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A Major Poet 

Are you born a poet, or do you become one? Major Jackson would say it’s a bit of both

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Major Jackson was instinctively on the path to poethood long before he established himself as a poet. Even as a young boy in Philadelphia “who sat in his room on the third floor of a three-story row home and looked out the window and just contemplated what was before him,” there was something in his constitution that lent itself to the “contemplativeness” that poetry requires.

“The meditative practice of both reading and writing poetry began long before I started writing, maybe even long before I started reading,” Jackson says. He describes his early thought process as if it were an epic tracking shot, with the camera pulling back from this solitary boy in his third-story bedroom to reveal the networks of family, friends, teachers around him — that is to say, all the messy complexity of daily life. “That’s where it begins ... that meditating on life rather than just living it, living it and living it with no sense of reflection.”

Jackson, one of the headlining writers at this year’s Get Lit! festival, has channeled that natural impulse into his collections Leaving Saturn (2002), Hoops (2006) and Holding Company (2010). Over time his style has shifted — rather than evolved, which suggests a slow, unconscious change — from the lyric narrative to one that resembles song, with repetition and echoes. In contrast to his earlier collections, Holding Company limits each one of its poems to 10 lines. Yet it still revisits the thought process of that young boy in poems like “Roof of the World”:

I live on the roof of the world among the aerial

simulacra of Things, among the faded: old tennis shoes,

vanished baseballs, heartbreak gritted with dirt. My mind

alights like lightning in a cloud. I’m networked

beholding electric wires and church spires.

With his newer material, Jackson deliberately wanted to write poems “that had constraints, because those constraints helped trigger the muse,” but ones that simultaneously “created an experience with language rather than relying on some sort of narrative to hook a reader.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is Jackson’s quest for “artful” or “authentic utterance,” related terms he frequently stitches into conversation. They conjure a vision of some pure, primal idea that lies within him, waiting to express itself as though it were a spirit using him as a vessel.

But notions like these only tell half the story. They appeal to our romantic side, the part of us that wants to believe that one is born a poet and comes to the art fully formed. Instead, Jackson would argue, the poetic predisposition simply allows you to be “guided towards some part of yourself that you are unaware of.”

“The outcome,” he says, “is that you discover. [If] it wasn’t for the occasion of writing a poem, the occasion of sitting down, I would never have thought to utter some of the things that I utter.” 

A conversation with Major Jackson and Robert Wrigley • Sat, April 13, at 7 pm • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague Ave.

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