A great big book of graphical scores, sound poems and experimental performative texts arrived in my mailbox recently. Doings by Jackson Mac Low (1922-2004) is a massive—and massively important—tome for anyone interested in the history of 20th innovative poetry. Gorgeously printed with fold-out graphic scores and a CD of previously unavailable sound poems, this book is another essential piece in the large, rich puzzle that was the life of Mac Low.
Jackson Mac Low began writing experimental poems as early as 1938 but didn’t publish until 1966 with a chapbook published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press, The Twin Plays (available as a PDF on ubu.com). Over the years he was aligned at various times with The New York School of composers, John Cage, Fluxus, The Living Theatre, anti-war movements, Buddhism, Conceptual Art and the Text-Sound movement of the 1970s. But it wasn’t until he was reclaimed by the Language Poets in the mid-70s that Mac Low found his true milieu in the fractured linguistic landscape and the leftist politics of those younger poets.
I didn’t meet Jackson until the early 90’s when I began working with vocalist Joan La Barbara. By that time, his legendary didacticism had mellowed and his glowing sense of humor rose to the front. We spent many Saturday afternoons at the Ear Inn poetry series gently teasing each other and laughing. His work, too, got funnier. Although my own work never went in aleatory directions, our practice shares one big attribute: boredom.
Jackson Mac Low was a writer who thrived on the notion of boredom as though the inexorable boredom is the very core of life. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. As a matter of fact, I’ve called myself the most boring writer that ever lived, but when I think about it, Jackson was boring in a completely different way than I am. He was boring in a way that I call boring boring; as opposed to the general tendency today toward the unboring boring. I’ve written elsewhere: “John Cage said, ‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.’ He’s right: there’s a certain kind of unboring boredom that’s fascinating, engrossing, transcendent, and downright sexy. And then there’s the other kind of boring: let’s call it boring boring. Boring boring is a client meeting; boring boring is having to endure someone’s self-indulgent poetry reading; boring boring is watching a toddler for an afternoon; boring boring is the seder at Aunt Fanny’s. Boring boring is being somewhere we don’t want to be; boring boring is doing something we don’t want to do.” Jackson was the king of boring boring.
There were many stories about Jackson’s famous ability to bore. My favorite one comes from a David Antin talk piece where he describes an anti-war poetry reading where Jackson went on and on, refusing to stop until the auditorium—was it the Fillmore East?—was emptied, taking the air out of that specific anti-war event.
Never mind. Jackson and his generation had a mandate to be boring. I recall attending a sound poetry festival in Miami Beach along with Jackson in the early 90’s. We were all put up in a Deco hotel right on South Beach, which was just starting to take off around that time. I’ll never forget the sight of Jackson decamped under an umbrella on the beach, his skin as white as the sand, his then-aged body slathered with Coppertone, watching intently as the parade of muscle-boys, hard-bodied gays and topless supermodels passed before him, our most important living innovative poet. As the sun started to sink and we walked back to the hotel, I tried to explain to him the allure of this scene: the wonderful, sexy clubs and the then-recent house music that was driving it; I tried to explain the history of disco, its democratic appeal across all classes, genders, races and sexual orientation; the allure of fashion and its liberating influence upon certain societal strictures. Jackson listened, then grimaced and spat, “Dance music is the music of the military. When everyone is forced to move in time together, it’s absolute fascism.” I tried to respond, but his mind was made up.
When I got back to the hotel room, I threw myself on the bed and began channel-surfing. Somewhere I stopped on a rebroadcast of a 1950s Lawrence Welk show. It was awful: stiff men with horn-rimmed glasses and greasy hair playing music that was really—even with Space Age Bachelor Pad revisionism—unsalvageable. Then in a flash, it all made sense. In Jackson’s day, this was what passed for popular culture. It was unbearably stupid, wrapping its boredom in the guise of “entertainment” and suddenly it occurred to me that in his day, Jackson was right. A powerful way to combat such crap was to do the opposite of it, to be purposely boring. Today, of course, popular culture is infinitely more sophisticated and almost everyone creating ads has a degree in semiotics, but it’s important to remember that pop wasn’t always as fascinating and complex as it is today.
In a recent Q&A with students at University of Pennsylvania, Al Filreis was lauding the idea of Jackson Mac Low. It was shortly after he died and I was speaking on an impromptu panel with Jena Osman and we were asked to give our opinions about Jackson. Al claimed that his students were turned on by Jackson; the students all agreed. I asked what they listened to and Al named a lengthy sound poetry piece. I looked at Al and his students—them of the MTV short-attention span generation—and knew something wasn’t making sense. I pressed on. “How long was the piece, Al?” “Oh, at least 45 minutes.” “Really?” “Yep, it’s a great thing.” “How long did you listen for, Al?” There was a pause as he scratched his beard. “Well, um, we listened to about a five-minute excerpt.” “Ah ha! Of course it was great. It was great for five minutes, not forty-five!”
I tried my hardest over the years to bore Jackson and never succeeded. He was unborable. At a reading at The Drawing Center in New York City, Jackson was in the audience. I had my great shot and I took it, reading from my book Day, which is nothing more than an issue of the _New York Time_s retyped from start to finish. After the performance I went up to Jackson, and in a teasing manner, poked him in the ribs and said, “So, Jackson, was that boring enough for you?” He said no, that it was not boring. I admitted defeat and jokingly told him to quit picking on me and to give it up to my brand of boredom. A few days later, I checked my email and found the following in my inbox:
If you really thought I was “picking on you” the other night, you were very much mistaken.
Your performances were brilliant. You are one of the best voco-verbal performers I know. You can perform any strings of words and make them interesting. If you really wanted to be boring, however, you didn’t succeed. The very brilliance of your performances made this impossible. If you really want to be boring, you’d perform your pieces as John Ashbery used to perform his wonderful poems: in a low, expressionless monotone. He, fortunately, has stopped doing that. I don’t think you’d be the least bit happy in doing that. You obviously get a great deal of pleasure out of performing your pieces.
I was really agreeing with you in saying that the pieces in themselves had—not really no meaning, but more accurately, no intended meaning outside themselves. That, I thought, was why you spoke so approvingly of boredom. What you did was certainly an example of what John meant when he said, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”
But I think you were both wrong. I have the conviction that anything a person says—any sound any sentient being produces—is willy-nilly meaningful. And when strings of words that are also intrinsically meaningful—even though not in themselves necessarily meaningful in the sense of “significant” or the like to many people who hear them—are spoken both rapidly and with many nuances of tone, etc., they can’t help being interesting—that is, “not boring.”
I think the “content” of what you said was often not interesting to me (and I think you had no wish for it to be) but your ways of saying it were.
You may have (by your lights) nothing to say, but you sure say it grand.
Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. The author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb, and the editor of I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, Goldsmith is also the host of a weekly radio show on New York City's WFMU. He teaches writing at The University of Pennsylvania, where he is a senior editor of PennSound, an online poetry archive. More about Goldsmith can be found on his author's page at the University of Buffalo's Electronic Center: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith.