GREAT BARRINGTON -- "At heart I'm a city fella," said poet Major Jackson. "But I'd like to think that I can acclimate to wherever I go. There are lots of landscapes inside of us."
A native of Philadelphia, Jackson, an award-winning poet, is now the Richard Dennis Green and Gold Professor at the University of Vermont, and while Lake Champlain is a far cry from the Philly streets, Jackson finds that going away is all about coming home.
With three poetry collections (the latest is Holding Company, Norton 2010), three children and a lifetime of philosophical musings accounted for, he will bring his work to the Berkshires on Tuesday, in a reading at 7:30 p.m. at Bard College at Simon's Rock as part of the college's poetry and fiction reading series. Along with his musings on urban life and the many facets of love, Jackson may bring comfort to the many students who find themselves far from the place they call home.
"There's something disarmingly plainspoken about his work," said Brendan Mathews, a professor at the college. "I thought the students would respond well to it. It challenges and inspires them and pushes them in new directions. Growing up in Philly, as a young black man in America, [he talks about] family identity issues there and universal questions, yet he's incredibly grounded and specific."
Mathews said his students are electrified by Jackson's brand of grace and mystery, especially in an age where poetry seems to have taken refuge in the underground world of slams and YouTube.
"It's refreshing for them to read his work. For young readers, this is a great celebration of what writing is," Mathews said. "The student population here comes from all over, each with different aesthetic viewpoints. They are always wondering which place is ‘home' for them."
Pin-pointing where "home" lies is a tough task for Jackson, who summered in Tennessee, went to grad school in Oregon and served as a creative arts fellow at Harvard. His travels and experiences may have expanded his distance from Philadelphia, but absence, he said, makes the heart grow more contemplative.
"I've covered a good deal of ground," Jackson ruminated. "When I drove cross country to go to grad school [in Eugene, Ore.,] every place that I landed charged me with inspiration. The mountains and forests, they do their magic on me. Writing about Philadelphia -- I was so far from home, and it was so far for my imagination to travel that it seemed like that place had become holy and sanctified."
The journey is an important lesson that Jackson teaches his students at UVM -- perhaps the most important lesson, not only as a "significant component of western art and literature," but also as a guidepost to get at what he calls the "shadowy places inside of us" to create a portrait of a "life that moves to, longs for or desires solidity."
"I wish I lived and thought continuously in these large terms," Jackson said, laughing. "But truth be told, I have a pretty mundane life when I'm not writing. I like to cook, go to my kids' sporting events, connect with other parents, garden. I have to trick myself by reading poets that I admire and get into a meditative state to write. The most civil, the most glorious moments of my day are when I'm writing."
Jackson's work staggers the many worlds that he has occupied and become enmeshed in. A reference to Cézanne looking at a landscape intermingles with the dust and boom of I-70 in Kansas corn country. A somber rumination on lynching, a cold metrosexual couple -- these are the ties that bind in the poet's world. Seemingly unrelated, each overflows with the mystery that Jackson said he continues to try and solve over and over again.
"I think if there is one thing that is persistent throughout my writing, it is trying to figure out violence," he said. "In Philly in the 1980s I witnessed and had to contend with violence and crime often. That is some serious kind of trauma. I've had the same question all through. Why do we cause hurt and violence? Even in small ways. Yet I believe in the possibility and the hopefulness of love. I wish it was the antidote to the world's ills."
If you go ...
What: Poet Major Jackson
Where: Blodgett House, Bard College at Simon's Rock, 48 Alford Road, Great Barrington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday