It's a poet's job to study pop culture and decide what's worth keeping

John Mark Eberhart
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Sometimes a piece of writing just will not leave an author alone. Even after it's published in book form.

Such was the case for Major Jackson. Six years ago, his poetry collection "Leaving Saturn" was published to great acclaim; the book won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Yet some of the work in it did not seem quite finished to the author.

No worries. Last autumn, Jackson's "Hoops" was published; in its pages, he reconfigures some of the material from the previous book while offering brand-new lines.

Jackson, 39, who lives in South Burlington, Vt., recently answered some questions about writing.

Some critics say you are not only a poet but also a storyteller. Do you agree?

Answer: Whether one is a poet or a fiction writer, it all boils down to story and song. Good poems have elements of story, and the works of fiction we love embody the poet's love and joy of being inside language. The rhythmic surge and sweeps of Whitman are not too far from that of Hemingway.

"Hoops" does include variations/expansions on material from the previous one, including the title poem and "Urban Renewal." What prompted you to revisit this material?

I am asserting something about that notion of renewal relative to my growth as a human being who loves language, life, art and poetry. I am asserting the centrality of those notions in my life. The poem "Hoops" simply was not done when I put together the manuscript that became "Leaving Saturn" for a book contest. The poem took me four years to finish. I believe sections of long sequence poems should work as poems, too. So I did not mind having the opening first section of the poem "Hoops" in the first book.

Your new book gives me a greater sense of connection to popular culture. Not just by citing iPods and sports and so on, but somehow by creating a framework in which pop culture is present but not trivial. Could you comment on this?

As I have said elsewhere, and this is what you possibly have observed: poets "divine" the times in which they live. We choose what of our world today is worth carrying into the permanence of art. Such an undertaking, noble or not, requires us to approach our existence and presence and all of the accrual of things with a wonder that approximates first encounter. We, immediately or instantly, know during the act of creation what will carry symbolic weight and emotional heft. Every morning on my way to Starbucks, I think of Eliot's lines:

The morning comes to consciousness

Of faint stale smells of beer

From the sawdust-trampled street

With all its muddy feet that press

To early coffee-stands.

Or when I ride the A Train in New York, Pound's "In a Station at the Metro." That power of divining is tiedup with a poet's vision, what they imagine to be of value and worth, in our times.

You seem comfortable with formal approaches but also the informal. Does the study of formal verse elements (meter, rhyme) also improve a poet's free verse?

Yes, formal study of verse, especially metrical techniques, attunes a poet's composing ear to the natural rhythms of speech, so that one is receptive to the way language opens up and out from the brain. More, it also teaches one to frame and make order, to create a time signature and a melody to one's observations and declarations, to one's assertions and presence.

What we miss in "free verse," at times, is the music that is ensured in formal poetry; I'm not saying one is superior to the other, but simply the emotional weight and touch of language ordered and patterned goes missing sometimes with free verse.

What's your No. 1 motivation for writing?

A loophole for my soul.

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