With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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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
The Lord gives everything and charges
by taking it back. What a bargain.
Like being young for a while. We are
allowed to visit hearts of women,
to go into their bodies so we feel
no longer alone. We are permitted
romantic love with its bounty and half-life
of two years. It is right to mourn
for the small hotels of Paris that used to be
when we used to be. My mansard looking
down on Notre Dame every morning is gone,
and me listening to the bell at night.
Venice is no more. The best Greek islands
have drowned in acceleration. But it’s the having
not the keeping that is the treasure.
Ginsberg came to my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets it right even that much.
We look up at the stars and they are
not there. We see the memory
of when they were, once upon a time.
And that too is more than enough.
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
There was a great tenderness to the sadness
when I would go there. She knew how much
I loved my wife and that we had no future.
We were like casualties helping each other
as we waited for the end. Now I wonder
if we understood how happy those Danish
afternoons were. Most of the time we did not talk.
Often I took care of the baby while she did
housework. Changing him and making him laugh.
I would say Pittsburgh softly each time before
throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburgh with
my mouth against the tiny ear and throw
him higher. Pittsburgh and happiness high up.
The only way to leave even the smallest trace.
So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.
While he was in kindergarten, everybody wanted to play
the tom-toms when it came time for that. You had to
run in order to get there first, and he would not.
So he always had a triangle. He does not remember
how they played the tom-toms, but he sees clearly
their Chinese look. Red with dragons front and back
and gold studs around that held the drumhead tight.
If you had a triangle, you didn’t really make music.
You mostly waited while the tambourines and tom-toms
went on a long time. Until there was a signal for all
triangle people to hit them the right way. Usually once.
Then it was tom-toms and waiting some more. But what
he remembers is the sound of the triangle. A perfect,
shimmering sound that has lasted all his long life.
Fading out and coming again after a while. Getting lost
and the waiting for it to come again. Waiting meaning
without things. Meaning love sometimes dying out,
sometimes being taken away. Meaning that often he lives
silent in the middle of the world’s music. Waiting
for the best to come again. Beginning to hear the silence
as he waits. Beginning to like the silence maybe too much.
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody’s dalmatian. I meet
the man walking her on a leash
almost every week. He says good morning
and I stoop down to calm her. He said
once that she was never like that with
other people. Sometimes she is tethered
on their lawn when I go by. If nobody
is around, I sit on the grass. When she
finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap
and we watch each other’s eyes as I whisper
in her soft ears. She cares nothing about
the mystery. She likes it best when
I touch her head and tell her small
things about my days and our friends.
That makes her happy the way it always did.
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.
“Alone,” “Michiko Dead,” and “Trying to Have Something Left Over” from The Great Fires: Poems 1982–1992, by Jack Gilbert, copyright © 1994 by Jack Gilbert. “Failing and Flying,” “The Lost Hotels of Paris,” and “A Brief for the Defense” from Refusing Heaven: Poems, by Jack Gilbert, copyright © 2005 by Jack Gilbert. “Waiting and Finding” from The Dance Most of All: Poems, by Jack Gilbert, copyright © 2009 by Jack Gilbert. All 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.
I wish I could be as succinct and spare and glorious (already too many words) as the poetry of Jack Gilbert when I express my gratitude to The Sun for printing selections from his fruitful career.
Praise to The Sun for bringing Jack Gilbert to the attention of a wider audience. Many of us poets have long known Gilbert to be a writer extraordinaire. I’m reminded of some lines by Hermann Hesse: “Not until we are old do we truly notice how rare beauty is and what a miracle makes flowers bloom next to factories and cannons and that poetry survives in the flood of newspapers and stock reports.”
The July 2013 issue was spectacular. The way it touched on racism, injustice, and forgiveness without preachiness made my spirit soar. I shall be taking it to my next sit-in, to protest the possible closure of a downtown transit center. The general atmosphere there has been one of doom and gloom, and I want to read aloud Jack Gilbert’s beautiful poem “A Brief for the Defense” and the Sunbeam by Nelson Mandela. Long may his spirit light the way.