Jack Gilbert

November 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

One of my favorite poets died yesterday in Berkeley, CA. Jack Gilbert was 87 and had Alzheimer’s. It was the sort of death where you can say it’s a tragedy only because death is. I didn’t know him and he had plenty of adulation both early and late in his career (the middle, not so much), but now I wish I’d written him a note, when I first discovered him in 2005. I don’t remember what drew me to his fourth book, Refusing Heaven. Nobody told me about him. But somehow I found it, read it, and I should have said: thank you. Thank you for being brilliant. For hewing to exactly what you wanted to say, not spending one extra word. Thank you for making that outworn subject—love gone wrong—feel like a place to find wisdom and to express that other love, the one we use to communicate with friends and strangers.

I copied several articles and interviews about him yesterday, intending to read them and craft an essay about his life. I don’t feel like doing that now. I know he was an expatriate, lived all over the world, sought solitude and was lonely, loved women and lived with grief. I know his wife died young. That’s enough to know for now, though I will read the articles and interview and obituaries. His achievement makes me remember what poetry is for: not to move us or teach us (though that’s very fine), but to show us what new and durable craft can be made from the unchanging heart.

There are writers you love because you can find so many meanings in their work, interpret them a hundred different ways and not be wrong—writers who delight you with the fecundity and shape-shifting of imagination—and others whose power is to never be misunderstood.

I probably wouldn’t have gotten along with Jack Gilbert. I’m too much the first sort of writer, fishing, magpie-ing, putting things together one way and another, looking for comedy, looking for drama, hoping people like it, hoping something sticks; but I would have adored him anyway. His truth is not mine and it is mine. My sorrows go squishy, but they have their own tenacity. The sinews of his poems make me feel my own muscle. Words can do things.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gilbert. I wish I’d met you. You were a very great man.

Tear it Down

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


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