Jack Gilbert died on November 11, 2012 in Berkeley, California after a long battle with Alzheimer's. He was 87. His poetry span covered over fifty years and in the midst of poems of personal grief and mourning, there are still many others that celebrate the virtue of solitude and distance from society. From the many cycles of his life, his joys and his tragedies, he was able to celebrate the basic joys of everyday experience. As so appropriately been said, `Whether his subject is his boyhood in working-class Pittsburgh, the women he has loved throughout his life, or the bittersweet losses we all face, Gilbert is by turns subtle and majestic: he steals up on the odd moment of grace; he rises to crescendos of emotion.'
Some examples follow:
FAILING AND FLYING
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.
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.
His poetry, from the various vantages of his published books, speaks to us all - either then, or now or in our future. Grady Harp, November 12
on July 28, 2012
Jack Gilbert's Collected Poems are so very rich that individual poems almost have to be read with a certain amount of space between them. They shock with their juxtapositions of the lyrical and prosaic. But in the end the brilliance overcomes the petty faults that derail us for a few seconds. The poems bounce us back and forth between the metaphoric, surreal, philosophical, and the biograpical. The syntax and punctuation are strange, phrases sometimes being punctuated as sentences. The object at the end of one sentence often becomes the subject at the beginning of another, with or without a period separating them. There is an insinuating pleasure in these poems as we sometimes read them one way and then another. One feels as if something important is being said, that a very rich life has been explored and left at the reader's disposal, who is very happy for this gift.
If you enjoy the poetry of Wallace Stevens or Clarles Simic you might very well enjoy Jack Gilbert.
on February 16, 2013
In life and in poetry, Jack has sought value in everything; he has aspired to make every moment matter. About a woman who so indifferently offers her naked body to men that "she is invisible under the glare of her nudity," Jack wonders, "Is there a danger she/might feel that nothing significant happened?"
Jack moved among the Beats in San Francisco, knew them all, but he was not of them. He ends "The Abnormal Is Not Courage" convinced that what matters, what is of value, fundamentally, "is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment."
Never into drugs or alcohol, Jack has always been a man of intense, unaffected curiosity about people, places, things, and ideas. "If we are always good does God lose track/of us?" But unable to engage in chitchat, Jack has never been drawn to hanging out with poets.
With the ideal face and voice of the poet, a man of no fixed abode, of few possessions, when he came to visit you, he came by bus, greeted you carrying only a battered, fat briefcase. Happily always on the move, he could say of himself in Pittsburgh, where he was born, in Italy, where he fell out of a tree into near death, in San Francisco, New York, Paris, London, Greece, Sweden, "I wake to freshness. And do reverence."
Jack used to eat his lunch in a cemetery beside a tree that grew out of a grave. "I liked to think of someone eating what was left of my heart and spirit as I lay in the dark earth translating into fruit." All his life Jack chose the solitary life moving around the world, purely living, loving, writing. In old age, living in a room in New England, he writes, "I say grace over everything."
on September 2, 2012
The "Collected Poems" by Jack Gilbert begins with his growing up in Pittsburgh to becoming a world-wide traveler and resident of lovely places.
The poems of young love and the illusions they shatter are angry and clouded. As he moves through his adult life the tone softens somewhat, and the poems gather length and reveal themselves more completely. Often he refers to historical and mythical figures to compare or contrast his experiences with theirs, trying to understand the worldly limitations imposed on us all.
His first marriage doesn't work out; he's not sure why. His second ends sadly with the death of his wife, a grief he carries. His journeys take him to some magical places, rough places, ordinary places, but nothing changes the rules we all try to understand. Love after fifty is very welcome and pleasant, but the stakes are lower, not as electric, but then, what choice do we have?
on August 10, 2015
I greeted the publication of Gilbert's Collected Poems with a gallon of joy and two drops of sadness. I was saddened by Gilbert's death, and was a bit downcast to find what I'd long suspected-- that each poem Gilbert writes is often the same poem he's always been writing. That said, I would echo Faulkner and say that that one poem Gilbert is always writing is worth any number of little old ladies (though since Gilbert so clearly adores women-- young, old, mature, beautiful, ugly, talkative, silent-- perhaps we ought to change it to 'crotchety old men'?). Declarative sentences shorn of modifiers are his trade. Sentence fragments like ruins, sharp-edged and loss-ridden. Less Stoic than Epicurean, Gilbert finds aestheticism in his asceticism: imagine St. Jerome evoking the desert wastes with the same love of the senses as Robert Herrick. Gilbert's poetry was for so long a closely kept secret that it's a pity he is readily available for everyone; as Auden wrote of Yeats:
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But I am happy to let others taste his vintage, so long as I, greedy reader that I am, get a cup of it all for myself. And that's what this book will be, now and forever: a vintage tasting of dry stones and hard light.
