The Organising Mind: Discipline and Austerity in Jackson Mac Low and Art After 1960

By | 4 May 2016

You get the drift. But it’s an historical drift that links with some art getting made at the time. The Japanese artist On Kawara too comes close to this sense of writing as record, and his medium was, on a monumental scale, the book (google One Million Years, for instance) … to describe a book as a chronicle, by the chronicler. Today. Crossed out. Writing is dating. Making record, going dancing. On a date with time. Disco time. Doing things. Writing in this mode also comes close to the record of daily life, of bare living, its material facts. Likewise in the ‘Daily Life’ piece (dated 6 August 1963), Mac Low starts with a list of phrases:

1     A.     I'm going to the store.								Black Ace
2     B.     Is the baby sleeping?								Black Two
3     C.     I'd better take the dog out.							Black Three
4     D.     What do you want?								Black Four
5     E.     Let's have eggs for breakfast.						Black Five
6     F.     Has the mail come yet?							Black six
7     G.    I'll take the garbage down.							Black Seven
8     H.    Is there anything you need downstairs? 			Black Eight
9     I.      I'll see you.										Black Nine	
10   J.     Shall I turn the light on?							Black Ten
11   K.    I'll take the bottles back.							Black Jack
12   L.    Did somebody knock on the door?					Black Queen
13   M.   I'm going to close the window.						Black King
14   N.    Is the baby crying?								Red Ace
15   O.    Hello, sweety-baby!								Red Two
16   P.    What's that red mark on him?						Red Three
17   Q.   I'm going to lie down & rest my back 
	        for awhile.										Red Four
18   R.    What did you say?								Red Five
19   S.    Look how this plant has grown!					Red Six
20   T.    Have you fed the cat & the dog?					Red Seven
21   U.   I'm going to make some coffee.						Red Eight
22   V.   Do you want some ginger beer?						Red Nine
23  W.  I wish it wasn't always so noisy.						Red Ten
24   X.   Is it all right if I turn on the news?					Red Jack
25   Y.   What's the matter with the baby?					Red Queen
26   Z.   Have half a banana.								Red King

(Representative Works 170)

The four columns: numbers, the alphabet, the sententia, the card list, all come together for performance. The extensive ‘how to’ kit that follows need not be gone into detail, except that it provides a number list that will assist anybody who wishes to make a poem from this list can uses sentences as permutational elements for new poems. (Email me and we can try). The ambience is an everyday ambience. There are no epiphanies, which is good. But what is striking about this sense of the everyday is that what once were casual sentences, casual remarks, have become that much more austere when refrained/restrained by the indices in which they have been inserted, and that we will take to performance. Casual remarks are reframed within non-so-casual circumstances. Games of chance will reconstruct the spontaneity, a ‘second spontaneity,’ perhaps, of the spoken fragments.

The permutational-combinatorial is differently configured in the poem ‘STOVEBLACK,’ written 19 December 1979, uses five-letter words from a solution list to a New York Post game by Leona Bleiweiss, to whom the poem is dedicated:

above skate covet close ascot cable
black cloak caste stole vocal store stoke
slave covet eclat stale sable
close stalk cable
eclat store sable beast besot beast
stack besot slack slack

If one was to read the word ‘stale’ as appears near to the word ‘vocal,’ as if it had stolen the immense scale of the voice, this would be to ignore the possibility of the word thinking itself. But this is not a close reading. The poem wants me, this reader, to first consider each word separately and then, if we have done that, to start reading each word in conjunction with other words. More than just ‘boring,’ austere writing brings us into rest with words. Stanza three reads:

above stack salve block coast stale
scale stole stale least besot table costa
steal above salvo eclat covet
least eclat scale
stale stork stake salvo baste bleat
ovate slack above caste

For some readers there might be some unavoidably vast pleasure at the sight of the word ‘stave,’ which occupies one line, as do many of Mac Low’s staves that appear in his musical works (like the Phonemicons). Liz Kotz, in her 2010 book Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art has written of Mac Low’s tendency to superimpose the compositional strategies of one medium on another medium (in some cases, laying words out on sheet music). Here, in ‘STOVEBLACK’ there is a touch, nay, a tilt of the indexical that edges it away from the score towards a listing, a poem-as-catalogue. Stanza eight, the last stanza, reads:

store stock stock sable slate skate
close baste costa block coast coast vocal
ascot bleak block caste above
covet besot cleat
covet cable stack stake coast salvo
stale bleat blast besot

This is a poetry of utter clarity. That is to say, I am pointing out these indices just so it can be seen that what we are doing now is not just reading but viewing, not just binding signifiers together, but breaking them apart. It puts space between them so we can really see each word for what it is.

Take another look at the words. Think of them as an index (a category Astrid Lorange deploys in conjunction with Gertrude Stein). One can begin to see the value of the typeface Courier New. (Do we think enough, in our poetics, about font?) Note that Courier New affords the same width for every letter, where other fonts have varying widths for letters. Practically speaking, this means that each five-letter word occupies precisely the same width. One can begin, then, to read each vertical list as a kind of column or register into which words are placed.

We come here to what in painterly terms might be a pristine, Agnes Martin-like minimalism of theme and variation, point and counterpoint, grid and plane, addition and/or (gradual) accretion. Though this is not a poem that really foregrounds its vertical axes, let’s reduce it a little. Reading down the third column from the above stanza we have:




Stanza eight, as a whole, might then be read by seven vocalists, each of them occupying one vertical line (ironically, the seventh vocalist will only have to sing ‘vocal’). What better word to utter than ‘cleat’? Mac Low’s Gatha series, where letters are written into grids, in fact relies on this vertical and horizontal upending of the reading eye and its complex patterning, with consequences for performance (the Gathas constitute some of Mac Low’s most delightful and austere performance works).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Quick Question: ‘Is That Wool Hat My Hat? ’ The time now is 10:34 PM, 12.3.2015. The story Mac Low tells about the following piece is that Richard Kostalanetz spoke the above phrase when the poet-clairvoyant Hannah Weiner picked up a hat that she thought belonged to Mac Low, whereupon Kostalanetz, lurking behind Jackson, said ‘Is That Wool Hat My Hat?’

Is That Wool Hat My Hat? ’

1.   Is      that      wool      hat      my      hat?      Is        that      wool      hat
2.   Is      that      wool      hat      my      Is           that    wool    hat         my
3.   Is      that      wool      hat      my      hat?      Is        that      wool      hat
4.   Is      that      wool      hat      my      hat?      Is        that      wool      hat

By omitting one word from each rendition of the sentence ‘Is that wool hat my hat’ readers can imagine how the voices begin to jumble, and by the last set they are chanting this, simultaneously in beat:

1.   Is       Is          Is           Is         wool    hat        my      hat?     Is           that
2.   Is       that     wool      hat      my       Is           that    Is          that       Is
3.   Is       that     wool      hat      my       hat?      Is        that      wool      hat
4.   hat?  Is          that       wool   my       hat?      Is        that      wool      my

There should be four performers who, treating this as a score, will read simultaneously to each vertical coincidence of words. Sometimes the words match up, sometimes not. This is both indexical and notational, indexical in its sense of aftering and archiving, notational in its futurally-oriented performativity. Reading a poem such as this requires that we relinquish not only the strains of a singular voice, but also the striations of the page and its customary axes (here vertical and horizontal are co-conspirators in the axial geometries of the piece, more like an orchestral score – with staves stacked atop one another – than an instrumental one). We must read it otherwise than the geometries of attention we are used to deploying (in reading poetry). (For original uses of the term ‘geometries of attention’ see Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager).

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