Jack Gilbert lived outside literary circles, often abroad, in solitude or in the company of a woman whom he loved. He found these conditions necessary to be able to concentrate on being alive and to discover the fresh perceptions that would become the subjects of his poems. The subject matter of his poetry is simply being alive and being in love, accompanied by an awareness that life ends in death and love ends in loss. Gilbert’s personae include the bard Orpheus, the lover of women Don Giovanni, and the aging magician and poet Prospero. The poems are personal and introspective, yet the themes and insights are universal.
Gilbert’s poetry is distinguished by its clarity, simplicity, and straightforward language and tone. Classical images, extended metaphors, precise language, and pacing characterize a style that is influenced by the modernists of the early twentieth century. Many of the poems are constructions of declarative sentences, often with endline enjambment and midline caesura for movement and emphasis. While seclusion, loneliness, loss, and mortality are significant themes, Gilbert’s final message is one of joy in being alive.
Views of Jeopardy
Views of Jeopardy introduces Gilbert’s clean, spare style and insights. Some of the poems are set in San Francisco; many are set in Italy and refer to his parting from Gelmetti. In his foreword to the volume, poet and critic Dudley Fitts writes that the subject of the book is “the art of poetry itself, and the problem is the tormenting one of communication.” The opening poem, “In Dispraise of Poetry,” introduces the idea of poetry as a difficult gift, but one that cannot be refused. Gilbert uses the symbol of the Greek bard Orpheus to represent the serious artist in an indifferent or hostile society. In “Orpheus in Greenwich Village,” Gilbert writes of the poet “confident in the hard-/ found mastery,” who descends into Hell, readies his lyre, and suddenly notices that his listeners have no ears. The poet in Views of Jeopardy is struggling against fashion: “the important made trivial.” San Francisco is “this city of easy fame.” It is apparent from Gilbert’s tone and subject matter that revision, time, care, and craft are Gilbert’s tools and that his influences are the classics and the modernists of the first half of the twentieth century; it is no surprise to the reader of Gilbert’s poems that he would leave the modern literary world to seek a more compatible place to write.
After twenty years of silence, Gilbert published Monolithos at the insistence of his friend and editor Gordon Lish. The volume, dedicated to Gregg, is divided in two parts. The first part, “1962,” consists of poems reprinted from Views of Jeopardy. However, the opening poem is not “In Dispraise of Poetry,” but rather “The Abnormal Is Not Courage,” in which Gilbert refers to his assertion that art and craft take time to polish. The poet speaks of “. . . the beauty/ that is of many days. . . .” The second part, “1982,” which takes up two-thirds of the collection, documents Gilbert’s life since his departure from the literary scene. In the opening poem, “All the Way from There to Here,” the poet speaks of dying, of grace, of the end of his marriage to Linda and of Monolithos, their home in the Greek islands. Themes of leaving and loss and the beauty of life’s everyday details permeate the poems. Don Giovanni is in trouble, he tells the reader in one poem’s title. The poet begins to look back to Pittsburgh, that tough steel-mill town. Even though the city is more temporal, gritty, and solid than any image in Gilbert’s work, the poet notes “. . . Even Pittsburgh will/ vanish. . . .” In Monolithos, mortality emerges as one of Gilbert’s great themes.
The Great Fires
The Great Fires is dedicated to Nogami. In this volume, the poet speaks as Prospero, the aging magician and poet. The volume includes many elegies for Nogami, unsentimental and powerful statements of grief, and speaks of the reality of pain. To be in pain is to be alive; to be in pain is to be a poet. In “Measuring the Tyger,” the poet writes: “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.” The volume also includes many poems celebrating solitude and distance from society. In “Prospero Without His Magic,” Prospero “. . . knows/ that loneliness is our craft. . . .” All three lost loves—Gelmetti, Gregg, and Nogami—appear, as do Orpheus and Don Giovanni. His themes are love, loneliness, and mortality, but never regret. “Michiko Dead” speaks of grief as a box that is too heavy to carry, yet the poet makes the effort to “go on without ever putting the box down.” In addition, poetry has always been a heavy burden, the gift that cannot be refused. Although Orpheus in “Finding Eurydice” may be “. . . too old for it now. His famous voice is gone/ and his career is past. . . .” Although “nobody listens,” Orpheus “. . . sings because/ that is what he does. . . .”
Refusing Heaven was hailed by critics as Gilbert’s greatest poem and his final gift. The volume is infused with the recurring themes of loneliness and happiness, struggle and delight as the poet transmits the clarity and understanding gained from a lifetime spent endeavoring to render his insights into precise language. The places and women he has known are all here: Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Greece, Manhattan, the New England woods, Gelmetti, Gregg, and Nogami. In “A Brief for the Defense,” the first poem in the collection, Gilbert sums up his philosophy of life: “We must have/ the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/ furnace of this world. . . .” He continues with his philosophy of death: “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,/we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.” Gilbert’s classical imagery and personae as Prospero and the writer who struggles to “do poetry” and get it right are in the volume as well. Mortality is a concern for the aging poet, but he will not give up life yet. He writes in the title poem “Refusing Heaven”: “. . . But he chooses/ against the Lord. He will not abandon his life.” In “Michiko Dead,” the poet had carried the heavy box of his grief in his arms. Ten years later, in “Bring in the Gods,” he is “carrying the past in my arms.”
The Dance Most of All
Refusing Heaven turned out not to be Gilbert’s final gift, despite the critics’ predictions. In The Dance Most of All, the poet continues to look backward and inward. Mortality, loneliness, and silence are among the aging poet’s themes. In “Prospero Goes Home,” the old magician is happy to return to the bare solitude of his island. In “Waiting and Finding,” he admits that he is “Beginning to like the silence maybe too much.” In “The Spell Cast Over,” set in Pittsburgh, he reveals the difficulty of aging: “The old men came from their one room/ . . . To remember what used/ to be . . .” and “. . . To see/ their young hearts just one more time.” However, it is the beauty of life, imperfect as it is— the dance most of all—that poet Gilbert celebrates above all.
Dow, Philip, ed. Nineteen New American Poets of the Golden Gate. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.
Freeman, John. “Refusing Heaven: A Profile of Jack Gilbert.” Poets and Writers. (March/April, 2005).
Genesis West. “Genesis West Celebrates the Excellence of Jack Gilbert.” 1, no. 1 (Fall, 1962): 66-94.
Gilbert, Jack. “An Interview with Jack Gilbert.” Interview by Chard de Niord. American Poetry Review 38, no. 1 (January/February, 2009): 26-30.
_______. “Jack Gilbert.” Interview by Sarah Fay. In “Paris Review” Interviews, edited by Philip Gourevitch. Vol. 1. New York: Picador, 2006.