Essays to Read in "A Beat Beyond" by Major Jackson
Major Jackson has long been renowned as a poet of disciplined and exuberant craft, whose daring flights are guided by his deep learning and keen curiosity about the world. Now, in A Beat Beyond, published earlier this year by University of Michigan Press in the Poets on Poetry series, readers have gained a fresh opportunity to encounter the breadth of Jackson’s gifts as a poet and journal editor. We are pleased to share four recommendations of outstanding essays included in the book:
(1) “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black.” (First published in The American Poetry Review, September/October 2007.)
Writing against the (implicit) background of Claudia Rankine’s accusations that a poem by Tony Hoagland was racist, Jackson surveys the depictions of Black people in poems by white poets. While chastising the racism in an old poem by Robert Penn Warren, Jackson expresses a counterintuitive, if partly ironic, nostalgia, for a time when white poets were more candid about their own racism. From the racism of the past, and also from the perhaps performative ubiquitous liberal progressivism of contemporary poetry, he infers the presence of unexorcized demons. Better that poets allow themselves the freedom to represent the entirety of their psyches, including lingering racist attitudes currently driven underground—in the interests of the flourishing of the art form (which must tell the whole truth about the self, not only the palatable parts), but also that of the society. As he writes of Hoagland at the essay’s conclusion: “Yet, I would rather have his failures than nothing at all. At least his poems announce him as introspective in a self-critical way on this topic. Self-censorship should never be an option for poets.” Chastising the timidity of white poets writing about race, Jackson shows himself a combative and challenging figure. Bound to ruffle some feathers—for good or ill.
(2) “Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter.” (First published in Poets & Writers Magazine, May/June 2017.)
Jackson probes into the circumstances surrounding the awarding of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize in poetry to the Black Chicagoan poet Gwendolyn Brooks, for her second collection of poems, Annie Allen. Jackson rejects the preposterous doctrine, prevalent during the period he is examining, among hostile and well-meaning critics alike, that artistic success for the Black poet means, somehow, “transcending” their race. It is not just that such praise diminishes its recipient—having the effect, when levied at Brooks’ work, “of deracinating her verse from the very sources of community that fed her fervent imagination.” The deeper point, though, is that such praise assumes a conflict between national or ethnic origin and universality that is found in Black poets but in poets of no other description. “Could anyone ever imagine,” he asks, “such a statement made to the Russian poets Alexander Pushkin or Anna Akhmatova, or the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, or the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, or the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, or the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai?” Jackson’s themes are buttressed by many superb, concrete anecdotes—most moving of which is the story about Brooks mysteriously having her electricity turned back on the morning after she won the prize, thus sparing her from embarrassment when the photographers arrived.
(3) “Tales of the Heroic” (First published in Poets & Writers Magazine, January/February 2002.)
This essay comes from a section of the book featuring reflections on mentors of various kinds, mostly poetic. (Lucille Clifton and Garrett Hongo are the subjects of other good reflections.) This particular story begins autobiographically, in Jackson’s childhood—with his early and formative trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where an aunt worked as a security guard. These experiences gave him an education both in the broadest reaches of the imagination and in the specifics of identity. Though Jackson’s appreciation of the objects in the museum was not confined to one particular historical culture (fascinated by the arms and armor exhibit, he delighted in imagining himself as a knight), he also recalls being particularly entranced by a painting, The Moorish Chief, by the nineteenth century French painter Eduard Charlemont. In this image—conceived, no doubt, for consumption by European patrons who would relish its exoticism—Jackson encountered, yes, the exotic; but also a figure who resembled his own uncle. This figure was familiar, yet, at the same time, regal. Entranced by this image, he wondered what his own place—what the place of Black people—in such a world of art and imagination might be. Years later, an encounter with the poet Afaa Michael Weaver, suggested an answer, albeit an unexpected one. Weaver, pinch-hitting at a Black Arts reading that Jackson attended, presented him with something he had not expected to see: not overt political confrontation, but something that, for Jackson, was more unexpected—a deep investigation of the self, the self of a Black man, without embellishment or apology. Here, inescapably, was someone who “has fashioned a life of the imagination and employed art for some greater purpose than illuminating his identity”—yet without rejecting his identity, either. In Weaver, “regal in spirit and commanding in presence,” Jackson encountered afresh the spirit of the Moorish Chief, in a form he could aspire to emulate.
(4) “Liner Notes, The Roots, Do You Want More??!!?” (Geffen Records, 1994)
Who could resist Major Jackson writing about The Roots? Who, in particular, could resist liner notes written for their major label debut, the one preceding their mainstream breakout Things Fall Apart, written in the fervor of excitement and discovery of one, like them, steeped in Philadelphia’s underground hip-hop scene. Long before “the buzz that’s been plaguing Philadelphia’s underground community” had become a global roar, long before Black Thought and Questlove (then known as Question) had become household names, the spectacle of “a real live hip-hop band,” with their MC “Dropping verbal flow with the ease of a faucet,” electrified the young poet. And yet, if the greatness of The Roots is by now uncontroversial, Jackson’s liner notes are anything but. With the mixture of pugnacity and generosity that characterizes his essays—generous to all great art and vigorous living, pugnacious in defense of the same, and in opposition to its pallid imitators—Jackson strikes a vigorous blow for a hip-hop that rediscovers its roots in the Black tradition of jazz. The true test of an artist, for Jackson, is their power to convene a community. “It’s important to note that although much has been written on the aesthetic implications and historical development of hip-hop and jazz fusion, little has been said in the way of community development.” Yet The Roots, he writes, “have a cunning knack for building a community.” Fresh with the thrill of discovery, these liner notes are news that stays news.