About Major Jackson
If, in the 1980s, you had been a resident of one of those communities associated with the term, “urban renewal” might occur to you as double-edged with its bureaucratic optimism, and the implied whitewashing—easy as calling a do-over—of recent history. And if parts of your community were within the expansion radius of an ambitious university, you might be ambivalent toward the opportunities offered by that advancing institution as well.
As a poet, Major Jackson was shaped by this period of his native North Philadelphia’s burgeoning gentrification, when Temple University began to broaden its vision to include, along with inquiry, a spirit of acquisition. Like many from historically black urban communities, Jackson understood early on, as he writes in the poem, “Hoops,” that “If the slum’s our dungeon, / school’s our Bethlehem.” Jackson’s worldview contains both the community and the institution, as he identifies with the acquired and acquiring on both sides.
School looms metaphorically in Jackson’s life and work. It refers to brick and mortar, but also to a life of the mind. It refers to a life in the arts, and specifically literature. And the changing nature of that life from sequestered intellectualism to social engagement gives Jackson’s poetry a sense of wistful benevolence. We find the poet balancing his esteem for tradition with the weight of his concern for the world around him.
As Jackson admits, “my path in poetry has been extremely unconventional.” Indeed, there is something Hollywood about it: his good fortune in having been delivered to the right mentors at the right moments, his having the talent, temperament, and commitment to take advantage of their guidance, and his uncanny ability to navigate a welter of contradictions without any irritable reaching for resolution. His life is a screenplay waiting to be made. Let’s make the opening scene a tracking shot:
At Temple University in the late 1980s, we find the future poet touring the campus with a group of fellow incoming first-year students. Picture the group’s guide, shirted in the school’s iconic cherry red, and walking backwards as he narrates features of the academic landscape. One of the incoming students asks the guide’s advice for getting around the community at large. Jackson needs no such advice. This is where he grew up, shaped early by the studious asceticism of a Catholic primary school, and later, the pride of the Philadelphia public school system, Central High School. Given this pedigree, Jackson is used to bridging social gaps. He has developed a cosmopolitan sensibility as a result of too often being the guy with cultural knowledge others lack. He is patient with people who are unfamiliar with communities like his. He is solicitous with familiars who don’t have access to the academy. All this in preparation for his mission to cut a path through the undergrowth of the American literary mind to make way for others to share their stories.
Casting his mind’s eye (in a filmic dissolve) to the surrounding neighborhood, Jackson surveys the topography of memory. These streets will be the setting for many of his poems. Amid the jagged lots’ “lush epitaph of dandelions / & weed brush,” he will note, “A corner lot of broken TVs empties / and spills from a suitcase of hurt.” The boarded-up row houses north of the avenue named after the famed Civil Rights attorney, Cecil B. Moore, and west of arterial Broad St.—amid the real and imaginary devastation we associate with crack-ravaged urban spaces—bookend the homes and businesses of those who will soon directly and indirectly populate Jackson’s poetry. The barbershop where Mr. Pate, who, by virtue of Jackson’s loving artistry, will forever “cherish [the] tiny little heads” that have become casualties of street violence. There is his neighbor, a police officer, who for years greeted the young Jackson with questions, like where is Mozambique, in lieu of hello. Where is Poland, or where is Algiers? How many boroughs in New York City? And he would slip Jackson three dollars for every A on his report card. There is Sun Ra, the sensational and eccentric jazz musician, who lived only a few blocks away in Major’s neighborhood of Germantown and held New Year’s Eve concerts each year at the Painted Bride Art Center, a popular meeting place for musicians and artists. And this is the one area, as we return to the original scene, that the campus guide admonishes students to avoid at all costs. For “out there,” the guide says gravely, “those people are dangerous.”
Jackson cites this interaction with the campus guide as one of the more formative of many “double consciousness” moments of his life. The reference is to W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis of African American subjectivity as paradoxical, in which one is always conscious of unflattering (to say the least) cultural assumptions without, while maintaining a sense of pride and self-love within. In many ways, Jackson’s evolving response to this paradox, which appears in many guises, will animate his work for years to come. The ever-changing dynamics of race and class in America, for example; and the enfolding of the mysterious and marginal “town” into the pleats of the university’s corporate “gown”; the sometimes conflicting pursuit of life in the ivory tower leveraged against one’s care for the roots of community.
Jackson seems little interested in choosing sides or engaging in a Pollyannaish soft-pedaling of these discrepancies. He wears them like mismatched socks (although, I must say, I’ve been shopping with the man and he would never wear mismatched socks). His instinct is to serve as witness rather than to judge or wag a disapproving finger. This is another distinguishing characteristic of his work. As if for Jackson, artistry were the only rational response one could have to the contradictions of urban life.
