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 have been trying for decades to subvert. A self-proclaimed “serious romantic,” Gilbert writes poems full of feeling, working to cultivate “something that matters to the heart,” a romantic notion approached these days with a strong inoculation of irony, if at all. While many poets working with such hot materials might seek a mitigating factor when casting them into verse — fragmentation and abstraction are two modes currently in fashion — Gilbert courts danger by pursuing a far more traditional approach. Crystalline imagery, direct speech, the language of place and the self are hallmarks of Gilbert’s style from his first poem to his final book. “You hear yourself walking on the snow. / You hear the absence of the birds. / A stillness so complete, you hear / the whispering inside of you,” the poem “Betrothed” from Gilbert’s third book, The Great Fires, begins.
When I hit the log
frozen in the woodpile to break it free,
it makes a sound of perfect inhumanity,
which goes pure all through the valley,
like a crow calling unexpectedly
at the darker end of twilight that awakens
me in the middle of a life.
Gilbert’s spare style and unhurried pace also push against current trends, away from what Stephen Burt has coined the elliptical mode, poems in which, in the words of Henri Cole, “the truth-seeking function of the lyric is forsaken in favor of surface.” In a 2005 interview in The Paris Review, Gilbert admits, “I like ornament at the right time, but I don’t want a poem to be made out of decoration. If you like that kind of poetry, more power to you, but it doesn’t interest me.”
What Gilbert is interested in is intensity, and a fiery measure of compression, often conveyed in clipped or fragmented syntax, conveys this in even the slightest poems:
The man is doing the year’s accounts.
Finding the balance, trying to estimate how much
he has been translated. For it does translate him,
well or poorly. As the woods are translated
by the seasons. He is searching for a baseline
of the Lord. He searches like the blind man
going forward with a hand stretched out in front.
(“The White Heart of God,” The Great Fires)
Gilbert’s search for that intensity of purpose becomes an almost religious quality in his poems. Yet in searching out “something that matters to the heart,” Gilbert is not interested in confession, in poems occupied solely with the self and its story. “Poetry is a kind of lying,” he says in a poem of the same title from Monolithos. “Those who, admirably, refuse / to falsify…are excluded / from saying even so much.”
For those familiar with Gilbert’s work, Collected Poems offers a rare chance to read, in their entirety, his first two books of poems. Until now, neither book has been available in print, and used copies have been known to fetch as much as a thousand dollars on sites like Amazon and eBay. It will be a relief to those who have admired Gilbert’s severity in later years to find that he is, in fact, human, capable of errors in both judgment and execution. Poems from Views of Jeopardy find Gilbert writing in received and invented forms, a far cry from the single-stanza he would settle into in his later work. A Villanelle entitled “Elephants” comes wrapped in a frieze of obscure abstractions that would have pleased Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren to no end:
I walk my mornings in hope of tigers that yearn
for absolute orchards and the grace of rivers, but instead
the great foreign trees and turtles burn
down my life, driving my hands from the fern
of tenderness that crippled and stopped the Roman bed
in my blood. All night the statues counsel return
even so, gesturing toward Cézanne and stern
styles of voyaging broken and blessed.
Gilbert’s stern style continues to bear homage to the mot just of Pound’s “A Few Don’t’s,” but this early paean to Eliot seems, in retrospect, a style that he had to slough off in order to embrace a more direct mode of speech. Other poems in Views of Jeopardy seem mere experiments with form and sound: “The oxen have voices / the flowers are wounds / you never escape from Tuscany noons // they cripple with beauty / and butcher with love / sing folly, sing flee, sing going down” (“Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell”). Still others find Gilbert, for all his independence from schools of taste, a victim of his time:
The four perfectly tangerines were a
as they sat
(three to one)
in that ten-thirty
not unhappily of death
singing of how they were tangerines
against continuous orange
they were only
(“The Four Perfectly Tangerines”)
Reading Views of Jeopardy in light of Gilbert’s later work is instructive not only for what he would cast off, but also for the modes of creation he would nurture into a mature style. Several poems from Views of Jeopardy would later be reprinted as a first section in Monolithos, among them “In Dispraise of Poetry”:
When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.
