Jack Gilbert

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Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 4,112 words

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About this Person
Born: February 17, 1925 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: November 13, 2012 in Berkeley, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Gilbert, Jack Herbert
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Views of Jeopardy (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962).
  • My Mother Taught Me, by Gilbert and Jean McLean, as Tor Kung (Copenhagen: Olympia Press, 1967).
  • Forever Ecstasy, by Gilbert and McLean, as Kung (Copenhagen: Olympia Press, 1967).
  • Monolithos: Poems 1962 and 1982 (New York: Knopf, 1982).
  • Kochan, by Gilbert and Michiko Nogami (Syracuse, N.Y.: Tamarack Editions, 1984).
  • The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (New York: Knopf, 1994).
  • Refusing Heaven: Poems (New York: Knopf, 2005).
  • Transgressions: Selected Poems (Tarset, Northumberland, U.K.: Bloodaxe Books, 2006).
  • Tough Heaven: Poems of Pittsburgh (North Truro, Mass., & Washington, D.C.: Pond Road Press, 2006).
  • The Dance Most of All (New York: Knopf, 2009).
  • Collected Poems (New York: Knopf, 2012).

OTHER

  • "Real Nouns," in 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate, edited by Philip Dow (San Diego, Cal.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), p. 7.

 
BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY:

Unlike many poets of his generation, Jack Gilbert does not pledge allegiance to any particular school or movement. Likewise, since the publication of his first book, Views of Jeopardy (1962), no critic has tried to pin Gilbert into a neat canonical classification. For the past fifty years, he has been a man alone, cultivating a singular poetic philosophy, one that favors distilled language and simple but concrete images over experimental or technical showmanship. His devout view that poetry must not be professionalized, coupled with a poetic vision that thrives on solitude, are among the reasons one will find Gilbert in few major anthologies. Despite his dedication to the craft, Gilbert throughout his career has remained ambivalent toward publishing. Four of Gilbert's five books were forced into existence through the efforts of either a friend, editor, or loved one. As he has made clear in several interviews, Gilbert does not write poetry for money, fame, or career. Beyond the reaches of fads and trends, Gilbert believes poetry is primarily a vehicle for experiencing a greater depth of feeling, for understanding the human spirit.

Jack Gilbert was born on 17 February 1925 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to James Plummer Gilbert and Della Florence (Ingram) Gilbert. His father, a circus performer, died after falling out of a window at the Owl's Club, a Prohibition-era speakeasy, when Gilbert was ten. At the time, Gilbert began working with his uncle, an exterminator, as his mother struggled to raise four children during the Depression. After flunking out of high school, Gilbert sold Fuller brushes door-to-door and worked in steel mills before being admitted, as a result of a clerical error, to the University of Pittsburgh. There he met and became friends with the poet Gerald Stern . Initially interested in writing novels, Gilbert began writing poetry largely because of the competitive nature of his relationship with Stern.

Upon earning his B.A. in 1947, Gilbert spent several years in Italy before moving in 1954 to San Francisco, where he attended Kenneth Rexroth 's weekly salon as well as Jack Spicer 's "Poetry and Magic" workshop at San Francisco State College. In 1962 a friend of Gilbert's gave him a stamped envelope and an application for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, urging him to submit his manuscript for Views of Jeopardy, which not only won the prize but also went on to receive several favorable reviews and was publicly praised by the likes of Theodore Roethke , Stanley Kunitz , Gordon Lish , and Muriel Rukeyser . Views of Jeopardy was considered for the Pulitzer Prize alongside collections by Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams . In Poetry (December 1963), Turner Cassidy praised Gilbert's "gift for concision" and declared Gilbert to be a more effective poet "than most of his bohemian fellows."

