by Karl Young
Open Secrets, by Jackson Mac Low. CD recording, approximately 74 minutes. 1993. Experimental Intermedia Foundation / 224 Centre Street / New York, N.Y. 10012. $12.00.
Despite the extensive notes on performance in Mac Low's published works, the print medium tends to emphasize text, and to push performance into the background. There is an advantage to this: Mac Low has admonished readers and performers to speak and hear words and phonemes clearly and carefully, as they would in serious speech, and to pay particular attention to their significance, no matter how unusual their configuration might initially seem. This should keep the texts from drifting into abstract sound. This is further complicated by several Mac Low works of recent years that were composed as text, not intended for performance. For those who have not heard or taken part in performances, the texts or scores in isolation can skew the proportions of the work in the other direction, away from the equally important dimensions of performance. Even in those recent works meant simply as text, I doubt that they can be fully understood without a sense of Mac Low's approach to performance. At least a dozen recordings of Mac Low performances have been available for sale during the past three decades, but most of these have not been much more widely distributed than the tapes that have circulated among Mac Low's friends.
More than any of the recordings I've heard, Open Secrets stresses the cooperative base and shared joy of performance. In the liner notes, Mac Low writes "Performers are asked always to listen attentively to other performers (live or recorded) and to ambient sounds, and to produce vocal sounds (usually linguistic elements) and/or instrumental tones, in relation to all they hear. They must often fall silent and listen. By exercising invention, sensitivity, tact, courtesy and 'virtuosity without ego-tripping,' they make each detail contribute significantly to the total sonic situation." Mac Low has been writing performance instructions for three decades, and the notes for this recording may be seen as an advanced stage of the instructions he has been working and re-working throughout his creative life. I don't think anyone has written better commentary on Mac Low than he has himself in these notes, nor has any theoretical discussion of contemporary poetry packed as much into such brief form. The performances in the recording show how precise these instructions are, and what kind of results they can produce.
Mac Low performs many of the pieces in this recording with his wife and long time collaborator, Anne Tardos. In many pieces, several recordings of the two artists are superimposed, so that there are as many as eight vocal lines going on simultaneously, albeit spoken by only two voices. The disk begins with 1st Milarepa Gatha, which exemplifies this two voice, eight vocal line development. Mac Low's Gathas make up an opus that has grown considerably since its inception in 1961. Most of the Gathas were composed on quadrille (graph) paper using systematic chance processes. Those written before 1973 were all based on mantrams. Instructions for performance vary from one Gatha to the next, and these, in turn, have evolved over time. The word "hymn" roughly translates the traditional meaning of the Sanskrit term "Gatha," and the spiritual nature of the work is toward de-emphasization of the individual egos of the author and the performers, to open them up to what is going on around them. In the Buddhist sense this could ultimately lead to union with all things. Mac Low does not try for anything that ambitious -- such an attempt would probably be more of an exaltation of egos than a release from them. Receptiveness is accomplishment enough.
The recording of 1st Milarepa Gatha. is relatively short, and a good introduction to the pieces that follow. Frequently, Mac Low and Tardos simply utter phonemes or the names of letters. There is little repetition in this sequence, and individual words sometimes float in isolation on the ground of phonemes. Some sounds are prolonged or intoned in pitch sequences, slightly reminiscent of liturgical chant. Superimposition of some of these prolonged sounds from several recordings form choruses with haunting harmonies. During the first minute or so of the recording, sounds are relatively sparse, but grow in density through the Gatha. By listening carefully for passages where the voice lines are not superimposed, you can hear how easily and freely Mac Low and Tardos work together, responding to each other and building each on what the other is doing without making demands, competing, or doing anything else that would violate the cooperative orientation of the Gatha. The superimposition of the four separate recordings, however, reduces the individuality of each recording. The most interesting thing about this recording is the way in which the performers relate to each other even across recordings.
