One of American’s most beautiful poets, Jack Gilbert, has passed away. He was 87. He is easily the most important poet to me as a reader and as a writer.
WAKING AT NIGHT
The blue river is gray at morning
and evening. There is twilight
at dawn and dusk. I lie in the dark
wondering if this quiet in me now
is a beginning or an end.
(from The Dance Most of All)
Some links below:
Page on Gilbert by the Academy of American Poets
Notes from a Poet’s Well-Observed Life (NPR)
Chard deNiord’s interview with Jack Gilbert.
David Orr’s review of Gilbert’s Collected Poems
LA Times feature on Jack Gilbert
Poetry Foundation page on Gilbert
A Paris Review interview from 2005 (required reading)
Poem “A Brief for the Defense”
When writing, I keep to a handful of rules, something to guide my work, like a handrail on a woods trail. I also have a tendency to change my rules when they no longer suite me. Here are today’s, which may be different from tomorrow’s:
- Don’t be boring. This is a big deal for me, but I assume I don’t live up to it on many occasions. I attend a fair amount of poetry readings and read a couple hours worth of poetry almost every day, so I know something about boring poems. Subject matter can be boring, language can be boring, titles can be boring. Today I’ll try use a lot of “t”s in my poems, because I think “t” is an unboring letter. We had a big storm earlier this week, you may have heard of it. Storms are not boring. The opposite of boring isn’t interesting, it’s just unboring. Mysterious, engaging, sympathetic, sentimental, dangerous, threatening, disturbing… are all unboring.
- Be trustworthy. A poem is an invitation to the reader—you want the reader to enter your world, point-of-view, sick mind or private delirium. If you don’t create a sense of trust, the reader won’t be engaged.
- Have a reader in mind. My first reader is my imaginary friend, and he’s a lot like me (but thinner and with more money and friends). Keeping a reader in mind leads to writing that is more trustworthy and has a clearer voice. Voice is purpose, and purpose implies audience. If you shout “piss off” into the air, it just floats away without purpose. If you shout “piss off” at your boss, it has purpose and voice. It also gets you fired, so have a backup plan for that.
- Always be nice to dogs.
- Don’t fear sentimentality. I’m a sap. I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every December and will until my eyes are donated to science. People love that movie because they’re spineless and easily moved (me too). Work with it.
- Don’t try to teach something. You’ll be annoying, and people will think you think you’re smarter than them. Try to learn something instead. I believe poems, the good ones, are not for expressing something; they’re for sorting something(s) out.
- Shoot for clarity, but figure you’ll miss a good part of the time. When I’m fly fishing, I always have a spot on the water I try to hit with my casts. I usually miss, but often still catch fish. I also get snagged in a lot of trees. That’s the difference between almost clarity and complete abandonment.
- Sleep experts tell us that even complex dreams only last seconds—so poems shouldn’t be long.
- Don’t write dream poems. They’re boring, unless Richard Hugo is writing them, and since he isn’t writing them anymore, neither should you. Fiction writer Tana French agrees with me.
- If all else fails, throw it away and write another. Poems are cheap.