A Beat Beyond: Selected Prose of Major Jackson by Major Jackson
Ann Arbor. University of Michigan Press. 2022. 184 pages.
IT IS MY SEMI-PROFESSIONAL opinion that anybody reviewing a book of essays must wrestle with the question, “Who on earth buys a book of essays?” My documented admiration for Major Jackson—Harvard Review poetry editor, award-winning poet (most recently of The Absurd Man and Roll Deep), and here revealed to the book-buying public as a meticulous critic and astute cultural observer—does not exempt A Beat Beyond: Selected Prose of Major Jackson. Sporting musings on the craft and culture of contemporary poetry; deep-dive research on both anthologized and less-taught twentieth-century poets; and—crackling fresh as good vintage vinyl—energetic early publications from a music and culture beat in the high days of Philly’s ’90s hip-hop scene, Jackson’s latest offers more than just a glimpse of his proverbial bookshelf and record cabinet.
For teachers, it’s a unit-worthy syllabus of poets whose work intersects and mutually inspires throughout the last century, with discussion questions to boot. For scholars, it’s thoughtful research on poets like Countee Cullen and Lucille Clifton, a sharp-eyed breakdown of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry award letter that made Gwendolyn Brooks the first Black woman recipient, and a short, persuasive thesis on the historical poem as a defining national genre.
For Philadelphians, it’s cultural history, the kind of bottle-aged testaments most writers can only dream might still deliver the zeitgeist’s funky tang decades down the road. Culture vultures of any feather will enjoy the journey through the popular emergence of slam poetry (in “Black Poetry: A Beat Beyond”) and the reverent hype of an old-school hip-hop revival at the Trocadero (“Living Legends”).
For critics, of course, it’s a giddy chance to catch a younger Jackson at our own task, writing low-key ekphrastics as he turns his metronome ear and poet’s tongue on someone else’s art. Philly jazz hip-hop pioneers The Roots burst off the page as Jackson wrangles “genius” into ink in the prescient “Liner Notes”:
It’s an eventful moment to hear [Tariq Trotter] on “Essaywhuman?!!??!” “rap scatting” one minute in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and with stark ingenuity change to a ⅞ rhyme scheme that sounds like Charlie Parker’s horn jumping in and around a bebop landscape.
Arguably, these pieces in the book’s “Entryways” section are a ringing answer to the question Jackson poses in “Poetry and Influence of the Nonliterary Variety”: “How do I explain to those young people [that] inspiration and entryways into poems are a function of how much of the world one takes into one’s self?”
Most irresistible are Jackson’s reflections in “My Lyrical Self” (2019) and “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black” (2007). The former posts pithy encapsulations of Jackson’s ambitions as a poet: “to dramatize my life into song in what I call ‘the lyric self,’” born from writing that truly sits at “the center of language” and expresses “a human voice, an authentic self . . . in the moments of figuration, image-making, in the syntactical arrangement of words into linguistic phrases, tones, and silences, for it is there that great emotion resides.” He continues, “All the poems ever written are attempts to add one’s own sound to that collective cry of humanity.”
“A Mystifying Silence,” then, develops ideas on the racialized ethical elements of the “cry” (and of the silence) in contemporary poetry. Jackson surveys a collection of poems containing representations of “blackness” and Black bodies (“I collect these poems as others collect poems about dogs or jazz,” he explains) to handily catalog “the insistent lack of imaginative language to describe the full spectrum of people of color” in poems by authors like Elizabeth Bishop and Tony Hoagland. Regarding Hoagland, he writes, “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.” The culprit behind “the dearth of poems written by white poets that address racial issues,” he argues, is in part a “hypercritical vigilance.” “Contemporary poets lag behind fiction writers,” Jackson writes,
because we over-envision a readership. . . . We are less willing to be repulsive and repugnant in our poems . . . so earnest are we in the vision of poetry as the province of communal good that we fail to create “speakers” in our poems who are contemptible and dishonorable.
One can look to poems like Kaveh Akbar’s “Portrait of the Alcoholic” sequence as gleeful gauntlet-grabbers that let grateful readers in on a psyche as icked-up as ours. And Akbar, of course, is not alone. But, as to how the grander shape of that mystifying silence has changed in the fifteen Instagram-ridden years since Jackson’s writing—well, I, for one, would buy another book of essays.