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Jackson Mac Low and Unintentional Beauty

Updated on August 27, 2016

A reading of contemporary and experimental poetry.

A photograph of Jackson Mac Low taken by Anne Tardos.
A photograph of Jackson Mac Low taken by Anne Tardos. | Source

Mac Low and Chance Poetry

Contrary to more conventional ways of composing poetry, such as a poet scribbling on a piece of paper, a type of poetry composition uses chance to produce poetry. Often a source text (a poem, an article, a piece of writing) would be used and submitted to methods of chance, which would derive an original poem. Tristan Tzara, a pioneer of a poetic movement using chance, offered his method of creating poetry in his "Dada Manifesto:"

“Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are--an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.”

The last line is a bit harsh here, but the method succeeds in creating a spring of originality from even a single text. Because of the infinite possibilities, what is created may not always resemble the poet--after all, what are the chances?--but is something quite new and unpredictable, and sometimes beautiful. The use of chance methods frees the poem from the constraints of the author's intent and the rules of language.

Jackson Mac Low (September 12, 1922 – December 8, 2004) was an American poet, performance artist composer and playwright known for his poetic experiments in chance methods. One of Mac Low's projects was the creation of Stein poems, produced by running Gertrude Stein’s collection of poems, Tender Buttons, through a computer program to generate Stein-imitation poem that used words exclusively from the Stein but in original arrangements. Mac Low took the computer-generated poem and tweaked it primarily in form and punctuation but leaving the text intact.

Part of this Stein series is Mac Low's "Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair," a poem that is confusing, nonsensical, musical and beautiful. Mac Low's unconventional methods of composition raise all sorts of contradictions and questions about what poetry is and how it might be approached.

Mac Low's "Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair"

A first view of Mac Low’s poem "Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair" is perplexing because one notices the almost nonsensical display of words, lines and stanzas. In his poem’s title, “A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair” appears to state something quite profound, but when one attempts to make sense of it, sense-making fails. What is a “feather likeness” and how could that be an attribute of the “Justice Chair”? Yet the sound of the phrase is quite beautiful even if meaning in any traditional sense cannot be made of it.

From meaning to music

As or because semantics fail to make sense, the attention of the reader tends to shift to the sound of words. "Feather likeness" sounds meaningful. Another early line in his poem, “It is that-there that means best,” leaves meaning open regarding what that-there is, what it is, what is the best of what. Yet in the sentence’s ambiguity, the sense of meaning and profundity is present. The words move our attention away from the actual meaning—as there appears to be none—to the sound of meaning. Another such phrase is “White the green grinding trimming thing!” The use of consonance (“green grinding” and “trimming thing”) and the triple rhyme at the end of the phrase attract our attention to the musicality of the sentence, so that a different kind of pleasantness (and even meaning?) is found when we focus on the sounds.

Why achieve this? Is it meaningful to detach meaning from language, which seems on an intuitive level to be built from the impulse to make meaning? On a varying level, poetry has always been about the sound of words as well as the meaning. Rhyming is a form that pays attention to sounds, but the sound of words has perhaps always seemed secondary to the meanings of words. Mac Low and his contemporaries are trying to show how poetry is just as much about the musical quality of words as it is about semantics.

Unintentional originality

The other thing that Mac Low, as well as other chance poets, does in his Stein poem is to complicate the authorship or the origin of the poem. The original text is Stein's Tender Buttons; the words are chosen unintentionally from this text by a computer algorithm that processes words without regard to their meanings, thus detaching words from semantics; the decision to use this process, as well as the addition of punctuation to the poem is Mac Low's choice. The poem's authorship is ambiguous, and Mac Low is not the indisputable author, nor is the computer program and nor is Stein. The selection of the words of the poem is completely unintentional but the poem's creation as a mix of unintention and intention.

The effect of this unintentional process is the prolific originality of word combinations that goes beyond the coherence of a thinking mind. Creation begins to astound: the creation of phrases without meaning but with the semblance of it, the creation with musical qualities, and even the occasional creation that makes semantic sense. And perhaps the conclusion here is that originality is something outside of coherence, intention or any single mind’s capabilities. Perhaps originality transcends being human—with our language that is necessarily confined to semantics—and is reflected best in randomness.

Accidentally, this process might even create a meaningful line. In the poem, a succinct and eloquent line appeared amidst a stream of musicality: “More selection, slighter intention.” The line appears as coherent as if it had been intentionally devised, it hasn't been designed, except for the presence of the comma. Furthermore, the line appears to be a meta-statement about the poem by capturing the process of the poem’s making itself, the unintentional selection. The line is semantically meaningful without having a clear author we can point to.

What happened there? The line was meaningful even though there was no meaning intended, so the meaning had come largely from my own interpretation of the text. Because there isn't an author of this line, the reader's participation in meaning-making becomes clearer than when it is obscured by the intent of the author. Meaning is something that can be made without an author, but perhaps even with an author, it is something that is created by a collaboration between the author, the text and the reader. Meaning is also different among readers. A line that is nonsensical to one reader is meaningful to another; a line that sounds beautiful to one reader is different to another. So, meaning is further complicated by the originality of the readers' interpretations.

The poem shakes up conventional notions of poetry and language, shifting our attention from semantics to the musicality, and reveals the mechanism for creating original poetry that goes beyond what a single author can do. The poem is both original and unoriginal, a kind of creativity that is the result of filtering an unoriginal text—Tender Buttons—through an original process to achieve an original poem. The resulting poem is mostly meaningless in the traditional sense, but it sounds meaningful and brings to the forefront the reader’s active participation in making sense of the poem. For a poem that uses an unintentional process, a great deal of meaning can be derived and far more beauty.

Works by Jackson Mac Low

Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works
Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works

A collection of early, middle and late works by Mac Low that gives insight into his perspective on what makes poetic beauty.


Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein


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    • bigj1969 profile image

      John Marshall 3 years ago from glasgow

      Great hub,very interesting.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 3 years ago from Minnesota

      You have a lot to offer to the writing community on HubPages.