“Freely Revised and Edited”: Determinism and Authorship in Jackson Mac Low

The Cunningham mesostics mark an important starting point for John Cage’s indeterminate, or chance-produced, poetry. They are, as Jackson Mac Low asserts, the point at which Cage “began to write ‘asyntactical’ mesostics” (“Cage’s Writings”  220, italics added). They, thus, serve as an important jumping-off-point for a postanarchist discussion of the relationship between indeterminate poetics and authorship. Moving, then, to Mac Low’s own work, my focus shifts, and I begin here not with Mac Low’s early poems in which he pushes the limits of chance, spontaneity, improvisation, deterministic methods, and computer systems designed to produce diastic[i] poems, but with his poetic sequence The Stein Poems, composed between 1998 to 2003, ending just a year before Mac Low’s death. Among some of the last poems Mac Low ever wrote, The Stein Poems serve as a kind of culmination of a lifetime of experimentation with indeterminacy and chance. As Mac Low himself asserted in a cover-letter sent accompanying a submission of some of these poems for journal publication: “I returned to using a deterministic procedure in April 1998, when I began writing the poems in the Stein series, but now I always, to some extent, modify the results of the procedure, making personal decisions of different kinds. My writingways came together” (Thing of Beauty 376). In The Stein Poems, Mac Low returns to deterministic methods of writing, which he had more or less abandoned, only to adapt these chance-based procedures by making clear (and unapologetic) the moments in which his individual taste intervened in, or added onto, the deterministic process. Importantly, it would seem from his publication history that his writings about and discussions of Cage’s chance-based work had a direct influence on the decision to produce The Stein Poems in this fashion.

Published in Richard Kostelanetz’s 1993 Writings about John Cage, Mac Low’s article “Something About the Writings of John Cage,” examined, specifically and critically, the role of taste and authorial intent in Cage’s chance-based work. He then revised and expanded the article as “Cage’s Writings up to the Late 1980s” for inclusion in David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch’s Writings Through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, + Art in 2001. At the same time, he was engaged in the composition of 154 Forties, poems written in a more traditional compositional method, incorporating an emphasis on prosody (specifically on stressed syllables, influenced heavily by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s concept “sprung rhythm”) and caesural spaces. In 1998, between the two Cage articles, Mac Low, as he stated in the quotation above, “returned” to deterministic methods, but under the caveat that he no longer pretended that this was not, ultimately, an egoic process. This decision was clearly triggered, at least in part, by Mac Low’s work on Cage, in which he rails against those who misinterpreted or misunderstood Cage as having refused or eliminated the presence of the ego and its concomitant authorial intent via indeterminacy. For Cage, Mac Low writes, “[c]hance was always constrained, to a greater or lesser extent, by his intentions” (“Cage’s Writings” 231), and later: “He knew very well that if he did anything at all, it would be done by or through his ego” (232). For Mac Low, then, the complete removal of the ego, of the Author, was an impossibility. And yet, he maintains in his work on Cage that the absolute avoidance of the individual ego in a chance-based text was not only impossible, it was also not the goal of such work. “The point is not whether [Cage] ever entirely evaded his individual ego and its predelictions,” he writes, “but that he diminished to some extent the value-judging activity of the ego that excludes possibilities, and that he thereby let in, to some extent, ‘the rest of creation’” (“Cage’s Writings” 227).

To be sure, Mac Low was, at least in part, aware of the egoism involved in chance-based and deterministic writing methods. In his two seminal poetics pieces, “Statement” and “Some Remarks to the Dancers,” both collected in the highly influential The Poetics of the New American Poetry in 1973, he touches briefly on the role of choice in chance-based texts. In “Statement,” he asserts that the author is not a dictator over a text, but rather a co-initiator of action, and is thus encouraged to produce, even (or especially) by means outside of his/her control, “absolutely unique situations” (385). In “Some Remarks to the Dancers” he notes that although his acclaimed sequence The Pronouns: A Collection of 40 Dances for the Dancers used “chance” to create the poems, by way of a filing card system he devised, some “crucial features” were matters of free choice (390-1). While these brief pieces demonstrate that, even in 1973, Mac Low had begun to think about the relationship between chance and authorship, it wasn’t until after Cage’s death in 1992, and his subsequent work on Cage’s use of chance, that Mac Low was able to reevaluate his views on indeterminacy. This is demonstrated most clearly in “Making Poetry ‘Otherwise,’” a transcript of a talk Mac Low gave in 2001, when he asserts “that the choices [Cage] and many of us made when we devised systems would be egoist in the very absolute Zen sense.”

