Exalted Utterance: An Interview With Major Jackson

Mary Gannon

Do you remember who it was who inspired you?
My early influences include people like Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden, a number of contemporary poets—Philip Levine and C. K. Williams. My models back then were poets who asserted the narrative as a framework, as a means of entering a lyrical space.

With the new book, can you tell me about the form? All the poems are ten lines—how did you arrive at that?
I write these sequences, these healthy, robust narrative lyric poems. I wanted to have the art teach me something new, to write a more compressed poem. So I’d been trying to write small lyric poems, and then I got this wonderful assignment. Cave Canem was turning ten years old, and they asked former fellows to write a ten-line poem in honor of the anniversary. The first poem I wrote created this feverish desire to write in ten lines—I wrote a rash of these ten-line poems and put them aside and came back to them and wrote more.

At that time, I experienced separation and divorce and fell in love, so desire, regret, shame—all those emotions were particularly poignant and found their way into the book. It really was my seeking out an exalted tone, an exalted utterance, that wasn’t contrived. We live in an age when that kind of utterance is often met with cynicism.

Frustration with the war informed the work too. Also, when I was writing the book at the Radcliffe Institute, the fellows would gather for lunch every day, and two days out of the week we would talk about our research. Being in that interdisciplinary environment allowed me to make certain connections about what I was doing. I just started to see this idea of engaging one another—through art, music, literature—as one big means by which we celebrate one another, enrapture one another.

These poems are less narrative than your other work.
Oh yeah. So much so that I’m worried about alienating my readership. That’s the fear, but you have to go where your creative impulses take you. You have to honor those particular urges. One of the frustrations I have with certain writers is that they attempt to replicate what they’ve done before over and over again. I understand that pull, but for a poet it can be enormously deadly.

Do you think, with this body of work, you’ve exhausted the form?
That fever is gone, but its impact is still with me. What I love about this art is that it is lifelong. With each book the art form teaches you something about language or rhetoric or form or emotional intensity, insinuation, metaphor—it’s all there. I feel that the impact of writing this book will manifest itself.

And also, I should say, separation and divorce are very huge life moments. Someone said to me that certain life events have to happen before you can become a writer of great mastery. You have to lose a parent. You have to have a child—not that I necessarily agree with this list—you have to get your heart broken, you have to break someone else’s heart. You have to go through these archetypal moments.

I thought I was writing with a great sense of urgency with the previous two books, but I wasn’t. I had a great leisure. I was being an artist. This book was born out of very real life circumstances: love and intimacy, desire, falling out of love—all of that is in there—and it’s a conversation that’s been in literature all this time, but I’ve always approached it simply as literature.

When you are composing a poem, what comes to you first?
The lines. That’s been the linkage among all three books in that there’s an insistent need that plays itself out, whereby sometimes the music is more important than what’s conveyed literally in the work. If I were giving a reading, and you were on the other side of a wall and you couldn’t hear the words clearly but you could hear the movement of the voice and the language and how that manifests itself into its own music, its own impact—

Frost’s concept of the sound of sense.
Yes. Where sound and sense are so interwoven that it goes beyond the first dimension of meaning. I think the rewards are greater when you, as Keats says, allow yourself to not irritably reach after fact and reason and allow yourself to engage poetry on other levels that we’re all equipped with. We all love a nice beat, we all love the lyrical movement of sound, which poetry has so much of, because it’s not reliant on music. That’s the difference between me and Jay-Z. Jay-Z has a beat behind him, music behind him. Poets have to create their own beat inside the poem.

I’m very happy to teach, for the first time, rap as poetry to incoming freshmen at the University of Vermont. I think they’re going to be better prepared, interestingly enough, to tackle Shakespeare’s metrics as a result of studying rap lyrics by artists like Quame or De La Soul or Q-Tip. They’re going to be able to get inside of a Shakespeare sonnet or a ballad. People don’t realize it, but rap music is so reliant on telling a story, and oftentimes that story is tragic and it normally winds up in a four-beat line. I’m thinking of De La Soul’s “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” a rap song that when I heard it as a kid introduced the idea of incest by telling this ballad of a girl named Millie and her father. It registered even stronger because it was inside a rap song. It gave the subject a greater kind of authority because the art form spoke to me. And that’s where I get my sense of metaphor and music.

What would you say you’ve learned aesthetically from the new book?
The exalted utterance. I get Rilke now. I get Neruda. I get the ecstatic. A poet like Gerald Stern is a contemporary example. But I wonder if we have an appetite for the ecstatic in this particular day and age. Having that kind of—what Edward Hirsch recently said somewhere—having that very real human scale. To be inside a poem and to be vulnerable and to make it into art. That’s what I learned.