If this poem (and others like it) showcases Gilbert’s compression and control, it also illustrates a less-visible attribute of his style: distance. As his Collected Poems shows, Gilbert is drawn to the most intense subject material (death, love, life’s meaning and purpose) and speaks of it in the most direct language he can muster, “the forgotten dialect of the heart.” But Gilbert also employs a diverse range of techniques that distance the perceived “I” of the poet from the heat of his materials, as if Gilbert were some forge-master in one of the great factories from the Pittsburgh of his youth who, drawn to the most fiery and luminous piece of ore, must use cold metal tongs in order to lift that brightness as close as possible to the eye. Fictional personae — from Ovid to Robinson Crusoe, Dante to Prospero — appear in all of his books. And in his most searing poems about divorce, betrayal, and grief, Gilbert often employs the third person, creating a separation between speaker and subject that allows the poem to speak even more powerfully about the emotional seed of its generation. “Meaning Well,” from Monolithos, much like “In Dispraise of Poetry,” finds Gilbert employing another of his favorite devices — allegory:
Marrying is like somebody
throwing the baby up.
It happy and them throwing it
higher. To the ceiling.
Which jars the loose bulb
and it goes out
and the baby starts down.
Any discussion of Gilbert’s poetry inevitably provokes stories about his life. When Gilbert left for Greece, he settled with his companion, the poet Linda Gregg, on the relatively uninhabited island of Santorini. The move would prove pivotal for both of their poetry, but the relationship was not to last, at least not in the mode in which it had previously existed. “Eight years / and her love for me quieted away,” Gilbert writes in “Trying to be Married,” also from Monolithos. (Gregg continued to be a close lifelong friend of Gilbert’s up until his death.)
Many of Gilbert’s poems record the great loves of his life: his first love, an Italian woman named Gianna Gelmetti, Gregg, and his wife, Japanese sculptor Michiko Nogami, who died from cancer at the age of thirty-six. If, as Gilbert writes in “Harm and Boon in the Meetings,” “Grief makes the heart / apparent as much as sudden happiness can,” the subject of love—complete with its sudden happiness and grief—provides the impetus for Gilbert’s crowning achievements, The Great Fires and Refusing Heaven, his third and fourth books, the latter of which was awarded the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. These poems, such as The Great Fires’s “Measuring the Tyger,” find Gilbert welcoming a more associative strain into his composition, one that augments his style without sacrificing the delicate blend of simplicity and depth he had already achieved:
Barrels of chains. Sides of beef stacked in vans.
Water buffalo dragging logs of teak in the river mud
outside Mandalay. Pantocrater in the Byzantium dome.
The mammoth overhead crane bringing slabs of steel
through the dingy light and roar to the giant shear
that cuts the adamantine three-quarter-inch plates
and they flop down. The weigh of the mind fractures
the girders and piers of the spirit, spilling out
the heart’s melt. Incandescent ingots big as cars
trundling out of titanic mills, red slag scaling off
the brighter metal in the dark. The Monongahela River
below, night’s sheen on its belly. Silence except
for the machinery clanging deeper in us. You will
love again, people say. Give it time. Me with time
running out. Day after day of the everyday.
What they call real life, made of eighth-inch gauge.
Irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry.
I want to go back to that time after Michiko’s death
when I cried every day among the trees. To the real.
To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.
Even when heartbreaking or tender, Gilbert is never easy, and his claims on some of the most traditional aspects of poetry — love, death, and God — are made by their sheer ferocity and surprise. Descendants of Keats's negative capability, Gilbert's poems twine the beauty and pain of life effortlessly without ever struggling to resolve the two.
Much of our current poetry is built on a foundation of mockery, irony, and cynicism. Responding to the thought-patterns and intellectual climate of the day, it argues for what is no longer possible and for what has been degraded, seemingly discontent with the scope of its own knowledge and familiarity, yet incapable — or unwilling — of overthrowing that complacency in search of something greater. Gilbert may have long since turned from a style that seems pertinent to modern society, but he has done this so that he might “experience [life] in an important way,” and “say something to someone that they will feel significantly inside themselves.” Eliot and Pound left America when Europe was a cultural and intellectual magnet; Gilbert left when America — birthplace of Dylan and the Beats, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll — was the place to be. He left not in the hope of something better, but in search of “the second-rate…the insignificant ruins…the unimproved” (“Less Being More," Refusing Heaven).
An edition of collected poetry published during a poet’s lifetime rarely contains his or her entire work. In the case of Jack Gilbert, we are left with a complete testament. What Gilbert reaped from his cultivation is invaluable to any reader. No one else in recent memory has written out of the ruins and failures of a life — divorce, old age, death — with as much satisfaction not for what was achieved, but for what was lived. No one now writing provides the same reprieve from our culture of internet-bred immediacy. And in a world increasingly hard-wired to group-think and corporatized expectations, no one offers the same stillness of thought or sense of fierce individuality. “We die and are put into the earth forever,” Gilbert writes in “Tear it Down.” “We should insist while there is still time.” Jack Gilbert’s poems offer us a rare engagement with the most fundamental forces. More than anything, his poems offer, as he put it, “a chance to be alive, [and] to experience the importance of being alive.” They offer us a life.