Not Mourning Gertrude Stein: Mac Low’s Retro-Avant-Garde

In my first entry on Jackson Mac Low, scholar Mike O’Driscoll commented, asking “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?” (“Freely Revised” Comment 23 August 2013).  My response was that the poems serve as a “coming together” or “combination” of various elements of Mac Low’s larger poetics: deterministic methods, authorial intervention, the intersections between asyntactical writing and prosody, and, most importantly for this section, an interest in forging the unique while at the same time engaging in homage to poetic tradition. I also noted, in my response, that The Stein Poems stand apart from Mac Low’s other retro-avant-garde pieces, thus making them uniquely well-suited for my own study. In a brief mention of Mac Low’s reading-through poems on Virginia Woolf (The Virginia Woolf Poems [1963]), Tyrus Miller observes that the Woolf poems are “neutral” (97), appearing to be less political and less difficult than Mac Low’s other homage pieces, such as his Words nd Ends from Ez (1983, from Ezra Pound’s Cantos) or the 42 Merzgedichte in Memoriam Kurt Schwitters (1993). He does not mention The Stein Poems in this discussion. My question becomes, then, in light of Miller’s observations and O’Driscoll’s comments, where do The Stein Poems fit in this spectrum of neutrality? And, how does Mac Low’s use of Gertrude Stein’s writings contribute to our understanding of his work?

Mac Low’s engagement with Stein’s poetry and prose differs dramatically from his engagement with Ezra Pound in Words nd Ends from Ez. The series of poems, which he composed for a journal publication at the same time that John Cage was composing his “Writing-Through The Cantos,” were composed by diastically reading through the entirety of Pound’s cantos and producing poems that meditate on his name as paragram. Miller describes Mac Low’s engagement with Pound in these poems as “equal measure critical and mournful of their oversized modernist predecessor” (66). The looming presence of Pound’s persona in the poems is striking, as Pound’s capitalized name seems to dominate, providing an element of nominal semantics amidst the lines of asyntactical writing:

hewed Ead




hOrt om? (“VI. From the Pisan Cantos: LXXIV-LXXXIV” 22-26)

Pound’s authorial presence in these poems owes both to the magnitude of Pound’s authorial and political persona, and to the fact that Mac Low had been corresponding with Pound via letters (as he himself discusses in an e-mail sent out to a poetics listserv, available here in the SUNY Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center). Mac Low’s engagement with Pound on a personal level (via letters exclusively, the two never met in person), complicated his readings of Pound’s poetic work, making it impossible to separate or compartmentalize the various facets of Pound’s influence on him:  a formal poetics he respected; a friendly correspondent he enjoyed conversing with; a fascist politics and anti-Semitic worldview he despised; a domineering authorial persona he strived to avoid in his own work[i].  In comparison, The Stein Poems rarely use names as their seed text, and when a nominal paragram is used, the name is only occasionally Stein’s (as is the case with “Green Completers So [Stein 13]” or the third line of “And One That Clear [Stein 15]”). Other times, the nominal seed text is Ulla E. Dydo, the editor of A Stein Reader, which Mac Low often used as his source text. Or, the nominal seed is one of personal significance to Mac Low, such as his wife, Anne Tardos, or his son, Mordecai-Mark Mac Low. More often, the seed text is a section of Stein’s own writing run diastically through another longer selection[ii]. The result is an exploration of Stein’s poetics rather than a predominantly elegiac reflection on the author of the source text.

