The Bigness of Small Poems – #33 in a Series – The Ah! Ha! Genius of Jack Gilbert

American Poet Jack Gilbert (1925-2012)

The Cucumbers of Praxilla of Sicyon

What is the best we leave behind?
Certainly love and form and ourselves.
Surely those. But it is the mornings
that are hard to relinquish, and music
and cucumbers. Rain on trees, empty
piazzas in small towns flooded with sun.
What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.

Jack Gilbert from Monolithos, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982

His name was unknown to me when poet Heather McHugh included his name in a reading list of poets she gave me fifteen years ago. That list changed how I saw my own poetry; was what began my commitment to poetry.

American poet Jack Gilbert, oh my. His work both clear and mysterious. layered. Confident. Full of wisdom statements that only the best of poets can pull off. Statements like this one in celebration of the 5th Century Greek Lyric woman poet Praxilla and her three line fragment that celebrated among other things, cuccumbers:

What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.

And most important for me fifteen years ago and today, his poems were an apologetically stubborn celebration of living ordinary life in all its gritty fullness, its fearful messiness, as he says in his poem I Imagine the Gods:

Let me at least fail at my life.
Think, they say patiently, we could
make you famous again. Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me find
the heft of these days. That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.

Jack Gilbert from The Great Fires, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994

To keep our hearts feral. Oh my. Not tame and comfortable. To want to live life that close to the bone. To be frightened into the present. Oh yes, Gilbert was a revelation. For my other blog posts on Gilbert click here. It was his poetic genius that terrified and inspired me to make poetry my passion, Yet ironically I read recently an interviewer of Gilbert who said: And Jack Gilbert surprised me with how far down the list he placed poetry on his list of life priorities. Perhaps it was all that living he practiced outside his poems that enriched them when he got around to them!

And what a challenge in this line from I Imagine the Gods: Let me at least fail at my life. That is a bold facing into the wind! A great reminder to me at age sixty-six to not stop risking. And to accept the so-called failures in my life (especially my two successfully unsuccessful marriages) and bless them for what they taught me. The stepping stones they were to get me to where I am today. Doing what I love and blessed with many deep relationships.

Jack Gilbert. Photo Credit: The Poetry Foundation


  1. Posted September 3, 2017 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    It brings me joy to see this post on Jack Gilbert. I learned of his poetry and that of LindaGregg in the 90’s. When I mention their names, most often they go unrecognized. They are two of my favorite poets.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks Joanie! I so agree about Gilbert and Gregg. All best! Richard

  3. Reka
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Could you share that reading list of poets given to you by Heather McHugh fifteen years ago?

    I very much like Jack Gilbert. My all time favorite poem of his is: Music is in the piano only when it is played.

    Thank you.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Yes, I can! A poetry primer, Western Wind by J.F. Nims and ,perhaps of course, Wallace Stevens, and also Charles Simic, Zen poet Takahashi (trans Lucien Stryk) and Jack Gilbert ( for parable power). Hope this helps!

  5. Reka
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you.

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