In the notes for Milarepa Quartet For Four Like Instruments, Mac Low says that this "fully notated composition may be played on any four instruments of the same kind and range." In this case, four flutes. I'm not sure I follow the liner notes on this one, and I'm not particularly worried about that. Though it should be noted that the work began in "translating" successive letters into musical notation. The piece, without a vocal line, suggests more or less traditional work such as Stravinsky's Octet For Wind Instruments in its sprightly melodic riffs, as well as more circular and even minimalist forms of contemporary music, augmented by polyphonic delights that often suggest intentional counterpoint. This polyphony parallels, and makes more apparent, the multiple lines of the vocal pieces, and may suggest medieval to Baroque composers from Duffay to Ockeghm to Palestrina to Bach. As is the case with the composers of the past, polyphony suggests volume. Perhaps this sense of volume, of sonically defined space, contributes to the openness of Mac Low's other work on this disk.
Thanks builds on 1st Milarepa Gatha. In this case, there are only three superimposed recordings, but sound density and complexity is greater due to the longer components employed. These components come from Tardos's multilingual writing, passages in Hungarian, sequences from Mac Low's Forties, and an issue of Wordperfect magazine and other sources. The comedy of phrases like "search and replace," and "oratory nincompoop Palladian damson damsel" is reinforced by Tardos's speaking words and phrases such as "une chanson," "King Kong," and "Infodeck" as though they were words in a language she didn't understand and was trying to figure out, and by Mac Low's studiously hesitant delivery of several phrases.Perhaps the most delightful sound in this sequence is a growl vocalized by Tardos, probably as a realization of the letters "gr." This growl is not aggressive or threatening or angry or erotic or cute -- it's just plain fun. This piece is full of repetitive passages that take the place of the semi- liturgical choruses of 1st Milarepa Gatha. The frequentrecurrence of phrases from Wordperfect should make this piece somewhat more amusing for anybody who uses a computer, whether they use WordPerfect software or not.
Winds/Instruments (1980) brings together the vocal developments and the music of the preceding pieces and adds narrative.A narrator reads a text from which the notation for vocal and instrumental sounds has been derived, while the speakers and musicians work around the narrative. In the liner notes, Mac Low stresses "the need for the narrator always to be heard clearly." The narration is not always clear to me in this recording. I'm not sure whether the failure in this instance is the result of my inability or failure in recording or in performance. It is possible that the ones who have to hear the narrator are the other performers, not an audience. Whatever the case, this piece stresses continuity and development. The sense of narrative, the feel of the narrative voice, never leaves the piece, even if the narrative line does. If we take narrative to mean the succession of events, each following from what came before, this underscores a basic quality in many of the other pieces which may seem incoherent to some people, but which progress not through syntactic development or logical dialectic, but through the cooperative efforts of the performers. In such instances, the story is not something they're telling about other people, but something they're acting out on an improvisatory basis.
The composition of 38th and 39th Merzgedichte In Memoriam Kurt Schwitters (1989) employed not only numerous sources but also the text-generating computer programs DIASTEXT, DIASTEX4, and TRAVESTY. (I believe these programs are available as shareware and may be downloaded from several internet and BBS sources.) The piece is made up largely of phonemes, fractured words, and abstractions. Much of the lexically complete material is in German, which moves it away from immediate comprehension by North Americans not fully fluent in that language. That many of the phonemes and fragments sound distinctly German, not English, has some strange disjunctive implications, given the close relations between the two languages. Unlike the preceding pieces, harshness, aggressiveness, insistence, sharp attacks and snipped closures abound in this piece. Since these characterize Schwitters' Merzgedichte, Mac Low's loyalty to his source is clear and appropriate. I asked Mac Low about this, and he traced an interesting development of this characteristic. The score included many letters in upper case, and this notation governed the loud, aggressive tone of the performance.
The conceptualization of Phoneme Dance In Memoriam John Cage is the simplest and most severe of the pieces on this disc. The performers may only use the phonemes in John Cage's name: "/dj/, ah/, n/, k/, and /ei/." This may seem a difficult limitation, but Mac Low and Tardos nonetheless explore the possibilities of these five phonemes with great freedom and range. Mac Low's virtuosity in vocalizing phonemes and Tardos's spontaneity find their most prominent showplace in this piece. The simplicity of conceptualization make this a fitting memorial to John Cage.