And yet, this element is an important facet of Mac Low’s reading-through homage poetry. While the personal undertones of mourning present in Words nd Ends from Ez are not as clearly evident in his other poems, Miller notes in his discussion of the Schwitters poems that Mac Low’s reading-through procedures of canonical works function as a “retro-avant-garde elegy” that works at once to recognize the anxiety of influence and its function alongside deterministic, asyntactical texts that work to break down the structural elements of poetic tradition. As such, Miller argues, this writing-through of Schwitters (and, in turn, also Pound, Woolf, Dickinson, and Stein) is, in effect, “performing the work of mourning that will let the avant-garde’s claims on the future be at long last over; allowing the dead to be dead and be one with our fading memories of them” (105). In this reading, Mac Low’s work is positioned as a retro-avant-garde that refuses the hierarchical vanguardism of the traditional avant-garde in favour of a looking-back, a consistently revisionist outlook on literary tradition, and is thus perfectly in line with the postanarchist literary theory outlined in my introduction. As Miller also notes of the Merzgedichte, these reading-throughs “represent[] an evident gesture to an avant-garde predecessor, both intertextually and methodologically, an act of neo-avant-garde repetition and recapitulation of the historical avant-garde” (95). And yet, if the Pound poems are “equal measure critical and mournful,” and the Schwitters poems are mournful as “an element of the celebratory attitude he chose to strike” (Miller 113), then the Stein poems appear to be purely celebratory, devoid of the work of mourning and relying instead on the celebratory nature of praise.

*          *          *

            In discussing Stein, Mac Low has never been short on celebratory praise. In fact, when interviewer Nicholas Zurbrugg notes the influence of Stein on Mac Low’s early work, Mac Low first denies the influence, but eventually concedes: “I had read a little of Stein’s writing, mainly in bookstores, but didn’t come to know her work well till later. By the middle ‘40s I already considered her a great poet. Now I think she’s the greatest American poet of the twentieth century” (Art, Performance 255). It is, perhaps, this reverence that allows Mac Low to capture so much of Stein’s own style in The Stein Poems. If Words nd Ends and the Merzgedichte enact the work of mourning, if their reliance on naming serves as elegy, than The Stein Poems serve as a repetition, a re-enactment of Stein’s work that maintains the lively elements of her own writing. As she herself notes in “Composition as Explanation,” the text does not simply “go dead” once it has been written (25), but instead remains alive and in flux by the very process of its being read. While the text on the page is materially static, time alters the text by way of a changing audience who has read different texts and thus approaches the text with differing views (“Composition as Explanation” 22). As such, The Stein Poems are not a work of mourning, but rather a celebration of the potentials and flux that can be involved in reading and rereading the canon. The Stein Poems, then, are acts of remembering in the absolute-Stein sense of the term, wherein “remembering is repetition” (“Portraits and Repetition” 178), and repetition is flux, variance by the repetition of one thing in a new time or place or context.

These elements of The Stein Poems are perhaps most clearly evident in “Mercy Entirely Astonishing (Stein 94),” where the source text is one of Stein’s most famous and widely read works, the “Objects” section of Tender Buttons, and the diastic seed text is “Mildred’s Umbrella,” the title of the eighth poem of “Objects.” The poem reads, perhaps more so than the other Stein Poems, as though it could have been written by Stein herself, with lines like “A purse is a purse and nothing is nothing” (4), or “Next best is a little pencil” (24). And, the poem becomes even more reverent once one discovers, in the notes, that while Mac Low was working from the 1914 edition of Tender Buttons published by Donald Evans (in its online version published in The Bartleby Archive/The New Bartleby Library), he has also “modified [his] copy of the online edition by incorporating corrections to it made in ink by Stein in Donald Sutherland’s[iii] copy” (Thing of Beauty 407). By incorporating Stein’s own corrections, Mac Low includes Stein in the revisionist process of his reading-through, making her doubly-undead; both her text and her authorship are alive and well in Mac Low’s writing process.

And yet, this reverence does not keep Mac Low from engaging with the output of his diastic procedure. The same note signals that he “revis[ed] the program’s output by changes of work order, suffixes, pronouns, and structure words, but ke[pt] its lexical words’ root morphemes in positions close to those they occupy in the raw output” (408). By viewing Stein’s words, subjected to his deterministic methods, as the “raw output,” Mac Low is then free to organize and engage with the text as he pleases. And yet, his loyalty shines through in his desire to retain the (at least approximate) positions of the root morphemes of the selected words from the source text. While Schwitters, Pound, et al. exist named, mourned, and, in this sense, solidified by Mac Low’s other pieces, Stein’s presence can be clearly felt throughout The Stein Poems. And it is in this sense that The Stein Poems provides us with a unique view into Mac Low’s overarching poetics, and especially the coming-together or the larger issues he seemed to struggle with in the earlier parts of his writing career: all language is repetition, and all poetry more so; but, if we are doomed to repetition, we might as well enjoy in it.

