Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Work

Mac Low, Jackson. Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Work. Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 2009.

The Anne Tardos (Mac Low's partner) edited collection divides the poet's work into three distinct groupings. The first division encompasses Mac Low's writing between the years 1937 and 1954. During this date range, the poet employs traditional means of inventing and generating poems; this, of course, does not mean that the end products were traditional. Take, for instance, the piece “HUNGER StrikE wh At doeS lifemean.” Within the title alone, several traits found throughout the poem evince themselves: non-standard capitalization, unorthodox (yet highly intentional) implementation of white space, and concatenation of words so as to form neologisms. Moreover, the poem explores repetitive keystrokes, underlining, and strike-throughs to create a visual field on the page. The second division within the collection documents Mac Low's writing between the years 1954 and 1979. At the inception of this era, the poet began to employ both “chance operation” (xxii) and “nonintentional,” yet “deterministic” procedures (49); the latter of these two composition methods use a variety of rules, algorithms, and computer programs to generate content. Producing texts in this manner forces the reader to reconsider both what it means to produce a text and what a text, ultimately, can be. Or, as Mac Low writes: “Traditions hold examination/ Forms of range compound examination/ Between examination traditions” (60). But toward the end of this period, the poet altered his methods of composition once more. Mac Low addresses the shift explicitly when he writes: “Objective, systematic/ chance operation gave me/ many poems & pieces/ in the past// fifteen years or so, but now/ I only feel like writing/ living subjectivity:/ —inwardness!” (154). And thus begins the third division of the book, dated 1979 through 2004, in which Mac Low uses “determinstic procedures” (almost exclusively in the form of computer programs), but “always, to some extent, modifying the results of the procedures, making personal decisions of many different kinds” (376); additionally, during this period his admiration of Gertrude Stein's poetry continually resurfaces in that he regularly uses her texts as source material, most evident in his Stein Poems. Other notable characteristics of the collection, and his work in general, are several visual inserts that offer images of the poet's output as a visual artist and the manner in which he blurs the relation between text and image by creating words rendered as visual texts, and his affinity with music. Mac Low wrote many “translations” wherein he ascribse letters or words to musical notes, and vice versa. Likewise, he would often write process notes that stated how many beats a particular amount of white space was to indicate; in fact, Mac Low included process notes for all his poems derived from chance and deterministic methods that are highly Oulipian in nature.

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