Science, Technology, and Poetry: Some Thoughts on Jackson Mac Low

To be published in CRAYON #1, 1997 September, as part of a Festschrift on the occasion of Jackson's 75th birthday

Mordecai-Mark Mac Low
Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie
Königstuhl 17
D-69117 Heidelberg, Germany
[email protected]

I'd like to develop the thought in this essay that the way my father approaches poetry has had a lot to do with scientific and technical problem solving methods. My own perspective is that of the professional scientist -- I've ended up a computational astrophysicist -- but I hope that I can add some interesting thoughts to the critical discussion. I'll also mix in a few personal anecdotes on the strong role scientific and technical knowledge and techniques played in Jackson's life and work.

My understanding of the development of Jackson's poetry and other creative work is of course colored by my having only arrived on the scene in the middle of it. It is clear, though, that a main theme running through it is an attempt to develop the Buddhist idea/ideal of egoless expression -- that is, to write egoless poetry. I suspect that the classical way to approach this problem would have been to attempt to achieve a state of egoless awareness through one meditative technique or another (more or less clever and esoteric depending on the particular tradition of Buddhism), and then to allow pen or brush to interact with paper.

However, Jackson encountered Zen Buddhism in the teaching of D. T. Suzuki in New York City in the fifties, in an intellectual environment wildly different from that of classical India or feudal Japan. He had had a strong interest in science as a child, which he pursued in high school; for example, he had occasionally used the campus telescope at Northwestern University, near his home (he once described to me managing to reverse the rotation of the dome so quickly that a gear broke off and fell to the floor.) He had entered the University of Chicago with a strong interest in the sciences, (though his primary focus had already changed in his last years in high school to philosophy and literature), and indeed found himself, during World War II, in an environment where the first nuclear reactor was running under the football stadium, and young physicists from the "Metallurgy Project" shared his coop dinner table.

In the sciences, computers were just being born, but computation was already a well-established approach to problem-solving: until WW II, the term "computer" referred not to a machine, but to a demanding job, often filled by women equipped with mechanical adding machines. Chance methods had been developed in physics to solve problems ranging from neutron scattering to the integration of fundamental equations in quantum electrodynamics. These methods are usually called "Monte Carlo methods" by physicists, in reference to casinos.

In the late fifties when Jackson first started experimenting with chance or aleatoric methods, he was thus using an already well-accepted approach to technical problem-solving. His copy of One Million Random Digits, and 100,000 Normal Deviates, by the RAND Corporation, which he used heavily from 1958 throughout the sixties and beyond, was indeed written (generated!) for use in implementations of Monte Carlo methods.

Jackson only became aware of the scientific use of Monte Carlo methods in physics from the introdcution to the RAND book, several years after his first use of chance methods in 1954-55 to write the "5 Biblical Poems". This reinvention of a technique already in use in a related area is an all-too-frequent occurrence even within single fields of science: for example, one approximation I developed in my own thesis work I later discovered had already been independently described by at least one other American group, and was fairly well-known in the then Soviet Union. However, I think the important point is not the exact lineage of the technique, but that Jackson (and others) found it acceptable and interesting to use a technical, algorithmic approach in poetry, and that other people found the results interesting.

Jackson certainly was--and still is--aware at an advanced popular level of scientific developments. This can be seen most simply by noting the subject matter he used as a source for the component words and phrases of his poetry and performance works, which were as likely to be drawn from a description of turtle mating habits and life cycles (the "Young Turtle Asymmetries") as from newspaper articles, political, or religious material. I grew up with a lot of scientific writing around: Jackson had a collection of Scientific Americans stretching back into the mid-fifties, a subscription to Natural History magazine, membership in the Natural Science Book Club, and the science section of his library occupied as many shelves as the poetry section. He also went through a period of reading a lot of science fiction, probably in the late fifties and early sixties, judging from the dates on the books I grew up reading. (He claimed that his reading of SF dropped off due to the dismal characterization typical of the writing of the time, although latterly he seems to have come back to it somewhat after inheriting my Analog subscription when I left for college.) A particularly vivid memory of mine is following the Apollo missions with him during the Spring & Summer of 1969 (when I was six), as the astronauts cautiously made closer and closer approaches to the Moon, before finally landing (an event I got to stay up late for, and watch on our cousin's color TV---though in the event, the returned video was black & white).

Chance methods were not the only means that Jackson deployed in his attempt to solve the problem of producing egoless poetry and music. He also used deterministic methods that employed particular algorithms to generate poetry whose form and content were not known in advance, but could be reproduced given identical initial conditions. (Of course, these initial conditions often included the essentially random element of his current position in whatever he was reading at the time, as well as the chance elements introduced by the vagaries of the publication process.) (1)

Jackson's approach to writing poetry was, quite literally, experimental. The question he asked was not so much, "how can I achieve a particular effect?" as, "what will happen if I implement this particular algorithm?" In some ways, I would compare this to the work of the applied mathematician or computer scientist who studies the general properties of algorithms as much as how to adapt them to specific applications. He was not, of course, attempting to prove theorems or support particular theories with his experiments, but rather to empirically invent techniques of artistic production meeting certain criteria.

