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Jack Gilbert, the poet of my heart

Poorna Swami | Updated on April 13, 2018 Published on April 13, 2018

Homegrown woes: Gilbert was born in 1925 in Pittsburgh, a city whose harshness he’d return to often in his poetry   -  ISTOCK.COM/JACQUELINE NIX

The American made poems of his life unabashedly, but he didn’t “farm” his heart for colourful material

Every few months, my favourite poet would change — until I found Jack Gilbert. Four years ago, during a humid summer in upstate New York, I found myself falling for another poet. It was a fleeting romance of second drafts and line breaks — it was not meant to last. And still, I often remember that affair, not for the man himself, but for the poem that stayed with me, beyond that time.

One afternoon, as we discussed poems about language, we encountered Gilbert’s ‘Forgotten Dialect of the Heart’. I hadn’t heard of Gilbert before. But as we read this poem aloud, I couldn’t sit still. I grazed the lines, over and over. It seemed a perfect poem — elated, unexpected, devastating.

“How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,

and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,

God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words

get it all wrong […]”

That night, my new lover read the poem to me again. When he finished, he announced, “I am going to learn this by heart”. I am not sure he ever got past the first five lines, but it was a valiant thought. To want to keep inside him forever words that would never sit easy:

“[…]My love is a hundred

pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what

my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this

desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script

is not language but a map. What we feel most has

no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.”

Months later, I explained the mess of my inconsequential romance to myself in the lines of that very poem — as faint coordinates on an uncertain map. I haven’t learnt the poem by heart, either, though I read it every week. I have shared it with friends, lovers, teachers, too. It began for me as a love poem, a marker of one particular half-romance. Now, like so many of Gilbert’s poems, it has moved beyond love or the fantasy of it — it is a hymn, a ritual even. An utterance of everything I want to say, and yet made of the very incapacity of language. Maybe, it’s too trivial to call Gilbert my favourite poet. Because really, he is the poet of my heart.

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The heart is not contrived in Gilbert’s poetry. It is the most naked, honest interior of his work. Everything begins with and returns to the heart. In ‘Tear it Down’, he writes, “We find out the heart, only by dismantling what/ the heart knows”. The proposition is immense and, ultimately, without conclusion. Like with much of Gilbert’s work, this poem ends with multiple possibilities, with piercing insight but no feel-good takeaway that a less sophisticated love poem might have offered. At first he says, “By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond/ affection and wade mouth-deep into love”. Later, he says:

“[…]Love is not

enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.

We should insist while there is still time. We must

eat through the wildness of her sweet body already

in our bed to reach the body within the body.”

Whether or not Gilbert wants us to insist on love remains uncertain. But the poem seems sure of how the body encounters love. The body will decay, but for now, it is here, ready to be desired, and loved, and known. Gilbert allows that fated complication to persist. For the heart is complicated. And so, we are complicated. Our simplicity lies in recognising that.

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Gilbert was born in 1925 in Pittsburgh, a city whose harshness he’d return to often in his poetry. He failed high school but managed to enrol in university because of a clerical error. His college classmate was the now-noted poet Gerald Stern, and Gilbert said he began writing poetry because Stern did. In 1962, Gilbert published his first collection, Views of Jeopardy, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Immediately, he became somewhat of a superstar. He was invited to many readings with the cream of the literary world. Photos of him were featured in fashion magazines such as Vogue, Glamour, and Esquire. But this new-found fame didn’t suit Gilbert too long. He turned his back on the Academy of American Poets, and resigned to a quieter, wandering life. Over the years, Gilbert lived in Italy, San Francisco, Greece, England, New York, Japan, and Massachusetts. He earned a modest living teaching at universities, and was generally considered a recluse by the wider literary community. In a 1998 interview with the Lannan Foundation, Gilbert clarified that he didn’t travel places, but lived in them. The various landscapes in his poems, too, seem familiar, understood, rather than visited. In ‘The Night Comes Every Day To My Window’ , he writes:

“…[I] hunger to walk

quiet in the Italy of her head, strange

but no tourist on the streets of her childhood.”