Lucas 1 To 29: For One Or More Instrumentalists (In Memoriam Morton Feldman And For The Musicians Of Germany) (1990) takes its origin from the Lucas number sequence: 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18, 29, and its reverse. This is a sequence that builds on itself (1 + 3 = 4, 3 + 4 = 7, etc.). A piece for musical instruments only, the piece is built on durations, measured in seconds, and a system by which the performers move to entirely different pitches. Given the time frames and the need to change pitch, this piece has a decidedly static quality found in none of the other works on this disk. Long silences, abrupt unions and decisive ceasations create an astringently contemplative impression that seems to go in precisely the opposite direction of Winds/Instruments and the vocalized pieces, and even the Schwitters piece which emphasizes unity despite its disjunctions. More than any other piece on the disk, this work demands what Mac Low calls "bare attention" -- without that kind of close attention to individual sounds, this piece would tire and irritate nearly any listener.
Free Gatha 1 (1978) and Free Gatha 2 (1981), composed without the aid of nonintentional processes, joined together as one piece, and further doubled by superimposing one recording over another, this piece makes a pleasant conclusion to the disk. Elements from previous pieces are reprised, but the work makes no attempt at summary. The piece simply points out that there other possibilities to explore.
In discussing this disk, I have had occasion to refer to many artistic techniques, including many not usually associated with avant garde poetry and music in recent years. How often does a commentator on contemporary art find himself mentioning harmony, counterpoint (the real thing, not the grossly abused and excessively vague metaphor), liturgy, narrative, etc.? Well, they're not that unusual for many avan- gardists whose work is largely pushed aside by some of the more bellicose and colonialist cliques. But these features show how open Mac Low has been to many forms of art, from many different cultures and epochs, no more limited by his own time than by the past.
This is an intimate recording. The naturally limited vocal range of the two main performers contributes to the intimacy, and helps to unify the pieces in which Mac Low and Tardos perform. Despite the wide range of techniques and expression on the disk, careful selection, the rapport of the performers, and the limited vocal range make it a unified work in itself, rather than a collection of pieces related only by authorship or subject.
The disk, however, leaves a couple vital areas underrepresented. Performances with a larger number of performers with wider range are missing. Perhaps this is appropriate in that Mac Low has been concentrating more on duo performances with Tardos in recent years. It does, however, leave out the dimension of collaboration with a larger number of people. More importantly, you don't get the sense of spontaneity and energy of live performance from these recordings. That is, of course, partly beyond the capacity of audio recording, even when the recording is of a live, unedited or augmented performance. To some extent, Mac Low makes up for this by the overdubbing -- achieving sound patterns that could not be produced in live performance. If the recording encourages those listeners who have the opportunity to attend or take part in Mac Low performances, then the recording tends toward a form of completion -- which is to say a new opening onto open secrets.
Words nd Ends from Ez. Avenue B Books, P.O. Box 542, Bolinas, CA, 94924. 1989. 93 pp.
My reading of this book goes in a number of directions different from Open Secrets. I haven't seen a number of the scores for
Open Secrets. With Words nd Ends, I have the printed texts, but have never heard any parts of the work performed. Having heard many live and recorded Mac Low performances, and taken part in performances of some over several decades, I can hear these pieces with my inner ear. This initially seemed one of Mac Low's most important performance pieces, in part because it seems uniquely suited to Mac Low's abilities as a virtuoso vocalizer. My first impression was that the book lacked performance notes because few people other than Mac Low would have the skill to perform it without extensive rehearsal. But, since Mac Low has produced a number of works in recent years simply as text, Words nd Ends could have been meant as nothing more than text, and that what I could hear in my imagination as Mac Low's performance might just be a personal projection and hence a secondary work rather than a reading of the work on its own terms. So I checked this out with Mac Low. He said that he'd performed the complete work once, and parts of it many times, but no recording of it had been released, and he couldn't find the tapes he made himself. He said that he thought he read it pretty much as he read other works with which I was familiar.
