A New Yorker Appreciation of Jack Gilbert…

… who died last week, includes this poem.


He thinks about how important the sinning was,
how much his equity was in simply being alive.
Like the sloth. The days and nights wasted,
doing nothing important adding up to
the favorite years. Long hot afternoons
watching ants while the cicadas railed
in the Chinese elm about the brevity of life.
Indolence so often when no one was watching.
Wasting June mornings with the earth singing
all around. Autumn afternoons doing nothing
but listening to the siren voices of streams
and clouds coaxing him into the sweet happiness
of leaving all of it alone. Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose. Neglecting
the future. Content to let the garden fail
and the house continue on in its usual disorder.
Yes, and coveting his neighbors’ wives.
Their clean hair and soft voices. The seraphim
he was sure were in one of the upstairs rooms.
Hesitant occasions of pride, feeling himself feeling.
Waking in the night and lying there. Discovering
the past in wonderful stillness. The other,
older pride. Watching the ambulance take away
the man whose throat he had crushed. Above all,
his greed. Greed of time, of being. This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Well, I wrote about a cicada poem here, and the cicadas do the same thing in John Blair’s poem that they do here in Gilbert’s. They give out, says Blair, with a “warning wail” about, Gilbert says, “the brevity of life.”

Jack Gilbert is famous (among poetry types) for having had so much “greed of time, of being” that early in his career he turned his back on America, and the poetry world (in which he had already had high-profile successes), and lived pretty much alone on Greek islands. As “Trangressions” makes clear, Gilbert’s recognition of life’s brevity catalyzed a determination to be, not so much to do. He wrote some – not many – books of poems, but mainly he placed himself, open and ecstatic, in life. He lived, as it were, a microscopically intense existential ongoingness in one of the earth’s most intense settings.

Many of his poems arise from this peculiar ontological arrangement, this hyper-focused sensitivity to passing objects, moods, weather patterns. Undistracted by work, family, and social life, untethered by ideology or faith, Gilbert produced strange poems that starkly combine the two essentials of each human being’s being in the world: the physical universe, and the mind. His poems are both sharply clarified evocations of people and things in his sun-blasted environment, and insistent conversations with himself about his own motives in moving himself away from ordinary life, and the price he’s paid for that move.

Of course Gilbert would choose Greece for his slow sweet clear declension through time. Don DeLillo chose it too, for a few years, and saw the same things Gilbert did. In his novel, The Names, DeLillo described a Greek village in language that, put into short lines rather than paragraphs, could be Gilbert’s:

Laundry hung in the walled gardens, always this sense of realized space, common objects, domestic life going on in that sculpted hush. Stairways bent around houses, disappearing. It was a sea chamber raised to the day, to the detailing light, a textured pigment on the hills. There was something artless and trusting in the place despite the street meanders, the narrow turns and ravels. Striped flagpoles and aired-out rugs, houses joined by closed wooden balconies, plants in battered cans, a willingness to share the oddments of some gathering-up. Passageways captured the eye with one touch, a sea green door, a handrail varnished to a nautical gloss. A heart barely beating in the summer heat, and always the climb, the small birds in cages, the framed approaches to nowhere. Doorways were paved with pebble mosaics, the terrace stones were outlined in white.

Realized space – that’s what the artist is after. The world’s objects and people distributed deeply and fully and feelingly so that when you look at them you see reality, you see the actual world.
In particular, you see the earth’s empty spaces inhabited, elaborated, brought to life, realized by people through use. In Greece, even nowhere is framed.

This needs to be a domestic lived reality, not the techno-phantasmagoria of the great skyscraper city. You seek elemental truths, basic daily gatherings-up, using DeLillo’s word. You want to observe this. So you could live, for instance, on the edge of a Balinese rice paddy just as easily as in a Greek village, for both give you daily and nightly visual access to the interaction of small human communities and natural beauty and bounty. Actually, Greece is better because it’s dry, without natural bounty in the way of watery Bali — you want visual access to small human communities enacting the existential drama of drawing from the earth beauty, sustenance, and meaning.