[i] Mac Low believed that his own sympathies toward Pound accounted for what he viewed as the success of Words nd Ends from Ez, as opposed to Cage who seemed displeased with the results of his writing-through of the Cantos. In his discussion of Cage’s writing-through of Pound, Mac Low postulated that “the difference in our results [ie. that he was pleased with his end-product, but Cage was not] may have been due to the fact that he was basically much less in sympathy with Pound – aesthetically as well as politically – than with Joyce, Thoreau, and the other authors from whose work he often drew” (“Cage’s Writings” 223).

[ii] Tyrus Miller argues that naming in these writing-throughs of Pound, both Mac Low’s and Cage’s, is linked to death: “It indicates – even for the living – a sheer potential for being dead, for participating as dispersed textual bodies in the global interpenetration of discourses and languages” (68).

It should be noted that the other homage pieces I have referenced are, for the most part, nominally-driven. The “Quatorzains for Emily Dickinson” repeat Dickinson’s emboldened first and last name diastically. The Merzgedichte repeat Schwitter’s self-adopted nickname, Merz, often and unapologetically. The one notable difference is found in The Virginia Woolf Poems, where the poems, such as “Ridiculous in Piccadilly,” included in Thing of Beauty (163), repeat a title phrase diastically as opposed to a name. This lack of nominal dependence may account for what Miller describes as a neutrality in the poems.

[iii] Unfortunately, not that Donald Sutherland.

2 thoughts on “Not Mourning Gertrude Stein: Mac Low’s Retro-Avant-Garde

  1. This is another successful, interesting post. I have only a few, somewhat tangential thoughts, and they swirl mostly around Stein. So, while “The Stein Poems” might be neutral, what about Mac Low’s decision to write about/with Stein–is that primary decision neutral? How much does this decision reinscribe or solidify Mac Low’s position as author (especially since he refers to Stein as his “favorite” of the Mods in the e-mail you link)?

    I also wonder about the politics/argument of reinscribing (in all senses of the term, which seems possibly more accurate than thinking of Mac Low’s work as a repetition or re-enactment?) Stein’s work in the late 1990s–is that a re-entrenchment of Stein’s canonicity, or the idea of canonicity in general? Do the poems act as an un/intentional counterbalance to Mac Low’s work on/with Pound, working as either a corrective or an alternative by positing Stein as a fount alongside Pound? Or is it too much to make such a direct comparison of Stein and Pound in Mac Low’s work?

    Also, a brief question: when you write that “Schwitters, Pound, et al. exist named, mourned, and, in this sense, solidified by Mac Low’s other pieces,” is it fair to suggest that Mac Low’s work also monumentalizes these writers? Or is such an idea too… static?

  2. Mac Low’s decision to write through Stein is in no way neutral; my final section on gender will actually look at how this apparent neutrality in the pieces is actually problematic in terms of the gender politics at play. But, this notion that choosing an author as canonical as Stein does something to solidify JML’s position as author is interesting. If a criticism of Pound helps destabilize JML’s authorial position, does his somewhat passive acceptance of Stein (and, perhaps moreso, his reification of her) do the opposite? I’m not sure, but it’s something I will try to deal with in my final Mac Low post.

    On your second point, I do think that he is doing something radically different with Pound than with Stein. I don’t think there’s a conscious effort here to balance Stein against Pound (if anything, we can see that in the Merzgedichte on Schwitters). Instead, as I just suggested, I think, perhaps, that his use of Pound (in terms of politics and canonicity especially) is more critical, more thoughtful, than his use of Stein.

    On your third point, I absolutely think there’s a momumentalizing going on there, especially in the ways that the authors’ names are repeated. In that sense, I think those poems approach a static representation in a way that _The Stein Poems_ don’t.


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