Major Jackson’s poetry is grounded in his sense of the ethical obligation we have to the communities we claim. Noting that “our communities widen and constrict” with time and context, the tenor of his poems is as evocative of Whitman as it is of the late Black Arts milieu out of which it finds some of its most potent influences. Of note is the literary relationship he developed at Temple University with his first creative-writing professor and doyenne of the Black Arts Movement, Sonia Sanchez, whom Jackson is quick to praise as singularly responsible for his embrace of poetry. That embrace has now grown to encompass three poetry collections: Leaving Saturn (U. of Georgia Press, 2002), winner of the Cave Canem First Book Prize and Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Hoops (2007) and Holding Company (2012), both from W. W. Norton; and scores of awards and fellowships, including a Pew Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, two nominations for the NAACP Image Award, a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, and an artist fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
For all the expansiveness of Jackson’s poetic vision, the note he strikes most consistently is that of praise. It is “this notion of praise in poetry,” he says, that affected him most deeply in the work of the earlier generation of African American poets. He points to, for example, Sanchez’s invocations of the ancestors, those hypnotic roll calls that affirm our sense of belonging as much as they honor those who have come before us, and the dedication to honor our history that we find in the work of Robert Hayden. “[Jackson’s] lyric tongue,” Afaa Michael Weaver, another important, early mentor figure, writes in a 2002 review of Leaving Saturn in these pages, “rises out of the emblems of urban despair and chaos to make love his language.”
I met Major in the mid ’90s. Our paths first crossed sometime around 1994, when I asked the Philly poet Lamont Steptoe to organize a reading series for me at the jazz club my grandfather had opened, and which I was managing, in New Jersey, a few minutes across the river from Philadelphia. Among the poets Steptoe featured that I can easily recall were Martín Espada, the South African poet Dennis Brutus, and Major Jackson. I thought the reading series was fun. Indulgent. It certainly didn’t make any money. In other words, at the time, I had no idea what a stellar lineup Steptoe had produced. But this suggests the esteem in which Major was held in the Philly literary scene very early in his writing life.
After I left the bar business, I met Major formally in a circle of metal folding chairs as we sat together beneath banks of fluorescent lights. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union let the Painted Bride Quarterly use vacant space once a week in its downtown office building to hold editorial meetings. I had been recommended to the editorial board on the basis of my enthusiasm alone, and I remember being thoroughly confused as to how this man sitting before me could refer so confidently to work by poets whose names seemed distant and mythical to me—Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, Nikki Giovanni, Gerald Stern, and even Gwendolyn Brooks—as if he had met them personally. Of course, in addition to being a hungry student of poetry, Major had met all of these poets, and many more. After college, where his undergraduate degree was, counterintuitively, in accounting, Major served as Curator of Literary Arts at the Painted Bride Arts Center. This was a job he cultivated out of an internship in bookkeeping at the arts center. “This was where I found myself as a writer and an artist,” he says.
“What does it all come down to?” I ask him. In addition to being the Richard Dennis Green and Gold Professor at University of Vermont, a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars, a member of the Creative Writing Program faculty at New York University, and Poetry Editor of the Harvard Review, Jackson maintains a dizzying schedule of visiting and guest positions leading workshops on and off campuses across the country. What is the point of this peripatetic life?
“I want to be a lightning rod for someone who wants to write and sing his or her particular life,” he says. That comment might send us scrambling back to the streets of North Philly in search of some Rosebud-like symbol of motivation if it weren’t for Jackson’s 2011 tour of the slums of Kibera, an impoverished community that borders the Royal Nairobi Golf Club in Nairobi, Kenya. This was one leg of the tour sponsored by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, which exposed Jackson to people bravely enduring conditions grievous far beyond any we might find in North Philly. Like North Philly, however, those conditions are, unconscionably, man-made. If neglect and indifference produced the slums of his youth, Jackson observed, here the forces are more venal. “The corruption is phenomenal,” he says. But at the root of things “we find a similar class struggle.”
Jackson’s mission in Kenya was to engage with local writers and expand the literary conversation between our two nations. During one workshop, he shared with participants the poem, “Listen Children,” by Lucille Clifton:
keep this in the place
you have for keeping
keep it all ways
we have never hated black
we have been ashamed
hopeless tired mad
we loved us
we have always loved each other
children all ways
pass it on
Between the tears the poem elicited from participants, some of them remarked their surprise at the sentiment the poem conveys. “They said they thought African Americans did not love themselves,” Jackson said, having trouble even repeating the words.
I can’t help but read this as a kind of a revision of the earlier double-consciousness moment he experienced on the campus of Temple University. The stakes are higher now, and the circumstances are even more complex, if that is possible. I imagine Jackson’s sense of community is expanding and contracting in ways that can only produce a further exacting poetic vision. His most recent book, Holding Company, is evidence of his capacity for reinvention. While he explored and expanded the conventions of the lyric narrative in his first two books, Holding Company is more lyric, less narrative. Or rather, the narratives are more attenuated, more angular in their progress. The book hints at Jackson’s willingness to strike out for new territory.
Jackson recently edited The Collected Poems of Countee Cullen, which will be published by the Library of Congress this year. Bringing renewed attention to this important poet of the Harlem Renaissance is a service to American letters and individual readers alike. Because of this kind of work, along with his own consistently enterprising poems, we may one day evaluate Major Jackson as an institution unto himself.
Gregory Pardlo’s book Totem won the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in 2007. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, The Nation, and The Best American Poetry. A finalist for the Essence Magazine Literary Award in poetry, he is recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His second book, Digest, is forthcoming from Four Way Books.