Blind Poets and the Decline of Jack Gilbert

At a reading in a small bookstore (yes, they still exist) this weekend in Philadelphia, I heard a woman read a poem about a sunset. That alone is not particularly remarkable as sunsets are fairly commonplace in poems, especially at open readings. What was remarkable was that the reader was blind.

She arrived at the reading late, holding a purse and binder in one hand and a collapsible walking stick in the other, tentatively tapping chair legs and steps until she settled into a seat. She was known by several other people present. When her turn came to present a poem she pulled a few pages of brail script from her folder and read a piece about a sunset she shared with her father when she was a little girl.

Unfortunately I admit I don’t recall much about the juice of the poem, other than it included some very vivid visual descriptions including references to colors and shadows. Rather than listen attentively to the poem, my mind, as it tends to do, went off on its own thinking about the contrast of a blind poet writing about a sunset. I suppose I expected something else from the poem—other senses and other insights—and I admit those may be in other of this woman’s poems, but I don’t know her well enough to guess.

Homer is said to have been blind. Milton composed Paradise Lost after he lost his sight to glaucoma. There are others of course. But I was thinking at the time, what would my writing be like if I lost my sight? How would say, Richard Hugo or Seamus Heaney be different without eyes? Often I find myself looking out the window by my desk as I write. I use that window as a crowbar when I’m stuck—I’ll hunt for an image in the trees, some shade of the shadows to nudge into the poem on my screen. Would lack of sight affect that?

On His Blindness

by John Milton

WHEN I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest He returning chide,—

Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?

I fondly ask:—But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: God doth not need

Either man’s work, or His own gifts, who best

Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at His bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:—

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Is it wrong of me to have expected other senses, rather than visual ones, in the blind poet’s reading on Friday night or if not wrong then just a matter of surprise?  I know these questions come to me mostly because I rely on visual images more than most anything in my own work, and subsequently that’s what I’m frequently drawn to in others. But, of course, that’s not all there is and is probably a bit self-limiting on my part.

So here was this woman, recalling a memory of something she can no longer experience first hand. She was using the memory as a way to relate something about her father. I heard that, but I also heard something else, I just wish I had a good name for it.

This also brings me to another poet who has lost another significant sense. Jack Gilbert, author of The Great Fires and a Yale Younger Poet award winner in 1962 has lost his sense of time. Now in his 80s and residing in a nursing home, he is apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Gilbert has lot his greatest sense, himself. An interviewer earlier this spring noted that speaking to Gilbert was like speaking to someone in a coma in that he seemed dislocated from the present. Learning that made me quite sad, as I’ve loved much of Gilbert’s poetry, in particular for its sense of attachment, its connection to places and personal rituals and passion for understanding.

Here are a few lines from his most recent, and I’m sure his last, book, Refusing Heaven (2005):

“If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,

we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

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2 thoughts on “Blind Poets and the Decline of Jack Gilbert

    • Yes, I have it and love it. I was a little worried that, given his age and situation, these poems might lack the strength of The Great Fires. I was pleasantly wrong. The Dance Most of All is my favorite of his books. I think I read it without a break in one sitting.

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