Back to Issue Features ]
Holy Curse of Poetry': On Jack Gilbert
Dance Most of All. Jack Gilbert, Knopf, 2009
Gilbert was never one to rush into print. ‘Publish or perish’ was
never his motto. He published his first book Views of Jeopardy (twenty
years in the making) in 1962 at the age of 37. His next book Monolithos
did not appear for another twenty years, in 1982 when he was 57. His third book
The Great Fires was published was published twelve years later in 1994
when he turned 69, and his fourth, Refusing Heaven, was released in 2005
as he reached the age of 80.
I didn’t expect this: a new book of Gilbert poems after a gap of only four
years! Who would imagine at 80, Jack Gilbert would suddenly decide to switch gears,
and rocket ahead with this publication of The Dance Most of All.
In a memorable 2005 review
of Refusing Heaven entitled “Coming to the End of His Triumph:
A Retrospective on Jack Gilbert” Dan Albergotti wrote:
Jack Gilbert is nearly
finished with his greatest poem. I believe we can hear an allusion to its impending
completion in the following lines from “A Brief Defence”…
the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
everything, Jack Gilbert has made a stubborn music with his poems and with his
life, and this fourth book is his final gift to those who will listen….
surprise – and I assume Albergotti’s – about the appearance
of this new book was also allied to the knowledge, and I’m giving away no
secrets here, that Gilbert has been bravely struggling with increasing degrees
of dementia for most of the last decade and is currently very frail indeed.
I was fearful that this new book might bypass Gilbert’s notoriously ferocious
editorial zeal, and like so many other poets in their waning years, this selection
might have been cobbled together from poems he had rejected from previous collections.
fears have not been realized. I have no idea what the editorial process was, but
this is a fine, strong collection and I am glad that we have it.
book adds to the depth and breadth of Jack Gilbert’s “greatest poem”.
It is also a very brave book. Gilbert was never one to turn away from emotionally
painful issues or personal tragedy. There are poems here that are heartbreaking
and prescient. One of these is “Winter Happiness in Greece” written
when he knew his condition was worsening.
world is beyond us even as we own it.
….Our soul and the body hold each
tenderly in their arms like Charles Lamb
and his sister walking
again to the madhouse.
Hand in hand, tears on their faces, him carrying
her suitcase. Blow after blow on our heart
as we grope through the flux for
grabbing for things that won’t pull loose.
us time after time and we slide back
without understanding where we are going
are many more beautiful and painful poems confronting old age and death in this
book, but none of them have a hint of self-pity. In an interview in 2005, Gilbert
explained the title of his book Refusing Heaven:
I think of heaven and
think that I wouldn’t want to just float around in happiness, in a place
without imperfection, where you don’t fall in love. I picture everything
there being one colour. I can’t imagine anything better than being here
poetry celebrates life, not despite pain, but accepting pain as an essential part
of being alive. In this new book, we find this stated explicitly in the poem “The
is always the harrowing by mortality,
the strafing by age, he thinks. Always
Sorrows come like epidemics. But we are alive
in the difficult
way adults want to be alive.
I was very much moved by the opening poem in this collection where he reflects
on how in an old villa on the mountain above the port on the isle of Paros where
he and his wife Michiko “had spent their perfect days”, and walk down
to the village along a stony riverbed and dirt road, and adding “Neither
of them knows/ she is dying”. I was moved, not the least because I had often
walked that down that riverbed and dirt road with them.
have read all of the poems Gilbert has allowed to be published over the years,
however, this book has given me a perspective on Gilbert’s work I never
quite suspected before. And a parallel to another poet I never before would have
imagined to have compared him with: Robert Graves.
never occurred to me to ask Jack Gilbert what he thought of Graves, but this last
book made me realize how much they shared as “serious romantics” (Gilbert’s
extremely clear to me that the poems in Gilbert’s The Dance Most of
All are without doubt the product of a dedication to the same set of romantic
ideals of poetry that Robert Graves so elaborately outlined in his White Goddess.
back through all of Gilbert’s life and work we see deep and serious romantic
love as our one consolation of our life here on earth. It is through this love
that we – for brief moments – don’t feel utterly alone in the
universe, and suffer from “alienation from one’s own kind” (as
Dudley Fitts wrote of Gilbert poetry.) In his case, consolation came in the form
of his three muses: the three great loves of his life: Gianna Gelmetti, Linda
Gregg and Michiko Nogami.
this book, it is hard to look at such poems as “Cherishing What Isn’t”,
and not see some manifestation of Graves’ Triple Goddess:
Ah, you three women
whom I have loved in this
long life, along with the few others.
four I may have loved, or stopped short
of loving. I wander though these woods
making songs of you. Some of regret, some
of longing, and a terrible one of
I carry the privacy of your bodies
and hearts in me….
another poem in this book “Becoming Regardless”, Gilbert assesses
his life, and again we seem to enter the ancient classical world and traditions
of Graves’ Muses:
begin to see them again as the twilight darkens.
Gathered below me and to
the right under the tree.
Ghosts are by their nature drawn to the willows.
They have no feet and hover just above the grass.