With his strong focus on method and technique, Jackson made a serious attempt to keep up with the current state of the art in electronics and computers. There was always a large tangle of wires in one corner of the house where the audio equipment lived; and he used that equipment not merely to record his performances, but, more importantly, to generate new work, either as part of performances, or for distribution. He also worked frequently in recording studios, taking advantage, for example, of the possibilities of multi-track recording to produce simultaneities with many more voices than performers.

He began working with computers sooner even than many scientists. While he was an instructor at New York University in the late sixties, he took advantage of an offer by the University of a free course in FORTRAN (one result of which was a short poem trying to explain the output of a program with a bug in it that seemed to show gravity increasing as the height of the simulated fall increased). This was during the period when programs were still written out on a coding form by hand (thus the obsolescent term "code" for programs, still used by physicists), and given to professional keypunchers for entry onto cards which were then run through a computer in batch mode, with the results being returned from the line printer.

In 1969 he was offered a fellowship by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to work at making verbal artworks at an IBM facility in Los Angeles. Though IBM soon washed their hands of him for political reasons (no doubt conflating his pacifist anarchism with the Stalinism he'd fought in college... but that's another story), he ended up working with Information International, Inc., "Triple-I", a company that went on to become one of the dominant computer graphics and printing companies (it's now known as Autologic Information International, Inc., after a recent merger, according to my search for it on the Web, and it seems to be manufacturing the systems used by most newspapers for composition). There he worked with John Hanson, the VP in charge of programming, and his assistant Dean Anschultz, to write assembler language code for displaying poetry on a Tektronix vector graphics screen, and eventually for printing it out as well, using a programmable film reader driven by an early minicomputer.

Through the seventies, before the widespread availability of microcomputers, his work made more use of audio electronics than computers (though in 1979 he was again using a business minicomputer, this time at a market research firm). He finally got his own machine in 1987, shortly after I had gotten my own first PC. This of course let loose the usual flood of manuals over his workspace, but gradually gave him additional tools as well. He made at least one further attempt to learn to program, this time in C, but in the end he has relied on already written software, albeit occasionally pushed to its limits, as when he completely filled the available space in a glossary in his word processor with phrases drawn from work of and about Kurt Schwitters.

The tension between creative work and technical possibility has always existed, from the invention of the first pigments suitable for drawing on cave walls, to the use of modern supercomputers for generating film and video images. Different fields of creative work have placed the balance between intuitive creative work and technical development in very different places, though. In some fields, for example, computer art, the technical developments that enabled the field to exist at all still lie very much in the foreground, while in other fields, such as poetry, most of the technical developments, such as written language, had receded so far into the background as to be almost invisible to most poets. Jackson (and, of course, others doing similar work) has brought technical development back into the foreground. With luck, this will have the same effect as it usually has had in the sciences, of opening up new possibilities for creative work for many others.

started on the bus from Chamonix Mont Blanc to Geneva, 27 Jan 1997, finished in Heidelberg, 1 Feb 1997


(1) These poems include ones produced by what Jackson now calls "acrostic reading-through nonintentional text-selection procedures," which he employed from April 1960 until January 1963, writing such collections as Stanzas for Iris Lezak (written 1960, published 1972) and Asymmetries 1-260 (part of 501 numbered asymmetries written in 1960-61, this portion of them published in 1980) and "diastic reading- through nonintentional text-selection procedures," devised in 1963 and employed in producing many collections, including The Pronouns--40 Dances--For the Dancers (written 1964, partially revised and reissued in 1971 and 1979), The Virginia Woolf Poems (written 1976-77, published 1985), Words nd Ends from Ez (written 1981-83, published 1989), and 42 Merzgedichte in Memoriam Kurt Schwitters (written 1987-89, published 1994), and others.

"Diastic" is a word coined by Jackson from the Greek words "dia" (through) and "stichos"(a line of writing, a verse) and is contrasted to "acrostic." (from "akros" (an extreme, such as the letter at the beginning or end of a verse line). "Acrostic" reading-through procedures draw words and other linguistic units from source texts by "spelling out" their titles with linguistic units that have the letters of the words in the titles as their initial letters. One reads through a source text and finds successively linguistic units spelling out the title as follows: the units spelling out individual words comprise single lines (often long ones) and the series of lines spelling out the whole title comprises a stanza. (The "asymmetries" are nonstanzaic but still partially acrostic.)

The Matched Asymmetries are derived from their sources by "diastic reading-through procedures". In employing such procedures, the writer reads through the source text, taking into the poem each successive unit which has the letters of the source words in corresponding places. The first linguistic unit in the poem begins with the first letter of the first word of the title or other seed, the second unit has the second letter of the first word of the seed in its second place, and so forth, possibly through multiple passes through the source string.

This diastic reading-through method of text selection was computer- automated by the poet Charles O. Hartman in the late 1980s, and Jackson has used various versions of this program since June 1989, including the last 12 of the 42 Merzgedichte in Memoriam Kurt Schwitters. The writing of several of these poems also involved a program by Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke called TRAVESTY, devised to produce various types of "pseudo-text" from source texts.

Mordecai-Mark Mac Low is Jackson Mac Low's son. Mordecai performed frequently with Jackson from the ages of three to sixteen, and occasionally since then. He received his PhD in Physics in 1989, and now does astrophysical research at the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, Germany. For descriptions of his current work, including some visually striking animations, see his homepage.
Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, [email protected]
Last modified: Wed Mar 26 16:05:07 MET 1997