Monday, November 26, 2012

Celebrating the work of the Poet Jack Gilbert

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
- Jack Gilbert, from Failing and Flying

When Jack Gilbert died a few weeks ago his name was once again splashed into the public arena. He was famous in death, perhaps more so than he had been in life. All of the obituaries noted his slim oeuvre, his avoidance of public spectacle, and the magnificence of his work. Gilbert won several prestigious literary prizes but never catered to the public. He did the opposite (as every true poet should) and devoted himself to traveling; and by traveling I suspect observing, and certainly by indulging in that which is far more important than literary fame – the very act of living. His poems touched many people and he has long been a hero of the literati. But Gilbert was not generally accessible to the public. Now that he is gone what remains are his poems. That is all that a writer can leave us. Everything else is just memories and photographs, but the poems will always have a life of their own. “We are all burning in time,” Gilbert wrote in a poem titled Burning (Andante Non Troppo), “but each is consumed at his own speed.” In all of his work there shines an acute understanding of people, of passion, death, love and loss.

The heart has
a life of its own. It gets free of us, escapes,
is ambitiously unfaithful. Dies out unaccountably
after eight years, blooms unnecessarily and too late.
Like the arbitrary silence in the white woods,
leaving tracks in the snow he cannot recognize.

- from Not the Happiness but the Consequence of Happiness

Still, Gilbert was no literary outlaw. He was published by Alfred Knopf and his poems sometimes appeared in The New Yorker. He was, like it or not, mainstream chic, at least for the east coast snobs in Manhattan’s dismal Art-Speak community. For the rest of us, the literati, he was just a damn good poet. By his own admission he felt that living was far more fascinating than attending literary banquets, and so Gilbert went about the business of his life. I don’t know if we’ll ever know more about his travels than we need to, but I suppose one day a biography will be published with all types of titillating details. And that will either be illuminating or not depending upon the author. Meanwhile, we have his poems. Speaking for myself that’s just enough.

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