Major Jackson: Where He’s From

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I often wonder how those who walk with decency internalize and respond to acts of violence, injustice, and how does that enter into their work.

Major Jackson
Poet Major Jackson.

Poet Major Jackson. [Thomas Sayers Ellis]

Where are you from? For each one of us the answer to that deceptively simple question is actually an intersection of community, family memory, cultural history, artistic legacy, and literal geography. The award winning poet Major Jackson somehow manages to address each piece of this multilayered puzzle in work that takes its cues as much from his childhood in urban renewal era Philadelphia as it does from the cultural ideas and formal qualities passed down by mentors like Gwendolyn Brooks and the Dark Room Collective.

Out of punctured wounds we spun up, less

the phoenix, dive-bombers still. I am haunted

by shapes of trees, one whose arms, an excess

of mounts, from which ever leapers were vaulted, –

passing, flash-like semblances of flight.

This is where Darren measured absence round

visible stars the night his dad punched the bright

smile of his mother into a soundless

hole, where Wilbur went on a famine strike

scaling ten branches a day to purity,

to grace. Because her sister touched and stroked

her till she was gleaming and sticky,

Sam climbed so high we lost her shadow,

obscured by overstory’s thickening

lines. Scalloped leaves trickled below,

brittle telegrams. I sought the quickening

gaze of the dusky flycatcher and listened

to the greenish-black like a secret pitched

between a pair of crickets. No hungers, no wind

swayed the top of our corner’s paperback mapleleaf,

for Jamie. A nameless hurt so deep, he kept

the farthest, a branchless fall to his death,

from the top of Blumberg Housing Projects.

Major Jackson, XX, Urban Renewal, Hoops


Dear Gwendolyn – or is it Dear Madam?

Or as Quarysh would more likely say

Mama Gwen. He, unlike orphaned Adam,

Had you no less arriving to the fray,

That surrogate mentor-friend who pays

Art’s admission fee. Only since your absence

Our tour’s been self-guided. Anthologists


Disagree, respectfully of course – for what

Is a corpus but the Spirit on foot?

On such ground I begin my epistolary chat,

Although I gather you’d prefer we strut

On through, fisted pens raised imaging truth.

Plus up there you must I bet have other

Celestial errands with which to bother.


I consulted Langston my son on this point

Who thought you now in charge of lyres

& harps, tuning strings, adorning joints –

An answer he imagined I’d like to hear,

The professional poet whose overbear

-Ing view, children best fulfill dad’s dreams,

Thus prove black laureates lurk in the genes.

Major Jackson, Fern Rock, Letter to Brooks, Hoops

We’ll have Major Jackson on for the hour reading his poems and waxing philosophic about where he, and where all of us, are from. Here’s a few of the questions he and I talked about just now, which we hope you’ll help us think about and answer on the air. How do you channel your life without being needlessly autobiographical? How do you represent the tropes of place and neighborhood without making caricatures of your characters? Can you address both the members of your own diaspora and the broader American audience in your work without alienating both? What is it about the life of urban America that makes it both so local and so universal? And what goes into making each of us who we are and where we’re from?

Extra Credit Reading

Major Jackson (and others), Does Poetry Have a Social Function, Poetry, January 2007: “If a poem has something to say and says it well, it will be remembered. However, what may give a poem its originality and heft—extraordinary language, searing imagery, high lyricism—may be too arcane for the layperson. Ms. Hardworking Roto-Rooter could care less about your dithyrambs. For her, the poem has value and purpose because it says something meaningful to her.”

Lauren Mitchel, The Function of Poetry, Outside Tena, December 31, 2006.

Dan Vera, Binding Solitudes – the Social Role of Poetry, VRZHU Bullets of Love: The Poetry and Arts Blog, January 4, 2007: “Major Jackson did great yeoman’s work to critiquing the slighting of “political” poets while they are alive and then heaping accolades once they are dead.”

Major Jackson, Major Jackson’s Journal, “I’ll likely not use the word “blog,” too much, for its mundane “blather” and “blah blah blah” quality irks me; so, on that note, I’ll be Blog-Lite, hoping to avoid the risks of topicality and verbosity. Unlike a poem, which presents “a stylized self,” a blog hopes to capture a voluminous speaker, who reveals all of his/her loose, baggy, catch-all (and some more) aspirations. I hope to keep my weblog tight and neat, driven by some overriding metaphorical proposition.”

