Pacific Rim Review of Books

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'The Holy Curse of Poetry': On Jack Gilbert

David Day

The Dance Most of All.
Jack Gilbert, Knopf, 2009

Jack 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.

So, 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”…

If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.

Despite 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….

My 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.

Consequently, 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.

Thankfully, my 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.

This 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.

The world is beyond us even as we own it.
….Our soul and the body hold each together
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 footholds,
grabbing for things that won’t pull loose.
They fail us time after time and we slide back
without understanding where we are going ….

There 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 on earth.

Gilbert’s 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 Mistake”:

There is always the harrowing by mortality,
the strafing by age, he thinks. Always defeats.
Sorrows come like epidemics. But we are alive
in the difficult way adults want to be alive.

Personally 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.

I 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.

It 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 term).

It became 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.

Indeed, looking 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.

In 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.
And the 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 death.
I carry the privacy of your bodies
and hearts in me….

In 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:

I 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….
…It would
erase my life to find I made it up. Then I see them
faintly 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 thickens
or wanes, but there was somebody I knew truly. Three
of them singing under the willow inside my transience.

I 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.

To 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.

In 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….

“There 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.”

However, 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.”

There 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.”

And 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.

When 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 ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.

Graves 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.”

Gilbert 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.”

Philosophically, 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.”

Gilbert 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.

Irony, 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 real.
To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.

But 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 a spear.”

The 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.

It 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 wandered.

Luckily, 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.

That 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 and charges
by taking it back. What a bargain.
Like being young for a while….

Still 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 years ago.

Take this account of a Gilbert reading published by artandliterature.wordpress on the internet:

I 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.

And 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.

Ginsberg came to my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because 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.
And that too is more than enough.

David 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.