The Academy of American Poets website has posted a fine essay by Dan Albergotti on the poetry of Jack Gilbert. Now in his 80s, this reclusive poet is equal parts Desert Father and Zorba the Greek. His work combines the spiritual purity of long solitude with an earthy, almost childlike delight in physical pleasures. Of his fourth and most recent collection, Refusing Heaven (2005), Albergotti observes:
Fittingly, there is a sense of finality to these poems. In a recent interview with John Freeman for Poets & Writers, Gilbert said multiple times as a matter of fact and without self-pity, “I am probably going to die in the next few years.” With characteristically perfect self-awareness, he understands and accepts the declining arc of this life that he has dedicated to poetry. In fact, Gilbert has always embraced his mortality in a way that recalls Keats. He believes in the inevitability and finality of our bodies’ failure, but also in the redemptive power of the heart and imagination in the time we are allowed. In “The Manger of Incidentals,” he insists, “We live the strangeness of being momentary, / and still we are exalted by being temporary.” Though we may all be doomed to ultimate failure, we can achieve momentary triumph, like Camus’s Sisyphus, with perspective and courage. Even Icarus, a character traditionally mocked for his foolishness, is rehabilitated from such a viewpoint. In “Failing and Flying,” Gilbert says, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” The flying was worth the fall. The revelation was worth the hardship. At the end of the poem, Gilbert makes an assertion that I cannot help reading in the context of his refusal of literary stardom and his embracing of obscurity and poverty: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.”I had the privilege of hearing Gilbert read at Smith College two years ago. Though wizened and frail, he still had a fire in his eyes that might well attract a sensitive young poetess. He couldn’t see the words on the page too well, and at one point, after stumbling over the words of his poem, he shrugged and smiled, and said, “Whatever.” That mix of humility and virile assurance is the basis for his unique charisma —
a word that comes from charism, an anointing, a sacred gift.
I did not know of Jack Gilbert, just as I know of so few modern poets; but I read the Albergotti Retrospective, with much interest. I will definitely put Gilbert on my reading list. I have much to learn from him about the affirmation of life, I am afraid.
Strange, to me, how his poems had such acclaim, yet seem in some cases like simple prose; and about the simplest of personal things. This made me think of the tension between those “practical intellects” who would make some fun of all such poetic “decoration” of what may seem obvious and common experiences.
This then also reminded me that Gilbert had to live and deal, as we all do, with the practicalities of everyday living; and that, absent some detailed biography, we may never know more than his poetry tells us about the particular specifics of his life. How does one make honest poetry from specifics?
Someday, I would like to write something about this
tension between the mundane practical realities of life, and the poetic vision. Maybe I could call it “Practicalities”?
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