Written in a plain, simple language, Views of Jeopardy establishes the poetic style that remained constant throughout Gilbert's oeuvre. Heavily influenced by ancient Chinese poetry and Ezra Pound 's early imagistic work, Gilbert relies on concrete images and finely observed details to communicate his life experiences with unadorned delicacy. In his foreword, Yale Younger Poetry Prize judge Dudley Fitts describes Gilbert's poetry as beating "with an energy derived from the passion contemplated and ordered by a discriminating and always alert intelligence, a mind with a restless distaste for intermission. The poems make few elegant appeals to the ear; they move with a severer lyricism than the poetry of decoration and easy excitements will bear." Favoring exigence and compression, Gilbert is not bound by the "decoration" of poetic form. As he told Chard deNiord in a 2009 interview, "Just to get the technicalities straight, so the form is right, is a waste of time. It's nice. But that's not what great poetry is. I think one of the main things is simply concrete detail. After all, speaking is one of the newer arts of human beings. Seeing is infinitely older. We react to seeing something much more than to hearing it said." Gilbert achieves his visual exactness by writing free-verse poems composed of sentence fragments that never read like fragments. In "Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell (II)," a dramatic monologue of sorts, Gilbert gives the lecherous Italian nobleman a chance to plead his case. The poem begins with a question: "How could they think women a recreation?" In the context of Gilbert's other poems, one cannot help but imagine the speaker is Gilbert himself, looking within to find the motive for his own many amorous relationships: "But not for recreation. / I would not have lost so much for recreation." The poem continues:

Nor for love as the sweet pretend: the children's game
of deliberate ignorance of each to allow the dreaming.
Not for the impersonal belly nor the heart's drunkenness
have I come this far, stubborn, disastrous way.
But for relish of those archipelagos of person.
To hold her in hand, closed as any sparrow,
and call and call forever till she turn from bird
to blowing woods. From woods to jungle. Persimmon.
To light. From light to princess. From princess to woman
in all her fresh particularity of difference.
Generally autobiographical, Gilbert's poems are shaped both by the places he has lived and his experiences, particularly his relationships with women. However, these biographical details are merely the scaffolding that allows Gilbert to learn, perceive, and reflect on the universal concerns of love, death, betrayal, loss, and longing. Gilbert's frequent references to Greek mythology, antiquity, and other artistic and literary works add depth to his otherwise simple language, while also giving his poems a resonance with the wider human experience.

Views of Jeopardy chronicles Gilbert's early years in San Francisco, as well as his time spent in Italy, where he met the first great love of his life, Gianna Gelmetti. Here, the reader sees in Gilbert a brutal honesty as he tries to work through the intricacies of love, ultimately discovering that love, without abandon, cannot last. The turn toward the commonplace is something the speaker of Views of Jeopardy fears but also learns to expect, as Gilbert expresses in the opening lines of "And She Waiting":

Always I have been afraid
of this moment:
of the return to love
with perspective.
 
I see these breasts
with the others.
I touch this mouth
and the others.
Despite the inevitable dissipation of love, there is still a human longing for an impossible completion. In the poem "In Perugino We Have Sometimes Seen Our Country," dedicated to Gelmetti, Gilbert writes of "that country where people finally touch / as we would touch, reaching with hand and body / and mouth, crying, and do not meet." The lovers instead remain "perfect small trees of loneliness."

Although his first collection of poems was a critical success, Gilbert did not publish another collection for twenty years. In 1964 Gilbert received a Guggenheim Fellowship and soon thereafter went into self-imposed exile. One explanation for Gilbert's decision to leave his new-found celebrity behind--Gilbert was photographed for both Vogue and Glamour magazines, a rarity for poets even then--can be found in the brief poem, "In Dispraise of Poetry," the first poem in Views of Jeopardy:

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.
As Dan Albergotti notes in his retrospective on the poet, "If these lines seem audacious and arrogant for the opening poem of a debut, they are in the end extraordinarily self-aware and astute. From the beginning, Gilbert understood that he was in the possession of a true gift, and surely he also understood that to bask in the comfort and ease that his new position in the 'literary world' provided him would be to care for that gift improperly." In another poem in Views of Jeopardy, "Malvolio in San Francisco," Gilbert's speaker is serious and stoic about his art, while the other poets play "the piano / with a hammer and blowtorch" and are constantly "building the Chinese Wall / of laughter." He feels "awkward playing the game" and believes "the first-rate seems unknown / in this city of easy fame." Instead of vowing revenge, as William Shakespeare 's Malvolio does, Gilbert's poem ends with Malvolio longing for his "old bigotry," and knowing "there is somehow" a way he can retain his stubborn belief in the seriousness of poetry.

