Jackson Mac Low

“Suppose you revise that mutton!”: Mac Low’s Systemic Poetry and Pleasure

In “Analogies of Free Communities,” when I quoted Jackson Mac Low in arguing that exposing potentialities in art is a means of alleviating the pain of social institutions, and that this is an important point of creating art, I also noted that Mac Low admits: “I do not think that this ‘point’ is at odds with pleasure” (“Poetry and Pleasure” xxviii). In fact, I went as far in this entry as to argue that elements of joy and pleasure in the production and reception of the formally experimental text actually enables, and potentially increases, the effectiveness of the text as anarchist activism. And, despite the role of computers, deterministic methods, and chance procedures in the production of much of Mac Low’s work, he maintained throughout his career that engaging with the outputs of these procedures, and ultimately producing the texts themselves, was an enjoyable process not unlike the more traditional means of writing poems. For example, in “Poetry and Pleasure,” he writes that “[w]riting in ways that combine method, contingency, and free composition and the poetry and other work produced by doing so not only surprise me. They often give me pleasure” (xxxvi). This is perhaps not surprising; it would be unlikely that Mac Low would continue to produce texts in this manner for so many years if he did not, at least in part, enjoy the process.

What may come as a surprise, however, is that Mac Low also maintained that the mechanical, systemic, or chance procedures used to produce his deterministic texts were not without some emotional elements. In response to a question posed by Gil Ott on the subject in the aforementioned “Interviews and Correspondence” publication in Paper Air, Mac Low asserted that even these procedures were necessarily impacted by the emotions of the initiator of the process, and the perceiver of its results: “Nonhuman means are, so to speak, shaded and modified by people’s feelings” (18). Later in the interview, he also admits that emotion and personal enjoyment come into play in these procedures in the selection of the source and seed texts, which he, for the most part, decides on “impulsively” (19). But, what is perhaps most striking about this interview is that, shortly after meditating on the subject of the joy of producing deterministic poetry, Mac Low likens the use of constraint to playing a childlike game. He tells Ott that the use of constraint allows him to discover linguistic possibilities he would not have otherwise entertain, saying: “I find myself saying things I might not have thought of without such a wall to bounce off of. I’m referring to the difference between just throwing a ball into the air (although, of course, even then one’s limited – by gravity) and bouncing it off a wall” (22). Clearly these systemic methods of producing poems are, at least for Mac Low, not without the very human element of emotional engagement. And, what’s more, these methods are not simply work; they are, despite their mechanical nature, a game.

Of course, the notion that poetry (or any art) should be enjoyable, and especially that it should produce a sense of pleasure in its perceiver, is by no means new. Mac Low himself dates this back to Longinus’s “On the Sublime,” wherein the sublime in art is defined by the production of “ekstasis,” or ecstasy, in its beholder (“An Essay Begun in 1965” 30). While Longinus does not tie this ecstasy or pleasure to a political goal, Mac Low cannot help but make the connection between the true meaning of “ekstasis” – “the state wherein one is momentarily ‘beside oneself’ … a significant & valuable break-thru or ‘jail-break from the prison of the self’” (“An Essay Begun in 1965” 30) – and his interest in poetry’s anarchic ability to make malleable the regimented borders of selfhood, to open up the possibilities of subjectivity[i]. And yet, despite this reliance on an entirely classical understanding of the role of art here, Mac Low’s approach to these concerns was still quite radical. While other experimental authors, such as John Cage, as I discuss in previous entries, sought to break down traditional understandings of art and beauty, Mac Low understood that his experimental, groundbreaking, and sometimes chaotic means of producing poetry was not at odds with a desire to make poetry that was pleasurable (to produce and to read), or poetry that was, above all, beautiful. His widow, Anne Tardos, makes this abundantly clear by titling his posthumous selected works Thing of Beauty, and by clarifying in her “Forward” to the text that

[Mac Low’s] intermittent work with nonintentional and indeterminate methods, such as chance operations, never precluded or interfered with his attention to beauty, even when he was looking to free himself from allowing individual taste and other artistic value judgments to interfere with the results. (xvi)

There is perhaps no Mac Low text that better demonstrates this interest in pleasure and beauty better than The Stein Poems.

