letter. Yes, I tend to ramble when I write letters. It’s partly because I’ve gotten back to writing letters relatively recently. Connections between people we both know or knew, and parts of my past life, come to mind from time to time, and I perhaps foolishly think they may be of interest to friends such as you.

I really don’t have much up-to-date news, except that Anne and I recently lived in Maine off and on —first for a couple of weeks in a place without heat and then for a month or so at Pen and Bob Creeley’s (heated adequately by an excellent wood stove), when they moved to Brown to teach. Altogether we lived there for about a month and a half that were not connected with any gigs. We wandered together in woods, followed long trails, visited nearby towns and restaurants — even bought things we needed at the astonishing L. L. Bean stores — and simply saw whatever there was to see. For us this was quite new. Trips and work — readings and the like — had always been closely and necessarily connected before. That we could go somewhere simply to experience living there was unexpectedly and delightfully new.

My life has almost always moved from one thing to another in unexpected and often accidental ways. For instance, I first met Pound’s early poetry in the main library in Chicago when I was in high school. It enchanted me. Many years later, Duncan and I crashed a reading of Williams’s in New York, and after it I asked Williams how Pound was. Soon after that, I heard from Pound directly. Then I corresponded with him for about ten years without pushing him on his anti-Semitism. (I considered it an unfortunate mental aberation.) Finally, I did raise the question, and at first he denied it. But after I inquired about some of his obviously anti-Semitic passages, his parting words were “You’ll do better as Michalovsky than Mac Low.” 

Why waste your time mentioning this? Why wander away from the present? You probably “could care less” about E. Pound. Why bother to mention that his early writings led me to modern poetry and to many important aspects of my writing career?

I thought that might be interesting to you. I’ll try to ramble less in the future.

Love and very best wishes from Anne and me to you both. (She’ll get in touch with you directly.) The ability of both of you to go out to see so much of the world impresses me and heartens me.


P.S. I strongly suggest that you find a prominent place for John Clare’s poetry and prose in your new book. His wonderful work is all too often given short shrift. (Excuse me if I’ve mistaken the period your book will cover.)

At 05:04 PM 10/20/04 -0700, you wrote:

Dear Jackson and Anne,
Diane and I were both delighted with your (rambling) letter, Jackson, though I don’t have the time at this moment to ramble on in return. Tomorrow, anyway, I’m heading up to San Francisco and Berkeley for a three-day festival, including an afternoon symposium on translation, but mostly I think to spend time with a few friends there. I’ve otherwise been busy making a proposal for the big nineteenth-century book I told you about — a chance anyway to repossess or to make new many poets and works that always seem to “belong” to someone else, & shouldn’t. I’ve even started to do my own translations of Goethe — the antireligious and very sexual ones in the Venice Epigrams, although I’m not only interested in the most transgressive stuff but certainly want to include it.
Presently anyway I’m in an inclusionary mood, which is the other side of doing this kind of book, different from what you once cautioned me about — having to do books that cut people out. So I’m wondering if either of you can think of poets or poems that you would like to see included or that you feel might otherwise be overlooked. Jeffrey Robinson and I will ultimately have to make decisions but I’m curious what others think about Romantics and what I’ve now started calling postRomantics. It seems to me that that century was full of new approaches to poetry and NOT exclusively or even mainly of the “expressive” kind.
I’m also wondering, Anne, if you've ever taken a crack at translation, because translation is going to be a principal obstacle to doing this kind of book. (Or maybe not.) And I’m wondering too if there are Hungarian poets I should attend to, besides Petrofi I mean, and even with Petrofi the need for good translation is a continuing concern.
I think you left New York before Charles Alexander brought me copies of my new book (A Book of Concealments) and certainly before another new small book (25 Caprichos) arrived from Manuel Brito in Spain. Let me know anyway and I’ll try to get both of them to you, though I don’t think I can manage the same with the Picasso book — my first copy now in hand but I don’t know how many are likely to follow.
We’ll be going soon to South America — with Cecilia Vicuña — so that’s another month away: November 11 to December 13. It seems anyway that I’ll be celebrating my birthday in Rio, which seems incredibly romantic although it probably isn’t. And that reminds me, Jackson, to wish you a bonne anniversaire, which I neglected to do in time because I don’t in fact really keep track of such things.
It’s been raining here for the last three days, and that’s very good, coming after 180 dry days, but I’m glad that it’s going to let up tomorrow and let me be in San Francisco in something like dry weather.
We miss you too and look forward to sometime soon in New York.
With much love from both of us,


N.B. Jackson Mac Low died on December 8, 2004, shortly after our final email.