The Jackson Poetry Prize honors an American poet of exceptional talent. It was established in 2006 with a gift from the Liana Foundation and is named for the John and Susan Jackson family. Eligible poets must have published at least two books of acknowledged literary merit. The 2020 prize carries a monetary value of $70,000 and is designed to provide what all poets need: time and encouragement to write. There is no application process for the Jackson Poetry Prize; nominees are identified by a group of poets selected by Poets & Writers who remain anonymous; final selection is made by a panel of esteemed poets.
The 2020 Jackson Poetry Prize recipient is Ed Roberson. Poets Nikky Finney, Anne Waldman, and Robert Wrigley served as judges.
Ed Roberson (credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)
In selecting Roberson as the fourteenth recipient of the prize, the judges issued the following citation:
It is a great privilege honoring Ed Roberson as the recipient of the Jackson Prize for 2020. This is an extraordinary time to be awarding this significant prize in poetry, a momentous time in our recent history, a time of panic, fear, uncertainty and inner turmoil, and devastating tragedy where people are separated from one another, cannot even touch or bury loved ones, and yet are bound together inextricably by their vulnerability as humans in the vast web -- a interconnected Indra’s net -- of co-arising cause and effect with chaos and outrageous failings as well. Where is the language for the experience of such magnitude, of experiencing a pandemic of Biblical proportions? And as if that’s not enough, all the other woes that conjure up the Sixth Extinction, Mayan End Time prophecy, or a prophetic Chinese rune from a cracked tortoise shell are with us. Poets are also diviners. What will the paradigm shifts be? Is there still time to balance the inequities and the ravage of the Anthropocene on this planet’s body and social construct ? We may be looking into an Abyss or a Reckoning for our Fallen Age.
Poetry such as Ed Roberson’s troubles these meditations, these issues, these apocalyptic queries in innovative expressive ways. He is both scholar and jazz-like innovator . A recent book of his is entitled To Seek The Earth Before The End of the World. Roberson also embeds and laments the suffering African Americans have endured and continue to endure in an unjust ever exposed imbalanced society, with its unresolved incipient racism. He writes in a way that is so empathetically profound and heart rending, that one can only cry out again against the insane unhealed wounds of this nation! Isn't it time to change the frequency of inequity once and for all?
In the end, in the darkness
in the smoke of the sent off message
of candles and even finally bombs, you don’t expect
-framed in the same venereal oval as mary’s clothes,
except that theirs are simply two jump ropes-
four little girls; you don’t expect four little black kids
to be lifted by a powder, by a speck like earth,
into the steps your government takes
jumps. Blood rope.
“I’m not creating a new language. I’m just trying to un-White-out the one we’ve got” he has famously and wryly said.
Roberson’s poems work a way into your heart and consciousness, because he is a visionary of luminous detail, of histories, of what he has felt and lived and observed. He is innovative, experimental, composing with complex wry wit, meticulous care and crystalline intelligence. His lines have a new look with their weave, skewed syntax and unexpected caesuras. He is also wed to the natural world and his poetry embraces ecological gnosis and inter-species connection.
We climb out of our lockdown to breathe. We are so fortunate to have poet such Ed Roberson in our midst, to help us breathe in the long lineage of spirit and aspiration of consciousness, and conscience.
Roberson’s many readers and lovers of his poetry will also be celebrating this award with him. Nate Mackey calls Roberson’s poetry “soul-sustaining”. He is certainly up there with the great modernists and the contemporary innovators. Let's give an enormous virtual applause to this vital poet.
of dead and dying trees’ terms up,
with expecting a life by life replacement—
not this plague of life’s time
as a season across the city.
By trial we do, but don’t
know how death counts the rings
from trees to clocks,
species to singled soul
at its hour. or on history’s days we all die at once.
Past Winners of the Jackson Poetry Prize
2019 - Joy Harjo
Judges: Ada Limón, Alicia Ostriker, D. A. Powell
2018 - John Yau
Judges: Laura Kasischke, Robin Coste Lewis, Arthur Sze
2017 - Patricia Spears Jones
Judges: Henri Cole, Kwame Dawes, Mary Szybist
2016 - Will Alexander
Judges: Elizabeth Alexander, Rae Armantrout, and Terrance Hayes
2015 - X. J. Kennedy
Judges: Heather McHugh, Vijay Seshadri, and Rosanna Warren
2014 - Claudia Rankine
Judges: Tracy K. Smith, David St. John, and Mark Strand
2013 - Arthur Sze
Judges: Reginald Gibbons, Natasha Trethewey, and C. D. Wright
2012 - Henri Cole
Judges: Louise Glück, Marilyn Hacker, and James Tate
2011 - James Richardson
Judges: Mark Doty, Rita Dove, and Gerald Stern
2010 - Harryette Mullen
Judges: Fanny Howe, Ted Kooser, and C. K. Williams
2009 - Linda Gregg
Judges: Brenda Hillman, Edward Hirsch, and Charles Simic
2008 - Tony Hoagland
Judges: Philip Levine, Robert Pinsky, and Ellen Bryant Voigt
2007 - Elizabeth Alexander
Judges: Lucille Clifton, Stephen Dunn, and Jane Hirshfield