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Major Jackson Heads Up Obama Tribute, in Poetry


Published April 26, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

Major Jackson
  • Major Jackson

As the tenure of the first black president of the United States came to a close, Vermont poet Major Jackson felt compelled to commemorate the significant event.

Jackson is a professor at the University of Vermont and poetry editor of the prestigious Harvard Review. True to his calling, he set about composing a poem. But, rather than go it alone, he reached out to a number of his peers and asked them to participate in a poem devoted to the 44th president.

A new segment of the collaborative poem, "Renga for Obama," appears daily on the Harvard Review website with the assistance of Jackson's colleagues at that publication. The project will conclude on April 30, after 100 days.

Renga is a traditional collaborative Japanese poetic form. Each unit, or tan-renga, consists of two stanzas, each of which is written by a different poet; the second responds to the first. The first stanza is a haiku (three lines of five, seven and five syllables each). The second is a couplet called a waki, with seven syllables per line. Jackson says he learned the form from his former teacher, poet Sonia Sanchez.

A new tan-renga is added to the ever-expanding poem each day. Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson has long-term plans to publish a limited-edition chapbook-style version of the poem, she says, and the complete version will remain viewable on the journal's website.

Thompson's current role in the project is to post each new addition, along with details about the poets who wrote it. "We do not edit, except to make corrections to obvious mistakes," the editor says. "Major and I discussed a few of the contributions early on, setting guidelines about what would and would not be considered acceptable. Our goal was to keep it valedictory in tone."

Jackson's part in this epic project is that of conductor, pairing up poets. Some were already acquainted, while others had never met. "I wanted to see what kinds of linguistic sparks would emerge," Jackson says.

And emerge they did. "I really enjoy Paul Muldoon and Elizabeth Alexander's poem," Jackson says. That piece reads as follows: "Made in Hawaii, / Jakarta. African cool. / and then came Michelle. / A garden kept them grounded. / Those two girls. Kale. Kohlrabi."

"Ocean Vuong and Jane Hirshfield — both of them have a certain kind of regard and reverence for the natural world," Jackson continues. "Their work has a kind of exquisite tenderness, yet it's firm, and the language is firm. They had never met each other, but I think that was one of the more fruitful [poems.]"

Vuong and Hirschfield penned the passage that reads: "I know I'm alive / for, even through this smoke, I / can still see your face / your calmness a lei's fragrant / promise the string will not break."

While the piece is still unfolding, the general tone is one of reverence. "As an African American male," Jackson says, "[Obama's] journey to the White House, and his modeling of thoughtfulness, diplomacy, care — that crosses my mind given the increasing reaction to this moment, to the divisive place we are today. Poets practice that same attention and alertness to language, and I think it important we continue to model that kind of carefulness in dealing with each other."

Jackson acknowledges that not all the poets he reached out to share his sentiments regarding Obama's presidency. A couple chose not to participate. "One person articulated disagreement with some of [Obama's] policies," Jackson says — mentioning the use of drones in particular — "and expressed deep regret that [they couldn't participate.] They wanted to stick by their values."

"I think what I did not expect from this," Jackson shares, "was the level of dialogue that would emerge every week from correspondence with the poets. It sharpened my admiration for his presidency, and it also gave me a sense of the difficulty of leading a nation where, clearly, it's just impossible to please the [entire] American constituency — because of the thing that is our strength: our differences."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Major Jackson Organizes Poetic Tribute to Barack Obama"