So, you’re ecstatically, aesthetically, engaged in all of this, but your consciousness – your being a person with a past, with regrets and confusions and worldly avidities – is going to bedevil you, and from the conflict between your settled engagement in a settled world and your neurotic, restless, maybe guilty self (you’re an American behaving like this, for goodness sake) will arise a poem like “Transgressions,” in which the poet talks to himself about his passion for pure being and his sense of the sinfulness of this passion.

The sin of “sloth,” “waste” — yet those were his favorite years, when he was doing “nothing important.”

Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose.

Whitman loafs and invites his own and the universal soul; but Gilbert isn’t inviting. His “transgression” resides in his greedy taking of life for himself. Lust, pride, violence, the narcissism of “feeling himself feeling.” He concludes:

This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Nice the way the word shiver shivers through unshriven in that unredeemed cold… But he’s feeling it… Feeling himself feeling the cold, and that’s much more important to him than any reckoning in conventional terms of his transgressions. He wants the true world, all of it, including the true world of his mind and his body and his own ways of being. These may be ugly or beautiful but it is their being existent that elates him, lends him the only redemption he really cares about. Leave all of it alone, he writes – let the world be and let myself be. Let me watch as I become part of the realized space of the globe, and let me transgress and transgress against the higher waste of a labored existence until I come to an end.

Jack Gilbert, whose poems I’ve featured…

… on this blog, has died.


Update: A fine account of Gilbert’s career and his last days.

“How do you plan to spend your resurrection?”

A hilariously smug Christian poses this question to Jack Gladney in White Noise, as they contemplate the aftermath of what everyone’s euphemistically calling the ‘airborne toxic event.’ In its end-time confidence, it’s sort of the ultimate anti-poetic question. Poets – poets of our time – tend to be present-moment mavens, anxiously, ecstatically, completely committed to intensity of earthbound experience. Linda Gregg, who died this week, was prominent among them.

For years she lived on Greek islands with Jack Gilbert (she dedicated one of her books to him, with the epigraph It was like being alive twice.), himself a quintessential greed of being poet:

Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose. Neglecting
the future. Content to let the garden fail
and the house continue on in its usual disorder […]
Hesitant occasions of pride, feeling himself feeling.
Waking in the night and lying there. Discovering
the past in wonderful stillness. […] Above all,
his greed. Greed of time, of being. 

A friend once mentioned to Gregg the name of a painting by Paul Thek – While there’s still time, let’s go out and feel everything – and she loved it and said Jack would have loved it.

One form of poetry you get with this disposition – and both Gilbert and Gregg wrote this way – is a seemingly dashed-off-from-this-moment’s-feelings, impressionistic set of tenuously connected statements and images, inside of which lies the somewhat hidden, somewhat obliquely referenced, tragic nature of life. Because there’s obviously a price to be paid for this seriously committed ecstatically open presentness – Gilbert talks about the price explicitly in this poem – and because, as some sage put it, Wherever you go, there you are. Which is to say, let’s not pretend that while you’re getting a major bang out of a Milos sunset, you’re not a neurotic like everyone else, with an inescapable personal history.

So… a poem of Gregg’s to remember her by. I’ll interrupt it with commentary. Go here for the uninterrupted poem.

Looking for Each of Us

[The title I think contains a double meaning: She’s looking for the meaning of her past, and the past of her now-departed lover Gilbert, in a bunch of postcards she saved from those years. She’s also doing the work of looking for both of them, in the sense of her having taken on an obligation.]

I open the box of my favorite postcards   
and turn them over looking for de Chirico   
because I remember seeing you standing   
facing a wall no wider than a column where   
to your left was a hall going straight back
into darkness, the floor a ramp sloping down  

[de Chirico because his surrealistic paintings often feature weird mysterious interiors/architectures with lots of open spaces and ancient statuary – all of this richly suggestive material for a woman trying to fill in the gaps of her romantic past in Greece.]

to where you stood alone and where the room   
opened out on your right to an auditorium   
full of people who had just heard you read   
and were now listening to the other poet.   

[She recalls maybe their first encounter at one of his readings; his partial emergence behind partial walls, columns, in the dark… A figure for her never quite getting him, or never quite getting his vacant, open, shadowy, setting – his existential location – clearly looked at.]

I was looking for the de Chirico because of   
the places, the empty places. The word   
“boulevard” came to mind.