on August 30, 2014
The tendency when writing about a book of poetry is to cite or sample from the assembled poems. With the collection of poems compiled here it's almost impossible to know where to start or stop. The consistence of quality is that high. Oh, you'll quickly find some favorites - and add to them in subsequent readings. But page after page features new delights & insights, which for me made it a great way to endure the low points of a given day and invigorate a stalled or dormant spirit. Most folks don't have shelves & shelves of poetry books (or electronic storage space devoted to same) so this is the one for them. Even better, it's one of those books that keep on giving.
on December 7, 2012
I had read only a few Gilbert poems before ordering the Collected Poems. My intent was to extend the joy that had evolved with my previous but limited contact. My decision was to read from front to back in the order of the book which is also generally oldest to newer newest. That decision proved disappointing to a fault. The writing early on when Glibert was well into being a mature individual is written as an athletic form of besting, being real smart and using references that are at best obscure save to a very few. Gilbert draws upon the obscure and references that require research. Ok, but some is OK so much is not forme. Showing off his major stints in libraries and mythology and or just the distant and obscure. Ok I got it, he is smart and has vast information. That seldom extended emotions until well rsearched. While each of those early reads when investigated offered exceptional insights and once disected and noted were a good read my intentions in exploring Gilbert were not in extending my classic and or liberal arts education of some 40 plus years past by researching each writing. Giving up however would not have been a bad thing at that point but I advanced through the pages and sought writings of the modern Gilbert and in his age and comparability to my own age life and his insights returned me to the first joy of sharing Gilbert. The books second half and last one third embraced me again and now I can return to the early writing and enjoy it in sips and flip forward to gulp the newer fully embracing the differences. In Flying: The crash takes place after the success and triumph. Powerful good. Thank You.
on February 6, 2013
Jack Gilbert died in late 2012 but not before producing an incredible amount of poetry during his more than 50 years of writing. I am not a huge poetry fan but after seeing this compilation being placed on the NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2012, I picked it up from the library and am glad I did. I found most of the poems quite enjoyable to read. Certain themes permeate his work including his upbringing in Pittsburgh and his description of the working class man there. You also clearly see the pain he went through during his wife's sickness and eventual death at a young age. Although he doesn't go into huge detail about his wife's disease, you can tell that he was broken and shook up by it. Gilbert spends a lot of time describing the day to day struggles of the common man. I highly recommend this book of poetry to anyone who enjoys the genre or even someone who wants to simply get a large taste of one of the great poets of our time.
on November 15, 2012
The Collected Poems are of course essential for all Gilbert fans!
a letter from me in the N Y Times Bk Review 11/11 (Jack had just died) re a review of this book by B k Review poetry editor- David Orr- (date of 1o/28)
In his Oct. 28 poetry column, David Orr says of Jack Gilbert, "He isn't afraid of embarrassment." Would that more American poets were, in this academic, anemic age of blanched poetry. As Orr points out, Gilbert, like Robinson Jeffers, is not embarrassed to grab for the ring of grandeur -- to be passionate and honest, to be direct. Thus, he is beloved and read!
Spoken-word poets do it all the time, but you won't read them in the establishment magazines. Gilbert's "entire body of work consists of only five books," Orr writes, "probably 1,000 pages less than the collected work of John Ashbery." To me, that's 1,000 fewer pages of incomprehensible, forbidding poetry. Gilbert may not be Ntozake Shange (author of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf"), but he keeps the flame of poetry burning.
Most American poetry does not attempt much- a problem- to me. It lacks passion and rawness. Robert Bly and Gary Snyder have it- Adrienne Rich had it- it's as if we learned too little from Ginsberg and the beats.
on April 25, 2014
Jack Gilbert decided to be a wandering troubadour to escape the academic strangulation of college teaching and the narrowed vision of remaining stuck in the USA, so his poetry ranges wide geographically and culturally. High quality work somehow misses greatness.