LOW (1963) "The Presidents of the United States of America" demonstrates a trend in mid-20th-century modernism—in line with William Carlos williams's dictum, "no ideas but in things"—in a synthesis of compositional methods peculiar to Jackson mac low. By taking an objective view of poetry's basic building block, language, through a systematic approach to writing, "The Presidents" stands with Charles olsons THE MAXIMUS POEMS, Paul BLACKBURNs THE JOURNALS, and Armand schwerners the tablets as an epic experiment in the turn from metaphor to metonymy, from fluid grammatical structures to radical parataxis (setting incongruent elements side-by-side), and from standard free verse layout to visually provocative and disruptive lineation (see long and serial poetry). Like Ezra pounds the cantos, Mac Low's poem builds a "structure of images" out of everyday language, which, in turn, allows the poet to make social and political commentary that transcends the everyday. Frequently performed in the latter half of the 1960s, the poem was not published in full until 1986.
To compose the poem, Mac Low structured images and sometimes irregular stanzas, or strophes, by translating the letters of each U.S. president's name (from Washington to Fillmore) into a word based on each letter's Phoenician meaning. Modern Roman script descends from the Phoenician, and Mac Low's system implies a relation between ancient writing systems and contemporary American social systems. For example, here is the end of the first section, entitled "1789," after Washington's inaugural year. This passage contains images corresponding to the last four letters of "Washington," G (camel), T (mark), O (eye), and N (fish):
for tho he had no camels he had slaves enough and probably made them toe the mark by keeping an eye on them for he wd never have stood for anything fishy.
The words and images are thus connected by commentary that implicates Washington in evil slavehold-ing system. But the arbitrariness of the image structure also suggests that the public persona of a president, or perhaps any such authority figure, is just as arbitrarily imposed as benevolent and worth following or believing. on the other hand, an awareness of which elements of the poem are imposed by the system and which are not allowing Mac Low's own authority to manifest itself transparently.
The cumulative effect of the poem, commensurate with the gradually wilder form it takes on the page, is as incendiary as the repetition of images. This repetition lends ominous semantic weight to ordinary words and images, even as Mac Low's deft treatment of them lends humor to the poem. Though relatively short, "The Presidents of the United States of America" evokes both the epic tradition from Homer through Pound and the burgeoning alignment in the 1960s of avant-garde literary practice with American social dissent.
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