by Major Jackson
Most of what I will say feels inadequate to the immeasurable gratitude I feel towards Garrett Hongo, for obvious and not so obvious reasons. I was delighted, if not daunted, to receive the invitation to join this panel in tribute of Garrett who has to be counted among the forces that helped change the landscape of American poetry, through his poems, essays, behind-the-scenes advocacy, his work as a scholar, memoirist, editor of that long-ago yet seminal anthology The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America which complicated easy multicultural conversations and essentialist constructions and notions of identity, and of course as director, mentor, and teacher of University of Oregon’s creative writing program.
Speaking of complexity: where other people failed to see or envision the possibility of a broader and inclusive conversation about America, its people and their contributions and varied histories, and a resultant, potentially great literature, Garrett’s vision has been to instigate and enact profound change by very simply finding the best young and emergent writers in the country, that truly reflected that country’s expansive sweep of humanity.
I struggled to decide where I should begin my short, brief, and inadequate talk on Hongo: maybe I should start in an Introduction to Poetry course at Temple University in Philadelphia and first encountering a poem called The Cadence of Silk in the X.J. Kennedy’s anthology, and feeling my life change by poem’s end, and turning the page to see Garrett’s smiling face and then buying all of his available books, and subsequently reading another poem, The Legend, then another poem Winnings, portraits of fathers and everyday people, engaging in all manner of philosophic and humanistic inquiry, so that you here would know that I wanted to be a poet because of the example I was shown of what language could do in its lushness, its intimacies and powers of mimesis, its grand rhetorical gestures, its ability to jewel syntax. Simply stated, Garrett’s early poems made me want to be a poet. This was at a time when as a dedicated student activist, who closely studied the poetry of the Black Arts Movement, I believed poems were bombs meant to be deployed in the service of political aims and beliefs. And then, I encountered Garrett’s work, a poetry of immense interiority, intelligence, and witness such that I truly understood that adage, to speak from one’s experience was the ultimate political act, a primal subjectivity that through the sheer force of evocative language could give substance, embodiment. What I am saying is: he called me forth into this community, the one you’re sitting in right now. His poetry has been teaching me ever since.
Or maybe I should begin this talk with phoning Garrett at his University of Oregon office (in the age before cellphones) shortly after graduating from Temple, and, with my limited knowledge of contemporary poets, somehow finding myself the curator of a poetry reading series and inviting him, this poet, this man whose poetry already meant so much to me. Our conversation was rangy; we talked for an hour. Because of how and where I grew up, this was an event. If it was not about sports or about work, back then in my world, men did not talk to other men that long, and especially not on the phone, an impoverishment if ever there was one. We curried and forged our silences into identities; one thinks of Hayden’s “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices.” Instantly, a friendship had formed, over the phone. We discussed contemporary poetry, other poets who would feature in the series; he knew Ntozake Shange, who lived across the street from the Painted Bride, who I saw earlier that morning walking the street carrying groceries behind dark sunglasses, who he long ago performed in one of her productions in Los Angeles. He also knew of the Dark Room Collective, of which I had only recently been made a member, and spoke of an encounter with a very young Kevin Young at The MacDowell Artist Colony and, with the visionary filmmaker St. Clair Bourne, all watching a classic black and white film, then Kevin challenging him to identify the smiling pianist in one of the film shots, which elicited one of Garrett’s barbed replies: Duke Ellington (expletive).
Or maybe that time he saved my butt after I kicked over a tray full of water and tea at Bread Loaf, frustrated at the overwhelming whiteness and micro-aggressions I experienced at the famed writers conference, or reading one of his illuminating essays on John Coltrane, Whitman, and American poetry and individualism and looking up and saying to myself this is one bad dude.
Or maybe I should start with a quality and ethos I discern in Garrett which animates all aspects of his life, including his role as father to his wonderful children Alex, Hudson, and Annalena. Garrett is a connoisseur. His love of cigars and audio equipment, world travel, and five-star restaurants reveals as much. I have etched into my mind, Garrett sitting in an Adirondack chair on one of the green lawns at Bread Loaf with a cigar in hand, relishing the cool August air. His connoisseurship arises as a kind of judicious and perceptive taste for the potential work and reach of beauty. With each of us who he recruited and taught at University of Oregon, I believe this ultimately, is what he sought to nurture, our own desire for and brand of beauty as evidenced in our poems and scholarship. That belief was behind his teaching and mentorship and led to such generous moments as once, Garrett calling me into his office after workshop, maybe frustrated at the mediocre poem I tried to pass off just minutes before. And sitting me down and pulling off the shelf the Penguin edition of Milton’s Collected Poems. He turned to a page and unannounced, with no preface, begin reading Milton’s “Lycidas”:
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He kept going; I thought he was going to read all 193 lines, but he paused somewhere around “But O the heavy change now thou art gone, / Now thou art gone, and never must return!” and looked up. I saw wonderment in his face; the pastoral elegy gripped him towards an ecstatic moment of revelry, and I took notice. He had once again shown me a bar.
I had more than several unscripted moments, like that one with Garrett, i.e. not in the classroom where one expects instruction. Once, during the last week of my graduate education, preparing my thesis and stuck, I would rise quite early to make coffee in the pre-dawn light to try to muster up some structure and shape towards. Having run out of coffee grounds, I found myself in a checkout line in a well-lit Albertson’s. I heard from behind me, my name called gruffly, “Major!” It was Garrett two aisles away then “Come back to my house for coffee.” I was thinking, Ah man, not six a.m. in the morning. Garrett has a daunting intelligence, as you all know, and you have to be able to swiftly follow and stay afloat in conversations. It’s the best mind training. But I smiled and said, “Yeah see you in a few.” I drove over and we sat in his backyard, on some plastic chairs. We talked for three hours. Garrett was warm and unguarded. We discussed Michael Harper, Derek Walcott, Bishop, Strand, Yusef, Phil Levine, his great friend Eddie Hirsch. We talked music. Then, to my surprise, Garrett said he wanted to share a poem he had recently written, what I remember was a love poem, and solicit my feedback. There had been a long silence in Garrett’s poetry. My peers and I discussed it. We treasured his work and wanted more. Those of us who are teachers know enough now the enormous sacrifice of mentoring young writers, of sacrificing our talents for the growth of others, how at times we forfeit our creativity at the expense of our service to students and the university; Garrett wrote in our opinion some of the most important and tender poems of our age. And here he was breaking that silence before me. I was immensely moved, it was a gracious act and put into scope, once again, his humanity, which I have treasured ever since.
A couple summers back, Garrett took a reprieve from his duties at Bread Loaf, at my invitation, and joined me and my wife, poet Didi Jackson, at our home nearby in Vermont overlooking a lush valley. We gathered his books and placed them about on the coffee table, took our time to make a meal to his liking, we hoped, and made the place presentable to the great Garrett, hoping he’d of course be impressed not only by our station but also our deep admiration for his work and presence in my life. I had even gone so far as to curate the music for the night: classical and jazz, mostly, which also inhabited our conversations. He once tried to get me to sing along back up with him John Coltrane’s Ascension one summer at Bread Loaf. We’d finished dinner and then Marvin Gaye came on, and once again, Garrett was hit with the spirit. He sang beautifully to Marvin’s “Brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” He was swaying back and forth, enjoying the rhythms of a familiar tune that bonded us. I suddenly understood his appeal, the texture of his humanity again, his influence, his reach across generations, his humor, and gift. He’s deep in the music of living, and sometimes, it’s harmonious, and sometimes it’s gruff but always it’s direct and on point.
Major Jackson is the author of The Absurd Man (Norton, 2020).