[Came to mind, perhaps, because the world she’s remembering was broadly open – as broad as a Parisian boulevard … And while all that openness was then, let’s say, beckoning and sexy, in retrospect, having been in various ways wounded in their relationship, it now has a more de Chirico feel – ominous, even threatening.]

Standing on the side   
of the fountains in Paris where the water   
blew onto me when I was fifteen. It was night.   

[Again an image of her peripherality to, partial understanding of, a scene – as she was peripheral to Gilbert at the reading. She recalls being at the “side” of the fountain, aware of it mainly because of the water it blew onto her, and of her being in the dark. There’s visceral experience when you’re young – the water – and there’s detached retrospection when you’re older.]

It was dark then too and I was alone.   
Why didn’t you find me? Why didn’t   
somebody find me all those years?

[Here I think she’s back to the scene at the poetry reading – another dark shadowy setting of insufficient knowledge. She recalls her lonely youth, as she went “undiscovered” for so long by people like Gilbert, who should have recognized right away the love she had to give.]

The form  of love was purity. An art. An architecture.   
Maybe a train. Maybe the shadow of a statue   
and the statue with its front turned away   
from me. Maybe one young girl playing alone,   
hearing even small sounds ring off cobblestones   
and the stone walls.

[Her engagement with de Chirico’s visual world continues as she recalls her pre-sexual world of aesthetic feeling. Each of her maybes describes an image in a de Chirico painting, with the sense of her own peripherality and insufficient understanding implicit in his scenes: the statue’s front is turned away from her; the avidly sensitive, avidly feeling, young girl is desperate to hear even the smallest meaningful sounds from the world around her… In a way she’s returned to that world now.]

I turn the cards looking   
for the one and come to Giacometti’s eyes   
full of caring and something remote.
His eyes are loving and empty, but not with   
nothingness, not for the usual reasons, but because   
he is working.

[Still not finding the de Chirico, the poet finds a photograph of another artist, Giacometti, whose love, like her earlier, pre-sexual love, expresses something purely aesthetic and has nothing for her emotionally – and the implicit comparison here is with her poet/lover, whose love for her similarly turned out to be, let’s say, more about being engrossed in aesthetic “work” than about human caring.]

The Rothko Chapel empty. A cheap   
statue of Sappho in the modern city of Mytilene   
and ancient sunlight. David Park’s four men   
with smudges for mouths, backed by water,   
each held still by the impossibility of what   
art can accomplish.
A broken river god,
only the body. A girl playing with her rabbit in bed.   
The postcard of a summer lightning storm over Iowa.

The poem concludes with a cascade of images – one postcard after another glanced at on the way to the de Chirico she’s still after and won’t find – so she won’t find the clarity she seeks. She finds instead art’s oblique truths, with plenty of emptiness: Giacometti’s empty eyes; the empty Rothko Chapel; vast ancient sunlight in a cheapened world. And then there’s a precise description of the Park painting, a painting which accomplishes perhaps exactly what Gilbert and Gregg were ultimately, with all their intensity of movement, after: being “held” in the moment of fullness and intensity forever. Which is what powerful poems do: They elaborate such moments so strongly as to arrest them.

But now? The men’s godlike reality in their generative hyper-present moment, captured by the artist, is only painted body now – cheapened, broken. And the next image – the girl playing with the rabbit on her bed – is not I think a postcard, but a personal memory stirred by all of the images she has seen. It’s a kind of sudden reversion to the real – not passion, not art, but plain old autobiography — her own inescapable personal history.

By the time we get to her final postcard, we’ve transcended even personal history: The summer lightning storm over Iowa zooms everything out to nature as its blind tragic force crashes over the best-laid passionate intensities and geographical exoticisms. We end in Iowa.

Okay, so here’s my Valentine’s Day poem.

It’s by Jack Gilbert. In this poem, he’s mourning the death of his wife – a lot of the poems in his book The Great Fires are about her, Michiko Nogami, a sculptor who died young.


