RIP Jack Gilbert “Silent and wonderfully content”


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.


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”

The Pessimism of Jack Gilbert

Update: I recently learned the Jack Gilbert passed away Sunday, November 11. You can read more about that here.

I came across this set of interviews with Jack Gilbert today(April 23, 2012). He’s one of my favorite poets, and I’ve mentioned him on UnIambic several times. I love the simplicity, the sincerity of his poems. How he’s able to be completely at ease pouring out intense emotion without being sentimental or maudlin about it.

In the interview he discusses some of his apprehension with publishing, his disappointment with much of the contemporary po-biz and his poor outlook on the future of poetry. OK, some of that I agree with, but I also feel he shortchanges poets in a big way. Yes, there are the career-minded poets, the post-modern tricksters, the posers and all the rest: “Much of postmodern poetry has no significance at all.” But he overstates how much poetry or poets have changed, and underestimates the sincerity of many of today’s poets.

That’s not surprising really. For a large part of his adult life I believe Gilbert has lived a partial hermit’s life, if not physically (as in the years he spend on Greek islands) then mentally or emotionally. He’s a person who thrives on removing himself from the pressures of the rest of the world, while he focuses on the inner world.

He says: “I don’t believe people would continue to write poetry, most of them, if there was no money to be made in poetry.” Here I assume he’s referring to the career academicians and big prize money winners, yet how could he not realize that poetry is so much more than that. Look around here (the greater Philadelphia area). There are scads of poets, with no academic affiliations,  working alone and together for just the pleasure of the poems themselves (see this recent article on the scene.)

He also says some things in this interview which are a bit dishonest to himself. His comments on craft, for instance, he critiques the workshop experience here:

“Nobody wants to talk about how a poem works, what its purpose is. They all want to deal with the outside of the poem. Does it look good? Should I take the left line out and put it over here? How should I make the rhythm correct and such. But hardly anybody talks about the strategies of poetry, or how you make poetry live, how to use concrete detail rather than similes, goddamned similes, the weakest kind of resource there is in poetry. People are so much in love with similes. It’s a pity. The mechanics of poetry have little to do with design.”

Yet he came out of one of the most celebrated workshop programs (Iowa Writers’ Workshop). Speaking of similes here’s a couple of lines from one of my favorite Gilbert poems Finding Something

“The arches of her feet are like voices

of children calling in the groves of lemon trees

where my hart is as helpless as crushed birds.”

His craft is not the obvious, meticulously tinkered craft, but it’s a craft that shows he understands the workmanship of writing, the effort that goes into making something feel effortless.

Anyway, this interview, while illuminating, also makes me sad because I don’t feel poets and poetry warrant the negativity and pessimism he heaps upon them. I hope and believe he’s wrong.

The interview is from the book  Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs which I’ve just added to my Amazon wish list.

Words and Video: Miranda Field and Jack Gilbert

A Facebook acquaintance, Rebecca Kinzie Bastian, posted this link to a video of a reading by Miranda Field and Jack Gilbert at the Library of Congress website.

A couple things to know first:

  • It uses Realplayer, so you may have to download the plugin to view it. If you click the image, you’ll be taken to the Library of Congress page with the video.
  • Jack Gilbert is quite old in this video. It may be the last public reading he’s done (this was 2006, so someone correct me if I’m wrong). He faulters, stutters and almost gives up several times. It can be painful to watch because the process was obviously a chore for him, but his delivery is still beautiful and chilling.
  • Miranda Field–I hadn’t heard of her before, but immediately ordered her book Swallow. Her reading was amazing, especially the poems “Housefire,” which can also be found here and “Soloist.” Below is an excerpt from “Soloist”

I love the idea of a voice crawling like a vine, spilling like milk–beautiful. I’ve used a spilt-milk image myself (to describe moonlight), but this is much better.

If you’re as taken with that as I am, you can find her book here.

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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