Robert Pinsky, Poet’s Choice, Washington Post, April 2, 2006: “In his book “Hoops,” Major Jackson emphasizes a garden’s hopeful and civilizing qualities by depicting two generations at work on a patch of earth. The grandfather resists the decay of his neighborhood and responds to a crime by planting a garden. The grandson vows to continue the work with a pen.”

Staff, Poet and UVM prof Major Jackson finalist for NAACP Image Award, Burlington Free Press, January 11, 2007: “Jackson is a finalist in the category of Outstanding Literary Work — Poetry. He was selected for his 2006 volume, “Hoops” (W.W. Norton).”

Artist Biography: Gwendolyn Brooks, Voices from the Gaps.


I should say that a good deal of my work is based in autobiography, but a good deal of it is not. This never happened.

Major Jackson


And again, for me, I guess it’s almost useless sometimes to say whether or not a poem actually is based in dripping facts, because it’s a construction of language and memory, and hopefully, through artfulness, it becomes something else. It becomes something more meaningful than that recalled moment. It becomes something transcendent for a reader.

Major Jackson


As soon as you say “urban,” or you say “hip hop,” instantly an image comes to your mind. And it may be one that’s not actually accurate. It may be an image that is produced and rendered so that we may fear each other. And I think that’s the story of America: fear of the alien. And it’s ironic because its the alien that gives our values of freedom, liberty, and opportunity its heft.

Major Jackson


It’s that assertion, that idea that he was from another planet, that really interests me most, because this is kind of a trope within the Afro-American community of artists: that they come from another place. And Sun Ra says, “I was sent here to save planet Earth, you know, what you guys are doing here is going to crush the cosmos.” And so his music becomes a message. But I also turn to him because he had a vision of himself as an artist that he adhered to over the course of his life, an artist who was independent of big recording companies. He self-produced most of his albums. And he also had a severe discipline about his work, his composition, his musicians; he demanded discipline of them, and that’s particularly inspirational for me.

Major Jackson


What [Gwendolyn Brooks] was specifically addressing with the black community was creating portraits that celebrated the African-American community during a time in which its humanity was being questioned, questions of rights were being fought for. Today, I think I’m still carrying that conversation on, as well as hopefully merging it with a kind of global conversation with other poets. I think ultimately we’re all asking what does it mean to travel this space and what does it mean to be human.

Major Jackson


But I also find myself increasingly speaking to young kids who do not see themselves reflected in the literature that they’re reading in school. And so the work becomes exciting for them, because they didn’t know you can write about certain subjects.

Major Jackson

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  • RobertPeel

    Great poet from the city of brotherly(and sisterly)love.

  • Transitory flesh

    Etched by linage, worn alone

    Shed in love and death

  • MajorJackson

    Thanks Robert for the shout out and supportive note.

  • It’s interesting that he comes from a family that gardened in the city. I worked for Boston Urban Gardeners for a while. This was the first community garden organization in a American City. The motto: Plant a Seed, Grow Hope. There were a multitude of stories coming out of the community gardening world about release from despair through working these small plots. The gardens became the physical poetry of a neighborhood.

  • I’m very interested in the quesiton of how you channel your life without being uselessly autobiographical. I like to write a little. Really, I like to tell stories. But only in a context where they might carry some morsel to nurture that which is currently being explored. It has been suggested that I write an autobiography. To date, my response has been, “to what end?” How does one know when one’s stories hold meaning? I don’t believe you can self-proclaim that. Still, if you decide to tell your story, how do you go about it so that it is not about you?

  • Oh, and how do you honor the people in your stories. Depicting them for their qualities and their flaws for the purpose of offering something useful. Not to entertain, to disparage, to aggrandize.

  • Potter

    Thank you- this was all very new for me: Major Jackson with his calm and assured voice of love and appreciation. Gwendolyn Brooks and Sun Ra…..

  • This program was a great discovery for me as well – what a wonderful voice! I particularly enjoyed the first poem with “tragically hip”, the music of Sun Ra and the imagery of subway stops…it’s all very connected to my own romantic/nostalgic image of “urban” that does not necessarily have to be “hip hop” or otherwise stereotypical…

  • plnelson

    One of the best shows you’ve ever done!

    He will be giving a reading at MIT on March 15. (according to the calendar on his website) I will try to be there.

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  • Hello, I just wanted to say that I enjoyed this show and that I too am from Saturn… I was born somewhere in the Ford Galaxie.

  • Absolutely great. We need to listen to more poets.


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