Jack Gilbert – July 1925 to November 13th, 2012 – Sing Going Down

A great hunger lay at the heart and genius of the American master poet Jack Gilbert, who, until his last years was little known, but in spite of his low-profile, was long considered one of the foremost poets of his generation. Yes, Gilbert was a man driven by hungers but luckily for the world, he was also a poet driven to write about them with such clarity. And to remind us, perhaps, to live more hungrily.

from The Spirit and the Soul

what lasted is what the soul ate.
The way a child knows the world by putting it
part by part into his mouth. As I tried to gnaw
my way into the lord, working to put my heart
against that heart. Laying in the wheat at night.
Letting the rain after all the dry months have me.

(Unless otherwise stated all poems and excerpts from poems by Jack Gilbert used in this post are from –Transgressions, Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, Highgreen, UK, 2006)

and from Tear It Down

………………………………………Love is not
enough . We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.

from A Walk Blossoming

…………………………..…..(He walks along
remembering, biting into beauty,
the heart eating into the naked spirit.)

But now this man, greedy, so life-greedy, in the best sense I can make of it, is dead at age 87.
Yet and yes, happily, Gilbert’s insatiable hungers for life – spiritual, physical, erotic – remain in the words that feed the readers of his poems. They are a testament to how he insisted while he still had time. But even so I miss him. I miss knowing that this man’s hungers, his insistencies, his astonishing appetite for life, its loves and its losses, the light and dark of it, its joys and devastations – can now only live inside his poems. But, thank god, they do.

But for most of his life there weren’t a lot of published Gilbert poems to dig inside. He was too busy living. His first book Views of Jeopardy, published in 1962 was slim, just thirty-three poems but it rocketed it him to a celebrity status he disdained. It won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and was considered for a Pulitzer. But soon after he left the limelight and lived primarily overseas for the next twenty years.

His second book, Monolithos, was published in 1982 ( included poems from his first book and just more than fifty new poems.) and was short-listed for a Pulitzer. Then, another gap until The Great Fires published in 1994. In 2005 he won the National Book Circle Critics Award for Refusing Heaven,  which was then followed in 2006 by Transgressions, the British edition of his Selected Poems. His last book of new poems, The Dance Most of All came as a surprise in 2009. Ironically, it was only in March of 2012, through the release of Jack Gilbert – Collected Poems by Afred Knopf that many people were able to see all his poems for the first time.

Gilbert did not hunger for fame but his appetite for life astonishes me. In his poem Bring in the Gods he imagines a conversation with gods who question him about life. He tells one of them:

We don’t have the knack for eating what we are living.
Why is that, she asks. Because we are too much in a hurry.

He adds further on in the poem:

I am not at peace I tell her. I want to fail. I am hungry
for what I am becoming. What will you do? she asks. I will
continue north, carrying the past in my arms, flying into winter.

To eat what we have lived. Gilbert did that and turned it into poetry. And demanded the same of poets he loved . Here is Gilbert in an interview with the Paris review in 2006: Why do so many poets settle for so little? I don’t understand why they’re not greedy for what’s inside them….When I read the poems that matter to me, it stuns me how much the presence of the heart – in all its forms – is endlessly available there.

And how Gilbert’s heart is endlessly available in his poems. Yes, it is there from his days growing up in Pittsburgh and working in the mills there, and later his time with the Beats in San Francisco in the 1960’s, his friendship with Ginsberg and his sojourns abroad in countless places including Greece, Italy, France Japan and Holland and yes, it is there especially in his countless poems about the great loves of his life, Gianna Geimetti, Linda Gregg and Michiko Nogami. Here is a poem, such understated poignancy, about his second wife Michiko Nogami who died in 1982:

Finding Something

I say moon is horses in the tempered dark,
because horse is the closest I can get to it.
I sit on the terrace of this worn villa the king’s
telegrapher built on the mountain that looks down
on a blue sea and the small white ferry
that crosses slowly to the next island each noon.
Michiko is dying in the house behind me,
the long windows open so I can hear
the faint sound she will make when she wants
watermelon to suck or so I can take her
to a bucket in the corner of the high-ceilinged room
which is the best we can do for a chamber pot.
She will lean against my leg as she sits
so as not to fall over in her weakness.
How strange and fine to get so near to it.
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.

