Monday, April 5, 2010

Jack Gilbert - It's Later Than You Think [Part I]

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 I've just finished reading his last collection--which almost certainly will be his last, unless there is further unpublished material (1)--The Dance Most of All [Knopf, 2009, 56pp], which I find to my surprise and delight is very unlike what I must have imagined it would be, based on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:
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.
Lying in front of the house all
afternoon, trying to write a poem.
Falling asleep.
Waking up under the stars. 
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.
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


Ed Baker said...

that poem/piece NOT EASILY is terrific...

"The dance is known by the dancing." (period)

Jack always is a "pay-attention" (to the details) poet..

that sweater, I do beleive, gotten in Lindos, about 1969... I, too, also bought one....

try his The Great Fires AND his Refusing Heaven

after Greece and a brief stint
in SF (teaching,) he went to Japan... connected with Cid Corman and ... well,

Jack's a fine poet (...)

this new book/collection

The Dance Most of All is new to me thanks will look for and to it.

Steven Fama said...

Thank you for emphasizing the need for everyone to decide for themselves.

Biographically, I think the suggestion that Gilbert went away after his first book (published in 1962) over-states it. I don't know the details, but Ron Silliman has written or talked about being taught by Gilbert at SF State, and that must have been late in the 1960s.

According to Wikipedia, Gilbert currently lives in Berkeley.

Also, Gilbert may be the only one who can shed light on the suggestion -- made by art curator Susan Landauer based on a printed program I saw once (but unfortunately did not buy) -- that (and what a bombshell this would be!) Allen Ginsberg first reading of "Howl" was NOT at the Six Gallery but weeks before at a reading at the Norse Auditorium in SF, at which Gilbert also read!

Curtis Faville said...

"iographically, I think the suggestion that Gilbert went away after his first book (published in 1962) over-states it."

This is probably correct. Did he teach briefly at SF State? Isn't that when he first met Linda Gregg, or was that later. He went through a period of "returns" to the U.S. to save enough cash to get back to the Greek Islands--I think that's how it went.

Gilbert is currently living in a care facility in Berkeley--he has Alzheimer's Disease. I visited him there a few months ago, and he hardly knows what's happening--very sad. My "*" footnote in part two of my post will make reference to that.

There was a first "first" edition of Howl--a stapled mimeo version, which is many times scarcer than the City Lights edition which it preceded. This was circulated about among the poets. He supposedly composed it while sitting in the Cafe Mediteraneum. A likely story.

I'm not sure it matters any more. A great flawed poem, it is.

Steven Fama said...

Yes, you are correct, there was a mimeoed Howl; it came after the Six Gallery reading but before the City Lights Pocket Poets edition. I've seen enough of the mimeos for sale over the years such that it would not surprise me if the original mimeo masters were run off subsequently.

But probably that doesn't matter just as -- as you put (and I think I agree) it doesn't really matter when the first reading of Howl took place. Myth is stronger than fact.

Ed Baker said...

in that blue factsimile edition of HOWL edited by Barry Mills

(is not 'factsimile' a neat compound word?!)

in the bibliography (of HOWL) by Bill Morgan:

'Howl for Cark Solomon, San Francisco: Ditto mimeograph, May 16, 1956 (25-50 copies).

Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, November 1, 1956. Reprinted 33 times (in 1956?); unexpurgated edition beginning with the 8th printing.

THEN in 1973 The Pocket Poets Series Vol 1, Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint Co.

in 1971 Grabhorn-Hoyem did an edition of 275 copies.

and etcs.

as far as mythe is our reality?

I do believe that we-all
run the risk of becoming what we pretend to be.

yet to this day I have not read the entire HOWL poem.. just glanced/grazed through it. not my "cup of tea"

I prefer his KADDISH

J said...

Interesting work here. Sad and sober, if a trifle...confessional--yet thank Osiris mostly absent of the usual beatnik theatrics, howls and general psychosis. The de rigeur northbeach turtleneck tho'--not so copacetic.

Yet...the poetic commodity (and Lit-biz as a whole, if not...Kultur) ruins far more than it rewards.

I doubt Mr Gilbert's image will be helping to sell Gap jeans...

Stephen Vincent said...

Very interesting take on Jack, who I first met in San Francisco in 1963 or so. A charismatic figure, and very ambitious one. When all is known of Jack, like any of us, a mixed one - in which the projected myth and the reality of the life are conflicted. But, I would say he worked very hard on the myth part.

Parenthetically, the Yale award permitted Jack to get work as 'poet in residence' in Universities of which he was fond of doing. And he liked to actually take classes at SF State. On the other hand he would have had an impossible time as tenured faculty anywhere. He had a very high opinion of himself and his standards and the domineering 'heroism' of the stance was coin for trouble. His short tenure as poetry editor at Genesis West was diplomatic catastrophe for everyone.
It is not possible to discuss his marriages, without mentioning Laura Ulewicz and to whom his Yale book is dedicated as a kind of dragon. (For the sake of 'full disclosure', I am processing her archive and putting together a Selected Poems). Laura - a Polish American daughter of Detroit auto workers - introduced Jack to North Beach. She also became - for a short period - an important poet and figure in both England and the Bay Area. In 1965 Penguin wanted to publish her poems in an anthology with Sylvia Plath and Denise Levertov - however Penquin decided not to because thy did not believe there was market enough for an all women's volume!
The correspondence with Jack - that went on for 30 years - reveals a relationship that tested him to the marrow. Unable to sustain herself as a poet (a midcentury Bohemian without trust fund or a benefactor) Laura exiled herself to Locke where she wrote little. And passed away in 2007).
On one hand I still find appeal in Jack's poems. I don't learn from them anymore. in the way I can learn continuously from Williams and Zukofsky and others. And, when all is said and done, Jack's poetry should be held up against what it does not do, does not permit within its borders. And that will come out with the more that we know of his life. But boy, his myths of exile much aside, what he carved out with an incredibly stubborn persistence totally aligned with career and ambition!


Stephen Vincent

Ed Baker said...

(Jack's) truth lay in the interactions between ALL the levels... to drop the personal mythology ain't so easy but a necessary to get to the impersonal mythology (?)

Maybe it is that in this "post Frawdian" Period 'we' (Americans) yet cannot read either poetry or symbolism (?)

... or carry a tune

Edward Mycue said...

Steve Vincent is a good source.
edward Mycue