They seem to be singing….
erase my life to find I made it up. Then I see them
dancing in the dark: spirits that are the invisible
presence of what those
women were. There once was
a Venezia even if there is not now. The flesh
or wanes, but there was somebody I knew truly. Three
singing under the willow inside my transience.
suppose I always saw Gilbert as aligned with Ezra Pound’s aesthetics and
consequently in opposition to the poetics represented by the traditional forms
of Robert Graves.
a large degree this is true. In his language and diction, Gilbert is very much
in the modernist tradition of Pound, Eliot and William Carlos Williams. We see
that in many aspects Gilbert’s poetics are the opposite of Graves.
a 1990 interview Gilbert said: “Mechanical form doesn’t really matter
to me… Some poets write within form with extraordinary deftness. But I don’t
understand why… It’s like treating poetry as though it’s learning
how to balance brooms on your head….
is usually a minimum of decoration in the best. Both the Chinese and the Greeks
were in love with what mathematicians mean by elegance: not the heaping up of
language, but the use of a few words with the utmost effect.”
in their belief in the importance of the subject of poems and the sacred calling
and dedication of the poet, Gilbert and Graves are as one. Both have cultivated
solitude to better pursue poetry as a spiritual quest. Both chose the life of
the exile: Graves in the Balearic Isles; Gilbert in the Cyclades. Graves withdrew
from British literary life; Gilbert from America, as one critic put it, to better
understand “the universal human heart unpolluted by the distractions and
temptations of modern life.”
are many themes for the journalist of verse, yet for the poet…there is no
choice… there is the single infinitely variable Theme…. the single
poetic theme of Life and Death… the question of what survives of the beloved.
It was Robert Graves who wrote this, but it just as easily could have been Jack
Gilbert. In a Paris Review interview, Gilbert claimed he couldn’t
understand why poets allowed themselves to be distracted by trivial themes: “Why
do so many poets settle for so little? I don’t understand why they’re
not greedy for what’s inside them. When I read the poems that matter to
me, it stuns me how much the presence of the heart – in all its forms –
is endlessly available there.”
certainly, both men see the poet’s calling in similar terms. Graves would
certainly endorse wholeheartedly the first poem “In Dispraise of Poetry”
in Gilbert’s first book.
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
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could
not be refused.
begins his White Goddess with: “Since the age of fifteen poetry
has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any task
or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which
has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric.”
has done likewise. One might compare this to an interview in which Gilbert explained:
“When I was 14, I made a list of everything that I wanted out of life, and
I put ‘becoming famous’ on it. Then I did become famous at a fairly
young age, and I realized that it’s an empty thing. Fame can be addictive,
and some writers feel they must publish in order to remain famous. I don’t
do that…. I just want to make enough money so I can afford my life.”
the real dispute Gilbert has with Graves’ romantic ideals is in Gilbert’s
belief that: “Like the greatest poetry, true romantic love is transcendental,
but not mystical.”
does not embrace Graves’ mysticism, nor use ritualistic poetic traditions.
In the poem, “Measuring the Tyger” Gilbert fiercely expresses a hatred
of this approach to literature and life.
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
To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.
then this too is a kind of celebration of the Goddess, as Graves would probably
suggest by quoting Keats when he was writing under the shadow of death about his
Muse, Fanny Brawne: “Everything that reminds me of her goes through me like
publication of Gilbert’s book made me think of another parallel with the
life of Robert Graves. I recently read the forward to Graves’ Selected
Poems in which the poet realizes his judgement was waning and turned over
the selection of his work to a trusted editor.
made me remember the Irish poet John Montague telling me how he brought Robert
Graves to Ireland in the sixties for a grand public reading, and on the way to
the event in the limo realized that Graves mind was not what it once was and easily
Montague told me, Graves performed satisfactorily on the stage and read each of
the poems placed on the rostrum before him, although some in the audience were
a little perplexed as he read aloud each of the page numbers before, after and
in the midst of each of the poems.
both these fine poets’ minds should be lost in this terrible mental fog
seems particularly cruel. It seems Gilbert deals with just this kind of fate in
his poem “The Lost Hotels of Paris” which begins:
The Lord gives everything
by taking it back. What a bargain.
Like being young for a
we must give thanks for small blessing. Just as Graves was able to give memorable
readings despite his condition, so Gilbert had managed to do so until just a few
this account of a Gilbert reading published by artandliterature.wordpress
on the internet:
attended a poetry reading at the Folger Theatre in D.C. – one that was sponsored
by the Poetry Society of America and featured Gilbert, Maxine Kumin, Gary Snyder
and Irving Feldman. As anyone knows who has seen Gilbert read recently, he seems
frail at the podium, he sometimes struggles with reading his own work, he’ll
stop mid-poem and start over from the beginning to try to keep his way. And yet,
throughout it all, he’s completely mesmerizing. A hush falls over the audience,
as a group not just respectful but almost reverent, careful not to miss a word.
After the reading at the Folger, four lines were set up, one for each author,
and while the three other poets – masters of the form – chatted with
a few fans, the line for Gilbert’s signing stretched long throughout the
crowd. The copies of his latest collection at that time, Refusing Heaven, got
snatched up quickly, and I missed the opportunity to buy a copy of the book by
this poet whom I’ve never read or even heard of but who’d quickly
left me in awe.
so we come again to what both poets would agree is the curse and blessing of poetry.
At the end of “The Lost Hotels of Paris”, Gilbert accepts the extent
and the limits of this strange gift.
came to my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets it right even that much.
We look up at the stars and they are
not there. We see the memory
of when they were, once upon a time.
that too is more than enough.
Day has published over 40 books of poetry, ecology, history, fantasy, mythology
and fiction. Born in 1947 in Victoria, BC, he now lives in Toronto, Ontario.