I Imagine The Gods

I imagine the gods saying, We will
make it up to you. We will give you
three wishes, they say. Let me see
the squirrels again, I tell them.
Let me eat some of the great hog
stuffed and roasted on its giant spit
and put out, steaming, into the winter
of my neighborhood when I was usually
too broke to afford even the hundred grams
I ate so happily walking up the cobbles,
past the Street of the Moon
and the Street of the Birdcage-Makers,
the Street of Silence and the Street
of the Little Pissing. We can give you
wisdom, they say in their rich voices.
Let me go at last to Hugette, I say,
the Algerian student with her huge eyes
who timidly invited me to her room
when I was too young and bewildered
that first year in Paris.
Let me at least fail at my life.
Think, they say patiently, we could
make you famous again. Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days. That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.


The poem is a small dialogue with the gods who, given the anguish they put him through with Nogami’s death, have by way of compensation offered to grant the poet three wishes. The gods seem to think he’ll want the obvious ones – fame, wisdom – but he wants absurdly tiny and trivial ones. I want to see squirrels again (the poet lives on a Greek island and doesn’t, I guess, see them); I want that feeling of happiness I had years ago when, although practically broke, I was able to afford to eat a little of a delicious roasted hog… His wishes point to part of Gilbert’s philosophy: happiness lies in the little things. The big things will break you. You don’t want to bite off too much of the great hog Life; you want just a little, as in Little Pissing Street. Or in the happy-making Street of the Bird-Cage Makers (a not terribly important but possibly beauty-making activity, like poetry). Or the Street of Silence – words being another thing you don’t want to overdo. (Gilbert has produced very few books of poetry.)

Or let’s see… Gilbert tries on various other wishes he might like granted. They’re very particular things. It’s always bothered him that when he was very young he was afraid to take up the timid sexual invitation of a beautiful woman in Paris. Let that thing have happened; let me have gone into her room. Maybe I would have been a flop in bed, but “let me at least fail at my life.” Let me have tried; let me have pursued the plot of my life here, good or bad.

You can see developing a sort of theme here which involves wanting above all reality – tactile, emotional actuality. Wisdom and fame are abstractions; what the poet wants granted is the conviction of fully existing here and now. So here’s the Valentine’s Day thing:

Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days. That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.

Grieving, he’s disengaged from the real and now, floating above his own pain. So his real wish is to love again so that he can reassume his position in the human story. Only through love do you learn – do you feel – mortality – here understood as the glorious truths of embodied existence and as the end of embodiment. Frighten me into the present – make me love another person so that I can feel, instead of this affectless suffering, the real ground of human being, suffering and bliss and all. Only then will the days become weighty again with the heft of an actual life, and the nights wild with visceral passion.

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul …”

This Chesterton quotation is one of those very fine, very annoying things we say to each other at times like these, late Decembers, year ends, year beginnings. Yes yes soul must

clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

and louder sing and

You must change your life.

Take a look at the most significant publishing launch for the American new year if you want to know how tunefully renewed our souls are.

Our souls are clapping pills down their gullets.


Still, we want what we want. We want vivacity, and we want wisdom. We want to feel we are truly alive, and we want to feel we are living in the truth.

This long clunky poem
written in 1897 by Edwin Arlington Robinson – “Octaves” – gets at the problem kind of nicely… Or, since it’s not a very good poem, it gets at the problem in a way ol’ UD finds moving. The bad writing, the unachieved philosophical ambition, the naivete — UD likes these. She likes the peculiar way they’re deployed here, in this particular poem, which records the sound of one man trying to clap.

Some of it’s claptrap, actually, which UD also likes.

You’re welcome to whomp yourself up with Onward Christian Soldiers as you anticipate the new year; UD‘s looking for lyrics that capture the way we shout RETREAT just as loudly as we shout ADVANCE.


So let’s see. We’re not gonna do the whole poem because as I said it’s quite long, one eight-line verse after another after another.

Start here, in the middle of the eighth stanza.

[T]hough forlornly joyless be the ways
We travel, the compensate spirit-gleams
Of Wisdom shaft the darkness here and there,
Like scattered lamps in unfrequented streets.

Clunky, yes? Forlornly joyless feels not only redundant but unpretty as language; and the little points of light that lucid vivid soulfulness sheds are dully compared to streetlights… Reminds UD of Tennyson’s arch, also a dull image:

[A]ll experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

And this is also an image of the glinting into this dull world of the highly lit existence – the new life, the new soul, the new year – that beckons us.

