Matthew Paris :: Xiccarph :: View topic - "Asymmetries l-260" and "Paper Air"
"Asymmetries l-260" and "Paper Air"
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Matthew Paris

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Post Thu Jan 29, 2004 3:31 pm - "Asymmetries l-260" and "Paper Air"
Jackson MacLow is the most influential poet in America Brooklyn College has yet produced. Invited to festivals in Japan and Rome, playwright, composer, musician and actor for the legendary Living Theatre, co-inventor of the Happening, stellar performer in poetry and music festivals of contemporary Art for over a generation,
MacLow is a kind of celebrity irrespective of his poetry and vast intellectual influence. Vera Lachmann brought MacLow to BC where, characteristically, he majored in Greek. Tradition has nurtured his most audacious poetry as Aristotle gave him the foundation to approach anarchism. MacLow's revolutionary verse applies ideas of John Cage to verbal arts, but side by side, he has never stopped writing traditional scannable poetry. A whole school of poetry, the Sound Poets, are footnotes to his verse. It may be stretching a point but it was right for MacLow to graduate from BC.
The stretching outward from closed forms, the turn from the West to the East, the revolution in how to use words, the search through what Europe called unredeemable and trash is a central American strain that began in Brooklyn with Walt Whitman. Sandburg, certainly a Whitman disciple, was one of MacLow’s earliest influences.
Then there was that other side even in high school Wyatt, Surrey, the Metaphysicals. Some of his uses of spatial arrangement of words were done by Henry Vaughan. A long interview with MacLow will appear here in a subsequent issue. The Asymmetries, published by Printed Editions, and Paper Air by Singing Horse Press are two of the latest emanations of his work in print.
They have been steady, but in small editions; they are usually distributed in the poetry specialist bookstores. Both a CAPS winner and NEA recipient, this anarchist has been helped by the American government. For the non-specialist, Paper Air is an excellent introduction to his work and thought. It is mostly a series of interviews, spiced with a few articles of praise by such as Armand Schwerner, George Qasha and John Cage.
It is admittedly hard to be thrown into MacLow's world without a rudder or tools for understanding. It may look like a scrabble game by lunatics, a computer printout in an invented language, a cynical joke. It is actually a demand by the poet for hard work from the reader.
MacLow's readers or audience must make the syntactical connections, the harmonies between images and parallels between words, the syncretic embraces of ideas without the usual map of conventional grammar or word order. All the traditional elements of poetry are there. MacLow is not a Cagean because each of his poems has meaning; the word is never divorced from the physical world that gave birth to it as aural mystery. People who are not able to move through the terror inherent in thinking freshly about language will never like MacLow.
His poetry is always intelligent, no less so in his scannable conventional verse. It has intellectual concentration as well as intensity. If this were not enough to make his audience less than the total English speaking population, it breathes, to put it crudely, a metaphysical populist bias. His materials may sometimes be Dantesque like "light," but more often they are culled from articles in Scientific American, Jowett translations of Plato, or a tawdry newspaper article.
One is continually dealing with ideas used quickly and thrown away which whole schools of poets later build careers upon. The richness of invention, the multiplicity of conceits, make his work both rich and sometimes difficult.
He is a writer's writer. If a referendum were taken among living poets about whom they stole from the most, MacLow would finish first. It helps to attend a MacLow reading to enter into his thought. He can be experienced twenty or so times a year somewhere in Brooklyn or Manhattan. One should read Paper Air to map the ground. MacLow has many suggestions for entering into the world of the Asymmetries in his introduction. I would read them aloud, not too many at once, go back to them over a period of days, listen to them read by friends.
The mind tends to love clichés more than poetry when it is in a state of terror. MacLow is terrifying. Listen to the aural music of the verse; it is beautiful. MacLow, after all, is a musician. One must be willing to listen to English as 253 music. The meaning- and there is always meaning- will come from the syntax, not the usual one, but the cementless joining of word and word, image and image. Sometimes, like Asymmetry 151, they are magnificently funny. They are idyllic, philosophical, tragic, amorous; they are classical poetry.
They awake the reader to himself. They enlighten him to the thaumaturgy of language- which is true magic.
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