Using the $5,000 from his Guggenheim Fellowship, Gilbert moved to an isolated Greek island with Linda Gregg, whom he had met three years earlier when she was a nineteen-year-old student in his writing class at San Francisco State. Except for intermittent stays in Copenhagen and London, Gilbert and Gregg lived in Greece for six years before returning to California and splitting up in 1971. During these years he published two erotic novels--My Mother Taught Me (1964) and Forever Ecstasy (1968)--which he coauthored under the pseudonym Tor Kung for Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press.

In San Francisco, Gilbert soon met and in 1971 married Michiko Nogami, a sculptor twenty-one years his junior. Nogami and Gilbert lived in Japan, where Gilbert taught at Rikkyo University, until 1975. He was then appointed chief lecturer on American literature for the U.S. State Department; that position involved touring several countries with Nogami until 1977.

Meanwhile, Gilbert's friend and editor, Gordon Lish , was busy making plans to convince Gilbert to publish his second book. Upon returning to the United States in 1977, Gilbert discovered that poems he had sent Lish as a Christmas present wound up in the pages of Esquire magazine. Finally, in 1982, at the insistence of Lish, Gilbert published Monolithos: Poems, 1962 and 1982 . The "1962" portion includes most of Views of Jeopardy along with ten additional poems, presumably written within the same time frame. The second half, titled "Monolithos," features newer poems set mostly in the Greek Islands. Though Views of Jeopardy was highly successful, many critics praised the "1982" portion of Monolithos as the work of a more-mature poet. Favoring the second half, Mary Kinzie in American Poetry Review (September/October 1982) proclaimed that "the less mannered syntax and less clever dramatic attitudes" of part two allow the reader to sympathetically enter "the world of the poems." Another critical success, Monolithos was a finalist for the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

As the epigraph explains, "monolithos" means "single stone" in Greek and "refers to the small hill" behind the house Gilbert shared with Gregg while living on Santorini Island. Together, they lived a spartan existence--often eating lentil soup for every meal. In "Not Part of Literature," the second poem in the second section of the collection, Gilbert invokes the stark simplicity of their life: "The summer skies and Mediterranean constantly. No trees. / Me cleaning squid. Linda getting up from a chair." Through their long island sojourn the poet experiences the relationship falling apart. Thus, "Monolithos" also refers to the inward nature of the poet himself, a single stone living in perpetual solitude, contemplating love and the dissolution of love. A book that largely chronicles his dissolving marriage to Gregg, Monolithos continues the poet's unrelenting quest to perceive something new about being human. In his essay "Real Nouns" in the 1984 anthology 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate, Gilbert describes his poetry as being largely about "ideas and perceptions, about knowing or understanding." "Even my love poems," he writes, "are likely to be a perception about love or marriage, or trying to distinguish between two aspects of the heart which seem the same, or working to register a particular tonality of the spirit."

Gilbert does not claim to have all the answers; his poems often succeed because they simply acknowledge the mysterious complexities of human nature. In "Walking Home Across the Island," Gilbert writes of the couple arguing in the rain, concluding with this delicate truth: "It is hard / to understand how we could be brought here by love." In "All the Way from Here to There," the first poem in the second section of the collection, the poet-speaker seeks to "deal with my irrelevance to love," while simultaneously working "to understand this happiness I have come into." The poem's final stanza juxtaposes death, love, and the failure of love, demonstrating how a relationship can at once be both beautiful and fatal:

What I remember best of the four years of watching in Greece and Denmark and London and Greece is Linda making lunch. Her blondeness and ivory coming up out of the blue Aegean. Linda walking with me daily across the island from Monolithos to Thíra and back.
That's what I remember most of death:
the gentleness of us in that bare Greek Eden,
the beauty as the marriage steadily failed.

