Collaboration with Chance

December 21

On our Facebook page, Edgar Garcia posted a link to Jackson Mac Low’s Words nd Ends from Ez.

Ezra Pound, of course.  The two poets used to be friends, but they were no longer close when Mac Low was writing Words nd Ends.  So the Cantos are present here not through the warmth of friendship, but through a cool intellectualism, though playful, not mean-spirited. Pound’s words are raw material in the most literal sense – as the letters of the alphabet that Mac Low is free to dip into, taking whatever he fancies, capitalizing some, recombining the others, creating a rhythmic pattern that looks almost non-sensical on the page, but hypnotic when read aloud.  This isn’t quite computer-generated language, but it has the same flavor: both the “original intent” of Pound (if there was such a thing) and whatever intentionality coming form Mac Low seem overtaken and overshadowed by randomization as poetic agency.

Joan Retallack, talking about Words nd Ends on the Poetry Foundation, speaks of this as a “collaboration with chance” – Mac Low wasn’t a student of John Cage for nothing.  But the Cage genealogy isn’t the only one there is.  In fact, I’m tempted to think of the phenomenon here as ontological rather than genealogical, a baseline randomization of authorship not dependent on how human beings think and how they pass on their thinking.

Since I’ve recently been posting on Melville, this comes to my mind: Led Zeppelin’s song Moby Dick.   That title was a fluke – John Bonham’s son Jason started calling the song the “Whale Song” because the drum solo was so long, so gargantuan.  Now that the title is here to stay, though, many of us are tempted to read more into it, to see a deeper connection between Melville’s novel and Led Zeppelin’s music.  Here too, we collaborate with chance, but then we have no choice.   Our hands are tied.  Chance is a given.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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