Perhaps owing to the nature of the source text – Gertrude Stein herself often dealt with the pleasurable or joyful in her own work – Mac Low’s The Stein Poems is littered with references to pleasure and joy. On the level of diction specifically, the word “pleasant” itself is repeated innumerable times. Here are some of the more lovely examples: “Pleasant the deranged rhubarb pudding permitted stay” (“Little Beginning (Stein1)” 6); “Pleasant time discussing celery bread” (“Pleasant to be Repeating Very Little of This (Stein 32)” 12); “Pleasantly deranged” (“Pleasant to be Repeating Very Little of This (Stein 32)” 17, 160); “Pleasant permitting makes for louder excess” (“Pleasant to be Repeating Very Little of This (Stein 32)” 227). The poem also makes a number of references to singing (“And sing more” [“And Sing More Very Loudly (Stein 11)” 1]), laughing (“friendly, / been quickly laughing, / laughing sounding is” [“Time That Something Something (Stein 18)” 21-3]), and love (“lovesong piece / … / mentioning what love permitted” [“Pleasant to Be Repeating Very Little of This (Stein 32)” 21-3]). Part of what makes this diction so striking, and ultimately so much fun on the level of reading these poems, especially aloud, is the fact that these words are repeated so many times throughout the sequence, and within each poem itself. Mac Low draws particular attention to this repetition by occasionally arranging the words so that they repeat back to back, or else allowing this repetition where it already appears in the systemic output. For example, “laughing” is repeated in the reference quoted above, albeit separated by a line break (which, while separating, also makes the twined words even more noticeable). This occurs with the word “laughing” two more times in the same poem: “That being quickly laughing, / laughing sounding talking” (46-7), and again without the enjambment on line fifty-two with “then quickly laughing laughing.” The effect is laughable (excuse the repetition here) not only because the words are repeated, but because of the sheer absurdity of the frequency with which the texts repeats itself.

In fact, owing to the new possibilities Mac Low notes that deterministic methods make available, The Stein Poems are filled with absurd instances of words or ideas juxtaposed by the deterministic methods used to produce the poems. The first example of “pleasant” that I quoted above – “Pleasant the deranged rhubarb pudding permitted stay” – is an excellent example of this, but other examples of this (usually involving references to food) abound in the poem. For example, in “Pleasant to be Repeating Very Little of This (Stein 32),” Mac Low includes the lines “There nothing clearly sings / that celery is happy” (105-6). Or, even funnier, “Pointing Out Your Silvery Song (Stein 122)” includes the inexplicable but hilarious line, “If anything, be joyful that the pigeon in the kitchen isn’t a kind of turkey” (14). Additionally, Mac Low also plays with absurd juxtaposition in the titles of the poems, which are constructed by joining the beginning of the first line of each poem with the end of the last line. This typically results in paradoxical strangeness, as is the case with “Time That Something Something,” but is occasionally hilarious in its absurdity, as in “Be Gentle to a Greek.” I find these absurd titles especially endearing, and especially significant for my own purposes, because they are instances where we can be absolutely sure that the juxtaposition, and the humor derived thereof, follows from Mac Low’s own decisions based on the system’s output, and not simply the output alone. I imagine that deciding on the titles of these poems is one of the instances in which Mac Low took both surprise and pleasure from the experience.