Other poems in Monolithos accept loneliness as an inevitable consequence of the speaker's quest to taste everything life has to offer. A description of the speaker devouring an apple, the controlling metaphor in "Hunger," crystallizes Gilbert's stubborn life pursuit:

Digging in with the sweet juice
running along my hands unpleasantly.
Refusing the sweetness.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Getting to the seeds.
Going on.
Not taking anyone's word for it.
Getting beyond the seeds.

Refusing the sweetness is one way Gilbert gets closer to real feeling, embracing pain and grief so he might better understand happiness and joy. This Blakean approach may be what helped the poet carry on after Nogami died of cancer at age thirty-six, the same year Monolithos was published. In several elegies written in memory of Nogami in The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (1994), Gilbert welcomes the grief and pain brought on by his wife's passing. In "Measuring the Tyger," Gilbert writes, "I want to go back to that time after Michiko's death / when I cried every day among the trees. To the real. / To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive." And in "Finding Something," Gilbert writes about bringing his dying wife watermelon to suck, holding her up so she can go to the bathroom, and then concludes:

How strange and fine to get so near to it.
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.

The elegies and remembrances of Nogami form the emotional core of The Great Fires. In Ploughshares (Winter 1994), David Daniel claims The Great Fires is Gilbert's "best and most consistent book," reaching "greater, more satisfying depths" than previous collections. Considered by most critics to be his best book, The Great Fires showcases Gilbert's haiku-like exactness. As James Harms notes in The Antioch Review (Fall 1994), Gilbert "embraces the rude, the ugly, and the obscene with a democratic gusto that would suggest Whitman if not for his finely hewn, essentialized language."

Though dedicated to Nogami, The Great Fires is not centered on personal grief or Gilbert's love for Nogami; rather, like all his books, The Great Fires is a celebration of the poet's journey, a testament to the complicated emotions that make life worth living. As the title poem affirms, love, passion, and desire are "great fires," and the greatest fire of all is the love that "lasts by not lasting." Poems about Gilbert's other lasting loves--Gelmetti, Gregg, and Anna from Denmark--are mixed in among the elegies for Nogami. Additional poems express the poet's pleasure in viewing or touching the bodies of nameless stock female characters, such as the Virgin, the Whore, or the Mother.

Gilbert's erotic mythos has led some critics to levy charges of sexism. Garth Greenwell writes, "However vivid and loving Gilbert's portraits of individual women, his philosophy of Woman sees her as existing entirely and exclusively for the benefit of men, the repository of a mystical significance it is man's privilege to unlock." Laura Quinney notes Gilbert's "irritating tendency" to generalize "men" in relation to a species generalized as "women." Still, most others appreciate Gilbert's brash honesty. Meghan O'Rourke finds "Gilbert's obsession with women not only tolerable but compelling." O'Rourke, like other admirers, is quick to note that these poems are simply "part and parcel of his larger project: rescuing from the debilitating forces of cynicism a conviction that transcendence can await us in this world."

Gilbert includes poems about his many passionate love affairs alongside poems longing for Nogami because, like that other wizened Romantic William Blake , Gilbert believes true existence is contradictory and impure. In "Adulterated," Gilbert explains, "There were flowers all around Jesus in his agony / at Gethsemane. The Lord sees everything, and sees / that it is good despite everything. The manger / was filthy." Gilbert's lifelong discourse on the beauty of imperfection continues in Refusing Heaven (2005), a book whose very title espouses his poetic philosophy. In "Less Being More," Gilbert describes the moment in his youth when it all became clear, the moment he traded the beauty of the Alps for the "tug of passion":

                             He began hunting
For the second rate. The insignificant
ruins, the negligible museums, the back-
country villages with only one pizzeria
and two small bars. The unimproved.

