Dawson Jackson regarded the art of writing poetry as a lifelong vocation. For him it was the medium through which alienated human beings, living within the fragmented chaos of modern societies, could apprehend the spiritual concept of unity 'which saw no separation between inner and outer worlds; between subjective and objective; between the poetry, the philosophy and the private life of the poet.' On his death in 1994 he left behind a corpus of work, crafted over a period of seventy years which amounted to more than 10,000 pages of verse and many volumes of prose and fiction. His work in prose was often published under the pseudonym Thomas Brackley.
He was born in Wallasey on the Wirral in 1910, the second of four children from a middle class background. He was educated at Oundle and, at the age of seventeen, he went up to Oxford to read Modern History at Christ Church where he graduated with a first class degree, and was the first graduate to be awarded a small grant (£3 per week) for living expenses to enable him to write poetry for a period of two years.
Although he was a contemporary of W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, he rejected their poetic agenda. His poetry was published sporadically in journals like the New Statesman and Adelphi.
Choosing to defy social convention he lived with the painter and potter Marial Russell spending his time writing poetry. After this relationship ended he married his friend and fellow poet Phoebe Ashburner. Early married life was hard since Jackson saw wealth as an anathema. Throughout the 1930s he practised a life of self-sufficiency growing his own food on a small-holding and bartering for other provisions. His ecological views developed over time into an expansive and complex ecological doctrine well in advance of the Green Movement. They find their finest articulation in Against Destruction (published most recently by Carcanet Press in 1984).
In 1937 Jackson's daughter Unity was born, which led him to seek paid employment to supplement the family income by working for Charles Elton, who ran an ecological research programme at the Bureau of Animal Population in Oxford. After spending six months single-mindedly learning Russian he worked as a translator. During the Second World War he was a conscientious objector and his experiences of this are memorably recorded in his unpublished work Out of Step, A Diary of a Conscientious Objector, 1939-1940.
After the war he divorced his wife and married radio actress Joan Hart. They established their home in London's St John's Wood where he would be occupied for up to six months of the year writing poetry. The rest of his time was spent travelling extensively across continents, working as a translator of Russian and French for a wide range of organizations such as the United Nations, UNESCO and the Church of England.
In spite of a prodigious output, Jackson's publication record was sparse and sporadic. His successes appear to have been mainly in the genre of prose writing including From This Foundation, A Primer of Necessary Belief, and Against Destruction. From the sheaves of poetry publishers' rejection letters surviving in his Papers it is clear that Jackson's experimental verse techniques genuinely seem to have intrigued, yet troubled, many of the outstanding British critics and poetry editors throughout the mid- to late-20th century. Stephen Spender, in a letter to Jackson from 2 September 1943, finds the poems 'very readable and amusing. I suppose it is difficult to get a publisher to regard this as "poetry", because the matter and form are not very poetic.' According to Edmund Blunden, 'the form you decided upon baffles me. My antiquity, no doubt: but so far I can respond to these things, I see you wasting a gift because of an eccentricity' (Letter from Blunden to Jackson, 20 March 1942). Herbert Read noted, 'If you know my own attitude to modern poetry you will realise that I am very favourably disposed to experiments in verse techniques, but I must say I cannot find any real justification for your line division...; I find no fault in the expression as such, but you seem to me completely to destroy their poetic effect by your rhythmic "atomism". If you have a justification I would be extremely interested to hear it.'
The fact that a poet whose 'sense of Nature is choice in the detail' and whose poems 'have sensibility and the imagery is vivid' should persist in the use of apparently wayward forms implies a resolute, deliberate adherence to a particular poetic vision. Evidently, Dawson Jackson is a modern poet whose poetic line lacks recurring metrical patterns and rhymes. In short his poems are written in free verse, yet the style of the free verse he favours arises from a tradition to which the ears of British critics and publishers were still unattuned in the mid 20th century. His prosody is a unique blending of certain strands of the Anglo-American poetic traditions as exemplified in the work of William Blake and Walt Whitman. Significantly Jackson acknowledged the influence of both these poetic masters early in his apprenticeship as a poet.
Blake and Whitman affected me strongly. From Whitman I took the long line, or Whitman allowed me to take it. Comically enough this later turned, with me, into the very short line. Blake the vision. Whitman the visualness.
Blake's commitment to the idea of 'variety in every line' relates to his vision of poetry as a revolutionary, liberating force as well as being concerned with the technicalities of its formal virtuosities. Whilst Whitman's experiments in language shattered the measured line of the poem he inherited from the English poetic tradition as a means of accommodating the American idiom.
The work of Blake and Whitman exemplifies particular qualities of modern poetics (with respect to form and content), which Jackson knowingly assimilated and used as a paradigm for his work. Yet there is another American poet whose work Jackson's poetry appears to have affinities with, namely, William Carlos Williams. Although the two were closer in age they were not known to each other personally. Still, the waywardness of their verse forms shares a predilection for the use of minimal lineation. As the poet and critic Jeffrey Wainwright has noted:
The general movement of "free verse" then is towards a democratic informality that has a more flexible rhythm and a wider, more colloquial, range of words. Once freed of measure the line has gone in two main directions. One has been towards minimalism, reduction, and the other towards expansiveness and spread.
William Carlos Williams and Dawson Jackson both favour the former solution in their work. What is of especial interest in Jackson's case is that this paring down of language to its barest elements, preferring semantic content to syntactic connection, is generally perceived by critics as culturally and linguistically a particular quality of American poetry.
It is possible that the poetry of Dawson Jackson represents an early example of a phenomenon which became more prevalent by the close of the 20th century, whereby a confident American poetic tradition exerted its influence over its British counterpart. Ultimately, it was Michael Schmidt at Carcanet Press who finally agreed to publish Jackson's poems. Born into an American family and steeped in the twin traditions of American and British Literatures, Schmidt was attuned to the possibilities of the music of Jackson's verse and, finally, Jackson found a nourishing and sustaining critical audience.