Today our Senior Poetry Editor Katherine Smith reviews the poems of Jack Gilbert. As editors, we tell our readers to read our journal to see the aesthetics we most gravitate towards and publish, but that can also be seen in the writers and works we admire. Enjoy.
Back in the early eighties a fellow poet introduced me to Jack Gilbert’s books Views of Jeopardy and Monolithos, books whose purity of phrasing and limpid imagery nevertheless hinted at a depth of emotional and lyrical seriousness that redeemed the anomic world of discotheques, strip malls, and cheap fast-food lined wastelands that had emerged from the romanticism of the 6os, the world I lived in.
Yes, Gilbert’s books ignored contemporary ugliness, turned resolutely from the emptiness of consumer culture. I could not imagine Jack Gilbert strolling through the mall where I worked at Sears or the supermarket where I was so poor I shoplifted peanut butter as a teenager, filled with the steadily growing emptiness and malaise that American culture engendered in me.
Instead I gratefully followed the words of Jack Gilbert to San Francisco, to Paris, to Perugia. In the damp, dark basement of the University of Tennessee Graduate Library, I read these words from Views of Jeopardy:
The bridge was small and stone white
And called the Pont au Change
Or the Pont Louis Phillippe.
We went home at midnight
To the Ile Saint Louis as deer
Through a rustle of bells.
Six years distant
And the Atlantic
And a continent.
The way I was then
And the way I am now.
A long time.
The sensibility of these lines, their lyrical evocation of a shifting self, intimated to me the possibilities of self-determination in the passage of time. I wanted what Gilbert’s lines possessed even though, at nineteen, I wasn’t quite sure what that was.
What I was responding to was Gilbert’s authenticity, what Martin Heidegger calls mindfulness of being. Heidegger writes of two states of being, the state which is mindful of being and the state which is forgetful of being. Mindfulness of being, derived in large part from the insight into the mortality of one’s personal existence, leads to existential awe.
The state of forgetfulness of being, referred to by Heidegger as “inauthentic,” is the state most of us live in most of the time, tranquillized and engrossed within the dailiness of physical routine. Though Jack Gilbert didn’t perhaps shop at the same grocery store I did, what he offered was the sense that ordinary being, numbing, flesh denying, and tawdry as it was, included moments that were both terrifying and beautiful.
Gilbert offered the song. As an adolescent with a gaping emptiness inside her, it wasn’t so much Gilbert’s landscapes that saved me—though later on I followed his words out of the library and across the Atlantic to Europe– as his sensibility, the lyric seriousness, the steady belief that song could redeem even the emptiest landscape. Here’s another poem from Views of Jeopardy:
What if Orpheus
Confident in the hard-
Should go down into Hell?
Out of the clean light down?
And then, surrounded
By the closing beasts
And readying his lyre,
Should notice, suddenly,
They had no ears?
The unwavering belief in an austere music, in the transformative power of lyric in these early brief lines is echoed in Gilbert’s later work, in books such as The Great Fires, Refusing Heaven, and The Dance Most of All.
Part 2 tomorrow will discuss Gilbert’s later works.