Freely Revised and Edited: Anarchist Authorship in Jackson Mac Low's the Stein Poems

By Spinosa, Dani | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2015 | Go to article overview

Freely Revised and Edited: Anarchist Authorship in Jackson Mac Low's the Stein Poems


Spinosa, Dani, English Studies in Canada


It might seem strange that in order to write about anarchism and authorship in the poetry of Jackson Mac Low, I write not about his early poems in which he pushes the limits of chance, spontaneity, improvisation, deterministic methods, and computer systems designed to produce diastic poems (1) but, rather, about his often critically neglected poetic sequence, The Stein Poems, composed between 1998 and 2003, ending just a year before his death. Among some of the last poems he ever wrote, The Stein Poems serve as a kind of combination of a lifetime of experimentation with indeterminacy and chance. As he himself asserted in a cover letter sent accompanying a submission of some of these poems for journal publication: "I returned to using a deterministic procedure in April 1998, when I began writing the poems in the Stein series, but now I always, to some extent, modify the results of the procedure, making personal decisions of different kinds. My writingways came together" (Thing of Beauty 376). In The Stein Poems, Mac Low returns to deterministic methods of writing, which he had more or less abandoned, only to adapt these chance-based procedures by making clear (and unapologetic) the moments in which his individual taste intervened in, or added on to, the deterministic process. In this article I argue that The Stein Poems bridge the gap between the anti-egoic poetics popularized throughout Mac Low's career by the avant-garde (and especially by artists like John Cage, whom I will discuss further). Occupying a unique mediatory position, The Stein Poems showcase Mac Low's anarchist poetics in that they produce texts that function not as utopian dreams or political tracts but, instead, as what Mac Low himself terms "analogies of free communities." The poems encourage the reader to perform interventionary tactics in the production of meaning and to play a significant role in the meaning-making of the poems themselves. Ultimately, I use the unique position of The Stein Poems to argue that Mac Low's anarchist poetics and politics are best understood not necessarily or exclusively in relation to aleatoric or nonintentional writing methods but primarily in relation to the role of the reader (who is thus performer and perceiver) in this quasi-intentional work. To do this I should first look to chance and the role of the ego in his work more generally and how his grappling with these issues led to the composition of The Stein Poems.

It would seem from Mac Low's publication history that his writings about and discussions of the chance-based work of John Cage is what sparked the decision to produce The Stein Poems in this fashion. Cage and Mac Low were friends and often colleagues, but it was not until after Cage's death in 1992 that Mac Low started to write critically about his work. Published in Richard Kostelanetz's Writings about John Cage (1993), Mac Low's article "Something about the Writings of John Cage," examined, specifically and critically, the role of taste and authorial intent in Cage's chance-based work. He then revised and expanded the article as "Cage's Writings up to the Late 1980s" for inclusion in David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch's Writings Through John Cage's Music, Poetry, + Art. At the same time, he was engaged in the composition of 154 Forties, poems written in a more traditional compositional method, incorporating an emphasis on prosody and caesural spaces. In 1998, between the two Cage articles, Mac Low, as he stated in the quotation above, "returned" to deterministic methods, but it was under the caveat that he no longer pretended that this was not, ultimately, an egoic process. This decision was clearly triggered, at least in part, by Mac Low's work on Cage, in which he rails against those who misinterpreted or misunderstood Cage as having refused or eliminated the presence of the ego and its concomitant authorial intent via indeterminacy. For Cage, Mac Low writes, "chance was always constrained, to a greater or lesser extent, by his intentions" ("Cage's Writings" 231), and later, "He knew very well that if he did anything at all, it would be done by or through his ego" (232). …

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