Mac Low: poetry by indirect aim; Performances are part of 75th birthday celebration for poet

Reporter Staff

Lecturing on poetry, reading poetry, listening to poetry: what better way for a poet to celebrate a birthday?

Jackson Mac Low, often mentioned as one of the most innovative American poets of this century, was on the UB campus last week to culminate a series of events celebrating his 75th birthday.

Associated at different times in his career with John Cage, the FLUXUS movement, the Living Theater of New York, the rise of Zen-inflected pacifism, the rise of "Language" writing, and almost every experimental literary group to pass through New York City, Mac Low has meanwhile amassed a large body of his own work.

After reading some of his poems last week as part of the Wednesdays at 4 Plus series, Mac Low delivered a lecture Thursday to a crowded room in Clemens Hall, talking at length about his political involvement and his own poetry.

He achieved a certain renown in the 1950s when he began to employ "systematic-chance" methods to write his poems, influenced by experiments John Cage was making in music. These methods sometimes involved rolling dice, sticking pins through magazines, or inventing elaborate mathematical rules to choose what would and would not go into a poem. The idea, Mac Low explained, is consistent with ideas in Oriental religions and pacifism that involve "by-passing" or "evading" the ego.

Influenced by the concept of Zen Buddhism that was entering American consciousness through scholars like D.T. Suzuki, Mac Low decided that to "try" to express something, to aim for expression, actually ended up pushing "against an actual flow" and did not achieve its precise goal. Releasing the intention, he felt, would allow the "flow" to enter into art.

"Expression, like happiness," said Mac Low, "is one of those things you can't obtain by aiming at directly. Anyone who tries to express themselves in art directly, won't."

Over the years, Mac Low said he has found himself questioning some of these early assumptions. Since the 1960s, he has returned to writing poems that involve varying degrees of "direct" composition, which often means he still uses a system to compose his poems. Now, however, it is usually a system that allows him to make some or all of the choices.

What has remained consistent is Mac Low's sense of poetry as "performance." Last Thursday, he performed a number of his poems at Hallwalls, accompanied by musicians and voice artists from the Buffalo-based poetry band EBMA.

Most of Mac Low's work includes instructions detailing how to read the poem out loud, either to a group or to oneself. These instructions are similar to a musical score, often including "silences" of particular duration. Understandably, it is sometimes difficult for people to adjust to such a unique approach to writing. "I sometimes lose one-fifth of my audience," he said, without a trace of resentment.

But for the four-fifths who stay, Mac Low's life and works are singular achievements, capable of opening up new ways of thinking about language, poetry and art.

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