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Poetry Focus: Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert by Don McGrath

A Slate magazine review of Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven (2005), his fourth volume in a 50-year career, bore the title Rescuing the Poet Jack Gilbert from Oblivion. In 1962, Gilbert’s first volume, Views of Jeopardy, obtained the Yales Series of Younger Poets award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Gilbert was roundly fêted and even given photo spreads in Vogue and Glamour. But after attaining literary celebrity, Gilbert turned his back on it the following year, when he moved to Europe to live a hand-to-mouth existence. This was the first stage of a long self-imposed isolation from the United States in Italy, Greece, Denmark, Japan and England.

Gilbert began his poetic life in the company of the Beats but felt their casual and often boisterious style at odds with his own ascetic impulses. He felt a need for solitude and the pared down, hard-won style he developed within it became, at times, a source of anxiety over his American reception. In Views of Jeopardy we read:

What if Orpheus,
confident in the hard-
found mastery,
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.

Gilbert’s solitude was not absolute: he was married twice, first to the poet Linda Gregg and then to the sculptor Michiko Nogami. Nogami, who died of cancer at age 36, spurred him to write some of his best poems. Some feminists have taken issue with Gilbert, claiming that he idealizes woman as vessels of mystery, but Meghan O’Rourke, author of the Slate review, tells us that Gilbert was aware of this danger. He wrote :

It got me thinking of the failed denomination
I was part of: that old false dream of women.
I believed it was a triumph to have access to their mystery…………
I had crazy ideas of what it was.

Gilbert’s two other books are Monolithos and The Great Fires : Poems, 1982-1992.

Don McGrath is a Canadian poet.
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