Where does a dead man go?—The dead man dies;
But the free life that would no longer feed
On fagots of outburned and shattered flesh
Wakes to a thrilled invisible advance,
Unchained (or fettered else) of memory;
And when the dead man goes it seems to me
‘T were better for us all to do away
With weeping, and be glad that he is gone.

Let the dead bury the dead, says Robinson; or, rather, Robinson natters away about it while Blake, say, or Allen Ginsberg, or – a prose favorite of UD‘s – Henry Miller – gets it said faster and louder and more jazzily… But, again, UD finds the nattery quality here, the sense of Robinson talking to himself, inquiring rather than announcing, attractive, faithful to most people’s mental reality. A “thrilled invisible advance” is very nice — if one can free oneself from one’s past (UD‘s friend David Kosofsky, who died last year, once lamented in an email to her that he was

feeling self-loathing at never having wrestled my adolescent issues to even a stalemate.)

one can perhaps experience an exciting inward forward motion, a surge of open possibility — that new life everyone’s on about…

But this operation – this wrestling – will probably have to be pretty brutal — “be glad that he is gone.” Blake writes: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” We may not have the stomach for this psychic savagery. We may prefer, like David, a weak form of wrestling which makes us hate our inability to have done with things and move on.

So through the dusk of dead, blank-legended,
And unremunerative years we search
To get where life begins, and still we groan
Because we do not find the living spark
Where no spark ever was; and thus we die,
Still searching, like poor old astronomers
Who totter off to bed and go to sleep,
To dream of untriangulated stars.

Very nice, no? Every now and then Robinson knocks one out of the park. Untriangulated stars is spectacular, as is blank-legended… And what’s the point here? Only that we set out on our new yearly reanimations all wrong; we assume some originary point of purity, of full light, from which we have strayed into the dark, and we piss our lives away trying to get back (like Citizen Kane with Rosebud) to that first principle, Gatsby’s just-flicked-on green light. We think of ourselves as that singular Thing, a Thing not yet triangulated (of course even if we get as far as accepting triangulation, that’s probably still tragic – think of the images of blighted stars amid the sound ones in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in Absalom! Absalom!), not yet implicated in the convoluted compromised crowded human story, not yet part of a pattern… We piss our lives away dreaming of getting back to some …

Hold on. Gotta get on the train back to DC. Later.


We lack the courage to be where we are:—
We love too much to travel on old roads,
To triumph on old fields; we love too much
To consecrate the magic of dead things,
And yieldingly to linger by long walls
Of ruin, where the ruinous moonlight
That sheds a lying glory on old stones
Befriends us with a wizard’s enmity.

Not only dead people and their ghostly power over us; not only a disabling sense of our own now-dimmed-but-somehow-maybe-reignitable selves; we also have to reckon with the romance of escapism, the magic of dead things, the malignant wizardry of a world softened into friendly, familiar and lulling shapes. James Merrill, contemplating his love for Greece, writes

[H]ow I want
Essentials: salt, wine, olive, the light, the scream
No! I have scarcely named you,
And look, in a flash you stand full-grown before me,
Row upon row, Essentials …

You want the hard sharp present-time clarity of things themselves; but even when you go to the trouble of moving to iconic things-in-themselves locations, things-in-themselves tend as soon as you’ve noted and named them to shrink into abstractions — the abstraction in this case being, well, Essentials

Merrill writes as a poet desperate to write the world, to perceive and express reality. (Greece meant as much to him as it did to Jack Gilbert and as it does to Don DeLillo.) As does Robinson:

The prophet of dead words defeats himself:
Whoever would acknowledge and include
The foregleam and the glory of the real,
Must work with something else than pen and ink
And painful preparation: he must work
With unseen implements that have no names,
And he must win withal, to do that work,
Good fortitude, clean wisdom, and strong skill.

That last line is a real let-down; the stanza takes us from Keats (“pipe to the spirit/ditties of no tone”) to the Boy Scouts (fortitude, wisdom, skill). But it makes its point well enough: If you want to grasp and express concrete essentials, you are going to have to do a good deal of private soulwork, as Stephen Dedalus says at the end of Portrait:

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

And – not to lay the discouragement on too thick, but … you recall how well Dedalus did at that ambition, right?

Still, writers can sometimes grasp essentials, internalize them… Or rather say they can metabolize them… Give them new life, a new soul.

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