This came as a relief to me. This may be Mac Low's strongest tour de force of broken phonemes and tight fractures beautifully worked against clear and easy melodic runs in what seemed to be solo form. Even Pound's frequent use of tags from languages other than English carried over into Words nd Ends, following Mac Low's poems based in Schwitters and the poly-lingual work with Tardos in recent years, the different colors of different languages moving in and out of each other in a dance both stately and unpredictable. Its sparcity and in some ways its intransigence make it seem a sort of counterweight to the extravagance and fullness of Stanzas for Iris Lezak, to me the most wonderful love poem written in English during this century. A memorial celebration should have a different character, as does the memorial to John Cage on the Open Secrets CD.
Another unique, and perhaps largely personal, factor in my reading of Words nd Ends is that for me Pound and Mac Low have been the two great ''revealers'' of the century, people who more than any other opened up huge new areas of creative possibility. In both cases, the first stage of revelation was through sound. But this reached out into all sorts of areas of thought, action, and practice too complex to go into at any length here. One of the last large scale and unusual results was discovering CHAOS theory about a decade ago, and finding myself completely at home in it -- both Pound and Mac Low had been preparing me for it for years, to the point where some of the pronouncements by people working in the area seemed rather trivial in comparison to the deep reach into replicant forms and alternative orders in either artificial (Pound) or aleatory (Mac Low) fractures. When I was younger, a number of people tried to explain Pound in terms of collage and montage, which also seemed feeble in comparison to the disjunctures, and, more important, recombinations in The Cantos. Fortunately, virtually no one was churning out reductionist explanations of Mac Low when I first encountered him.
A major difference between the two poets is that Pound usually wrote for solo voice, even though he could extend its range beyond anything anyone could reasonably expect. Mac Low could do solos too, but much of his work was oriented toward group performance, not simply as chorus, but including invention by all the performers involved.
One of the ways Words nd Ends "give[s] thanks to the spirit of Pound" seems to be precisely that it is a solo, and one which demands a great deal of virtuosity by any performer. Many of the fractures and shifts in emphasis that make this more appropriate as a solo, are based in Mac Low's diastic method for selecting words and ends, and in Pound's name. The "z" in "Ezra" is the one that brings out the oddest letter strings, and since it is one of the least used words in the spelling of most of the languages used in The Cantos, it tends to limit the possibilities for extracting sequences of letters. However, Mac Low capitalizes all the letters used in the diastically extracted sequences, which makes simple, whole words appear strange on the page, and this would probably alter most performances. In addition, if these letters are all given an exact value, that is, if the performer pronounces them exactly the same no matter how they would normally be pronounced in the words in which they occur, the repetition will produce a rhythmic pattern, reiterated through the work. In performance notes for other works, Mac Low suggests such typographic cueing procedures.
Mac Low says that the book "give[s] thanks to the spirit of Ezra Pound." In many of the performance notes that Mac Low has reworked so often, he includes a passage asking the performers (and by extension, the audience) to pay close attention to the meaning of the words spoken, and to their interrelation, even if these seem strange or absurd. Further, in a note to me, Mac Low wrote that in his performances he was ``keeping to the exact text & the foreign-lang/ sounds. Not aggressive excep wen Ez is, & not too overemphasizing that.'' As unfashionable as it may be, I think we should take him at his word, and check out a few passages of the work in relation to the source, and as poems in their own right.
"V. From Cantos LXXII-LXXIII" is derived from two cantos written in Italian, and not printed in the edition I have with me. If I remember correctly, they were first, and perhaps only, published in this country in either Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts or Unmuzzled Ox, my copies of which are in storage. I can't check Mac Low's working against Pound's original, and, further, since my abilities with Italian are slight at this point, I wouldn't be able to do the best analysis even if I had Pound's Italian text. For me, as, I assume, for the majority of North Americans, this could leave the reader copping out on grounds of ``opacity'' or in settling for a forceful but meaningless incantation.