The Stein Poems, then, stand at a mediatory position between chance and choice, between nonintentional and intentional writing,[ii]. Mac Low’s discussions of authorship in Cage’s chance-produced texts forced him to reevaluate what precisely constitutes a nonintentional text, or a deterministically produced text, asserting that the two terms are actually quite different. He notes that, sparked by a discussion with his son, an astrophysicist, he realized that though his systemic reading-through text-selection procedures were “nonintentional” — “in that [he] cannot predict to any extent what will be brought into a text through using them” (“Cage’s Writings” 224) — they are also “deterministic” in that “[i]f followed out to the letter, they must find, and bring into the work being written, the same linguistic units in the source texts each time” (225). The element of chance, of the intedeterminate, is further a third term, represented in the procedures by way of “human errors (and when these methods are automated, computer errors)” which “provide an unlooked-for but inevitable element of chance” (225). While the author has relative control over the procedures, as co-initiator of their actions (to use Mac Low’s own terms), and while this process is, as Mac Low asserts, necessarily born out of the ego, it also at the same time works to destabilize the position of the writing subject. Akin to the excess of meaning produced in noise, the many elements of authorship innate in Mac Low’s deterministic/unintentional methods produce an excess of authorship. It is this excess that he refers to, but seems unable to define, when he writes “You realize that making a chance system is as egoic, in some ways, or even as emotional, as writing a poem spontaneously. But at the same time you realize there is something more than just yourself doing it” (“The Poetics of Chance” 175). That “something else” is, at least in part, an anarchic politics of communality and the need to defamiliarize subjectivity.

As Tyrus Miller observes in Singular Examples, Mac Low’s work looks to destabilize subjectivity, especially those ways in which subjectivity is defined and solidified in/through language. Miller argues that by accepting the inability of a text to be completely devoid of ego, of an Author, Mac Low gives his work the unique opportunity to expand the field of play of authorship within and outside of chance-based methods. This is to say that, for Miller,

the different instances of the subject in language (grammatical, intentional, incarnational) are still operative, in part at least, in Mac Low’s acrostic-chance poems, but relate to one another asymmetrically, making the hypostasis of a single thinking/speaking/acting self impossible. (51)

To put this more succinctly, in his discussions of Mac Low’s Stanzas for Iris Lezak, poems composed in 1960 and identified by Mac Low himself as his “first deterministic yet nonintentional system” (Thing of Beauty 49), Miller asserts that “[t]he self is not so much absent from this text as it is ascetically chastened” (61). It should be noted, however, that while necessarily politically charged, Mac Low’s decision to disrupt authorship in this fashion is also aesthetic. In the aforementioned conversation transcript, “Making Poetry ‘Otherwise,’” he asserts that in his early deterministic methods, he “felt that whatever was given should be accepted.” As such, he notes that his later nondeterministic writings, such as 154 Forties, and the merging of these two writing ways in The Stein Poems demonstrate “a real change” in which he “started thinking that what was made by the systems was not necessarily better.” Mac Low’s intentional interventions in the systemic text-producing processes marks his own desire to make the products of these systems “better.”

This notion of betterment is intrinsically tied to Mac Low’s eventual decision that there can be no writing truly outside of sense (semantics, syntax). This is best demonstrated, too, in his writings on Cage, in which he takes Cage to task for his use of the term “nonsyntactical.” Mac Low asserts that while Cage sought to free language from conventional, normative syntax, “freed from ‘the arrangements of an army,’ which Norman O. Brown told [Cage] was the original meaning of ‘syntax,’ derived from the Greek σύνταξις [syntaksis]” (“Cage’s Writings” 212). Mac Low himself preferred the term “asyntactical.” He writes, “[t]here is some question, of course, as to whether any arrangement of language elements, no matter how different from normative syntax, doesn’t in itself constitute a new, non-normative syntax. (For this reason I never use Cage’s term ‘nonsyntactical.’)” (212). Similarly, Mac Low came to believe that there was no such thing as complete randomness, especially not in deterministic or computer-based systems of textual production: “There’s no randomness if it’s computer generated. […] No, I never like randomness. I want specific things” (“Making Poetry”). Accepting finally that a nonsyntactical, entirely random, and authorless text was a clear impossibility, Mac Low produced The Stein Poems as a culmination of a lifetime of experimentation with all three terms.