The content, style, and themes present in Refusing Heaven, as well as Gilbert's final collection The Dance Most of All (2009), remain homogenous with his earlier work. Some critics have noted, however, that although Gilbert's plainspoken, sparse style remains the same, he is at times a little less successful in the execution. Some of the poems are less direct, more discursive, and less imagistically concrete; the women have become even more vague and anonymous. These collections are also more retrospective. The poet is no longer presently engaged in inquiry; rather, he is an older man surveying discoveries already made. Dan Chiasson in Poetry (April 2005) described Refusing Heaven as "the stream-of-consciousness work of a consciousness radically narrowed over time, practically armored against new experience." In both books Gilbert frequents his same old haunts: Greek islands and Italian farmhouses, with a little bit of Pittsburgh thrown in. The three great loves of his life float through the pages as always, though they are joined by even more women from his past. "Cherishing What Isn't," a poem included near the end of The Dance Most of All, declares, once and for all, that women are the driving impulse behind his poetry:

Ah, you three women whom I have loved in this
long life, along with the few others.
And the four I may have loved, or stopped short
of loving. I wander through these woods
making songs of you. Some of regret, some
of longing, and a terrible one of death.
Gilbert cannot help but sing, because:
What is left is what's alive in me. The failing
of your beauty and its remaining.
You are like countries in which my love
took place. Like a bell in the trees
that makes your music in each wind that moves.
A music composed of what you have forgotten.
That will end with my ending.
Other poems show that it is not just the women who remain alive for Gilbert but also his childhood, his parents, and early friends such as Allen Ginsberg and Jean McLean. Haunted by the ghosts of many years, Gilbert uses his singular life to speak to the universal experience of aging. Thus, his final two collections serve as the perfect endcap to a personal mythology that speaks to the collective human heart. Gilbert died on 13 November 2012 in Berkeley, California.

Jack Gilbert's honors over his long career include a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Stanley Kunitz Prize and the American Poetry Review Prize, both for Monolithos; a Lannan Literary Award for The Great Fires; and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Refusing Heaven. In the spring of the year of his death, Knopf published Gilbert's Collected Poems (2012), providing readers with the opportunity to recognize, as Greenwell advises, "the entirety of his career as a single project." Albergotti also speaks to the cohesive quality of Gilbert's work, proclaiming that, taken together, Gilbert's poems are "perhaps the most profound and moving piece of work to come out of American literature in generations." Though David Orr in The New York Times (26 October 2012) points out Gilbert's lack of variety and sometimes bloated rhetoric, he praises Gilbert's restraint, his ability to neutrally observe and capture complex emotions, referring to the Collected Poems as "a monument to an aesthetic off the grid." While many contemporary poets seem bent on writing ironic, flippant poems devoid of emotion but full of clever cultural references, Gilbert's oeuvre offers poetry readers something fresh--an escape from the consumerism glutting our daily lives and a chance to embrace the romantic in lieu of the cynical.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Interviews:

  • Sarah Fay, "Jack Gilbert, The Art of Poetry No. 91," Paris Review, 175 (Fall-Winter 2005).
  • Chard deNiord, "An Interview with Jack Gilbert," American Poetry Review, 38 (January-February 2009): 26-29.

References:

  • Dan Albergotti, "Coming to the End of His Triumph: A Retrospective on Jack Gilbert," Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, 25 (Fall/Winter 2005): 109-114.
  • John Freeman, "Refusing Heaven: A Profile of Jack Gilbert," Poets & Writers Magazine (March-April 2006): 41-45.
  • Garth Greenwell, "Love's Alembic: On Jack Gilbert," West Branch, 65 (Fall-Winter 2009): 112-123.
  • Allen Hoey, "Between Truth and Meaning," American Poetry Review, 26 (January-February1997): 37-47.
  • Janet Moore, "Jack Gilbert: Noh Getting Overview," Hollins Critic, 35 (February 1998): 1-14.
  • Meghan O'Rourke, "The Recluse," Slate.com (9 May 2005) [Web., accessed 16 January 2013].
  • David Orr, "Daily Devotions," New York Times (26 October 2012) Sunday Book Review [Web., accessed 16 January 2013].
  • Laura Quinney, "Jack Gilbert: A House on Fire in Sunlight," Southwest Review, 93, no. 4 (2008): 572-582.

 

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200014464