a paper given at the Poetry & Pedagogy conference, Bard College, June 1999
This excerpt from the paper begins with the seventh paragraph.
The kinds of pleasure that poems may bring about are as various as the kinds of pleasure that poets may take in making them. (This is of course true also of the kinds of pain they may cause.) The reason why some poets delight in making poems in other ways-- otherwise--than others do is that they feel a need for other pleasures than those they've experienced from poems hitherto. This doesn't at all mean that they need reject the poems of others--past writers or those writing presently but not "otherwise" -- or the pleasures those poems may cause. It isn't even that some people "just delight in novelty." Some often delight in being surprised.
For instance, for more years then I care to remember I've often made verbal and other artworks by methods that insure that I will not always be in control of what comes into the works. (So what comes in may be justly said to be, to some significant degree, "unpredictable.") One group among
|In this talk, Jackson Mac Low perfectly describes the social aim (and effect) of performed piece such as "A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore" (1975): "The community made up of the performers is a model of a society that has certain characteristics that I would like to see abound in the wider society: the individual performers exercise initiative and choice at all points during the piece but are also--by listening intensely and responding to all they hear, both other performers' and ambient sounds both within and outside of the performance space -- constructing an aural situation that is not merely a mixture of results of egoic impulses, but an aural construction that has a being of its own."|
A number of such methods that I've used since 1960 may justly be called "deterministic": what happens when they are utilized is not a matter of chance if one uses them without making mistakes. (Such mistakes sometimes happened before some such methods were automated as computer programs -- and sometimes still do when I use unautomated methods -- so chance creeps in willy-nilly.)
Two groups of deterministic methods that I've often utilized make use of two texts--a source text and a seed text. (Either text may have been written by the writer herself or by others.) In one group the writer reads through a source text and finds successively words, phrases, sentence fragments, sentences, and/or other linguistic units that have the letters of the seed text as their initial letters. This group is called "acrostic reading-through text-selection methods." I devised and used some of these methods most often, but not exclusively, from May 1960 to January 1963, and occasionally since then.
The other group of deterministic methods that make use of both source and seed texts Is called "diastic reading-through text-selection methods." I first devised and utilized some of these in 1963. In using them the writer reads through the source text and finds words or other linguistic units that have the letters of the seed text in positions that correspond to those they occupy in the seed text. (The neologism "diastic" was coined on analogy with "acrostic" from the Greek words dia, through, and stichos, line. The writer "spells through" the seed text when she "spells it out"' in linguistic units having the letters of the seed text in corresponding positions.)
Another group of deterministic methods, which I began using while writing my first chance-operational works, "5 biblical poems," at the end of 1954 and the beginning of 1955, are ones in using which the writer "translates" the notes, rests, and/or other features of the notation of a musical work "into" words from some source text by either the writer or others. (As a composer I've sometimes used the opposite method of "translating" the letters and spaces of a verbal text into musical notation.)
Often such methods--chance operations and deterministic methods--are all spilled into one bin labeled "Procedures." And all of them-along with quite different kinds of works--are often dubbed "aleatory" or "aleatoric." (This is especially true in music, where works that involve various degrees and kinds of choice on the part of performers are nevertheless called "aleatoric" since the composer herself has not made all the choices!) Everything in the bin may be tainted with a contempt or dislike that may arise from the fact that the artwork is thought not to be entirely the work of the individual artist. Whatever may come into it may not be the result of choices--on whatever level--of the artist. The dislike may arise from a kind of despair or fear that the "self"--the "subject"--is being intrinsically denigrated.
Indeed, these methods and others first arose from an attempt to lessen (or even vainly to try to do away with) the hegemony of the ego of the artist in the making of the artwork. This attempt first sprang from Buddhist
|Jackson Mac Low as he appears on the jacket of Bloomsday (1984). As this talk indicates, his use of procedures to create poems is constantly, though subtly, changing.|
|photo by Richard Gummere|
What happened to me in the course of using such methods for several decades was that I realized that these methods, too, and the actions of utilizing them, are products of the ego, that the ego is inescapable except possibly when one reaches a clear and egoless state of open perception of reality. It has always been obvious that I had not reached such a state and it seems all too probable that I may never reach it. Nevertheless, I came to find these methods, and the works made with their help, valuable in themselves. Things happen while using them--valuable things--that probably could not have come about without them.
And in making "simultaneities"--poems and other verbal, verbal-musical, and musical works for groups of two or more persons in which the performers make choices among the verbal materials and/or nonverbal sounds that are given as "parts of the pieces"--I came, I still think rightly, to believe that I was making works that have a directly political value. The community made up of the performers is a model of a society that has certain characteristics that I would like to see abound in the wider society: the individual performers exercise initiative and choice at all points during the piece but are also--by listening intensely and responding to all they hear, both other performers' and ambient sounds both within and outside of the performance space -- constructing an aural situation that is not merely a mixture of results of egoic impulses, but an aural construction that has a being of its own.
