writer and domestic dude

Resonance and Richard Jackson’s Associative Vigor

Richard Jackson’s latest collection of poems, Resonance, was quietly released from The Ashland Poetry Press in 2010. Why “quietly”? It’s not that poetry collections, as a rule, generally get a lot of fanfare. It’s just that for someone with Jackson’s writing, teaching, and humanitarian achievements and honors being as numerous and distinctive as, dare I say, anyone in the English-speaking world, one might think he’d garner a little more attention. Not that he needs it, or seeks it. He just goes on developing a passion in generations of undergraduate students at UT-C, running the twice-annual Meacham Writers’ Workshop (as the late great William Matthews called it, “The Rick Jackson Pro Am”), taking writing students on an annual international, cross-cultural trip, and, oh yeah, writing.

I suppose the idea is to let the verse speak for itself. What a concept! In a day and age in which the effluvia of self-promotion has become more important to being read than actually writing outstanding content, what we get is far too much forgettable material. Resonance contains what its title suggests it does.

While my first thought was that resonance means something that lasts, or endures, something that resonates, when I looked it up, I found numerous definitions. In physics, resonance is the tendency of a system to oscillate at a greater amplitude at some frequencies than at others. Another definition of resonance, in noun form, is a synchronous gravitational relationship of two celestial bodies (as moons) that orbit a third (as a planet) which can be expressed as a simple ratio of their orbital periods. Also, in music, a : the intensification and enriching of a musical tone by supplementary vibration b : a quality imparted to voiced sounds by vibration in anatomical resonating chambers or cavities (as the mouth or the nasal cavity) c : a quality of richness or variety d : a quality of evoking response.

Years ago, when I first came across his award-winning collection Heartwall I knew immediately I was in the hands of a master, and that I’d seen nothing else quite like it. Having come out of a writing program only two hours south of where Richard Jackson has resided and taught for well over 30 years now, I was also surprised I’d not heard of him. Part of the “quiet” release of his latest collection comes as no surprise. This is a poet who, it would seem, is not comfortable with the self-promotion that so many writers (and artists of all kinds) are increasingly expected to do. Clearly, he wants the work to speak for itself. It does. Perhaps, though, it’s too bad that more people aren’t aware?

David Wojahn writes, “It’s the combination of soulfulness, intellectual rigor, and a courtly, almost Petrarchian ardor for the beloved that has always fueled Richard Jackson’s poetry. They are also poems of dazzling associative vigor–funny, elegiac, and political by turns. I wish that more of our poets possessed his big heart and breadth…” This is not hyperbole.

Richard Jackson’s poetry is anything but quiet. It’s broad and expansive. What do I mean? Historically, linguistically, with its pull toward current politics and human rights, and a constant perspective-making with his cosmic (and scientific) tropes, this is the kind of verse that literally takes us out of ourselves. The non-linear, discursive quality of the associations he draws upon feel free, energetic and exciting in the dream-like way that such writing urges–and it always ends up taking you somewhere. In fact, that’s one of the important aspects of how Jackson teaches a workshop. He begins by asking his students, “Where does the poem begin, and where does it take us?”

And where does a beginning that infuses the micro/macro-cosmic like this set us up take us?

“It’s because the earth continues to wobble on its axis / that we continue to stumble down the streets of the heart.”

Jackson seems keenly aware of his voice’s style and voice with poems like, “Why I Digress So.” He begins,

“It’s only when we don’t know where we’re going / said Oscar Wilde, that we can ever find our way.”

Readers may have to put together the reason “why” he digresses the way he does, but surely it would seem that he does so to find his way. In “Fines Double in Work Zone,” he begins,

“Reading a bad poem is like having a bad dream: You can’t / ask for your money back.”

Ironically enough, such effusive, associational writing comes across as so casual and possibly “random,” that it looks easy. It’s actually very difficult to write this way and maintain “tension.” Most verse-composers are urged to hone their words to the minimum so they carry as much meaning and tension as possible. Good advice for the vast majority. After a very short while “casual writing” becomes just that, which means it becomes empty rhetoric. Few voices can move toward the effusive end of the continuum like Pablo Neruda or Walt Whitman. Mark Halliday frequently achieves it. Richard Jackson makes the most of it. Even for all this, however, he is conscious enough of his style and possibly its limitations that he is not above a self-parody as he performs in ‘Fines Double’ from the point-of-view of a reviewer (who ends up more like a curmudgeonly critic).

The cover and the promotional pageantry may not get you to grab this book, but his verse and reputation stands alone–and on its own–and I couldn’t recommend a book of contemporary verse more highly.

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