1969: Jackson Mac Low : PFR-3 Poems

Jackson Mac Low is a poet who worked like a computer before computers, and after computers arrived began to use them to implement algorithmic methods he had already been doing by hand. From 1962-1968, he composed 22 Light Poems [2] without a computer. The poems are all combinatorial and loosely composed upon algorithmic method, sometimes he inserts his own phrases, sometimes he uses phrases from obscure sources (the back of a collage) as glue between algorithmically generated material. For 22 Light Poems Mac Low assembled 280 names of different kinds of light, sorted them into rows and columns and associated each column with a letter from his name or his wife’s name and a playing card. Then he shuffled the playing cards and whenever he needed or felt impelled to insert a light word selected a card.

Mac Low describes how he constructed each poem in an appendix to 22 Light Poems; the following couplet from the 22nd poem arises by using letters from the title to draw words from the chart of light words; where words did not exist random digits drew words from an old dictionary ‘lamp’ entry. It’s reference to artificial light can be seen as a perhaps unintentional analogy for the vacuum tube of early computers:

Can the light of a dark lantern cause
word division?

Not when artificial light
enforces complementary division. [Mac Low. p.70]

Mac Low’s compositional method therefore is a classic man-machine hybrid: algorithm and imagination, calculation and sensibility, chance and choice. Phrases and stories from his own process mingle with the output of constraint operations. Nested in between the arbitrary and the crafted, the poems carry with them a voice which far exceeds the poetic capacity of Jean A Baudot’s purely computationally created poems. The aesthetic advantage of taming and polishing the output of algorithms is clear.

In 1969 he [Jackson Mac Low] participated in the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: with the aid of a programmable film reader he composed the “PFR-3 Poems.” This interest has only strengthened in the last decade.) Indeed, 42 Merzgedichte In Memoriam Kurt Schwitters (1994) is a series of poems … recombined and transformed by computer programs.[1]

Mac Low evidently easily made the transition from analog to digital poetry. The use of chance operations and algorithms in his analog work predispose him to accepting the computer as an adjunct, facilitator, and tool to increase efficiency and expand the complexity of how combinatorial phrases are produced. By merging the strengths of the algorithmically-rapid integrated circuit with the symbolically resonant and affective human brain, Mac Low rides along the rich seam created by the merger of jolting unpredictable output of randomization and the sustained process-oriented pattern-perceiving knit of mind. Thematic consistency is ensured through authorial choice while the computer performs work of chance-choice. The author remains but the tools have changed.

1. Campbell, Bruce. “Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 193: American Poets Since World War II, Sixth Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Joseph Conte, State University of New York, Buffalo. The Gale Group, 1998. pp. 193-202.” Available at: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/maclow/about/dlb.html [Accessed August 26, 2008]

2. Mac Low, Jackson. 1968. 22 Light Poems. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press.

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