My inner ear hears this read by Mac Low pronouncing it as though it were proper Tuscan. One word that may seem to jump out at the reader is "Pupetta," which suggests puppet, though coming after "pupa" = "doll" it may be "prostitute." ("Pupazzo" = puppet -- this just might be a false cognate or a slip on Pound's part, or a topical reference). In the case of "plenDore," we get something like the reverse: the word from which it is derived in almost certainly "splendore," but the capital D reveals something interesting about the word -- it suggests that "splendor," is associated with something like (sliding over to French) "plein d'ore," "full of gold." This throws us back to the beginning of The Cantos where we find
- Esté aZza,
e bRava pupA!
zO r pUro roiNa!
Erno aZza i pRigionieri.
This could suggest a link between a past Italian decadence and a new one that Pound could not recognize. There are also words that don't need much of a gloss: "Est'é" = "this is, it is;" "truppa" = "troop, rank and file;" "puro" = "pure," "brava" = "strong," "courageous," "intelligent" (probably "courageous" since it's a neighbor of the repeated "azza," which would seem to derive from "azzard" = "dare," " risk," "take the courageous step;" "Prigioneri" = "prisoners" -- becomes a real "Got ya!" word in this context, curious in the proximity of "pirito" = from "spirito," = "spirit," "soul." After a lot of bristling consonants, and after what seems to be a heavy duty rant about troops either being or fighting dolls or prostitutes or the puppets of the allies, resulting in imprisonment, and perhaps "total ruin," if "puro roina" could be read as "puro rovina." The poem ends with the all vowel "ioia," probably from "gioia" = "joy, delight, happiness."
- "in the gloom the gold
Gathers the light about it."...
The original is probably forcefully cadenced, as is this working, and so, I imagine, is Mac Low's reading. It includes a couple rhymes and some other tight patterns of consonance and assonance. But it leaves open all sorts of uncertainties, particularly in regard to Pound's dementia and capacity to slip into self parody. Then again, it could suggest something like the remnants of a lost manifesto by Marinetti or some other form of militant bombast.
With "VI. From The Pisan Cantos: LXIV - LXXXIV," two sources are readily available; not only the printed Cantos, but recordings of Pound reading passages from them, in the Caedmon series. Here's the end of Mac Low's rendering:
This is based in the very end of "Canto LXXXIII" and in "Canto LXXXIV." It's easy enough for an American reader to hear individual words, and if you're familiar with these cantos, you probably will recognize some of the lines the words come from, though the phonemes remain a bit elusive even on going through Pound's printed text. Among many links to other parts of Mac Low's working, we have here "Pirit," from "spirit," just like "Pirito," "spirit" from the Italian cantos. I don't know if this is just an eccentricity on my part, but that "Emarked" (from "remarked") at the end is hard not to read in this context as "Embarked," which would bring us back to the beginning of "Canto I" -- the last word in Mac Low's "I. From Cantos I-XXX" is "Eparted."
till Done estminster aZ boRn the' eAstern Pparently S of ssUe
r SinC BearD E n Zoo)
eeR e to Apollo
Pagna aO 's mUsic
Estroyed tZ s gRadations
ese Are Pirit
tO y oUr
ch iN umraD Emarked:
"LXXXIV" is one of the cantos in which Pound handles shifts in voices most skillfully, moving from sneers (some in dialect) to tags from Latin, Greek, Middle English, and Chinese classics, to conversation in Italian, to a cameo of an aunt who was fond of tourism, to some hauntingly lyrical lines. Some of that lyricism comes through in Mac Low's working, letting just about everything else fall out or be transformed.
