Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems

Jack Gilbert's Collected PoemsWith the passing of Seamus Heaney in 2013, I lost the only contemporary poet who has ever meant anything to me, whose writings have had any claim on my heart and mind. And when I read, for example, Joseph Epstein’s 1988 essay “Who Killed Poetry?” I begin to feel that there is a very good reason, beyond mere personal taste, that no poet born after, say, World War II, has captivated me, held me in awe, quite like Eliot, Stevens and Crane, or any of their many predecessors. If poetry is not dead, it certainly seems moribund. The novel, by contrast, has not undergone a similar period of sustained cultural irrelevance, even as film and television have usurped its place in the cultural hierarchy. I am told that there are more poets publishing today than ever before, with more grants, journals and teaching positions available to sustain them, and I wonder, as Epstein wonders, if this is less a symptom of good health than is generally understood. The chief characteristics of modern poetry I take to be irony – that is to say, a relentless suspicion of emotion, characterized by a kind of knowing wink between poet and audience – and esoterica, and the principle subjects tend towards the relentlessly personal and the banally political. Can you imagine a wider contrast? The poets of yesterday wrote personal poems that managed – through technique, vivid imagery, clever metaphor – to universalize their experience. Today’s poets are apt to speak about their eating disorders, menstruation cycles and abusive parents in language so shopworn and metaphors so abstruse that they manage to impress only each other. This, I fear, goes a long way towards explaining the receding importance of poetry over the past several decades.

But Jack Gilbert may prove to be an anomaly. To begin with, it’s worth noting that, prior to the publication of Collected Poems in 2012, much of his work was out of print, and what extent copies remained were fetching astonishingly high prices on eBay – which makes this book’s arrival something of an event, the first opportunity to assess Gilbert’s work in toto. From his debut collection, Views Of Jeopardy (1962), which earned him the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize, to his final collection, Refusing Heaven (2005), Gilbert’s poems tackle the quotidian and the romantic in wry, self-effacing terms, absent any hint of guile or affect. His poems, in contrast to those of his contemporaries, jar us with their openness, their refusal to blunt emotion with sentiment; he slides effortlessly from the confessional mode, in which he reveals without hesitation the most private details of his life and relationships, to the impersonal meditative, which are somehow no less searing. “Games” is typical:

Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.

Suffering, of course, is real, and the elderly do fear death, and the maimed and malformed feel pain as acutely as anyone else – and yet we go on living. What does this say about us? Gilbert is less concerned with the judgment than getting us to face the reality of our wilful ignorance. Much of his poetry deals with love, and with loss, and the paradoxes these doom us to. Here is “Walking Home Across The Island,” for example:

Walking home across the plain in the dark.
And Linda crying. Again we have come
to a place where I rail and she suffers and the moon
does not rise. We have only each other,
but I am shouting inside the rain
and she is crying like a wounded animal,
knowing there is no place to turn. It is hard
to understand how we could be brought here by love.

To state, simply, that love is both a source of pain and joy, that this contradiction is inherent to its nature, is no original observation, but to embody this contradiction is another matter. Unsurprisingly, lust, too, is a subject of fascination for Gilbert. Here is his beautiful “Thinking About Ecstasy”:

Gradually he could hear her. Stop, she was saying,
stop! And found the bed full of glass,
his ankles bleeding, driven through the window
of her cupola. California summer. That was pleasure.
He knows about that: stained glass of the body
lit by our lovely chemistry and neural ghost.
Pleasure as fruit and pleasure as ambush. Excitement
a wind so powerful, we cannot find a shape for it,
so our apparatus cannot hold on to the brilliant
pleasure for long. Enjoyment is different.
It understands and keeps. The having of the having.
But ecstasy is a question. Doubling sensation
is merely arithmetic. If ecstasy means we are
taken over by something, we become an occupied
country, the audience to an intensity we are
only the proscenium for. The man does not want
to know rapture by standing outside himself.
He wants to know delight as the native land he is.

For a poem ostensibly about ecstasy to begin with the emphatic “stop!” and present us the image of bleeding ankles and broken glass should give us some indication that what follows will be a critical appraisal. Linger, for a moment, on that beautiful “stained glass of the body / lit by our lovely chemistry and neural ghost” – a fine example of his poetic powers – and consider what he is presenting us with, this “pleasure as fruit and pleasure as ambush,” the contrast between excitement, a wind too powerful to be contained, and enjoyment, which “understands and keeps.” The conclusion drives home this distinction: ecstasy means temporary invasion, a second-hand experience; to “know” delight is to embody it, to experience it first-hand.

I began this piece by positing that Gilbert stood apart from his fellow moderns, and in life he seemed to have felt this difference too, first in his abandonment of America for Europe – a move that almost certainly hampered his poetic reputation – and then in his verse, which embraces emotion and lived experience directly. He spent time with the Beat poets in San Francisco, and produced this lovely repudiation of what he encountered there, the opening lines of “Malvolio In San Francisco”:

Two days ago they were playing the piano
with a hammer and blowtorch.
Next week they will read poetry
to saxophones.
And always they are building the Chinese Wall of
of laughter.

Playing a piano with a blowtorch and hammer or reciting poetry to the accompaniment of saxophones may make for great theatre, but Gilbert is rightly dubious that great art is produced that way. Finally, in “Orpheus In Greenwich Village,” he gives us one possible explanation for poetry’s decline:

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?

It’s a depressing question to ponder: were an Orpheus to emerge among us, would we even recognize his gifts? Gilbert cannot match the best 20th century poets for lyrical beauty or philosophic insight – few can. But he is a genuine poet, and that is as high a compliment as I can give.