Reprise for National Poetry Month – The Ah! Ah! Genius of Jack Gilbert – Two Huge Small Poems – # 47 in a Series

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

Just home from the delightful madness that is the annual AWP gathering of writers, this year in Portland. They say up to 12,000 participants! Yikes.The highlight for me: the astonishing reading given by Ilya Kaminsky from his latest poetry collection: Deaf Republic. One of those once-in-a-lifetime moments.

As this is April 1st I want to acknowledge this, the first day of National Poetry Month. And I thought this small poem of Jack Gilbert’s which I featured in a post back in 2017 would be a great way to start. Here is a short excerpt from that piece:

“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 poet Praxilla and her three line fragment that celebrated among other things, cucumbers:

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

Here are Praxilla’s lines translated by Richard Lattimore:

Loveliest of what I have left behind is the sunlight,
And loveliest after that is the shining stars and the moon’s face,
But also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears and apples.

Gilbert’s poem is a great example of pojacking (using another poet’s poem to create your own). But how he expands Praxilla’s terse fragment. Enriches it. Turns it into a much more dramatic ah!ah! moment!

This poem of his in stark contrast to another small gem, Games, in the same collection, Monolithos, published in 1982. I was alerted to this poem, one I had overlooked, by a poet whom I met at AWP. Here it is:


Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.

Jack Gilbert, ibid

The terrifying irony of this poem. How possible the impossible: to live alone and  afraid all of one’s life. A horror. And yet as much as Gilbert was not afraid to list life’s darknesses neither was he shy to celebrate its joys: mornings, light and cucumbers. And in spite of the suffering that is real and the pain and the loneliness in the world I live and love in I celebrate the sunlight that woke me this morning – water light on the canal running through La Conner, Washington.


  1. Cathie
    Posted April 2, 2019 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Thank you Richard. What a beautiful way to start the day and Poetry Month.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted April 2, 2019 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Dear Cathie Good morning back to you! Thank you for your comment!

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