A Brief For The Defense
Poet Jack Gilbert somehow escaped our attention here at The Sun until November of last year, when we read in The New York Times of his death at the age of eighty-seven. Impressed by the obituary and the poems that accompanied it, we dug further into his work and his personal story. We discovered an unusual talent and a compelling man, keenly devoted to love, adventure, and keeping a deliberate distance from society.
Gilbert was born in 1925 to a middle-class family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and grew up during the Great Depression. He flunked out of high school and found jobs as an exterminator, steelworker, and door-to-door salesman before being admitted to the University of Pittsburgh, where he developed an interest in poetry. After graduation and stints in France and Italy, Gilbert moved to San Francisco and befriended poet Allen Ginsberg and other writers of the Beat Generation.
In 1962, at the age of thirty-seven, Gilbert won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book, Views of Jeopardy. He was featured in photo spreads in Vogue and Glamour, and his book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Audiences lined up to hear him read. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to travel to Europe.
He wouldn’t publish another book of poems for twenty years. Gilbert spent much of his remaining career in self-imposed exile, turning his back on acclaim and the literary establishment. He once said of his early celebrity, “Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting. I loved being noticed and praised, even the banquets. But they didn’t have anything that I wanted. After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live.”
Gilbert’s poetry centers on the true passions in his life: the women he loved, the many places he lived, and the solitary practice of writing. After moving to Europe, he led a bare-bones existence in Greece, Denmark, and England with fellow poet Linda Gregg — with whom he was in a long-term relationship and whom he referred to as his wife — getting by on occasional teaching gigs and visiting-poet stipends. After the two had separated, Gilbert met and married Michiko Nogami and lived with her in Japan until 1975, when he embarked on a fifteen-country tour, lecturing on American literature for the U.S. Department of State. In 1982, at the urging of the editor Gordon Lish, Gilbert published his second book, Monolithos. That same year Nogami died from cancer at the age of thirty-six. Gilbert released a collection of poems dedicated to her, then went silent for another decade. He would eventually produce three more books. It’s apparent from this body of work that Gilbert was uncompromising in his life’s journey, acutely aware of his own blessings and shortcomings, and fiercely committed to the craft of poetry. In March 2012 Gilbert’s Collected Poems was published, featuring all five of his books, including the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Refusing Heaven.
His Collected Poems was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. We find the book hard to put down. Here is the oeuvre of a man with an enormous appetite for life; who writes economically, yet vibrantly; whose poetry seems immediately accessible; who, in his own words, writes by “instinct and intelligence. By being smart, emotional, probing. By being sly, stubborn. By being lucky. Being serious. By being quietly passionate. By something almost like magic.”
The following are some of our favorites.
— Luc Saunders
“A Brief for the Defense” from Refusing Heaven: Poems, by Jack Gilbert, copyright © 2005 by Jack Gilbert. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Any third-party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prohibited. Interested parties must apply directly to Random House, Inc. for permission.
A Brief For The Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
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.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
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