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Coming to the End of His Triumph: A Retrospective on Jack Gilbert

Written by

Dan Albergotti
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Year

2014
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Jack Gilbert is nearly finished with his greatest poem. I believe we can hear an allusion to its impending completion in the following lines from "A Brief for the Defense," the first poem in his fourth collection, Refusing Heaven (Knopf, 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." Despite everything, Jack Gilbert has made a stubborn music with his poems and with his life, and this fourth book is his final gift to those who will listen.

To say Gilbert has been working on his greatest poem for 80 years might be overstating the case, but it has certainly been 80 years in the making. Perhaps it is safest, though, to assert the he’s been at it since 1962. That year, when the poet was 37 years old, his first book manuscript, Views of Jeopardy, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Contest judge Dudley Fitts wrote an insightful foreword of extraordinary praise for the book, and in the fall of that year Gordon Lish devoted 28 pages to a feature on Gilbert in the first issue of his journal Genesis West. Enthusiastically titled "Genesis West Celebrates the Excellence of Jack Gilbert," the feature—in addition to poems and an interview—presented words of praise for the young poet from Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, Stanley Kunitz, and Stephen Spender, among others. Views of Jeopardy enjoyed excellent reviews, and Gilbert was photographed for Vogue and Glamour. Few poets, if any, have made as grand a debut with their first books (the only analogue of such immediate poetic fame I can think of is Byron). In 1964, he won a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. At that point, Gilbert had the literary world in the proverbial palm of his hand. He was the new voice of poetry, the strikingly handsome new face of American literature. So what did he do? He disappeared.

The first poem in Views of Jeopardy indicates that Gilbert knew from the beginning that that is exactly what he would have to do. The brief six-line poem is titled "In Dispraise of Poetry":

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
He gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
That to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.

If these lines seem audacious and arrogant for the opening poem of a debut, they are in the end extraordinarily self-aware and astute. From the beginning, Gilbert understood that he was in the possession of a true gift, and surely he also understood that to bask in the comfort and ease that his new position in the "literary world" provided him would be to care for that gift improperly. He has always considered poetry to be a deeply serious and important art, one that is too easily trivialized in American culture. In another short poem from Views of Jeopardy, Gilbert creates a metaphor for the situation of the serious poet in 20th-century America. The poem is titled "Orpheus in Greenwich Village":

What if Orpheus,
confident in the hard-
found mastery,
should go down into Hell?
Out of the clean light down?
And then, surrounded
by the closing beasts
and readying his lyre,
should notice, suddenly,
they had no ears?

In 1964, for the good of his art, Jack Gilbert had to distance himself from the society of American literature.

He spent most of the next two decades in relative obscurity, living a Spartan existence on remote Greek islands with Linda Gregg, who had been one of his students at San Francisco State University, spending time in Copenhagen and London, marrying Michiko Nogami and moving with her to Japan (where he taught for a number of years), and lecturing on poetry in various countries for the State Department. And in all that time, no second book. When asked about his long disappearance by Jody Allen Randolph in 1996 (at the conclusion of a Lannan Foundation reading), Gilbert said simply that he was "falling in love" with Linda and with Michiko. In fact, what he was doing was living a real life, far from the artificialities of American literary culture—living deeply and feeling the heft of his heart and soul. And writing poems.

When the second book did arrive, it had been twenty years since the appearance of the first. And even then, only two-thirds of the book was truly "new." Monolithos: Poems, 1962 and 1982 is divided into two parts. The first, "1962," largely consists of poems reprinted from Views of Jeopardy (along with others presumably written in the same period); the second, "Monolithos: 1982," occupies the last two-thirds of the book and is full of poems that document the poet’s life since his departure from the literary scene in the mid-sixties. It is telling that Gilbert chose to open the first section not with "In Dispraise of Poetry" (which is reprinted), but with "The Abnormal Is Not Courage," a poem from the middle of Views of Jeopardy. The poem considers the beauty of extraordinary acts, but in the end decides that those do not constitute courage. Rather, courage is "the normal excellence, of long accomplishment." By repositioning this poem as the lead of his second book, Gilbert seems to be saying, "This is why I did it." He needed to get away from extraordinary immediate success in order to cultivate true excellence, that excellence that is more complex, that demands hardship and quiet commitment.

