jack gilbert

3 posts

“The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art”

radical light

Voice. It’s that magical je ne sais quoi that draws us like magnets. To people, yes. But to writing, too: people heard through the medium of paper and ink.

From the earliest pages of Christian Wiman’s new book He Held Radical Light, I found myself attracted to the voice. To me, it seemed the voice of reason. Balanced, yet opinionated. Informed, yet informal.

And the biggest test of all? I found myself liking most of the poems that meant a lot to Wiman. As Facebook and Twitter have proven (though not to me, as I avoid both like the plague), there’s nothing people like better than listening to a sermon from the choir.

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the book as a whole. Today we’ll look at some of the early poems Wiman shares in this 115-page gem. On the first page, in the first sentence, we find Wiman reading the letters of A. R. Ammons “who for years sowed and savored his loneliness in lonely Ithaca, New York.” This leads to an Ammons poem, the one that would lend Wiman a title for his collection of short essays. Let’s listen in:

 

THE CITY LIMITS
by A. R. Ammons

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

 

From here, Wiman gets into anecdotes about listening to Ammons do a memorable (for the wrong reasons) poetry reading. Then to 80-year-old Donald Hall’s scary admission, “I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last.” Those words gave Wiman a “galactic chill.” For a writer—especially a young writer—it’s like walking willingly into that dark night.

Which of course puts Wiman onto his themes for the book. Or shall I say its dichotomies: religion vs. atheism, fame vs. obscurity, faith vs. art. He offers up two looks at the same chasm: Jack Gilbert’s and Mark Strand’s. Here are the two poems, a bracing start for your Sabbath Day morning with Wiman’s commentary in  between:

 

They will put my body into the ground.
Chemistry will have its way for a time,
and then large beetles will come.
After that, the small beetles. Then
the disassembling. After that, the Puccini
will dwindle the way light goes
from the sea. Even Pittsburgh will
vanish, leaving a greed tough as winter.
—JACK GILBERT

 

“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? I say God, but Jack Gilbert’s greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means. Gilbert’s poem amounts to a kind of metaphysics for materialists. Something survives us, the poem suggests, some cellular imperative ravening past whatever cohesion kept us, us; some life force that is suspiciously close to a death force: it’s winter, after all, and not any ordinary winter but one from which even Puccini and Pittsburgh have vanished, an ur-winter, you might say, even a nuclear one. Of course on the literal level the poem is referring to the way information dies out in one man’s brain—Gilbert was actually from Pittsburgh, and I assume he loved Puccini—but the end of the poem reverberates in a way that is both beautiful and terrible. When you are ending, it can seem like everything is, and the last task of some lives is to let the world go on being the world they once loved. But what song—or what but song—can contain that tangle of pain and praise?”

And below, Mark Strand, who sheds some light on love. A love, perhaps, you haven’t thought of. I’ll leave it at that for today!

 

A.M.
by Mark Strand

. . . And here the dark infinitive to feel,
Which would endure and have the earth be still
And the star-strewn night pour down the mountains
Into the hissing fields and silent towns until the last
Insomniac turned in, must end, and early risers see
The scarlet clouds break up and golden plumes of smoke
From uniform dark homes turn white, and so on down
To the smallest blade of grass and fallen leaf
Touched by the arriving light. Another day has come,
Another fabulous escape from the damages of night,
So even the gulls, in the ragged circle of their flight,
Above the sea’s long lanes that flash and fall, scream
Their approval. How well the sun’s rays probe
The rotting carcass of a skate, how well
They show the worms and swarming flies at work,
How well they shine upon the fatal sprawl
Of everything on earth. How well they love us all.

 

Nota bene: If you think you might be interested in Wiman’s book, the excerpt above was taken from Chapter 1, which can be read in its entirety on Poetry Daily’s website here.

And if you are interested in hearing more of my voice, you can find it somewhere in Nepal (yet only 2-days delivery away) here.

