Three Poetic Riffs on Courage – Part Two – Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert. Photo Credit: The Poetry Foundation

The Abnormal Is Not Courage

The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers.
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
the bravery. Say it’s not courage. Call it passion.
Would say courage isn’t that. Not at its best.
It was impossible, and with form. They rode in sunlight.
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
It is too near the whore’s heart; the bounty of impulse,
and the failure to sustain even small kindness.
Not the marvelous act, but evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
not the month’s rapture. Not the exception.
The beauty that is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

Jack Gilbert from Monolithos – Poems, 1962 and 1982, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982

If I feel somewhat delightfully disoriented inside Jane Mead’s two variations on courage ( See Part One of this series) I have no nuances or confusions to sort out in Gilbert’s riff on courage. While I sense that Mead’s poem is heading in the direction of Gilbert’s, his leaves little room for confusion. First published in his award winning collection Views of Jeopardy in 1962, this poem, which was one of the first of Gilbert’s poems I read at the beginning of my poetry education journey almost 15 years ago, is vintage Gilbert. Its declarations, its big abstractions woven together with startling images and literary references.

How Gilbert challenges easy assumptions, considerations. I remember as a kid reading about the Poles. Their romantic, so-called charge against the German tanks. And left it there. Some old fashioned mad example of courage. But Gilbert takes it and turns it on his head. refuses to glorify it. The futile grand gesture. And as he so often does makes me reconsider my less-considered views on what courage is.  Views, not that well sorted out it turns out.

What a proposition to consider: But I say courage is not the abnormal./Not the marvelous act. And then in a kind of growing crescendo half way through the poem he layers sentence fragment after sentence fragment to support his claim. Like hammer blows. Almost no verbs until the last two lines. Three sentences, two complete, one a fragment.

In so may ways a bold poem. No pulling of punches. And he risks the reader’s disagreement, the reader’s disavowal of the poem. But, for me, I stay with him. His his argument. It doesn’t throw me from the poem.  Its steady beat augmented by the myriad sentence fragments.

As in Mead’s poem I am left with much to contemplate, meditate on.  What are the courageous acts in my life? Is it the simple things others may never notice? Is it the simple act of deciding to write every day. The simple acts of small gestures of compassion and love inside a marriage? Is it the simple act of getting up every day, facing life’s uncertainties? Gilbert, as Mead does, gives me much to think about. And in part three of this series Jan Zwicky gives me even more to ponder about courage.

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