Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works

Jackson Mac Low was born in Chicago in 1922. A poet, performance artist, composer and playwright, he authored over thirty books over the span of his lifetime.

A brief selection from the introductory notes to Mac Low's Stanzas for Iris Lezak can serve as a representation of his larger aesthetic concerns--chance operation, deterministic method, and nonegoic output:

"...For example, while writing "Mark Twain Life on the Mississippi Illustrated Harpers" I initially spelled out all the words on the book's spine (the seed text) by trying to take every consecutive m, a, etc., from the beginning of the book, going back, when necessary, to find the required words. That is, having found the first m word in the book, I may have had to go back to find the first a word, forward to the first r word, and possibly back once more to the k word."

In 2008, four years after Mac Low's death, Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, a collection spanning the author's entire creative life, appeared. The selection is divided into three sections. The first, spanning 1937-1954, is perhaps best regarded as a preamble to Mac Low's most exciting work, which appears in the second and third sections. Once a reader moves into these middle and later divisions, a recognized poetic landscape has essentially vanished.

Beginning in the middle period, Mac Low cultivated a creative and personal friendship with John Cage, and Mac Low adapted many of the methods Cage employed for musical composition to his poetry. Most often, Mac Low's work consists of a "seed text," which is a preexisting text, often another literary work, ranging from Ezra Pound's Cantos to the tabloid National Enquirer. Once a text is chosen, a process, like the one quoted above is applied to the text. The result is the poem. When the reader finally engages with the work, it is as a total writerly process—from the source texts Mac Low has read, what he has selected from and done to those texts, and the end result.

Performance is another key element that is represented in Thing of Beauty. The selections from "The Pronouns—A Collection of 40 Dances for the Dancers" are a great example. This poem, being an assemblage, not a sequence, of 3 x 4 index cards that are simultaneously poems and instructions for the performance of the poem, extends the possibility of chance to the realm of co-creation. Mac Low is, to a certain degree, staging the poem, rather than writing the poem. The instruction/poem card might read, "At the beginning neither tests different things, / & neither keeps any things complex; / neither does things with the mouth & eyes, / & neither discusses anything brown."

Difficulties with Mac Low's identification as a poet are often registered. Yet these conversations and debates are, perhaps, a clear indication that his work has challenged conventional notions about the supremacy of the writer.