Jack Gilbert [1925- ] is a poet I only recently had the experience of reading. After winning the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1962, at the age of 36--rather late in the game, as such things happen, even then, almost 50 years ago now--he went into a sort of self-imposed exile, steering clear of America, the American university system, the lecture and reading circuit, and spending large blocks of time in Europe, especially Greece.
In his formative years, Gilbert lived in San Francisco, rubbing shoulders with the local poet heroes of the time (Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth). Once Gilbert had published his first book, Views of Jeopardy, and gained national notoriety, he threw over these associations, and left for Europe. The American poetry scene--perhaps specifically the California poetry and art scene, with all its laissez-faire accommodation of counter-culture permissiveness and joie de vivre--just wasn't severe and demanding enough for his taste. Intuitively, he sensed that there were deeper levels to his spirit, and that older, Old World settings were the place to cultivate his austere daemon. This spiritual renunciation of the New World had symbolic as well as aesthetic meaning to Gilbert.
Gilbert sets great store in the effects that can be achieved through an internal dialectic between epicurean/dionysian indulgence on the one hand, and austerity and ascetic denial on the other. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I've just finished reading his last collection--which almost certainly will be his last, unless there is further unpublished material (1)--The Dance Most of All [Knopf, 2009, 56pp], which I find to my surprise and delight is very unlike what I must have imagined it would be, based on his reputation. (Reputations are unreliable, and not to be trusted; it's almost always better to decide for oneself, after first-hand perusal, what something is worth.) Let me quote three brief poems to give an idea of what Gilbert's poems feel like:
WINTER IN THE NIGHT FIELDS
I was getting water tonight
off guard when I saw the moon
in my bucket and was tempted
by those Chinese poets
and their immaculate pain.
GETTING IT RIGHT
Lying in front of the house all
afternoon, trying to write a poem.
Waking up under the stars.
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.
These are somewhat untypical of the work generally, in that they don't engage in dialectics. Gilbert's poems are balanced between sharply etched, telling detail, and a renunciation of easy satisfactions or explanations. They seek simultaneously to summarize experience, while resisting pat or simplistic answers to dilemmas: loneliness, death, longing, regret. Gilbert's poems are not about music--no ballads or lullabies or sonnets or quatrains here. Just calm, measured meditations, solitary and introverted, arguments the self has with itself, filled with the pressure of long silence, or pent-up reservoirs of feeling.
When we get beyond beauty and pleasure,
to the other side of the heart (but short
of the spirit), we are confused about what
to do next. It is too easy to say arriving
is enough. To pretend the music
of the mountain needs only to be heard.
That the dance is known by the dancing,
and the lasagne is realized by eating it.
Not in this place on the other side
of desire. We can swim in the Aegean,
but we can't take it home. A man finds
a melon by the road and continues up
the hill thinking it is the warm melon
that will remain after he has forgotten
the ruins and sea of the summer. He tells
himself this even as the idea of the taste
is replacing what the melon tasted like.
This is a poetry suspicious of pleasure, or at least pessimistic of the possibility of keeping (or preserving such) pleasure alive, in poems or memories. Pretending and denying and forgetting, beyond our desire to define the essence, of wanting and having, in words. Of the kinds of objects in Gilbert's work, the highest good seems to be fidelity--fidelity to a loved one, to sensual experience, to memory. The poems are about realizing, or discovering, how to live in this intensity, in such a way that the value of the experience is not compromised, and the record of one's devotion to the search for it is earned, and not borrowed or purchased cheap.
The train's stopping wakes me.
Weeds in the gully are white
with the year's first snow.
A lighted train goes
slowly past absolutely empty.
Also going to Fukuoka.
I feel around in myself
to see if I mind. Maybe
I am lonely. It is hard
to know. It could be
hidden in familiarity.
This kind of feeling around inside oneself reminds me a lot of the work of Robert Bly, and especially James Wright (and maybe even a bit of Franz). It involves the construction of sequences of syntactical pacing and spacing, so that the effect of certain kinds of realizations or disclosures acquires a dramatic power--so that even talking about seemingly bland occurrences may occasion a wry observation, a morsel of private wisdom.
"Hidden in familiarity." Familiarity is like the thick skin of habit which must be peeled back or seen through, to get at the truth of our deeper emotion(s). But human consciousness is often opaque. Even when we think we've seen the "other side" of desire, or striving, or grief, there is still another level of awareness, another layer underneath.
Gilbert was married twice. Once to a former student, Linda Gregg--now a well-recognized poet herself--and to a sculptor Michiko Nogami, who died of cancer at age 36. The celebration and disappointment of these relationships weighs heavily in Gilbert's poetry, as do his memories of Greece and Italy, and of Pittsburgh, where he grew up during the Depression Years.
SUMMER AT BLUE CREEK, NORTH CAROLINA
There was no water at my grandfather's
when I was a kid and would go for it
with two zinc buckets. Down the path,
past the cow by the foundation where
the fine people's house was before
they arranged to have it burned down.
To the neighbor's cool well. Would
come back with pails too heavy,
so my mouth pulled out of shape.
I see myself, but from the outside.
I keep trying to feel who I was,
and cannot. Hear clearly the sound
the bucket made hitting the sides
of the stone well going down,
but never the sound of me.
This longing, to bring the sensibility as close to the lived experience--to the absolute presence of being in the world, unconscious and utterly forsaken to time--as is possible, is a constant concern. So the self is a vessel, merely, an astonished witness. Experience whets the soul's appetite, but only through discipline, through a voluntary deprivation, is attention honed to a sharpness. Is it thirst, or the taste of cold well water from a tin cup, or the memory of that thirst--that matters?
These poems are incremental disagreements with expediency. Even language itself may seem an expedient, where feelings are concerned.
End Part I