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MAC LOW, Jackson (1922-2004).
Article published on 29 January 2008

by r-c.
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Jackson Mac Low died in New York on December 8. This
profound loss will take many years to properly
register, but since the New York Times has only
summarized his literary contributions, it is important
to note other dimensions of his life, especially his
political involvements.

Raised in northern suburbs, Mac Low was a prolific
student poet at the University of Chicago in the late
1930s at a time when Chicago was a cauldron of radical
thought. Leaving school, Mac Low arrived in New York
and by 1943 was participating in anarchist and
pacifist gatherings [such as those at the Spanish
anarchist meeting hall on Broadway and weekend picnics
and dances at Stelton colony]. With Paul Goodman and
others, Mac Low was one of those outside Danbury
Federal Corrections institution supporting jailed
conscientious objectors hunger striking for an
integrated cafeteria. They won and the Federal Prison
system was integrated before even the military.

During the war and into the fifties, when it ceased
publication, Mac Low was one of the contributors to
and editors of the NYC anarchist paper ’Why?’ (later
called ’Resistance’). Mac Low was also associated with
Woodstock anarchists Holley Cantine and Dachine Rainer
and wrote music reviews for their periodical ’Retort.’

In June 1955, Mac Low was arrested for protesting
civil defense drills in City Hall Park. It was
described at the time by the ’New York
World-Telegram’: "The demonstrators were members of
the The Catholic
Workers, The War Resisters League and the Fellowship
of Reconciliation,
plus one man, Jackson Mac Low, 32, who said he was not
a member of any of these groups." In addition to
Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, Bayard Rustin and others,
also arrested were Julian Beck and Judith Malina, an
experience she describes in her since-published
journals of the time.

In a letter of explanation to Bayard Rustin, Mac Low
describes his difference from those protesting the
fear-mongering of civil defense drills: "I believe
that .. the danger of Russian H bomb raids in the
immediate future is very remote, whereas I believe ...
the experimental explosion of A Bombs, but much more,
of H (thermonuclear) bombs, constitutes more than an
"immediate danger" but rather is, more than possibly,
an actual present producer of great damage to mankind
and all his works."

In a 1940 statement "Conscription," Mac Low takes
great pains to describe how war is not only immoral
for its destruction of life, of culture, but something
else as well: "What about those who are left "alive"
and "whole"? What about what happens inside them? What
about the millions of ordinary men whose ideals are
shattered, whose good will is soured by learning to
destroy and hate, by seeing their fellow men destroyed
and their own property, by being hated?"

In the sixties and after, Mac Low participated in
dozens of actions, from marathon poetry readings to
the levitation of the Pentagon, and everything
in-between. In his writing the question of freedom has
been a particular concern.

Like contemporaries Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and
other self-identified anarchist poets, Mac Low was a
correspondent of the jailed poet Ezra Pound. Mac Low’s
re-encoding of the Poundian textual (and political)
economies, his application of them to broader forms of
musical notation and expanded notions of prosody
constitutes a "blurring" of the line between poetry
and music, as the ’New York Times’ put it in their Mac
Low obituary. This spatial and temporary prosodic
explosion allowed him to rethink the "matter" with
which poems work, are made, and how they are made.
Radicalizing, via anarchism and Buddhist metaphysics,
the concept of the poet’s own ego in relation to the
composition of a poem, in 1955 Mac Low borrowed from
the composer Earle Browne the use of the Rand Corp’s
table of random digits as one of many so-called
"chance" procedures. With David Thoreau Wieck, a
member of the ’Why?’ and ’Resistance’ editorial group,
Mac Low introduced John Cage to anarchism, though many
have often confused that relationship by inverting it.

In 1962, his play the Marrying Maiden was performed by
the Living Theater. Since then, he has been a widely
influential on successive generations of poets,
performance artists and musicians. Though he has been
invited to read throughout USA, Canada and Europe, Mac
Low was a constant presence at downtown poetry
readings, and where his spirit and
energy will be greatly missed.

Not all of his poems were chance-generated, such as
the Light Poems of
the 1960s. Here are two from the 1968 collection ’22
Light Poems’:

1st Light Poem: for Iris — 10 June 1962

The light of a student-lamp
sapphire light
shimmer
the light of a smoking-lamp
 
Light from the Magellanic Clouds
the light of a Nernst lamp
the light of a naptha-lamp
light from meteorites
 
Evanescent light
ether
the light of an electric lamp
extra light
 
Citrine light
kineographic light
the light of a Kitson lamp
kindly light
 
Ice light
irradiation
ignition
altar light
 
The light of a spotlight
a sunbeam
sunrise
solar light
 
Mustard-oil light
maroon light
the light of a magnesium flare
light from a meteor
 
Evanescent light
ether
light from an electric lamp
an extra light
 
Light from a student-lamp
sapphire light
a shimmer
smoking-lamp light
Ordinary light
orgone lumination
light from a lamp burning olive oil
opal light
 
Actinism
atom-bomb light
the light of an alcohol lamp
the light of a lamp burning anda-oil

13th Light Poem for Judith Malina — 9 August 1962

Is it possible to have ogres & vampires for friends?
asked the baby
gargoyle
Yes child hush the dawn light is coming.
The cocks are crowing in their improvised cages in the
top floor
window of the tenement across & down the street,
the tenement once a chic Jewish apartment building
in this densely Puerto Rican & dark American street.
 
The sweat pours from me for I havent slept & I hate
the friends I love
&
fear &
light cd pour from me instead
if I were Vinoba Bhave
or Martin Buber
or Ramana Maharshi
or Sohaku Ogata or —
 
I’m not.

arrow On web : For more information, check out his author page at the Electronic Poetry Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo

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