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Journal, Day Four

By Major Jackson

11:40 a.m.
Grant Street Inn
Bloomington, IN

I just returned from chatting with Cathy Bowman’s bright students: Ali (rhymes with Cali), Sara, Allie, Joyce, Zach, and Emily. They read Hoops and had some insightful observations and posed some intelligent questions that had me, while formulating answers, revisit and explore some of the reasons as to why I write and what I hope to achieve on the page (which, of course, changes from poem to poem.)

It’s funny; I wish I were more gifted to have that kind of macro-view of my work, but writing, as we say, is more exploratory and less strategic, less planned. (I guess this is another area in which poetry and wars are different; however, Army General John Abizaid’s address to Congress yesterday might make such dissimilarity, to my dismay, more imaginary and fallacious upon second reflection. Dig that: war as a form of research.)

The discoveries of meaning, shape, intention, and even, aesthetic worth or impact, come after I’ve been immersed in the messy process of writing the poem. Those are moments to live for; the epic weight and lineage of words asserting their importance, the hidden or buried memories and feelings resurfacing after much psychic excavation, and the echoes of sounds underscoring aural pleasures and inviting cognitive associations and patterns are just some of the happenings of composing a poem that feel like breakthroughs or a kind of blessed surplus from creating and consciously rendering tranquil the inchoate unruliness of life.

The walk over to Kirkwood Hall was stunning and beautiful, despite the stands of denuded trees (dogwoods and oaks) and wet leaves plastered on top of wet leaves everywhere. The air seemed heavily charged like the mental and skin-tingling sensation I’d experience right prior to and after rain-storms in New Orleans. My mother-in-law informed me yesterday that she graduated from Indiana University. Funny, I thought she was an alumnus of Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri and then Pratt Institute.

Nonetheless, the campus is beautiful with all of its limestone designed and built by the Works Progress Administration; the art museum, which has no right angles, was designed by I.M. Pei. Oh yea! Alfred Kinsey did research here! Guess where I’m going after I finish this? The Kinsey Institute Gallery currently has an exhibition of three-dimensional objects from the institute’s collection of artworks and 48,000 images of erotica, simpley titled “Sex Objects.” Should be an enlightening afternoon.

Last night, I had dinner at Truffles with Cathy, her boyfriend and supreme fellow Mark, and a fine and wonderfully garrulous Prof. Margo Crawford, who is a scholar of 20th century African American literature with a particular interest in the Black Arts Movement. So, the conversation touched upon and debunked so many historicized assumptions about that period and the people involved, Gwendolyn Brooks, especially.


Okay, today’s Rhyme of the Day was inspired by Koren’s post in the Comments section. She was a high school student 13 years ago when my friend from Temple University and fellow poet Wadud Ahmad and I used to go around Philadelphia high schools and area colleges sharing our poetry and talking with the young about positive self-image and hip-hop, literacy and education, the necessity for political action, and a purposeful life. Wadud is a now a lawyer and works for the District Attorney’s office in Philadelphia. He has continued to perform his poetry around the world, both solo producing three independent CDs and with some esteemed musicians such as The Roots, Jill Scott, James Poyser,Victer Duplaix, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and Jean-Paul Bourelly. Wadud and I self published a chapbook of our poetry titled Back to Africa with a White Woman. If you have a copy, consider yourself very very lucky. It’s a true artifact. Wadud is the voice on the last two Roots albums; you can hear him on “Star/Pointro” from The Tipping Point; and on “False Media” and “Take It There” from the Game Theory. The Roots have been especially smart in hiring poets to appear on their albums: my ace from back in the day Ursula Rucker, Amiri Baraka, and Wadud.

Here’s Tariq and Wadud.

Artist: The Roots
Album: Game Theory
Song: “False Media”

America’s lost somewhere inside of Littleton.
Eleven million children are on Ritalin.
That’s why I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddling.
False media, we don’t need it, do we?
Pilgrims, Slaves, Indian, Mexican.
It looks real f***** up for your next of kin.
That’s why I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddling.
False media.

[Black Thought]
If I can’t work to make it, I’ll rob and take it.
Either that or me and my children are starving and naked.
Rather be a criminal pro than to follow the Matrix.
Hey it’s me a monster y’all done created.
I’ve been inaugurated.
Keep the bright lights out of our faces.
You can’t shake it. It ain’t no way to swallow the hatred
Aim, fire, holla about a dollar, nothing is sacred.


12:20 p.m.
Grant Street Inn
Bloomington, IN

Yesterday’s featured poem, “Listening to the Mourners” by James Wright, is a good poem to offer up for today’s Tip of the Day (for aspiring readers of poetry). I am amazed still that some people feel intimidated by poetry when presented with the opportunity. To read a poem is like performing heart surgery. Even people in my own department shy away from the pleasures poetry has to offer them, if they, of course, were to put in the work. But, maybe, this is the issue; we do not live in a time that fosters reflection and empathy through engagement in something so trivial as a poem.

TIP: Every poem has its own relationship to time that is different than your own; it’s like its own time signature. Part of the work of reading a poem is to calibrate one’s rhythm to that of the poem, much in the same way a Shakespearean actor has to adjust from 21st century colloquial language and speech to medieval diction, if the dialogue on stage is to be convincing. Read the poem out loud over three or four successive periods. Put the poem down. Come back to it before you go to sleep. Then, read it again in the morning. The first line will give you some clue, as to what’s ahead, rhythmically, but note the shifts and changes. They carry great meaning.

Paying attention to a poem’s rhythm requires sensitive listening and staying attuned to the moments of pause and silence in the poem. Pacing in a poem can be gendered or dictated by the poet or speaker’s identity, say race or age or abiding emotion, but mainly it is historical and of the Age. Maybe much of the work of literature classes is sensitizing students to enter the collective conscious and rhythms of epochs of past periods; and by embodying such measures they learn to forge forward knowledgably much in the way they would with other discrete forms of knowledge, say the medical procedures and steps to perform heart surgery. It is an amazing notion to consider: all of the artwork we consume gives us access to a humanity, an emotional life that is not our own, which is why I so loudly impress that we learn to value all of the poetry of the peoples of this country. It could save us.

James Wright’s rhythm in this poem is on one occasion, ironically jaunty and metrical (The grief that I hear is my life somewhere.) Why? For the most part, it creeps and plods along quietly, underscoring the obligation of stillness and calm required for deep listening, which is the work of all poets.

Crouched down by a roadside windbreak
At the edge of the prairie,
I flinch under the baleful jangling of wind
Through the telephone wires, a wilderness of voices
Blown for a thousand miles, for a hundred years.

James Wright’s project, his life’s work, and what he sought to achieve in his poetry was to capture the great beauty “of his native land” Ohio (he was from Martin’s Ferry) but also to give an aesthetic stress to the poverty, bleakness, and spirit of the people killed by the work of mills and mining companies. The poem is about this work of naming their grief, the mourning of the lost; their lives are dignified by the music and pacing he brings to bear on his subject, particularly in that lovely and singular line of iambs and anapests: The grief that I hear is my life somewhere. How neat!

Grant Street Inn
Bloomington, IN

There wasn’t much national fanfare to mark the end of the Poetry Bus Tour. I want to publicly thank Matthew Zapruder, Travis, Joshua, and Bill for the memories and the fun.

Here’s a poster of tonight’s reading:

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, November 16th, 2006 by Major Jackson.