It is for this reason that the brief explanatory endnotes included after each poem in the Stein series includes, for the most part, detailed accounts of how he altered or played with the products of the systemic procedures. Ranging in level of intervention, some poems, such as “And One That Clear (Stein 15)” get “accepted” as they are produced (Thing of Beauty 382). “Stein 11-13” are included, each with “minimal subsequent editing” (379-81). “Pleasant to be Repeating Very Little of This (Stein 32)” is published after having been “revised a number of times” (397). And, “Be Gentle to a Greek (Stein 53)” gets included after having been “freely revised and edited” (400). Additionally, some of the explanatory notes are extremely vague, but suggest a good deal of editing, revision, and clear authorial intention, such as the note that follows “Something Important Could Certainly Be Enough (Stein 76),” wherein Mac Low writes that the poem was produced by “‘mining’ what remained of the output of this procedure and producing normative sentences from the words elicited thereby” (402). In the sections that follow, I will examine these poems in greater detail, looking to issues of authorship, performance, influence, signification, anarchism, and gender in order to situate these late poems, and their explanatory notes, as invitations to a postanarchist reading practice that engages with the one proposed by Cage’s Cunningham mesostics, but also deviates from it dramatically.

[i] The term “diastic” refers to a paragrammatic procedure Mac Low developed in order to produce deterministic poems. In a diastic poem, a source text is selected (sometimes at random), and then a seed text is used to select certain words from the source text. Words are selected based on the placement of the letters, so the first letter of the first word of the seed text is used to find a word in the source text with the same letter at the start of the word. Subsequently, the second word is chosen provided it has the second letter of the seed text in its own second-letter-position. “Stein 72,” for example, uses as its source text, Part I, Stanza VI of Gertrude Stein’s “Stanzas in Meditation.” It’s seed text is Mac Low’s son, Mordecai-Mark’s, name. The poem reads “more not more to-day forget.” The poem ends here because the system was unable to find a word after “forget” in which the “e” was in the fifth position (Thing of Beauty 401).

[ii] From “Cage’s Writing up to the Late 1980s”: “Procedures operating from any level of the ego, in the Zen sense, I call ‘intentional’; ‘nonintentional’ refers only to those procedures that do not do so” (226).

8 thoughts on ““Freely Revised and Edited”: Determinism and Authorship in Jackson Mac Low

  1. This series on Mac Low promises to be really fascinating. I hope you develop the idea of an “excess of authorship,” because I can’t really wrap my mind around what you mean. Would it clarify things to perhaps discuss this idea in relation to Foucault’s notion of the author function?

    Also, I wonder if Mac Low’s edited/”better” deterministic poems are very different from Cage’s many “writing through” works, most of which he explicitly altered after using chance/deterministic procedures to develop a text from which he would remove words as he liked–are Cage and Mac Low really that far apart at these moments? Is the most important difference Mac Low’s greater emphasis on and specificity about his interventions? I guess what I’m asking is, is the difference here more a matter of degree than of kind?

    1. In “excess of authorship” here I am referring to the extreme (and multiple) ways that Mac Low has control over the text, even as it is produced in deterministic or nonintentional ways. This is something I will expand upon in greater detail next week as I discuss the role of tradition and influence on The Stein Poems.

      On the difference between Mac Low’s interventions and Cage’s, this is an interesting intersection between the two. Certainly as I oppose them, I recognize that this division is academic, and that there are multiple important shared concerns between them. I agree that part of the difference here is degree, because Mac Low certainly engages more often, more freely, and more significantly, with the outputs of his systems. He also talks about it more candidly than Cage (this is something that should, and will, be cited in a later revision). But I also think that the two authors approach these moments of personal taste/choice in different ways. While Cage terms these moments “interventions,” as you have, or moments of “cleaning” or “organizing” the results to fit an end-goal, Mac Low instead uses terms like “mining,” which I’ve quoted above, or, more tellingly, “interacting with the products of non intentional systems” (Art, Performance, Media 268). Additionally, he remarks further down that interview that he thinks he most often edits more thoroughly in computer-generated texts because he feels as though the work was all done for him.