To conclude, I would like to also point out two ways in which Mac Low’s own interaction with the systemic output produces humor and pleasure in the poem: in his playing with punctuation, and in his use of sexual innuendo. Mac Low often used punctuation as a means of interacting with the outputs of his systemic outputs, significantly because it allowed him to alter the flow of the words without disrupting the diastic pattern, which he, at times, did not want to disturb. One of the funniest and most interesting ways that Mac Low uses punctuation in The Stein Poems is in his use of the exclamation point, which he often employed to draw attention to absurdity, or to make a seemingly innocuous semantically sensical sentence into something strange. Of the latter type, there are a few examples in The Stein Poems, such as in “Mercy Entirely Astonishing (Stein 94),” where Mac Low includes an exclamation point on line thirty-nine: “It’s not even extreme!” The contradiction here is apparent, and thus even more humorous; the exclamation point makes extreme a sentence that would otherwise not be. Of the former type, examples abound. I will include for you only my two favorites: also from “Mercy Entirely Astonishing,” line thirty-five reads, “You’re worse than an oyster!”; in “Mercy Can’t Give a Girl Much Pleasure in Things (Stein 108),” line twenty-one reads, “Suppose you revise that mutton!” In one rare instance, the exclamation mark and the repetition I discussed earlier are used together to great comedic effect. “Something Important Could Certainly Be Enough (Stein 76)” has Mac Low arranging the output into a bizarre conversation in which the morbidity of a death threat is undercut by exclamation points: “You will certainly not be living any longer!” (22), which is bookended by lines that simply read “Ugh!!” and which increase in size as they are repeated. The result is hilarious in its absurdity and morbidity. Of the sexual innuendos I mentioned, I have only two examples, and both appear in “Mercy Can’t Give a Girl Much Pleasure in Things (Stein 108).” Line two of the poems reads, “She was pleased, nay, delighted to be put on the table,” which is perhaps a very veiled reference to sexual activity, and one that appears to align the absurdity of female sexualization with the absurdity of food in the previous examples. I will say more about this next week in my entry on gender, but for now am interested only in the funny and enjoyable aspects of this reference. The second sexual innuendo appears on line forty-two, which reads, “Cucumbers are occasions in more ways than nuts,” which is, I cannot help but see, a not-so veiled reference to male genitalia. I cannot help but assume that in these moments of interacting with and arranging the outputs, Mac Low took great pleasure in constructing these lines. And, in these instances, he thus opens up these mechanical means of producing poetry into something both radical and enjoyable.

[i] I should note here that the sublime, for Longinus, is a product of authorial genius, a trace of the greatness of the author that is left behind in the text. For Mac Low, this sublimity is determined by the text itself and not the greatness of the producer of the text, which he argues (and I would have to agree) is much more fitting considering the fact that we actually do not know who authored the Longinus text, and that all we have is the text itself through which to be “moved” (“An Essay Begun in 1965” 31).

3 thoughts on ““Suppose you revise that mutton!”: Mac Low’s Systemic Poetry and Pleasure

  1. I’m glad that you’ve focused on the joy in/of the text. I think that there’s a connection between this joy/humour and your point about constraint as a childlike game–particularly the use of repetition, which is often at the core of joy/humour for children.

  2. In your previous post you make reference to “jouissance” and this post meditates at length on the notions of “joy,” “pleasure,” and “!” in Mac Low. The Lacanian in me needs to (or is driven to) ask: how do you mean “jouissance” in relation to Mac Low? For Lacan “jouissance” is distinct from pleasure (“plaisir”) in that pleasure is actually a feeling or sense of contentment. “Jouissance” is the opposite of contentment – Lacan relates it to trauma. Jouissance is like overeating, Sadean excess, cutting, Cobain-esque heroin use, etc. (Now, of course, Barthes defines “jouissance” differently as does Cixous and many other French theorists, so it need not be psychoanalytical) … For the moment though I was wondering how psychoanalytical jouissance could be incorporated. To me it seems like Mac Low’s “!” has nothing to do with Lacan’s jouissance – his play is more childlike, almost like a Dadaist – but I wonder if constraint-writing has something of jouissance in it; i.e., pleasure is a finished text, but jouissance would be the constraint or writing-machine that cannot stop and is compelled to continue, ad infinitum to exhaustion or death.

    • Yeah, because there is no Lacanian in me (lol), I was thinking much more of Barthes’s use of the term. But, absolutely there is something Sadean about constraint, both in the stress of limitation, and in the extreme excess of it.

      I really like this idea of the thanatos of the systemic text, though. Mac Low, for example, almost always had to cut off his Diastex program lest it continue repeating forever.


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