So little self pity in this man in spite of everything. And that punch line at the end: my heart is as helpless as crushed birds. And Just listen to this poem – Going Wrong. It holds so many of his enduring themes. And advertises his greed! And it is interesting that it one of the poems chosen by his first wife, the American poet Linda Gregg at a tribute reading for Gilbert in 2009:

The fish are dreadful. They are brought up
the mountain in the dawn most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea,
the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes.
Soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks,
washing them. ‘What can you know of my machinery!’
demands the Lord. Sure, the man says quietly
and cuts into them, laying back the dozen struts,
getting to the muck of something terrible.
The Lord insists: ‘You are the one who chooses
to live this way. I build cities where things
are human. I make Tuscany and you go to live
with rock and silence.’ The man washes away
the blood and arranges the fish on a big plate.
Starts the onions in the hot olive oil and puts
in peppers. ‘You have lived all year without women.’
He takes out everything and puts in the fish.
‘No one knows where you are. People forget you.
You are vain and stubborn.’ The man slices
tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish
and scrambles eggs. I am not stubborn he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows flying
on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.

In spite of the breakup of her marriage to Gilbert, Gregg was a loyal and life-long friend who was with him just days before he died in California. The story of their tumultuous relationship and marriage in the 1960’s is voiced with such uncompromising stark beauty by both of them in their poems. It is a measure of this extraordinary relationship that, in spite of Gilbert’s infidelities during his relationship with Gregg, recorded so surprisingly in many of his poems, Gilbert’s later books were also dedicated to Gregg.

Gregg’s collected poems, All of It Singing, published in 2008 was dedicated to: Jack Gilbert – It was like being alive twice. And what better poem to illustrate the larger-than-life man Gilbert was. The way he relished life’s contradictions. Dreadful fish, yet beautiful. Grand rooms, flat eyes. Getting to the muck of something terrible, a delicious meal garnished with the shadows of swallows. And what a wonderful play on swallows as he is about to eat the meal!

This excerpt that follows from Gilbert’s poem Relative Pitch, captures so much of what is in the poems Gilbert left us.

Strangers leave us poems to tell of those
they loved, how the heart broke, to whisper
of the religions upstairs in the dark,
sometimes in the parlor admid blazing sunlight,
and under trees with rain coming down
in August on the bare, unaccustomed bodies.

It is ironic that Gilbert can write of strangers who leave us poems, a man, wonderfully, one of those strangers, yet in his leaving us his poems he is less stranger and more a pilgrim we get to know on a long journey, if we journey long enough with him and his words. His revealed appetites. And to display his hungers the way he does exhibits a rare bravery, but a bravery bordering on a recklessness that I can only marvel at. Not just the way he opens his raw yearnings, his intimacies with women but also the way he defiantly praises life not from designed ignorance of its suffering but in spite of them. A man who can declare unconditionally:  And I say nevertheless.

from A Stubborn Ode

The beautiful women grow old, our hearts moderate.
All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.
When Gordon was released from the madhouse he could
not find Hayden to say goodbye. As he left past
Hall Eight, he saw the face in a basement window,
tears running down the cheeks. And I say, nevertheless.

The courage of his I say nevertheless carries even more poignancy in light of his mental diminishing through dementia in his last years. But none of this diminishes what he lived. How he cocked his snook at death and loss through his life and poems at every turn. How he demanded that no matter what you must sing going down.

from Don Giovanni on Hs Way to Hell

you never recover
you never escape
and you musn’t endevour to find the mistake

that cripples with beauty
that butchers as love
      sing folly, sing flee, sing going down

sing maidens and towns, Oh maidens and towns
folly, flee, sing going down

And how, oh how he sang! In an interview with American poet and essayist Chard deNiord during a poetry workshop in 2003 and now published in deNiord’s book he says:

I want to confront death in my poetry. Like the lines I read last night from my poem A Brief for the Defense,

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
aren’t starving someplace, they are starving
someplace else. With flies in their nostrils
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

We must not let misery take away our happiness. It’s a crazy thing to say because life can be horrifying…. But it’s important to go on being capable of happiness or delight in the world, not to ignore these other things but to recognize we have to build our poems within a bad terrain.

from Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs – Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century Poetry, Marick Press, 2011

Oh, yes. To build our poems in a bad terrain. Here is the surprising end to A Brief for the Defense:

If the locomotive of the lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit that there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Trademark Gilbert. He was a master of the large statement but more, statements married to a clarity of simple images that create the “isness” of the feelings he portrays. In the same 2003 interview with poet Chard deNiord he credits Chinese poetry, poets like Li Po and Tu Fu for this element in his poetry: because it had this extraordinary ability to make me experience the emotional things the poets were feeling, and doing it with no means. I was fascinated by that: how much you could do with so little.

And how much he does with so little here. Who of us could say what Gilbert says at his poem’s end. To be that alive. To hear with that delicacy the faint sound of oars on a quiet night and to say it is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come. His lost loves, and yes, I will say this for him, yes, even his lost years at the end.