Cheating Death (Sort Of…)

jack gilbert

The old axiom has it that writers can cheat death if their words live on. I’m not terribly impressed with the formula because my words don’t experience the five senses as well as I do. If they live on, a lot of good that does me, in other words. And yes, you might say words (and plots and characters and Muses) have a mind of their own, but that’s like arguing that a computer has a mind of its own, too. It sounds good, but it’s a pleasant and popular fallacy.

I just finished Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, most of it on a train (I always remember books read on trains, especially) and, as you might expect, I feel like I know the guy quite well. Immortality, right? Cheated death (asterisk, wink, fingers crossed), right? But poor Jack doesn’t know any better. He died in 2012 after 87 good years.

Anyway, back to the book. It’s a loan from the Worcester Library and contains a sacrilege. When I reached page 350 (of 384) with supplies and water running low, I noticed a page cleanly ripped out of the book.

Who does such things? What kind of person? Going to the table of contents, I find the answer. The missing poem, starting on the now-ghost page of 351, is called “The Answer.” So someone found an answer, all right, but apparently couldn’t memorize it, so they stole it, and the devil take the rest of us, apparently. Nice.

Of course, curiosity piqued, I had to look the missing poem up on the Internet. Why couldn’t the mad ripper have done the same? Is printer toner that expensive? Anyway, here’s what I (and all readers of this library’s book) was missing:

“The Answer” by Jack Gilbert

Is the clarity, the simplicity, an arriving
or an emptying out? If the heart persists
in waiting, does it begin to lessen?
If we are always good, does God lose track
of us? When I wake at night, there is
something important there. Like the humming
of giant turbines in the high-ceilinged stations
in the slums. There is a silence in me,
absolute and inconvenient. I am haunted
by the day I walked through the Greek village
where everyone was asleep and somebody began
playing Chopin, slowly, faintly, inside
the upper floor of a plain white stone house.

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Immortal Jack. When people say, “You don’t know Jack,” they’re wrong. I got to know his eternal soul well. He likes one stanza poems. A lot. Mostly on one page, though occasionally on two. None as far as three. So if long poems drive you to distraction because your attention span is shorter than a Dachshund, check out Jack.

Frequently, Jack discusses past loves–wives divorced (Linda Gregg… a poet, too?), wives died (Michiko). He also is a well-traveled guy. Like Virgil, his ghost gave me more than one tour of towns and villages in Greece and Italy and Japan and New England. Also big cities like San Francisco and New York City. Pittsburgh, too. Jack is a Pittsburgh boy.

Like the ancient Chinese and Japanese, he’s heavily invested in nature. And women. Fixated on nipples, a word that makes frequent cameos in his work. And life and death, anticipating his immortality, as in the final poem in the book:

“Convalescing” by Jack Gilbert

I spend the days deciding
on a commemorative poem.
Not, luckily, an epitaph.
A quiet poem
to establish the fact of me.
As one of the incidental faces
in those stone processions.
Carefully done.
Not claiming that I was
at any of the great victories.
But that I volunteered.

Jack doesn’t think he has much of a sense of humor, but he’s being modest. The man who totally lacks a sense of humor is rare, indeed (though he sometimes gets elected to public office). Some of the poems have a bemused tone, the kind of thing you hear in any work where writers are trying to figure life out (a poetic pastime). He also writes about writing on more than one occasion. For those who try to write poetry, there’s this “insider” poem:

“Doing Poetry” by Jack Gilbert

Poem, you sonofabitch, it’s bad enough
that I embarrass myself working so hard
to get it right even a little,
and that little grudging and awkward.
But it’s afterwards I resent, when
the sweet sure should hold me like
a trout in the bright summer stream.
There should be at least briefly
access to your glamour and tenderness.
But there’s always this same old
dissatisfaction instead.

For true immortality, some might say, you need to reach the level of the Bard and such. And remember, some writers seem shoe-ins for immortality when the moods of Fate turn against them. Famous today, not so much tomorrow. T. S. Eliot is famous, but how much is he read anymore? Longfellow was a Victorian giant, but try to find him now.