The first two poems of the book’s second part also illustrate Gilbert’s understanding of the magnitude and wisdom of his decision. In the first, "All the Way from There to Here," Gilbert arrives at a hard-earned philosophical truth by the fourth line: "Surely our long, steady dying brings us to a state / of grace." Perhaps this is a state that cannot be achieved through the distractions of society. After recalling events from the last two decades of his life, Gilbert comes to this final stanza:

What I remember best of the four years of watching
in Greece and Denmark and London and Greece is Linda
making lunch. Her blondeness and ivory coming up
out of the blue Aegean. Linda walking with me daily
across the island from Monolithos to Thíra and back.
That’s what I remember most of death:
the gentleness of us in that bare Greek Eden,
the beauty as the marriage steadily failed.

The second poem also dwells on memories of the quotidian life on those remote Greek islands. Its title is "Not Part of Literature." Jack Gilbert had lived twenty years outside of literary society, and the result was a boon to literature.

The same year Monolithos was published, Michiko died of cancer. In the ten years that followed, Gilbert taught at various locations and composed more poems, many of them elegies for his late wife. These poems were collected in his third volume, The Great Fires: Poems, 1982-1992, published by Knopf in 1994. Of the elegiac poems, "Michiko Dead" is particularly striking, one of the best poems ever written about grief. In it, Gilbert describes a man carrying a heavy box, changing the position of his arms when different muscles become fatigued. After working through a series of positions, the man is able to go back to the original with renewed strength: "But now / the man can hold underneath again, so that / he can go on without ever putting the box down." But in the midst of such poems of personal grief and mourning, there are still many others that celebrate the virtue of solitude and distance from society. In fact, in the book’s first poem, "Going Wrong," Gilbert argues with God over his decisions to live apart from others. In the poem’s final lines, God accuses the poet of being stubborn, and Gilbert offers his defense:

"No one knows where you are. People forget you.
You are vain and stubborn." The man slices
tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish
and scrambles eggs. I am not stubborn, he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows flying
on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.

But while Gilbert’s desire for solitude could be considered "greedy" in one sense, it should not be seen as selfish. His poems are never written for the pleasure or aggrandizement of the self, though he has been accused of sentimentality and solipsism by some critics. When asked in a 1996 interview about the poems that deal with his own experience, Gilbert claimed that the poems are not "about him," though he is in them. He insisted that they are about "what is important about what was happening." Indeed, Gilbert’s inward journey has always been less about himself and more about understanding the universal human heart unpolluted by the distractions and temptations of modern life. He has given up convenience and ease to record the depth of a human life for the good of us all. His poems are gifts.

And now, eleven years later, as Jack Gilbert turns 80, we have a fourth collection of such gifts, Refusing Heaven. Fittingly, there is a sense of finality to these poems. In a recent interview with John Freeman for Poets & Writers, Gilbert said multiple times as a matter of fact and without self-pity, "I am probably going to die in the next few years." With characteristically perfect self-awareness, he understands and accepts the declining arc of this life that he has dedicated to poetry. In fact, Gilbert has always embraced his mortality in a way that recalls Keats. He believes in the inevitability and finality of our bodies’ failure, but also in the redemptive power of the heart and imagination in the time we are allowed. In "The Manger of Incidentals," he insists, "We live the strangeness of being momentary, / and still we are exalted by being temporary." Though we may all be doomed to ultimate failure, we can achieve momentary triumph, like Camus’s Sisyphus, with perspective and courage. Even Icarus, a character traditionally mocked for his foolishness, is rehabilitated from such a viewpoint. In "Failing and Flying," Gilbert says, "Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew." The flying was worth the fall. The revelation was worth the hardship. At the end of the poem, Gilbert makes an assertion that I cannot help reading in the context of his refusal of literary stardom and his embracing of obscurity and poverty: "I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph."

With this collection, Jack Gilbert documents his impending arrival at the end of his own triumph. To rehearse the subject matter of various specific poems is unnecessary. There are poems about Linda and about Michiko; poems about his time in San Francisco, Greece, and Europe; and poems about love, loss, and grief that defy all expectations of sentimentality. All of them are part of the larger poem, the poem that is the life of the poet, perhaps the most profound and moving piece of work to come out of American literature in generations.

Originally published in Borderlands, Issue 25 (Fall / Winter, 2005).
Photo by Julio Granda