Michael O’Driscoll: 'By the Numbers: Jackson Mac Low’s Light Poems and Algorithmic Digraphism'

[In advance of a projected publication of Jackson Mac Low’s The Light Poems (complete) by Chax Press with an introduction by Michael O’Driscoll, the following is an excerpt from O’Driscoll’s “By the Numbers: Jackson Mac Low's Light Poems and Algorithmic Digraphism” in Time in Time: Short Poems, Long Poems, and the Rhetoric of North American Avant-Gardism, 1963-2008. ed. J. Mark Smith (McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, 2013).]

The End(s) of Chance

There’s a certain irony that emerges when the author of what are often understood to be the greatest examples of twentieth-century aleatoric poetry is himself the victim of the cruel indifferences of chance. In June 1968, while at work on the final stages of his latest volume, 22 Light Poems, forthcoming from Black Sparrow Press, Jackson Mac Low wrote of delays to publisher John Martin, explaining that he’d been unable to complete his afterward to the volume because the ceiling of his study had fallen in, covering his materials and workspace in plaster, and forcing him to relocate to the adjacent bedroom.

Mac Low, it seems, had in the process misplaced the famous light chart that governed the production of those poems and the whole process ground, temporarily, to a halt.  Two months later, after some meticulous haggling between poet and publisher over typographic placement and diacritical marks, a clutch of galley proofs went astray in the postal system, forcing further delays, which were then compounded by the following event in September of that year, as Mac Low writes to Martin:

Then Sunday morning – I know you won’t believe it but the
painting rack over the bed fell on us at 7 AM & we both
nearly got killed. I got a terrible hitna head from the heavy
shelf that had overhung the bed or from one of the stretchers
– dunno which – & several bad bruises & cuts on my arms
and legs. Iris got away with a cut elbow. So I wasn’t in any
shape to do proofreading until about the middle of the week.

These highly random, certainly painful, and all too quotidian occurrences conspired to delay the project, but 22 Light Poems did, eventually, go to print in October of 1968, resulting in a visually stunning and formally innovative collection of the light poems that Mac Low had begun writing some six years earlier.

It might be no more than idle speculation, but one could presume that Mac Low had had, for the time being at least, enough of chance. Aside from the relatively minor PFR-3 computer poems written the following summer in California, his next major project, the Odes for Iris, saw Mac Low producing a body of much more conventional verse – strict syllabic quatrains of unrequited love – that, as Jerome Rothenberg has noted, “out-confesses the ‘confessionals.’” Of course, what is much more likely here is that Mac Low’s failing marriage – the central subject of the Odes – forced him to turn to an expressivist representation of his own emotional turmoil. In the 64th Ode he writes:

I’m not much surprised to find
“existential poetry”
the only kind I seem to
want to write.
Objective, systematic
chance operations gave me
many poems & pieces
in the past 

fifteen years or so, but now
I only feel like writing
living subjectivity:

is all I write, despite years
of so-called “egoless art”
chimera! noble daydream
of the proud

 who disdain to dump soul-shit
on unwary customers
& think they’re Boddhisattvas
thru restraint!

Mac Low’s being unjustifiably critical of himself and his fellow experimental artists here – the paradox of self-aggrandizing practitioners of egoless art really overstates the case – and the fact is that Mac Low did not ultimately abandon “objective” operations in the composition of his poetry and, what’s more, he had long before this moment, and even more regularly after, made use of much more conventional verse forms as well.

Nonetheless, one can trace throughout Mac Low’s career an increasing restlessness about the precise definition of “chance,” and a growing skepticism about the role the aleatoric might actually play in the composition of his works. While Mac Low speaks unselfconsciously about his use of the “objective chance operational method” in his 1961 publication “Poetry, Chance, Silence, Etc.,” in the 1980 note added to the text, he offers the following corrective to his earlier statements: “I think I used to believe more strongly in the nonegoic nature and origin of aleatoric art than I do now ... the artist’s motivation is inevitably mixed, at best – and the ego’s not really evadable. Besides, nothing would get done – the work would never get written or performed – if the artist’s ego – including, of course, the body – didn’t get it done.” Similarly, in a 1993 interview with Kevin Bezner, Mac Low notes that the “ego is inevitable. It’s always there, in one way or another. The more I’ve worked with nonintentional methods, the more I’ve seen that the ego is manifested and effectual in anything you do.” Mac Low’s sense that the artist’s ego is always at work to some degree, and that chance is inevitably, in one fashion or another, tempered by choice, leads him ultimately to distance himself from John Cage’s famously aleatoric compositional practices and to repeatedly point out that his “algorithmic work is often mistakenly thought to be chance-generated”. By 2001, in a response to Kristin Prevallet titled “The Terminology” and published in Open Letter, Mac Low declares that “the terminology has not always seemed adequate” and makes a further and more particular effort to distinguish “systematic chance operations” and “deterministic methods” from each other and those from the liminal writing process (i.e. intuitive and only partially conscious) he calls “gathering.” While Mac Low, in such later statements, limits his use of chance, for the most part, to works composed in the mid and late 1950s, he’s also careful to insist that he never rejects any of his former methods; indeed, it is the case that chance still plays a subordinate role in his later compositions, albeit always in relation to other practices. He also notes, even more importantly, that it “has been borne in on me that the last half-century of my artmaking has been the ‘site’ of a dialectic between making and letting be.” In view of such very clear statements, one might contend that what most generally characterizes Mac Low’s writing career is explicitly not the use of chance in the composition of his poetry, but rather the persistent questioning of the limits or purity of the twin poles of subjective, intentional writing (or “making”) and objective, aleatoric/deterministic methods (or “letting be”) through the deployment of a wide range of competing and interdependent authorial practices in which each challenges and gives shape to the other.

Indeed, and this is part of my point in citing the above highly confessional passage from the Odes, Mac Low’s poetic corpus is best described as “numerous,” in the sense of “multitudinous” or, as Charles Bernstein has called it, “pluriform.” While aleatoric/deterministic operations do account for an important dimension of Mac Low’s poetic output, overtly intentional and what Mac Low calls “quasi-intentional” methods – such as the above-noted practice of “gathering” – also prevail, and enjoy an equivalent status across the breadth of his career. As Bernstein suggests in a commemorative note published in a 2005 issue of Bookforum: “The multiplicity of Mac Low’s forms and his rejection of any hierarchy among the forms of poetry – objective or subjective, expository or nonrepresentational, lyric or epic – as well as his refusal to identify poetic composition with a characteristic poet’s ‘voice,’ are among the most radical aspects of his poetic practice.