The first line is a clearly stated word, that could take on a wide range of significance and association. The second line includes a vowel phoneme before a word, in this case, a word not to trust much. The phoneme softly but decisively gives the word a push. Line three, from a sneer, remains relatively fluid, though it contains some fractured words, such as my favorite of them, reminiscent of some ofthe subversive formations in David Melnick's magnificent PCOET: "Pparently" -- followed by another slightly difficult "ssUe," which would probably include "sue" in vocalization, (beginning with a stutter in one reading) and also suggest "U.S." in its implications. Greater disjunctures in sound and significance begin in the next line, though here, as in subsequent lines, a reader without Mac Low's abilities could still read the passage without as much difficulty as many other parts of the work. The passage includes a rhyme and several potential puns ("ese Are Pirit" could pass for "ease our spirit" or "he's our pirate").
Here is the end of "IX. From Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII:"
The last section of Mac Low's work is left blank, ending, appropriately, in a long silence. We can consider this the verbal end of the book. Here lines such as "a blown husk that is finished" come through clearly, though saddly in this case, in that the other half of the equation ("but the light sings eternal") has been dropped out by the diastic progression. Still, the word "Paradiso," in two spellings, one emphasizing a letter in Pound's name, recurs several times, and it's English equivalent "heAven" also makes an appearance. "Ear" reappears several times, plural the second time, with its relative "Are." Though thin and wispy, the passage presents its share of difficulties for vocalization. As previously, note how this ends: Zagreus (Dionysus), who first appeared in "Canto 17" is still around, and, most importantly, the text ends with "Et" = "And," -- The Cantos begins with the word "And." These ends have a strong tendency to go back to beginnings, and indeed, Mac Low's poem, outside the technique used for selecting passages, is not so much a book of endings, but of new beginnings -- a gloss, a celebration, and an example of one of Pound's best known lines, "MAKE IT NEW." Mac Low's diastic method in this book looks, and reaches backwards, taking in preceding letter strings rather than those that follow the key letters. Although the work is made intrinsically retrospective in this way, it is also a way of seeking new sources.
- inteD En r Zephyrus.
(Pale yOung foUr hroNes,
y minD Ere aZe,
eaRs k StAte Paris --
NOr frUit thiNg,
's fRiends te eAch Peace wOrld?
n hUsk s fiNished
to tiDe's E
rZo hiRd n,
Over xcUse ll
Ey o Zagreus
e aRch greAt Paradiso
e suN ling,
To get a better sense of the character of this work within the context of Mac Low's opus, outside of any direct relation to Pound, let's have a quick look at a couple other Mac Low works. The following is from French Sonnets, [Black Messa Press, 1984; reprinted by Membrane Press/Light and Dust Books, 1989]. This is a work derived from a French dictionary in conjunction with Shakespeare's Sonnets. This seems a good example of a set of poems that work very well in private reading -- though it works best as private performance, with the poems read out loud. The method of composition brings repetition and something like "plot" into the poems, as Mac Low mentions in his notes on method. In this book, there are no notes on performance. The passage is from the "Tenth French Sonnet."
In this instance, part of the satisfaction of reading the work comes through the lack of fixed relations between individual words, but the flow of the poem is easy and graceful, and if you read it through once or twice, you can read it aloud as easily as the Shakespeare sonnet on which Mac Low based it. The long lines not only encourage the clarity of melody, they also increase humorous qualities in the poems. This does not get in the way of tighter patterns inside it, such as the first half of line 2, which includes a repeated word, syncopation in the second of two words framing a repeat word ("items," "times"), and consonance in the words that frame the cluster ("Nurse," "faces"). Nor do grammatical ambiguities (are "Nurse" and "anger" verbs or nouns?) cause any problems. Of the many logopoeic games involved in this passage, my favorite is speculating on how you "uncancel somersaults" -- and whether or not it matters if they're "mottled." I have not heard Mac Low read any of these poems complete, though when we were preparing the second edition, he recited phrases from it, usually chuckling. And we ended letters and notes to each other then and for some time after with quoted phrases, as we had on other occasions when the source was clear -- but this time around Mac Low included a couple from the notes on method of composition that seemed to take on an odd cast in the context in which we were discussing the work.
