In the last poetry forum of the fall season at the New School, poet and Harvard Review poetryeditor Major Jackson sat down with Best American Poetry series editor David Lehman after a moving reading of new poems and work selected from Jackson’s first three collections, Holding Company, Hoops and Leaving Saturn. Jackson and Lehman share a love of natty headwear—Lehman happened to be sporting a dark fedora on this occasion, and Jackson a light gray newsboy cap—that extends toward more subtle manifestations of a poet’s style in verse. Lehman brought up a quotation from Philip Roth that: “A liking for hats is essential if you’re going to be an American poet.” Jackson, leaning back in his chair, responded humorously but in all seriousness that “this was not debatable. There’s a relationship between style and poetry. There’s something about what the surface conveys subtly that is enacted on the page. These are areas where you can create a style.”
Jackson’s own style draws on a multitude of influences. A product of inner-city Philadelphia, he characterized his early years as a writer as his “brooding period,” a time when he was “drawn to poets who spoke to his existential angst.” He was heavily affected by Robert Lowell and Galway Kinnell’s lyrical engagement with historical and social issues, particularly Kinnell’s books Midsummer, The Bounty and White Egrets. This engagement with history is evident in both the series “Urban Renewal” that he has worked on since his first collection, the Cave Canem-winning Leaving Saturn, and in more recent poems like “Berimbau.” At the podium earlier, resting his large palms on each side, Jackson read to us from “Berimbau” in a warm low voice: “How in Congo Square/ African dance kept 600 slaves alive…sadder still/ How we must always ask, who are we?”
Lehman, leaning forward in his chair, inquired about another line of influence. Quoting what Jackson wrote on his Twitter page that morning he asked, “Would you consider that you are part of the eighth wave of the New York School?” Jackson replied that there was indeed a lot of influence from the New York School in his work, particularly in the most recent collection, Holding Company (2010), in which he emulated Ted Berrigan's habit in The Sonnets of recycling lines from poem to poem. Jackson elaborated: “I’ve lightened up over the years. The New York School led the way.” Lehman remarked that there was a lot of the New York School in Jackson’s prose poem “OK Cupid.” It has an organic unity that feeds back on itself:
…dating a white man is like dating insecurity, and dating insecurity is like dating a Hummer, and dating a Hummer is like dating the Pentagon, and dating the Pentagon is like dating a lost star, and dating a lost star is like dating a liberal, and dating a liberal is like dating a Jew….
Jackson has explained elsewhere that Jackson Mac Low’s procedural poetics was an influence here. In Major Jackson’s poem, this strategy generates a long absurd string of descriptors that becomes an odd mirror of the categories OK Cupid’s algorithm sets up around race, politics, gender relations and subcultures in America. Jackson’s “Why I Write Poetry,” which was selected by guest editor Denise Duhamel for The Best American Poetry 2013, has a similar sense of unspooling a long string of causal phrases: “because my son is as old as the stars….because I better git it in my soul / Because my grandfather loved clean syntax…Because I have been on a steady diet of words / since the age of three.”
Interestingly, Jackson’s reading of “OK Cupid” to us veered from the text published in the most recent Tin House. Lehman was curious about the point at which Jackson had made that decision, whether he had brought a different draft or had improvised while reading. Jackson remarked that he was one of those poets who never stopped editing even after publication. Galway Kinnell would sometimes revise a poem for 20 or 30 years. Lehman remarked that it was good for the emerging poets in the audience to hear that the act of reading a poem aloud can teach an author something new about his or her work and that poems that have already been published are subject to revision nevertheless.
Jackson told us that another influence has been Joseph Brodsky’s Twenty Sonnets to Mary, Queen of Scots. He was particularly drawn to “that shape, that extended sonnet, that block of text.That form is always teaching me something about how to form and shape a self within that block.” The recent Holding Company, consists almost entirely of ten-line lyrical blocks that delve into subjects as wide-ranging as Nazi cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl, the catastrophist Immanuel Velikotsky, infidelity, heartbreak and Lorca, among others. It’s a playing with form that is reminiscent of his 70-page poem to Gwendolyn Brooks in Hoops, “To Brooks,” that ranges through varied places and moments of Jackson’s poetic development, all through a long string of cantos.
This multiplicity of experience comes out in his language as well. Managing editor Stacey Harwood, raising her hand from the audience, noticed: “there is a very moving editing of detail because you select elements of your environment that are so precise.” New additions to the “Urban Renewal” series placed us in Madrid with the poet Mark Strand and sketched images of a Mediterranean island Jackson and his wife visited: “the morning sweet prayers of palm leaves…yucca leaves lifting like a chorus of arms.” Jackson replied to Harwood that: “Seeing is a statement of personality. What we see is a statement of who we are. Growing up going to Nashville, Tennessee, in the summers developed that sensitivity."
Lehman inquired what developments Jackson sees in American poetry from his vantage point as the poetry editor of the Harvard Review. Jackson said that he felt that the proliferation of MFA programs was working because he sees people “adopting all these different styles.” What he looks for the most is: “if the language is alive, if there is a kernel of the self. Being an editor often feels like being a curator of an exhibit of various voices. People are so much more complex than the categories we place them in, and the poems should reflect that.”
Like Jackson’s oeuvre, such poems can’t be easily pigeonholed, splicing a voice from multiple experiences and influences, something Jackson sees as a strong positive: American poetry today is borrowing from an ever-expanding bank of cultures and styles. -- Nora Robertson Brooks