Major Jackson

Acclaimed Poet & Teacher

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • An Evening with Major Jackson

“Major Jackson makes poems that rumble and rock.” —Dorianne Laux

“Jackson knows the truth of black magic. It is a magic as simple as the belief in humanity that subverts racism, or the esoteric and mystical magic of making jazz, the music of hope and love.” —Afaa Weaver

Major Jackson is the author of four collections of poetry: Roll Deep (2015, Norton); Holding Company (2010, Norton); Hoops (2006, Norton); and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press). Holding Company and Hoops were both selected as finalists for an NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry; and Leaving Saturn, awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He has published poems and essays in American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, Tin House, and in Best American Poetry. A recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and a Whiting Writers’ Award, he has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Pew Fellowship in the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress.

Jackson has served as a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Adelphi University, a creative arts fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Xavier University of Louisiana, and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell as the Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence. He is a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Major Jackson lives in South Burlington, Vermont, where he is the Richard Dennis Green and Gold Professor at the University of Vermont. He serves as the Poetry Editor of The Harvard Review.

Major Jackson’s website

Major Jackson is the author of four collections of poetry: Roll DeepHolding Company; Hoops; and Leaving Saturn, which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. His poems and essays have appeared in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, Tin House, and in Best American Poetry. He is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and has been honored by the Pew Fellowship in the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress.

ROLL DEEP (Poetry, 2015)
This breakthrough volume appropriates the vernacular notion of “rolling deep” to explore human intimacy and war. The poems in Roll Deep are whimsical, urbane, and introspective, seeking a rhythmic sound that expresses the realities of the twenty-first century. Whether about child soldiers in Dadaab, a refugee camp in East Kenya, or human intimacy, the poems build community across borders of language and style.

HOLDING COMPANY (Poetry, 2010)

“Jackson explores new territory—the realm of the ecstatic.” —Poets & Writers

In Holding Company, Major Jackson explores art, literature, and music as a kingdom, or an empire, a dark, seductive force in our lives. In an effort to understand desire, beauty, and love as transient anodynes to metaphysical loneliness, he invokes Constantine Cavafy, Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, and Dante Rossetti.

From “Jewel-Tongued”:

The stillness of a lover’s mouth
assaulted me. I never wearied of anecdotes
on the Commons, gesturing until I scattered
myself into a luminance, shining over a city
of women. Was I less human or more? I hear still
my breathing echoing off their pillows. So many
eyes like crushed flowers. Our fingers splayed
over a bed’s edge. We were blown away.

HOOPS (Poetry, 2006)
“The slangy title of Jackson’s second collection is a layered metaphor, implying, among other things, basketball, jewelry, and life’s hurdles. Jackson seems to define himself by his eclecticism; he reveres basketball players as much as poets. Recalling his early life in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, he draws nourishment from a sense of his acuity: ‘My breathing / was older than me.’ His poems are witty, musical, and intelligent; he is equally happy discussing the war on terror—’An empire croons, toughed-up in a trance”‘—or describing early crushes: ‘The swagger / behind their blue-tinted sunglasses and low-rider / jeans hurt boys like me.’ Other subjects include Columbine, Tupac Shakur, iPods, and, above all, the condition and future of the black poet. In a final flourish of contrast, Jackson writes an epistolary poem to Gwendolyn Brooks, in a recognizable, albeit flexible, rhyme royal.” —The New Yorker

LEAVING SATURN (Poetry, 2002)

“From Sun Ra to the conundrum of adolescent sexuality, from barbershop culture to basketball and dance as rites of passage, Leaving Saturn is largely about returning: to tradition, to a psychological landscape both American and African American, and to a recognition of that suffering without which ‘how else/do we know we are here?’ An ambitious debut, for which Major Jackson has coined an idiom and music all his own.” —Carl Phillips 

Leaving Saturn, chosen by Al Young as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, is an ambitious and honest collection. Major Jackson, through both formal and free verse poems, renders visible the spirit of resilience, courage, and creativity he witnessed among his family, neighbors, and friends while growing up in Philadelphia. His poems hauntingly reflect urban decay and violence, yet at the same time they rejoice in the sustaining power of music and the potency of community. Jackson also honors artists who have served as models of resistance and maintained their own faith in the belief of the imagination to alter lives. The title poem, a dramatic monologue in the voice of the American jazz composer and bandleader Sun Ra, details such a humane program and serves as an admirable tribute to the tradition of African American art. Throughout, Jackson unflinchingly portrays our most devastated landscapes, yet with a vividness and compassion that expose the depth of his imaginative powers.


I live on the roof of the world among the aerial
simulacra of Things, among the faded: old tennis shoes,
vanished baseballs, heartbreak gritted with dirt. My mind
alights like lightning in a cloud. I’m networked
beholding electric wires and church spires.
I lean forward and peer at the suffering below—
Sartre said: man is condemned to be free.
I believe in the dead who claim to believe in me—
says, too, the missing and forgotten. Day darkens
on. I hear our prayers rising. I sing to you, now.


This downpour of bad reasoning, this age-old swarm,
this buzzing about town, this kick and stomp
through gardens, this snag on the way to the mall,
this heap and toss of fabric and strewn shoes, this tangled
beauty, this I came here not knowing, here
to be torched, this fumbling ecstasy, this spray of lips
and fingers, this scrape of bone, this raid
of private grounds, this heaving and rocking, this scream
and push, this sightless hunger, this tattered perishing,
this rhythmic teeth-knocking, this unbearable
music, this motionless grip, grimace, and groan.

—from Holding Company


The backyard garden wall is mossy green
and flakes a craggy mound of chips. Nearby
my grandfather kneels between a row of beans
and stabs his shears into earth. I squint an eye,
a comma grows at his feet. The stucco’s
an atlas, meshed-wire continents with leaders
who augured hate, hence ruins, which further sow
discontent. We are weeding, marking borders,
a million taproots stacked in shock. Forty years
from a three-story, he has watched the neighborhood,
postwar marble steps, a scrubbed frontier
of Pontiacs lining the curb, fade to a hood.
Pasture of wind-driven litter swirls among greasy
bags of takeouts. Panicles of nightblasts
cap the air, a corner lot of broken TVs empties
and spills from a suitcase of hurt. Life amassed,
meaningless as a trampled box of Cornflakes.
When a beggar cupped for change outside
a check-cashing place then snatched his wallet,
he cleaned a .22 revolver & launched this plot. Tidal
layers of cement harden men born gentle as the root
crops tended south, the city its own bitter shrine.
We crouch by watering cans. He pulls a paradise of kale
and shakes root-dirt that snaps like a shadow lost in time.
Tomato vines coil by a plot of herbs. Far from the maddening
caravan of fistfights, jacked-rides, drunkards,
my pen takes aim from the thumbnail of his yard.

—from Hoops