Gone Somewhere, Gone Nowhere: In Memory of Jack Gilbert
I discovered Jack Gilbert at the turn of the century, when a friend of mine handed out selections from Monolithos as part of an informal poetry workshop that he was directing. To say I remember little else of what we read that spring is an understatement—the poems detonated within me with the soft force of flowers blooming at the speed of light, like one of those speeded-up films of springtime. I remember asking, “How did I not know about this poet until now?” The answer was biographical, of course: only three books in just under forty years, and a deliberate withdrawal, a studied absence, from the mainstream literary scene.
That absence protected Gilbert’s talent, and perhaps made possible a richly productive old age that only the onset of dementia could cut short. When new Gilbert poems began to appear in the Naughts, soon collected in 2005’s Refusing Heaven, I was thrilled to find the same detonations, the same blend of urgency and quietism, particularly in the astonishingly powerful “A Brief for the Defense,” whose crucial passage reads:We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
It’s no hyperbole to say that “A Brief for the Defense” is the only poem that I’ve read in the pages of The New Yorker that made me want to rush out into the street and declaim it to the first passerby I met—not because it was a great poem, but because it communicated something so vital, so true, so necessary, and did so in a way that anyone, even the most casual or hostile reader of poetry, could feel.
Gilbert’s voice— his direct, unselfconscious, perfectly poised lyricism—his gift for simple complexity, his wholly embodied, visceral voice—has an almost unmatched power in American poetry and is one that, once heard, is impossible to forget. It seems to come from depths of experience and feeling that are scarcely credible in both their calm and their intensity. I was fortunate to see Gilbert read in 2005 or so; he was very frail, his delivery halting, but his voice was precisely the voice that I found so inescapable on the page. It’s the voice that puts paid to the notion that the lyricism in poetry is somehow bankrupt or exhausted. It’s the voice that, in “Trying to Write Poetry,” stays rooted in the impossibility and necessity of the poetic gift (a gift Gilbert once famously likened to the ruinous white elephant of myth):
There is a wren sitting in the branches
of my spirit and it chooses not to sing.
It is listening to learn its song.
Sits in the Palladian light trying to decide
what it will sing when it is time to sing.
Tra la, tra la the other birds sing
in the morning, and silently when the snow
is slowly falling just before evening.
Knowing that passion is not a color
not confused by energy. The bird will sing
about summer having its affair with Italy.
Is frightened of classical singing.
Will sing happily of the color fruits are
in the cool dark, the wetness inside
overripe peaches, the smell of melons
and the briars that come with berries.
When the sun falls into silence,
the two birds will sing. Back and forth,
making a whole. Silence answering silence.
Song answering song. Gone and gone.
Gone somewhere. Gone nowhere.
Rest in Peace, Jack, in the somewhere and nowhere, with grateful thanks for the songs and the silences.