      All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I think there is, if minute, still a difference in the ways in which Cage and Mac Low alter the products of their indeterminate systems. Mac Low sees himself as entering into a sort of deleuzoguattarian assemblage with the text, the machine, the source/seed texts, &c. Cage, instead, is a sort of poetic butcher, trimming away excess fats, and cutting out the right sizes and shapes of poem-flesh. (From one vegetarian to another, I’m sorry that comment went that way).

  2. Great stuff–really smart and articulate analysis. I think that the nuancing of JML’s deterministic methods that accounts for the tensions he so deliberately developed between choice and chance is an important and more recent component of our understanding of his diverse body of work. The Stein poems seem an excellent locus for such considerations. However, rather than framing them as return or culmination, it might be more productive to give some thought to how this series “broadens the medium” of language (to paraphrase Bernstein) in the way that captured JML’s attention when he discovered new procedural methods. JML never left anything behind, but I also don’t think he would have thought of any one method as summary. In other words, what do the Stein poems achieve or open on to that furthers our understanding of his work? What is singular about their contribution to his corpus?

    1. Yes, regarding The Stein Poems as “culmination” is unhelpful. Anne Tardos, in the forward to Thing of Beauty, calls it a “combination of ways” (xxii), which is maybe more open to the broadening to which you’re referring. And it also helps to capture the “coming together” Mac Low suggests in the cover letter that accompanied some of these poems. I’ll change the language I use in this entry when I revise.

      I think that this “coming together” or “combination” is a part of what makes these poems important, especially in light of the other retro-avant-garde pieces Mac Low produced (for Schwitters, for Pound, for Woolf, for Dickinson). While less elegiac than either the Schwitters or the Pound sequences, and less an exercise in diastic experiment than the Woolf or Dickinson poems, The Stein Poems seem to occupy a mediatory space, not necessarily tied to any one element of Mac Low’s general poetics. As I hope to expand upon in the sections that follow, I think that these Stein poems navigate the larger issues of Mac Low’s work in a way that makes them particularly well suited as a litmus test for my own theory of a postanarchist reading practice.

  3. You seem to be suggesting in your response that Cage is more traditionally an “author” in the moments when he edits the source text, which I would agree with (though I think you might need to explain the difference you see between Cage and Mac Low in more detail as you go on/revise). Is there a subtle goal, then, to Cage’s writing that Mac Low avoids? Is that goal a “beautiful” text?

    I’m also curious how you would compare Cage’s “organizing” and Mac Low’s “interacting” to conceptualist writing practices. Maybe that’s something to think about, either in a later Mac Low entry or (more profitably?) when you turn your attention to the conceptualists?

    1. I quick question about terminology in your response to Mike’s comment: is “retro-avant-garde” the right term, or would be “arriere-garde” (which Perloff picks up from William Marx and uses throughout her _Unoriginal Genius_) be more appropriate? You should probably be able to justify either–I just want to make sure you’re consciously choosing between the two.

      1. I went with “retro-avant-garde” here, as opposed to “arriere-garde,” for two reasons.

        First of all, I like the elegiac connotations of “retro-avant-garde,” and I think that for that reason it’s especially well suited to Mac Low’s elegiac reading-throughs that emphasize at once influence/tradition, and the desire to leave the dead behind to pave the way for new forms of engagement/writing/reading.

        Secondly, on a somewhat personal level, I associate r-a-g with Tyrus Miller’s work in _Singular Examples_, and a-g with the Perloff you mention. Miller’s work is decidedly more in line with my own (there are a number of intersections between his theory of the “example” and my theory of the “plateau” in my own work.

    2. I don’t think that Cage is more invested in a “beautiful” text than Mac Low. Mac Low often discusses the pleasure of producing both traditional and deterministic work, and that he always wants the end result to be beautiful in some sense. (The Stein Poems in particular are examples of Mac Low working to imbue systemic results with prosody, with rhythm).

      I think that the difference is in engagement. I think of Cage’s work with the text much like his watercolors using rocks: there is the rock, and that’s the shape, and you paint around it; there is the text, and that’s what you’re given, and you work within it/you organize it. Mac Low seems to address his outputs as collaborators. Strange enough, I think your observation is correct. Despite Mac Low’s frankness about his use of choice/taste, in these instances of the interplay of choice/chance, Cage is indeed “more traditionally an ‘author.'” And I love that.

      Re: your notes on the conceptualists, I will certainly file that idea away for when I get to them. And I’ll link back to here when I do.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s