Gilbert made poems of his life, unabashedly. But he insisted he didn’t “farm” his heart for colourful material. “There are very few poems that are about me. I’m in the poems but they are really about what’s happening… the importance of what’s happening,” he said. The starkness of Gilbert’s verse does convey this importance, for the poems always see the world without any colour, and yet with every tint and hue. To call the poems honest would be to belittle Gilbert’s incisiveness, tenderness, and craft. His poems are abundant, though rarely profuse. Exalted, but rarely pedantic. Whether four lines long or 40, they seem to matter. Even an egg at breakfast “unexpectedly was the city/ of Byzantium”. It is as though the poems make us confront everything that is ordinary, and revel in it.

Although Gilbert was a prolific poet, he published only five collections in his lifetime — 20 years passed between the first two. When asked the reason behind the long gap he replied, “I was falling in love”. Gilbert loved three times in his life, and different collections focus on different women, corresponding to their time. But the poems are not about remembering the women or the life he had with them — the agenda is more delicate. In ‘Convalescing’ he writes:

“I spend the days deciding

on a commemorative poem

Not claiming that I was

at any of the great victories.

But that I volunteered.”

With a body of work to commemorate his isolate, yet loved life, Gilbert died in 2012. He said he had lived the life he wanted.

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A poet who declined the institution of poetry, Gilbert is often overlooked by those outside his cultish following. A shame, because his work stands out so prominently against that of his contemporaries and those before him. He was friends with the Beat poets but his rebellion was always quieter. He looked up to Ezra Pound but rejected Modernism’s guardedness. He was travelled and self-reflexive like the New York Group, but his insights were never off-hand remarks. “I really think poetry is urgently important,” Gilbert said, “it’s one of the few things we have to make what’s important visible”. At first that seems a lofty, self-aggrandising thought. But the more I read his poems, the more I feel I return to them precisely because they are made of all that is urgently important.

Gilbert wrote about a few things for all of his life — love, lust, God, place. Music, dance, mythology, and painting recur within these. In his first collection, Views of Jeopardy (1962) he is more restrained, sometimes over-constructed:

“And I am as greedy of her, that the black

horse of the literal world might come

directly on me. Perspective. A place

to stand. To receive. A place to go

into from. The earth by language.”

— from ‘Perspective He Would Mutter Going To Bed’

In his final collection, The Dance Most of All (2009), he is looser, less reserved in speaking of the heart:

“The truth is, goddesses are lousy in bed.

They will do anything it’s true.

And the skin is beautifully cared for.

But they have no sense of it. They are

all manner and amazing technique.

I lie with them thinking of your

foolish excess, of you panting

and sweating, and your eyes after.”

— ‘Dreaming at the Ballet’

While Gilbert’s relationship to themes of the heart changes, the great human questions stay resolute within his poems. And the words themselves are always sharp, each line riding on its laconic tension. Everything that is tangible is also elevated. The erotic is inescapable. Breasts and thighs, the wild and the tender — it as all strewn through these lines. The poems live in the body, in experiences of the flesh. The introduction of a 2005 interview with Gilbert in the Paris Review, reveals that when he gave public readings (he gave very few), it wasn’t “unusual for men and women in the audience to tell him how his poems had saved their lives”. Had I met Gilbert, I, too, might have been one of them. It’s not that he saved my life, but he showed me that I am standing in the body of one.

Recently, I impulsively bought Gilbert’s Collected Poems for a man I love, after months of sending him isolated Gilbert poems. I had begun sharing them with him long before I knew I loved him, so they weren’t a confession of my attraction, or a map to navigate mixed signals and uncertain futures — for me, Gilbert’s poems are too fine to be used as currency. Rather, in gifting a lover these poems, talking with him about them, they became somehow the very risk of loving. Conversations and contentions. Erratic companions through new territory. Our introductions and our returns to each other. One evening, we spoke about ‘Failing and Flying’. And I realised that the poems were also assurances — like the body, the heart, too, must know disaster.

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.

It’s the same when love comes to an end,

or the marriage fails and people say

they knew it was a mistake, that everybody

said it would never work. That she was

old enough to know better. But anything

worth doing is worth doing badly.

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,

but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

Just as love might dissolve in so-called calamity, these poems might turn to memories of a particular skin, time, and place. If anything, Gilbert’s poems always remind me that the heart is not set in stone — it can be broken and pieced together. There may come a time when I will not read Gilbert every other day. But these poems have always prophesied that. Just as Gilbert will remain the poet of my heart, even when I have moved on.

Poorna Swami is a writer based in Bengaluru

Published on April 13, 2018
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