It’s not often that a poet I read and admire shuffles off the mortal coil—most of my favorites have long since made that voyage, and of the living poets I enjoy, most are young(ish) folks in my social circle who I’m grateful to say seem well-positioned to live long and happy lives. The passing of Jack Gilbert on November 11, 2012, then, was an unexpected and unusual event for me—I knew when I read Facebook posts about his death that I’d want to devote a Poetry Friday to Jack and his work, and so here we are. Gilbert is not among the most famous or celebrated American poets of his era—in my opinion this is because, unlike most of the vaunted poets of this era, he can actually, you know, write worthwhile poetry (and I have to imagine that galls the many hacks who take up space in poetry journals). But I digress.
Gilbert wasn’t unrecognized for his work—a Pulitzer nomination (in poetry) in 1983, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1964—but I imagine his is a name most folk are unfamiliar with. I’m indebted to my friend, the poet Graham Isaac, for introducing me to Gilbert’s stuff by giving me a copy of his book The Great Fires for Christmas a few years back. Jack Gilbert’s stuff is devoid of much in the way of pretense, and full of humble honesty. Wikipedia says his work is characterized by “simple lyricism and straightforward clarity of tone” and that’s pretty spot-on (and not a bad epitaph for any writer to have). I had a hard time picking a poem—so much of his work is more or less perfect for Poetry Friday, brief but dense with lines to gnaw on, direct enough not to be puzzling but also just elusive enough to inspire the chase. Whether or not this particular poem grabs you, in general I think you should go looking for some of his stuff online or in a bookstore or library, but I’m hoping I chose well. It struck me as the right kind of poem to honor Jack’s passing, anyway. This is a poem from The Great Fires entitled “I Imagine The Gods”:
“I imagine the gods saying, We will
make it up to you. We will give you
three wishes, they say. Let me see
the squirrels again, I tell them.
Let me eat some of the great hog
stuffed and roasted on its giant spit
and put out, steaming, into the winter
of my neighborhood when I was usually
too broke to afford even the hundred grams
I ate so happily walking up the cobbles,
past the Street of the Moon
and the Street of the Birdcage-Makers,
the Street of Silence and the Street
of the Little Pissing. We can give you
wisdom, they say in their rich voices.
Let me go at last to Hugette, I say,
the Algerian student with her huge eyes
who timidly invited me to her room
when I was too young and bewildered
that first year in Paris.
Let me at least fail at my life.
Think, they say patiently, we could
make you famous again. Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days. That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.”
Gilbert is moving despite never being sentimental. I love the ambiguity of the opening line—a poem otherwise so sturdy and grounded on real physical details (the steaming pork in the winter air, the streets of his French town, etc.) begins with the gods making amends with Jack Gilbert. “We will make it up to you,” they say. What had they done to him? What redress did they think he deserved? Gilbert does not tell us, and we are left to imagine whether he had experienced some special sorrow that merited this offer, or whether he envisioned all human beings reaching the end of their days and finding that there would be some compensation for the agony of living. The delight in this poem begins for me, then, in Jack’s total unwillingness to play by the rules. In opposition to the very abstract and grandiose offer made by these nameless gods, Jack is specific—he wants those squirrels back, playing in the trees like they used to, and good hot roasted meat, a little more than he could usually afford. Over the rich-voiced protestations of the divinities who offer unfathomable wisdom, he concludes with the third wish—one night of intimacy with a woman, restored to that last stretch of his life before he was brave enough for intimacy. A window into a life he might have experienced but shied away from. All of these wishes are so thoroughly sensory and almost Falstaffian in their embrace of the world as-it-is, the here and the now.
And then that remarkable abstraction that seems to sum up those three wishes—“Let me at least fail at my life.” That one harrows me, cuts right down to the bone. One has to try in order to fail, after all, and the bleak honesty of this admission (and this plea) is so self-aware. He’s not asking for a fairy tale in which the do-over leads to a life of glory. He’s just looking back on the days he wishes he had shown up to play, so to speak—the days when he hurried past some brief beauty without noticing it, when he saved his pennies and walked past the street vendor, when he felt so safe in the coziness of rejecting opportunities offered that he never even knew the satisfaction of being struck down by the world. The humility and the wonder inside this phrase almost undo me—he is offered the freedom to take any gifts he wants, and he asks for the life he had back again, to savor failing at things he was afraid to hazard.
The offer is pressed on him a third time—what about fame, Jack, the fame you might have thought would follow that Guggenheim or that Pulitzer nomination but was never really in the offing? The chance to be a Laureate, to be his generation’s Frost or Cummings, to be a Somebody. And now he sets aside those physical particulars from early in the poem (stumbling just a little as he does, I think—the line about falling in love one last time is wasted, I think, following on the heels of the much more evocative image of the Algerian student), and asks for the great abstractions that these gods will not be glad to grant. No wisdom or fame here, not for Jack Gilbert: he’ll take mortality that frightens him into the urgency of now, he’ll take whatever it is that teaches him how weighty and how real each day’s living really is, and lastly he’ll take a full night and a feral heart, going to the grave ungentle like Dylan Thomas‘s father, as full of ferocity and love for the world as a man’s heart can be. Like the fairy tale Jack who traded a cow for some magic beans, I feel as though Gilbert is pulling the wool over the eyes of these gods—taking from them something they hardly think worthwhile, and finding in their gifts an immense value we can hardly guess at from the outside. Faust could have struck no better bargain.
I don’t know what more to say than this—there’s a lot in this poem that rattles in my chest, and keeps me mulling it over. The same is true of a lot of Jack Gilbert’s work. Go out there and pick up a copy, read a little bit, and hoist a glass (or a steaming hunk of whatever roasted delicacy your neighborhood specializes in) in memory of Jack. We didn’t have enough like him to spare his going, but we’re glad to have had the pleasure of his company while he was here.