I Remember Jackson Mac Low


I remember reading Representative Works at the office of the Segue Foundation in the basement of a building on East 8th St. in New York City.

I remember it took so long to read and understand the descriptions of the chance operations used to write the poems that I almost forgot to read the poems themselves.

I remember the moment I realized that the descriptions were integral to the poems and that one could not exist without the other.

I remember thinking that no one had ever written like this before.

I remember trying to read Jackson's poems aloud, following his instructions on emphasis, syllable length, reading speed, etc. to the letter. I remember how fun it was to try and how hard to do.

I remember seeing Jackson read at the Poetry Project in 1997. He began by saying he would read for 42 minutes. Everyone laughed out loud. Except Jackson.

I remember expecting Jackson to have long, strait, black hair because of the picture on the back of the book.

I remember being surprised that his hair was short and white.

I remember trying to “read-through” books to compose poems. Not being very good with numbers and so unable to create my own chance operations, I would just pick a book I liked and write poems by using the first line of each page as a starting point.

I remember feeling the poems weren’t very good, but that I had discovered a new way to think about writing.

I remember how difficult it was to try to keep my “self” out of the poem.

I remember Jackson coming to Buffalo for his 75th birthday. Several of us composed a poem in honor of the occasion. It was called, "75," and was comprised of 75 chance-derived lines alternating between 7 words and 5 words, first word of each line beginning, in alternation, with words beginning with letter "J" and letter "M."

I remember feeling guilty about editing the poem.

I remember each poet wrote a description of the chance operation used to derive their lines.

I remember at a party for Jackson, Bill Howe performed “75” out loud, giving even the many stray punctuation marks in the poem sound values.

I remember after the reading Jackson interrogated Bill for several minutes about the reason he chose the sound values he did for each punctuation mark, taking issue with several of Bill's choices.

I remember Bill presented Jackson with a copy of the poem that did not contain the descriptions of our chance operations. Later, I presented him with the rest of the text, saying, "These are descriptions of the various chance operations used to derive the lines of the poem."

I remember Jackson looked up from the book he was signing and said, "I don't use chance operations anymore."

I remember Jackson reading at SUNY Buffalo. I remember he chose not to stand at the podium. Instead, he walked to the front of the stage and sat down, letting is short legs dangle over the edge while he read.

I remember when Jackson performed several of his pieces set to music at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, he asked if anyone had a copy of "Representative Works" on hand, as he had forgotten his. I leant him mine and he used it during the performance. Afterward, I asked him to sign it. He flipped to a random page in the book, chose a line, and scribbled it down on the title page.

I remember it was a line about Cleveland from one of his "Light Poems." He signed and dated it "New York, 11/9/1997." I was never sure whether he had forgotten he was in Buffalo or if he meant "The State of New York, of which Buffalo is a part."

I remember Jackson giving a talk called, "Intention/Nonintention/Chance/Choice/Other."

I remember he said that over the years he had come to realize that it was impossible to remove the self entirely from the work, and so had transitioned into work he called "quasi-intentional”.

I remember spending a lot of time trying to figure out what "quasi-intentional" meant.

I remember he talked about corresponding with Ezra Pound as a young man, and how he had struggled his entire life to reconcile his love of Pound's poetry with his hatred of Pounds politics.

I remember he said this struggle was ongoing.

I remember thinking that for Jackson every line, every syllable, every phoneme, every chance operation, every musical notation represented an ethical choice, and that the integrity of his poetics depended entirely on staying in the "negative capability" that choice engendered.

I remember standing with Jackson in a restaurant parking lot in Buffalo in the cold. Jackson had a sweater wrapped around his head. He looked like someone with a toothache in an old cartoon.

I remember asking him if Pete Rose, the subject of one of his poems, was the Pete Rose of baseball. He told me that Pete Rose was actually a musician he had known many years ago.

I remember he said he didn't know what had become of Pete Rose.

I remember he said he was afraid to inquire about those he hadn't seen in a long time because he didn't want to find out they had died.

I remember feeling like crying when he said that.

I remember giving a reading at Double Happiness. Jackson came to the reading, as was his habit to do on Saturday afternoons. Before the reading, he approached me and said, "Hello, Mike."

I remember how thrilled I was that he remembered my name.

I remember seeing him writing furiously in his notebook during the reading.

I remember hoping that someday one of my poems would end up in one of his poems.

I remember at the first night of the "Poetry of the Forties" conference in Orono, Robert Creeley read in an auditorium to an audience of about 300.

I remember Jackson and Anne Tardos arrived a couple of minutes after the reading had begun.

I remember they had to descend a long aisle of stairs to get near the stage.

I remember Anne went first, and chose a pair of seats in the first row.

I remember Jackson followed, slowly, appearing very frail and using a cane.

I remember as he passed my seat, I could hear how heavily he was breathing. It seemed like it took him an hour to get to the front row.

I remember that when he finally arrived, he put on a pair of thick, oversized glasses, leaned on the chair-arm to his right, and cupped a hand to his ear to hear the words more clearly.