OF ALL THE OBSCURE REFERENCES that proliferate in Bob Dylan’s eleven-minute epic “Desolation Row,” the most highbrow and literary would undoubtedly be that bit about “Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower.” Though Pound and Eliot are credited with shaping the twentieth century poetic landscape, they are often vilified for views on society and politics that turned respectively anarchic and conservative with age. The two high modernists were also criticized by many who saw their move across the pond as an abandonment of American literature: each chose Europe rather than America as the place to stage their revolution. In Dylan’s song the poets are mocked by “calypso singers [who] laugh at them,” yet there is something of the rarefied Trans-Atlantic that sticks in the imagination of a culture still so firmly rooted in anti-elitist ideologies. The end of Dylan’s verse can’t help but inhabit the world of those he mocks: “Fishermen hold flowers / Between the windows of the sea / Where lovely mermaids flow” inevitably brings to mind the final lines of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
Three years before Highway 61 Revisited, the poet Jack Gilbert received unprecedented fame when his first book, Views of Jeopardy, received the Yale Younger Poets prize and was nominated for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize. Robert Frost may have had his picture on the cover of TIME, but no poet had ever been offered photo spreads in Vogue and Glamour, nor been lauded by both the Beat counter-culture and the literary establishment they sought to oppose. But Gilbert, who died this week at age 87 after a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s, belonged to neither the counterculture nor the academic elite, and though he set up shop in both San Francisco and New York City, his first book finds him despairing of both cities. Months after his newfound success, Gilbert left for Greece by way of a Guggenheim fellowship, leaving American culture and its literary scenes behind.
Although Gilbert eventually returned to the United States, he never again entered the mainstream. A self-professed “farmer of poetry,” Gilbert waited twenty years to publish his second book of poetry, Monolithos, at the age of fifty-seven, and his third at the age of sixty-nine. In addition to being labeled willfully obscure, his poems are often dismissed as naïve and self-indulgent, belonging less to the post-modern era than to the Romantic and Modernist schools that inspired him. Recent reviews of his Collected Poems, which Knopf published in March of 2012, decry his “hopelessly Romantic” imagery and personality, painting the picture of a poet who “peg[s] his hopes on predictable personal epiphanies.” Even his proponents warn of lofty rhetoric, outdated vocabulary, and a studious avoidance of material that might resonate with modern readers. Still, this now-timely release has been praised as “certainly among the two or three most important books of poetry that will be published this year.” Aside from his recent passing, and whether or not you side with the praise of mystique or the withering criticism against his indulgences, why should you read it?
Gilbert’s work embraces what most poets...read more