- Looked for inarched tier glass, anger tellers therein face thoughtless violets
Nurse items therein time therein faces shoe forthwith antidotal;
Wicken-trees Friday reply illimited nurses thoughtlessly notice renters,
Thoughtlesssly down believe therein worm-shaped, uncancel somersaults mottled.
Forecastles while items shell-proof soakage falsetto wicken-trees unexplored wood-ashes
Disedged therein time offers tiers hymenopterally?
What I call dissonant fractures, that is fractures that are not sonically resolved in one way or another, appear most often in the Gathas, though these are usually balanced against clearly articulated words and phrases, and much of the poetry comes from the balance between phonemes and complete words. The "Vocabulary Gatha for Pete Rose" is a relatively simple example. Press here to see it.
In this poem, performers can pronounce complete words, such as "rose" or "spore" -- or they can utter individual phonemes or the names of letters or they can realize sounds on musical instruments. Although I can't imagine this piece performed by a large group of people, or taking on large scale proportions, it should be clear that ambient sounds in the performance room, the interrelations of performers, and a certain amount of modest body language play an important role in this piece. Body language leads naturally into fully choreographed works as The Pronouns on one hand, and on the other, to work that lends itself to larger scale choral performance, including some of the other Gathas as Mac Low arranged them between the 60s and the mid-80s.
Is That Wool Hat My Hat? takes group performance in a different direction. The work is made up of permutations of the words in the title. The title implies a rhythm, and rhythm -- carefully regulated by the performers -- governs bursts of simultaneous sound. Mac Low's set up of the score is clear enough, but in publishing it in book form, I also color-coded each line so that it would be even easier to follow and mistakes would be less likely. In this piece, reminiscent of much minimalist music, the strong emphasis on fixed rhythm and the lack of flexibility create part of the satisfaction of the work, particularly in the context of Mac Low's opus.
I'd like to end this little survey with a few words about Stanzas for Iris Lezak. Here is one example from the "Six Gitanjali" section:
Read simply as text, this poem conjures up several kinds of innocence and intimacy. "Morning" and "Gleam" contribute to that, but the poem turns on "shame" "resonant," and "eyes." Shame can suggest the blushes of young people first discovering sex together -- perhaps reminiscent of the first two acts of Romeo and Juliet. It could just as easily suggest mature partners entering into a phase of relationship where they can share things that deserve the potential harshness of the word. In either case, "resonant eyes" lead to "resonant life." It's difficult for me to speak the phrase "up come Kindle" in anything but three rising stresses. No matter what the words were, this progression of stresses could be either interesting or difficult. To me they suggest a sense of growing, or swelling, as when the heart skips a beat. These are simply personal associations, not a gloss or interpretation or a statement of anything that other readers should find. Whatever readers find in it is something on which they must collaborate with Mac Low. But since the passage seems to get quoted as often as anything else of Mac Low's, it seems safe to say that many readers get something special out of it.
Gleam in resonant life
Thee. He eyes
Gleam resonant eyes and thee. Eyes shame thee.
From up come Kindle
Thee. Of wall not
(15 seconds of silence)
Life of vain eyes
From up come Kindle
Gleam in resonant life
Here is another quote from Stanzas:
In private reading some people might read this somewhat in the same way as they might read Gertrude Stein, and lengthy passages of the work lend themselves well to this kind of reading. But less passive readings may prove more gratifying. In making an acoustic book to play as a musical instrument in performances of Stanzas, I selected the page on which this passage appeared by chance methods, deliberately chose the lines from that page, and inscribed them on a page of my performance book. (It would be interesting to compile a list of uses to which passages of Mac Low works have been put.)
