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
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.
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
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
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"
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
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
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
I remember Anne went first, and chose a pair of seats in the first
I remember Jackson followed, slowly, appearing very frail and using
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.
|Michael Kelleher 12.9.04