I find it hard to believe that Jackson Mac Low is 60. I still think of him as the enfant terrible, the wild chance poet, the intermedia experimenter, the indefatigable avant-gardist, the man who embarrasses the literature departments. His youthful spirit just doesn’t seem 60 years old. It is appropriate, however, that Mac Low’s associates seized on this opportunity to get together and present an all-day retrospective of readings, musical performances, and other sorts of Mac Low events at Washington Square Church on September 11. Presenting so many interpretations of so many aspects of Mac Low all in one day clarified the considerable range and depth of the man’s artistic contribution, and made a good case for his remarkable body of work. I can’t think of any contemporary poets, and only a few composers and choreographers, who have contributed as many insights and worked them out as thoroughly as Jackson Mac Low has.
Poetry is normally a solitary art, and perhaps the most unusual thing about Mac Low’s poetry is that it almost never is. Practically everything is intended to be interpreted vocally, or read by ensembles, or played by musicians, or realized by dancers, or painted, or recorded, or something besides being printed on pieces of paper. His work, in other words, is mostly collaborations with other people, and thus it takes on a kind of richness that the work of solitary poets can never have.
Some of my favorite Mac Low works are the ‘Pronouns.’ Each of these 40 texts, derived by chance manipulations, uses one particular pronoun, including ‘somebody’ and ‘whoever’ as well as ‘it’ and ‘we,’ and each is to be interpreted as a dance. Lanny Harrison’s version of one of these ‘dances’ might be described as a skilfully acted comedy routine. Specific lines were interpreted with expressive vocal innuendos, unsuspected props, sudden changes, and lots of response from the audience, which was with her all the way. Geoffrey Hendricks and Darrell Wilson, on the other hand, acted out one of the dances without giving us the text at all, achieving a much stranger, more symbolic effect. If you didn’t know the poem they were working from, you would have had no way of knowing that their entrance, dropping down from the organ loft, was their interpretation of the line ‘Being in flight,’ and that putting dirt on their faces later was their version of ‘It darkens.’ Elaine Summers and four other dancers counterpointed a similar text with blankets and rather continuous group movements that seemed to have only tenuous connections with the specific lines being delivered from the side. The three performances could hardly have been more different, yet each was satisfying in its own way, and in each case it was really the texts that held things together.
A similar range was apparent with the musical performances. In Mac Low’s instrumental works, specific notes are generally derived from specific letters within verbal texts, so that the music is essentially a sort of coded version of the words. But here too, the performance results can be very different. Mac Low’s ‘First Milarepa Gatha’ and his ‘Piece for Sari Deines,’ for example, were interpreted by groups of speakers, instrumentalists, and people who both spoke and played instruments, and in cases like this, what one experiences is a lot of highly individual approaches. Some performers dominate, others stay in the background, this one is doing some sort of religious intoning, that one is playing the notes very precisely, another is obsessed with words that make hissing sounds, the one over there is showing off his instrument a bit, and the one on the end, who is doing everything so moderately and tastefully, probably thinks he is the only one who is performing the piece correctly. Of course, many such inconsistencies could be smoothed out by more rehearsal and firmer direction, but Mac Low doesn’t seem to want that. He prefers the anarchy of a lot of individuals with a lot of individual approaches, even if it may look a little amateurish on the surface. He finds all of this very interesting, and the funny thing is that he is right. That anarchy can be enticingly theatrical is one of many important points Mac Low has made in his work.
Professional musicians can’t help looking professional, though, and the goals are different when they organize Mac Low performances, especially in solo versions. Recorder player Pete Rose, violinist Malcolm Goldstein, and guitarist William Hellermann all did solo interpretations, and a quartet of flutists played the brand new all-white-note ‘Milarepa Quartet.’ Here the words were sometimes completely dropped, the emphasis shifted to pitch control and exact phrasing, everything was highly polished, and the pieces took on lovely formal shapes. It is quite clear that, regardless of how little musical training Mac Low may have, his work can make very good musical sense, at least in the hands of performers like these.
Even readings of Mac Low’s poetry somehow offer room for collaboration and interpretation, and here too the range is vast. John Cage intoned one of Mac Low’s poems in his now aging voice in a way that conveyed the poet’s spiritual side quite powerfully. The lyricism of Spencer Holst’s reading style brought much warmth and fantasy to some texts written in 1945, one of which is a strangely prophetic discussion of ‘silent music.’ Armand Schwerner was more matter-of-fact, yet riveting, as he read from the ‘Light Poems.’ And some of the group readings were simply delightful, especially in the case of the ‘Bluebird Asymmetries,’ where the word ‘bluebird’ was likely to fly out at any unpredictable moment.
Mac Low’s work is not without conventional values. I was especially struck by one of the lyrics from the ‘Stanzas for Iris Lezak,’ from 1960, for example, which must be one of the most touching love poems of any century. But as Mac Low’s 60th birthday passes by, we should be particularly grateful for the unconventional values in his work, for the things that no one else ever did. For his artistic anarchy. For showing us that a collection of words or phrases can be meaningful and expressive without syntactical collections. For showing us that poetry can be collaborative. For contributing so much to the cross-fertilization of the arts. And for doing it all so long and so well.