Ultimately, artmaking, including the making of poems, seems to me to be primarily the making of "objects" that are valuable in themselves. One can expand this "in themselves" in many directions with various "becauses." The most obvious one is what I started with: pleasure. Artworks are valuable because they cause pleasure--kinds of pleasure not usually available from other sources. And "otherwise" artworks are valuable because they bring about new kinds of pleasure.
Social "becauses" abound: new kinds of poems, for instance, may change the ways people use and perceive language. The late Paul Connolly, following Richard Rorty, said (as quoted in the flyer for this conference) that speaking differently changes a culture and that different ways of speaking are most prevalent in poetry. This is probably true, but what guarantees that speaking differently will change our culture in ways we would find desirable?
Because I now find all writingways (and artmakingways) valuable, I've pursued two main methods in writing during the 1990s. Both of them are deeply involved with contingency. From October 1990 to early 1995 I wrote the first drafts of the poem series "154 Forties" and before and since 1995 I've been revising them. These poems were made by "gathering" words, phrases, etc., from whatever I happened to be hearing, seeing or thinking of while writing their first drafts, and revising them afterwards. Each poem comprises eight five-line stanzas which have the "fuzzy verse form" of three moderately long lines followed by one very long line, and then a short line. Although I revised their words to some extent, what I changed most were "caesural silences" and neologistic compounds. The former are notated as spaces of several different lengths within verse lines, which signify different durations of silence. Each of the latter link together two or more words and they are of two kinds, "normal" and "slowed-down" compounds, the former being read somewhat mom rapidly than single words, the latter a little more slowly. " 154 Forties" has now been transferred to my present computer and the
|Mac Low is currently working on a series based on the writings of Gertrude Stein. Are the poems in the series "determined" by the computer-aided procedures Mac Low uses to create them? Not really. "When I make sentences from the procedures' outputs," Mac Low says in this talk "the reader or hearer must exercise initiative and imagination in (to some extent) finding or making these sentence sequences meaningful. [Even w]hen I modify the output minimally, so that all of the words have the forms (tenses, cases, numbers, etc.) that Stein gave them, the reader or hearer has to 'mine' the individual 'sentences' for meanings."|
However, because I continue to find pleasure in being surprised by what I write, I now pursue several writingways involving both procedures and revision in writing "Stein," the series of poems I have been writing since mid-April 1998. I utilize chance operations or numerological operations to locate the page numbers of source texts and seed texts by Gertrude Stein in Ulla E. Dydo's Stein Reader, a collection in making which the editor had recourse to the texts' earliest manuscripts and typescripts. I usually ran them through a computer program by Prof. Charles 0. Hartman of Connecticut College, New London, which automates one of my diastic text-selection procedures. Then I usually modify the output of this automated deterministic procedure by some degree of revision. To articulate the poems in strophes I often (but not always) make use of a number sequence derived from an algebraic sequence by the French mathematician Edouard Lucas devised to test for Mersenne prime numbers and published In about 1880. This sequence 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18, 29, etc. -- determines the numbers of sentences, which arc verse lines, or of typographical lines, In successive strophes of the poems. I often employ an extension of this sequence that ascends, then descends, then ascends, etc. (e.g., 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18,29, 18,11, 7, 4, 3, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18, 29, 18, 11, 7, etc.).
When I make sentences from the procedures' outputs, the reader or hearer must exercise initiative and imagination in (to some extent) finding or making these sentence sequences meaningful. When I modify the output minimally, so that all of the words have the forms (tenses, cases, numbers, etc.) that Stein gave them, the reader or hearer has to "mine" the individual "sentences" for meanings. I recently did such minimal revision while writing the longest poem in the series, "Saying Was Anything Existing Happening (Stein 71)," which comprises 2,188 verse-line sentences grouped in many alternately ascending and descending interlocked Lucas-number strophes (as above) and occupies 55 pages of printout. However, I furthered the process of meaning making by reading each of the sentences aloud many times to decide whether it should end with a period, question mark, exclamation point or/and points of suspension and accordingly replaced or left in place the period I had placed there early in the poem making. (I will read the first page of that poem later.) Often the poems I make in these ways surprise me in many different ways. The ways I modify the results of the procedures are often functions of "bow their outputs turn out," which I can only predict In very general terms. Most of my recent ways of working-which during the 1990s, until the "Stein" series began, seldom involved either chance operations or deterministic procedures -have several things In common: they are almost always ways in which I engage with contingency, and in doing so I am often, to a large extent, "not in charge" of what happens while I do so. They often surprise me, and they almost always give me pleasure and seem to give pleasure to others.
Jackson Mac Low, New York: 22-26 March, 15 June 1999