On a local level, Jack Gilbert is now famous to me. With this many poems read in this fast a succession, you’re bound to find quirks and holes (e.g. if poems are supposed to be “cut to the bone,” then many of Jack’s dodged the butcher’s poetic blade). But overall, it was a man that began to take shape beside me as I read on the train and, later, on the patio under the spring-break sun. It was a life revisited in a world where very few are.

Immortal? Cheating death? Of a sort. In a way. But it’s the best a writer can do, so let’s celebrate the lie and leave philosophical arguments for the academics.

Jane Hirshfield as Scheherazade

hirshfield

In education, lectures are vilified with good reason. They are boring. They are so much bombast. They are inflicted by vainglorious pontificators on passive victims who must endure or find ways to daydream through it all.

What happens, though, when a speaker is so knowledgeable, silver-tongued, and interesting that the restless audience (or reader) begins to sit up and pay attention like the Sultan before Scheherazade? That’s what happens when I read a collection of Jane Hirshfield essays on poetry, last year Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry and these past few days Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.

The poetic title points to the ten essays, here as chapters titled “Kingfishers Catching Fire: Looking with Poetry’s Eyes,” “Language Wakes Up in the Morning: On Poetry’s Speaking,” “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Basho, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image,” “Thoreau’s Hound: Poetry and the Hidden,” “Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty,” “Close Reading: Windows,” “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” “What Is American in Modern America Poetry: a Brief Primer with Poems,” “Poetry, Transformation, and the Column of Tears,” and “Strange Reaches, Impossibility, and Big Hidden Drawers: Poetry and Paradox.”

As you can see, Hirshfield covers a lot of poetic turf in this collection, my favorite being the lengthy section on the enigmatic but interesting 17th-century haiku master, Basho. Buddhism is a Hirshfield specialty, and if anyone can rescue haiku from American elementary school classrooms (where it is being held for ransom), raising them to the adult art form they were and still are, it’s Jane Hirshfield.

Equally compelling is the essay with the intriguing title “Thoreau’s Hound.” As a fan of Henry David Thoreau (my poetry collection features as an epigraph his famous line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”), I wondered where this would doggone lead.

Turns out, the essay is based on another Thoreau line from Walden: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken to concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”

Hirshfield pairs this with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir tree.”

The point? Mankind, as Jane Hirshfield points out, “wants to know,” yet there is an equal attraction to mystery, to not knowing, to the chase and the journeys such pursuits entail. This, too, is a province of poetry, which is forever looking at the intangibles of mystery and trying on various concrete forms. With metaphor and imagery comes the hunt for le mot juste, the baying of hounds on the scent, the nearness of capture… and  yet, and yet, despite not finding our quarry, we are often grateful for the closeness, the magical proximity, we enjoy when reading a good poem.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Hirshfield’s essay collections is the number of poems, both complete and excerpts, she introduces as concrete examples of her abstract points. Among these I find new poets, new poems, new possibilities to explore. One of my favorites in this book was an excerpt from Jack Gilbert’s “Going Wrong.” I found one line–about the eyes of dying fish, of all things–that led me to the entire poem online. I leave it for you to enjoy. The line “the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes” is worth the price of admission alone. Only a poet could conceive of the sea as “grand rooms” captured in the eyes of the fish who live there.

GOING WRONG

by Jack Gilbert

The fish are dreadful. They are brought up
the mountain in the dawn most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea,
the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes,
Soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks,
washing them. “What can you know of my machinery!”
demands the Lord. Sure, the man says quietly
and cuts into them, laying back the dozen struts,
getting to the muck of something terrible.
The Lord insists: “You are the one who chooses
to live this way. I build cities where things
are human. I make Tuscany and you go to live
with rocks and silence.”  The man washes away
the blood and arranges the fish on a big plate.
Starts the onions in the hot olive oil and puts
in peppers. “You have lived all year without women.”
He takes out everything and puts in the fish.
“No one knows where you are. People forget you.
You are vain and stubborn.” The man slices
tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish
and scrambles eggs. I am not stubborn, he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows flying
on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.

from The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (Knopf, 1994)