Jack Gilbert, 1925 - 2012

November 14, 2012   •   By Juan Felipe Herrera

Image: From a NYU Creative Writing photo.


In the Soho, NYC — at Dunkin' Donuts of all places, a year ago — hanging out with Gerald Stern so we talked like always. About everything, about Paris in the 50's. The conversation was good, you know about selling black market typewriters and other goods. We came to a stop, Gerry slowed and spoke of Jack. The words are jumbled up now if I could recall them maybe about Jack being in a Berkeley home with Alzheimer’s having saved serious money just to hand it over to caretakers. It wasn't the words. It was the tenderness in Stern’s voice. That's all you need sometimes to say a lot about a good man.  Here's a poem with all the power Jack is known for — the hard-hooks that fold you down to your knees. Gracias Jack, I remember you too back in SF when I was starting out and you were getting your second wind.

            — Juan Felipe Herrera





We find out the heart only by dismantling what

the heart knows. By redefining the morning,

we find a morning that comes just after darkness.

We can break through marriage into marriage.

By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond

affection and wade mouth-deep into love.

We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.

But going back toward childhood will not help.

The village is not better than Pittsburgh.

Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.

Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound

of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls

of the garbage tub is more than the stir

of them in the muck of the garbage. 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 the body.


              — Jack Gilbert

 From The Great Fires 1982-1992 [1994] by Jack Gilbert  from Jack Gilbert: Collected Poems © Knopf, 2012


Born in Pittsburgh in 1925, Jack Gilbert worked as a steelworker and exterminator and attended Jack Spicer’s Magic Poetry Workshop in San Francisco in in 1957. After his first book in 1962 he lived abroad and published little for twenty years.

Books: The Dance Most of All (2009); Transgressions: Selected Poems (2006); Refusing Heaven (2005), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (1996); Monolithos (1982), winner of the Stanley Kunitz Prize and the American Poetry Review Prize and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Views of Jeopardy (1962), winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize. He was awarded a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Gilbert died on November 11, 2012 in Berkeley, California, at the age of 87, after a long battle with Alzheimer's.