- Parks relation emerging here Ice smaller tribes obtaining relation
Mamouth abounded new
Mamouth abounded Mamouth Mamouth obtaining tribes here
Complex abounded valley. Emerging
In performing Stanzas, a number of people select passages written on index cards using one set of chance methods. They use other sets to determine speed, timing, volume, and instrumentation. Each performance apparently has no choice but to be different, and each performance includes a continual series of surprises of all sorts, some of the most important occurring in periods of silence, in interaction between performers, in increased awareness of the audience, in sounds in the room and sounds coming in windows. Although the amount of total text read in any performance is small, the temper of the piece quiet, with long silences, the "orchestration" minimal, and the whole performance imbued with great delicacy, the piece suggests endless possibilities.
If Words nd Ends has an austere, retroactive base, Stanzas goes in the opposite direction. Here there is no "blown husk that is finished" -- though it does suggest that "the light sings eternal."
When Mac Low sent me my copy of Words nd Ends one of my first impressions was that such a tribute was probably unique in literary history. But there is an uncanny parallel with another work, and another set of poets. This work is Blake's Milton. Perhaps the oddest parallel between the circumstances of the two works is that, like Pound, Milton came within an ace of being executed for treason, supporting a government that opposed virtually everything Blake believed. And let's not fool ourselves about more civilized times: Cromwell's troops carried out mass murder, set up slave labor camps, and practiced mass deportations in Ireland. Although this was one of the most vicious periods of England's predation on Ireland, and Cromwell is still, in 1997, cursed by thousands of Irish people daily, the war is quite obviously not yet over. Milton went blind feverishly writing propaganda for the Protectorate and engaged in the closest thing to radio broadcasts of the day. Perhaps the most astute comment on some strands of Pound's weird politics comes not from any 20th century critic, but from Blake: "Milton was of the devil's party, but didn't know it." Of course, to understand what Blake meant by the Devil's party you have to go into some of the most eccentric Christian thinking since the middle ages. An example of the transposition to Pound would be the use of Pound in the Sandinista literacy program. Nicaragua is and has been a nation of poets, and the Sandinistas had an extraordinarily large number of Nicaraguan poets spread over a long period of time and working in many modes who could have been used as models. This becomes even stranger when we consider that the Sandinista writers' workshops produced some of the best institutional poetry ever written, not by virtue of the abilities of a tiny, elite group, but by a large number of poorly educated non-professionals, often working collectively. In saying this, I'm not dismissing the need to consider Pound's anti-Semitism and Fascist affiliations on their own terms. But a birthday party is not the place to do so, particularly when the party is for a Jewish friend and sometime fellow Anarchist. Suffice it to say here that Mac Low has come to terms with Pound, as Blake did with Milton, not uncritically, but in such a way as to find virtues more important than ugliness.
Like Milton, Pound brought many disparate traditions together, making a singular body of poetry, influencing poets who came after him, but still standing aloof from them. Blake, on the other hand, was an anti- elitist prophet. Though his fans and detractors alike seem skitterish about the subject, he either invented or foreshadowed comic books and other types of cartoons, as well as the kind of wholistic visual poetry and book art practiced by masters ranging from d.a.levy to Tom Phillips to Patricia Scobey. As the largely unacknowledged patron saint of micro-zines and cottage industry publishing, his literary and artistic legacy has worked its way through many different channels. Blake proceeded most of Anarchism's first tier of philosophers by half a century. And although Anarchists remain a tiny group today, many of Blake's proto-Anarchist ideas -- anti-imperialism, class, gender, and racial equality, the dangers of repression -- have become much more widely accepted. Neither Blake's nor Mac Low's ideas of group participation has been put into wide practice, though people are more willing to discuss them in theoretical terms.
I'm not going to claim any gift of prophecy, but my hunch is that, despite the gains in audience in recent years, full appreciation of Mac Low's work will not come for several generations.
Copyright © 1995, 1997, and 1998 by Karl Young.
An earlier draft of the comments on Open Secrets first appeared in Grist On-Line Magazine, edited by John Fowler. A draft of the complete essay appeared in Crayon 1, Festchrift for Jackson Mac Low, edited by Bob Harrison and Andrew Levy. Available from Crayon / 144 Union Street, 2nd Floor / Brooklyn, N.Y. 11231, and from Small Press Distribution.
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