‘Reality is where things happen’. So Michael Jackson writes in one of his poems, quoting William James. Reality, for Jackson, means to keep up a courteous but insistent conversation, a quest for answers even when they may seem unlikely to arrive. And so engagement, that complex business of how we talk with others, is at the centre of his work, a conversation that to live demands. If at times we pick up on a line of descent from the French existentialists, or another line back to Hannah Arendt, that is not to note a confinement, but the kind of intellectual rigour Jackson brings to a verbal play that is sensual and exact. His loyalties confirm him as both artist and moralist of fine aesthetic precision. The accuracy of language is the sustaining grid of intelligence, stoicism, compassion.
Jackson’s vocation as a world-class anthropologist – he currently teaches at Harvard – and his spending so much of his life away from his own country, are shaping forces on his oeuvre. ‘Expatriate’ is not quite the word for one, anymore than the tag ‘intellectual’ will suffice for the other. But the notion of ‘home’, with its stir of resonances, is at the core of all he writes. It is both the well and the hearth his poetry circles, draws from, celebrates, mourns. It is what experience impresses and myth confirms. His poetry reads as a constant unearthing, the shaped and responding artefact confirming where it is found.
The other constant in Jackson’s poetry is that persistent question, how does one define, how does one preserve the reality of self, against that juggernaut, contingency? ‘How can I / accommodate/ a circle of friends and the world “out there”?’ ‘To persist’ is one answer, leaning on the pared-back Beckett he so admires. You hear it in his reading of those lines from ‘Seven Mysteries’, questioning
Why what is said is seldom what is meant;. . . ?
why I go on
broken-winded like that horse we saw
on the ridge above Waipataki
by a bent tree
watching the waves roll in.
Without ever submitting either to bland fashion or to clique, Jackson for almost fifty years has written poetry which is that of a man confronting ‘the things happening’ of his time, poems probing at that recurrent query, where does one take one’s place in ‘the terrible parades of history.’ There is no final reply. But by love, by compassion, by constant attention to what is said and how it is written, the questioning itself, with luck, sustains. What one hears in his readings is the modest, confident, international voice that drives his poems, the conversing of a man who, as ever, is on one road to find another.
1976 Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Latitudes of Exile
1977 Jessie Mackay Poetry Award
1981 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, Wall
1982 Sotheby's International Poetry Competition
1983 Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship
1984 Mattara Poetry Prize (University of Newcastle, Australia)
2006 Honorary Doctor of Literature (Victoria University, Wellington)
2012 Lifetime Achievement Award, The Society for Humanist Anthropology