skip to Main Content

Senior Poetry Editor Katherine Smith continues her review of Jack Gilbert’s poetry. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

Gilbert’s austere voice underscores his commitment to wonder, to the avoidance of “idle chatter” that tranquillizes as it diverts . Nevertheless, Gilbert concerns himself with mundane chores. Indeed, much of the poetry in Refusing Heaven and The Dance Most of All tackles such subjects as cooking, cleaning, caring for the ill ( “The Good Life,” “The Thirty Favorite Lives: Amager,” and the stunning evocation of illness, “What I’ve Got,” ), acts that take on a meditative quality as Gilbert explores them. Yet Gilbert’s landscapes—Greece, Italy, Paris, Pittsburg— as well his subjects—events set well back in the past– are distant ones and his tone and voice reflect their distance. His is the voice of processed experience.

From Refusing Heaven, here are lines from “A Kind of Decorum”:

It is burden enough that death lies on all sides,

That your old kimono is still locked in my closet.

Now I wonder what would happen if my life did

Catch on fire again. Would I break in half,

Part of me a storm and part like ice in a silver bowl?

These lines bring to mind Shunryu Suzuki’s quotation of Dogen-zenji: ‘ Dogen-zenji said, “You should establish your practice in your delusion.” ‘ Gilbert never denies his delusions, never uses cleverness, wit or self-consciousness to escape responsibility for his limitations. Instead part storm, part ice in a silver bowl, he observes rather than analyzes his delusions.

These poems process old loves, past mistakes, from the vantage point of maturity. Here is the opening of the poem “Worth”:

It astonished him when he got to Katmandu to hear

The man from the embassy say a friend was waiting

Outside of customs. It was the Australian woman

He had met in Bali. His fault for running back

Across the tarmac when he realized she was crying.

The diction allows Gilbert to observe the experience closely and to make meaning of it Pitiless self-observation is made possible by the absence of cleverness and an essentially neutral tone that avoids self-consciousness.

It is this seriousness that occasionally leads Gilbert into writing some of his more troubling lines. “A Brief for the Defense” and “Kunstkammer,” are two of the weaker poems in Refusing Heaven, precisely because they attempt to transfer Gilbert’s intense wonder at his own particularity to a larger “we,” an attempt that simply doesn’t work; the focus on the collective tips Gilbert’s voice, his astonishingly deft self-aware tone, into sententiousness. Profundity is the risk of authenticity as glibness is the risk of cleverness. Yet as readers turn the pages of Gilbert’s books, for every poem that seems a little grandiloquent, there are three poems that will haunt forever with their sober lyricism, beauty, and evocation of loss.

Perhaps Gilbert makes the best case for his poetic sensibility in his poem “Metier”:

The Greek fishermen do not

play on the beach and I don’t

write funny poems.

As for me, I think of a number of funny poets whose lines I love, who make me smile, but not one of those witty poets could have set me on my journey– away from the emptiness and anomie of shopping centers, strip malls and the suburbs towards the passion for literature, art, beauty, meaning, and human experience—as surely as did Jack Gilbert’s serious poems.

Back To Top