Jackson Mac Low’s Barnesbook: Four Poems Derived from Sentences by Djuna Barnes utilizes the computer program DIASTEXT developed by Charles O. Hartman. The program was first sent to Mac Low for his use in 1989. DIASTEXT automates Mac Low’s “diastic reading-through text-selection method” initially employed by Mac Low in January of 1963 (Mac Low 47). The process uses a “seed” text (an index-word or -phrase) which is then applied to a corpus of text as a sort of acrostic, where letters and their order in the seed determine words selected from the corpus and outputted by the program. As Christopher Funkhouser notes in Prehistoric Digital Poetry (2007), “translating Mac Low’s arbitrary method into a program was not difficult because the process itself is algorithmic and does not involve random elements” (68). Hartman's DIASTEXT appears to have been written in C and distributed as a DOS executable file (versions of which can be found online as of this writing). Though DIASTEXT played a fundamental role in the composition of the poems of Barnesbook, the result is a printed book and not a work made to be read on screen.
On August 5, 1989, Mac Low decided to use five books by Djuna Barnes as source texts to produce poems using Hartman’s DIASTEXT program. These source texts were Barnes’ Ryder (New York: Horace Livertight, 1928), Smoke and Other Early Stories (College Park, Md.: Sun & Moon Press, 1982), and The Selected Works of Djuna Barnes (New York: Frarrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962), comprising Spillway, The Antiphon, and Nightwood.
Chance operations determined the number of sentences selected from the source texts (noted above), which then served as the corpus text inputted into DIASTEXT to produce the four poems of Barnesbook: “Barnes 1” uses eight sentences for its corpus, “Barnes 2” uses five, “Barnes 3” uses six, and “Barnes 4”uses eight. All poems were composed in August 1989. After the source texts for each individual poem were then inputted into the DIASTEXT program, the output was edited to create the final poems. Each DIASTEXT output was subjected to a different level of editing in each of the four poems. For example, “Barnes 3” was “extensively rearranged” and repunctuated, although all output words were used. Converesely, “Barnes 4” involved both editing and discarding to highlight “narrative and dialogic qualities” already developed in “Barnes 1” and “Barnes 2” (which were less heavily edited than “3” and “4”) (51-52).
Of this process Mac Low writes:
- I freely own that my taste, though strictly guided by certain rules, intervened in the composition of these poems, but some of my compositional methods have long included rule-guided interaction with nonintentionally-generated materials, starting with my first poems from chance-given Basic English “nuclei” (May 1961) and including many of my “Light Poems,” “The Presidents of the United States of America,” The Pronouns, etc…
- I’ve realized over the years that intention and nonintention, “chance,” always intricately interact during the composition of even the “purest” or “strictest” chance-operationally or deterministically generated poems. The very divising of methods must involve the author’s taste at certain points, even if as many decisions as possible are made by asking questions to be answered by an objectively hazardous oracle or by employing deterministically nonintentional procedures.
- The fact that Charles O. Hartman has automated some of my diastic text-selection methods seems to free me to interact with his programs’ outputs in other ways than those required in my “nucleic” methods… Nonintentional operations and intuition seem made for each other! Like the seemingly senseless koan, the products of nonintentional selective or generative procedures may stimulate intuition to leaps it might never otherwise dare. This has come to seem to me at least as Buddhist as purposefully “nonintentional” methods designed to circumvent the so-called ego.” (51-52)
[from “Afterword” to Barnesbook completed in February 1995]
Mac Low's method of writing through the works of other authors overlaps with similarly composed poetry written by John Cage most notably in his writing through Finnegan's Wake poems and his Writing through the Cantos poem (derived from the work of James Joyce and Ezra Pound respectively). For more on both Mac Low and Cage's technique see Craig Dworkin's Writing the Illegible (88-108). Like Cage, Mac Low also writes through the work of Ezra Pound in his book Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). It is also worth noting that Mac Low's first "writing through" poems in the 1960s utilized Wittgenstein's Blue and Brown Books as its source (Dworkin 91). The writing through method automated by DIASTEXT can thus be situated between a Buddhist impulse to write without ego and the rigorous word games of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Jackson Mac Low (1922-2004) is an American poet, performance artist, and composer known for his use of chance operations, deterministic procedures, and non-intentional composition to create his works. Mac Low is the author of four plays and more than twenty books.
Charles O. Hartman began working with computers in the 1960s and made many contributions to the development of digital poetry (Funkhouser 67). For more information on Hartman see his book Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry (Wesleyan Press, 1996).
Djuna Barnes was a high modernist American novelist, poet, and journalist. After becoming involved with the avant-garde in New York in the 1910s, Barnes moved to Paris where she would spend the period between the wars as an important member of the Left Bank expatriate literary scene that included figures ranging from Mina Loy to James Joyce. Her novel Nightwood is considered her masterpiece.
Dworkin, Craig. Reading the Illegible. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003. Print.
Funkhouser, Christopher Thompson. Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology
of Forms, 1959-1995. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2007. Print.
Mac Low, Jackson. Barnesbook: Four Poems Derived from Sentences by Djuna Barnes. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1996. Print.