I would call myself a reader of the night. I’ve found that reading poetry in the sleepy hours of the post-dinner haze, with the ever present scent of chamomile tea, provides me with a better angle to sink into the lines, to completely submerge myself in the strangeness of verse. When the world outside my window appears to be a dark slate, it’s much easier to paint a new rendition of reality without fear of daytime interruption.
However, after bookmarking Jackson Mac Low’s “And Even You Elephants? (Stein 139/Titles 35),” I curled up on the couch, enjoying the hours of silence after my parents had settled down and I was the only conscious being in the house, and attempted to see through Mac Low’s eyes. His lens proved to be nearly impenetrable, but fear not, for the morsels of imagery he provides are brief but striking, even stunning. Instead of shutting me out, as cryptic poems often have, I’ve grasped onto these little moments of clarity, and have attempted to squeeze any shred of meaning from them.
Jackson Mac Low is a highly praised, Wallace Stevens Award-winning poet, also known for his work as a composer, performance artist, and playwright. Not only is he a contemporary poet; he also springs from the Beat generation, drawing from the experimental style of artists such as Allen Ginsberg. His striking works have been published in over ninety anthologies, and his wife Anne Tardos, also a poet, continues to publish and edit his works even after his death in 2004.
Flourishing with its eclectic nature, Mac Low’s work is composed of questions answered by short but grand declarations that remain impenetrable in meaning even after the first couple read-throughs. The poem is organized into five strophes, each with a specific number of lines: 2, 3, 5, 7, and lastly 11, a prime number sequence. A prime number, as you might know, is divisible by only one and itself. Interestingly, modern cryptography relies on prime number factors of vast numbers to run decryptions; perhaps the use of prime figures is a commentary on the intentional use of ambiguity (but more on this later).
In particular, one line of Mac Low’s verse bolded itself to me, initially due to the beauty of its alliteration and its simplicity: “Circulating cigarettes distinguish resignation.” The imagery in this line is so vivid to me – I can see the dankness of a room smothered in smoke, in which the only movement is the journey of a cigarette from suspension over the edge of a desk to waiting lips. The heaviness of the smoke curls around the resigned stillness of a room waiting for a certain downfall, perhaps.
The resulting tension of the cigarette imagery leads to Mac Low’s question, “Have straight descriptions of preparation disappeared?” The “circulating cigarettes” strikes contrast between two facets of the poem, as Mac Low perhaps explores the circumlocution of contemporary poetry. Instead of words stitching themselves to their meanings, the reader faces a greater, stumbling distance to traverse, especially in the realm of the elliptical mode. Then, Mac Low writes, “Isn’t that strangely prepared asparagus soup too glassy?” Comparing asparagus soup to contemporary poetry is ambitious, but the glassiness of the soup implies a watering down of ideas, as if the elliptical mode leads to the dilution of purpose from a piece of literature. The unsaid, of course, is where the meaning lies in hiding, like the “elephant in the room” that the poet purposefully avoids.
The unsaid has always held a poignant touch for me. I’m not known as a very loud or outgoing persona; spoken words, for me, are only one aspect of my communication with the world. In the third grade, I remember snagging large amounts of loose leaf paper from my sister’s binder, and spending various nights cooped up at my desk, my hands smudged with graphite as I carved extremely peculiar stories about escaped orphans and Utopian island societies (very disturbing societies, as I read back on them today) onto paper. Even as a kid, I’ve always been able to express myself easier on paper, rather than through my mouth. I was a quiet child in the elementary school classroom, and I’ve spent my years throughout middle school and high school outgrowing my quietness. However, at this point, I’m starting to recognize the value of well-placed silence. I’ve noticed that for some people, silence is extremely uncomfortable, and they feel an urge to suffocate every pause with words upon words. Of course, I’ve felt that skin-crawling sensation of awkwardness as well, but sometimes, I’ve found, it feels wonderful sitting in silence with a friend, just enjoying the presence of a fellow soul. Silence within literature is often just as important as the words themselves. The silence found in sparsely written poetry, like “And Even You Elephants? (Stein 139/Titles 35),” serves to illuminate, not to cloud over.
Another angle to be taken on Mac Low’s poetry is the year of its publication. The September 11th attacks seeped into American literature in the decade following that Wednesday morning, as well as American readers’ perceptions of texts. The line, “Four sincerely intentional gliders resigned,” seems to refer to the four hijacked planes during the attacks. The second stanza mentions a “hanging” that shows a “desperate resignation,” which then links the idea of suicide and death to the anticipated downfall experienced in the room of the “circulating cigarettes.” However, Mac Low’s poem was written four months before the attacks even occurred; thus, the post-9/11 American viewpoint often casts a shadow over literature, and seeks out themes of terror from pieces that claim to have no clear relation to the attacks, as I just have, unconsciously.
After my sessions of analysis, and bouts of staring up at the ceiling, I decided to read the footnote (hint: it’s always advisable to read it before analysis). I discovered that Mac Low used a computer program called DIASTEX5, originated by Charles O. Hartman, to assemble this poem. He derived phrases from Gertrude Stein’s novel Tender Buttons, and took the raw output from the computer program and rearranged the words. I’ll have to admit that I felt a mild betrayal in the instant after reading those words. Was I simply fishing in the air during my analysis, by digging into a poem virtually written by algorithms and electric circuits?
Yet, even if this poem was not organically produced by the thudding synergy of fingers and a keyboard, it still has the potential to be viewed as artwork. Mac Low took raw words spouted from the computer, and carefully rearranged Stein’s words to perfect his own, perhaps intentionally ambiguous meaning, just like Kenneth Goldsmith took segments of the New York Times and rendered them into verse form.
Even if many people view computer-driven poetry as a heatless version of human-produced poetry, I think that the beauty of words, no matter how they’re assembled, can be appreciated with clear eyes, and that Mac Low’s talent transcends literary technique, as he is able to construct meaning from two tiers of poetry: Gertrude Stein’s stunning prose from nearly a century ago, and his own scrambled sense of a world impeded by ambiguity.