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 Philly.com 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.

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Jane Hirshfield on Poetry and Nature

Months ago, in preparation for a workshop/class I was going to lead in nature writing for the Musehouse Writing Center I asked the poet Jane Hirshfield several questions about her views on nature and poetry. Aside from her wonderful books of poems, Hirshfield also wrote a collection of essays called Nine Gates, which deals somewhat with that subject especially in the “Two Secrets” chapter.

The class never happened, so I’ve been sitting on this wonderful interview for months and decided that I should just publish it as is so other readers can benefit from it. The questions here are not a comprehensive look at my interest in the subject, but they’re interesting on their own and I think worth attention. Eventually I may try to wrote a whole coherent article, but the chances are getting slimmer all the time.

I also asked Ted Kooser and William Heyen similar questions. I’ll post their responses separately.

Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world? Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed the poet’s relationship to it?

It’s hard to speculate about others’ inner experience—but I do suspect that increasing swaths of time in the “information technology” world is affecting poets—as urbanization itself long has. There’s a dangerous rift and amnesia that leads to hubris, exploitation, that carries from the environment and creatures into our treatment of other humans as well, when only mediated experience is seen as “real.”  Aesthetically, concentration on what’s only within the human surround can be seen as being contemporary or as claustrophobic—the response varies. I myself made a very deliberate choice to live in a way exposed to and in connection with the natural. I grew up in lower Manhattan, and wanted something less controlled and modulated in my life. But all of us carry the template of our age, and even if my poems rarely mention busses or an elevator or a comic strip character, I am quite sure that my thoughts move as the 21st century does–with increased speed and compression, acceptance of fracture, comfort with the jump cut. In a way, though, you could say that poetry itself foreshadowed all these “contemporary” habits of mind—it has always leapt, fractured, compressed, courted the uncertain and contradictory as much as courted expression or “beauty.” But how could something even as simple as electric light not alter our psyche’s relation to darkness? Perhaps we turn toward darkness more, now that it is escapable. Perhaps we must turn to bewilderment more, when we live in such orderly grids as we do.

Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?

As Gary Snyder has long pointed out, we humans are nature. What we do is what nature does. Still, remembering the larger field recalibrates. Going up into the High Sierra puts anxiety, selfishness, sentimentality, and neurosis into scale.

In what way do poets sometimes abuse (misuse) nature (I’m thinking of bad Romantic poems here mostly, but you please respond any way you like)?

There are no rules here—I am willing to go on record (heresy!) as being in favor of certain kinds of personification and anthropomorphizing in poems, even as I know they can be horribly abused. It works when it enlivens possibility, fails when it cheapens or simplifies or presumes. What we don’t know, cannot know, has to be remembered and honored. Still, Aristotle praised personification–what we’ve come to call “the pathetic fallacy”—as the “animating principle” in poetry, and I would not give up any mode of meaning-making, so long as it’s used deftly, subtly, toward accurate expansions and not the sentimental. Every metaphor works by internalization of the image into the self. How else could we understand, except by taking in, and trying on the image from inside our own lives, histories, minds? Comprehension is empathic. We understand even “2+2=4” because we have fingers, feelings, hunger, bodies with mouths as well as brains.

You write that the objective mode (discussed in Nine Gates) is rare and difficult. Is it also less effective or less likely to evoke a response from the reader? A poetry of Vulcans? (sorry for the Star Trek reference)

I’ve used certain haiku as examples of the objective mode—and such poems do need a reader able to feel them fully, or they will be uninhabited ink, ash-shapes. But such a reader is precisely the opposite of feelingless—rather, that reader who is able to feel these poems is a human being so tuned to the full actualities of existence that he or she can feel a spectrum of emotions outside the usually available names—the way a bee can see the ultra-violet road-stripes on certain flowers, which we cannot.

 Galway Kinnell says we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that?  Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?

Of course. Our cities are termite mounds and bower bird nests, felt fully. Mark Doty can write urban natural history in a way absolutely continuous with his poems that are set in the non-urban.

Who are your favorite contemporary poets who write with nature/wilderness themes?

Snyder is still a master. Merwin. Heaney’s poems of recollection. Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Sandra Alcosser. Milosz is dead now, but his passion for the natural world was exemplary. Some of Hass. Some of Kay Ryan. Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber. But really, even making this list feels somehow like putting lipstick on a tree. I prefer not to segregate poets by theme—Auden was as urbane as a poet comes, and then there’s his “In Praise of Limestone”; Robert Frost’s concerns were profoundly and ultimately human. And if we understand ourselves as part of nature, there’s not a poet who isn’t a nature poet. I suspect our relationship to the larger existence of this planet would be most restored to sanity if that were the principle we held in mind, rather than one of separation and difference. We are mammals, with mammals’ concerns. That thought, at least to me, is not ignoble or diminishing—it’s curative, chastening, and enlarging.

Here’s a short video of Hirshfield reading. Youtube is loaded with Hirshfield videos.

My next poetry workshop at Musehouse begins the week of March 12. It’s a six-week course held on Wednesday evenings. Go here to view the description and sign up.