Few would argue that poetry has a defining place in the American cultural landscape anymore. Ninety-nine percent of us felt the boredom set in when Elizabeth Alexander took to the podium at the Obama inauguration to read her poem "Praise Song for the Day" (even we here at the Splice office turned off the webcast a few lines in). If asked who was the last true American celebrity poet you'd probably have to go back to Robert Frost (a New England dandy who reinvented himself as a kind of backwoods hayseed for populist appeal), unless of course you want to count Maya Angelou, Oprah's "mentor-mother-sister-friend."
Still, even a good number of Ph.D. students in American lit wouldn't recognize the name Jack Gilbert, despite his brief fame in the early-1960s and his connections with many of the major poets of his generation. Gilbert won the Yale Younger Series Poetry Award in '62, back when that award still meant a damn, and was featured in photo spreads for both Vogue and Glamour (it helped that as a young man he was ruggedly attractive). For years he ran around the San Francisco beat scene, took Jack Spicer's Poetry as Magic workshop and argued with Allen Ginsberg. He was praised by Auden, Rexroth, Rukeyser. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Book Critics Circle Award, an NEA fellowship, the National Book Award, The Stanley Kunitz prize, and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer.
So why, again, am I certain you've never heard of him? Because in a career that began almost 50 years ago, Jack Gilbert has published only four books of poetry. Only a year and a half after the release of his first book, Views of Jeopardy, Gilbert left for Greece with fellow poet Linda Gregg. It would be 20 years before his next book, Monoliths, was published, and only after a whole lot of persuading by editor Gordon Lish. A two-sentence essay by Lish in the New Orleans Review explained his reasons: "Why I like Jack Gilbert’s poetry and why I think Jack Gilbert is one of the best American poets and why I publish Jack Gilbert’s books is, was, and shall be to bring about the embarrassment of the power of discrimination in force in the assembly of fucking Harold Bloom’s fucking canonicity list. The End.”
Gilbert's poetic style could have gone in many directions. As Ron Silliman argues, Gilbert was originally a kind of heir to the Oxford poets of the 30s, Stephen Spender in particular. His early work takes on some of the experimentation of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and the Beats. And yet he has the gritty blue-collar background of someone like Philip Levine. Growing up during the Great Depression in Pittsburgh's East Liberty district, Gilbert flunked out of Peabody high school, and ended up for a time working in steel mills and as a door-to-door salesman for Fuller. His father died after falling out the window of a speakeasy when Gilbert was only 10. But these younger days have been featured only rarely in his poems.
What has defined Gilbert's work is his stylistic throwback to early modernists, his determined reclusion, and the early death of his wife, Michiko Nogami, from cancer at 36. In his latest book, The Dance Most of All, released early this month by Knopf, all of this is apparent in the opening poem, "Everywhere and Forever," where the poet has returned to an old country villa, and remembers the "perfect days" he spent with Michiko:
They come out under big plane trees.
There is a dirt path from there to the nunnery.
She says goodbye and he starts down to the village
at the bottom where he will get their food for a week.
The sky is vast overhead. Neither of them knows
she is dying. He thinks of their eleven years together.
Realizes they used up all that particular time
everywhere in the cosmos, and forever.
It is this lyrical mix of anguish and grace that make Gilbert's poems so rewarding, and so heartbreaking. "It is worth having the heart broken," he writes in "The Mistake." "A blessing to hurt for eighteen years because a woman is dead." He is the poet of restless remembering, of looking inward and living passionately: "We go hungry/amid the great granaries/this world is... We are taught to be/moderate. To live intelligently." As he told NPR's Debbie Elliott in a 2006 interview, "I'm saying, sure it's tough, we're all going to die, there's a lot of injustice in the world, but what a bargain. If you balance it out, what a balance. There's a lot of things I don't like. I don't like the fact that my hair is thinning. I don't like the fact that two of the women I loved died. But given that what a wonderful privilege to be allowed to breathe, to see, to feel, to smell, to love. It's baffling the sweetness of what we're allowed."
He is also a courtly celebrator of the wonders of a woman's body (unlike any other poet writing today). "The woman is not just a pleasure,/nor even a problem. She is a meniscus/that allows the absolute to have a shape,/that lets him skate however briefly/on the mystery, her presence luminous/on the ordinary and the grand." Some naive readers (the kind that have been unfortunately taking over—and dumbing down—college English departments since the early 90s) have read anti-feminism into his love poems, but as Sarah Manguso wrote in her Poetry magazine profile, "conventional feminism is the wrong filter through which to read these works [...] Despite relationships that had all the signs of intimacy [...] Gilbert found the women he 'knew' unknowable." The Dance Most of All doesn't find Gilbert walking any new ground, but one hopes it'll bring him better recognition.
"Waiting and Finding"
While he was in kindergarten, everybody wanted to play
the tomtoms 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 tomtoms, 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 tomtoms
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 tomtoms 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.
The Dance Most of All by Jack Gilbert. Knopf, 60pp., $25.00