Jack Gilbert: An Appreciation

This past Monday, the venerated and venerable poet Jack Gilbert died. (His Wikipedia page will do an infinitely better job than me at providing the basics of his life or his bibliography.) I imagine he would ask us to celebrate life, and his life, rather than mourn his death. When a poet who writes consistently of his own pain and strange relationship to lost loved dies himself, our own words can sound lame, pathetic. Consequently, I turn to his own lines on these exact topics. In his poem “Married, Jack Gilbert,” Gilbert offers, in his characteristically disarming words, a searing portrait of clinging to the ghost of the dead, with the inevitable and somewhat unfortunate calm that time bestows:
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.

What sets Gilbert apart is his natural sensitivity to the intricacies of human happiness. Here, in his poem, “Mistake,” Gilbert explains the vitality found even in death and mortality.

There is always the harrowing by mortality,
the strafing by age, he thinks. Always defeats.
Sorrows come like epidemics. But we are alive
in the difficult way adults want to be alive.
It is worth having the heart broken,
a blessing to hurt for eighteen years
because a woman is dead.

If adults, like teenagers, still scrawled sentences on their Trapper Keepers and looseleafs, we should all engrave the sentence, “But we are alive in the difficult way adults want to be alive”. Like the best of Gilbert, its beauty lies in its straightforward simplicity, and its ability to encompass everything you would want to say on the topic, but better, with more empathic vision.

Gilbert, time and time again, finds himself inexplicably happy. (“It’s almost unfair to have been as happy as I’ve been.”) Try as he might, he cannot explain his happiness, and does not take it for granted. He knows he must cherish this rarity, must share it and magnify its scope. In a sort of manifesto on his life, Gilbert explains the challenges and beauty of his life:

Paying attention to being alive. This is hard—when I try to explain, it sounds false. But I don’t know any other way to say it. I’m so grateful. There’s nothing I’ve wanted that I haven’t had. Michiko dying, I regret terribly, and losing Linda’s love, I regret equally. And not doing some of the things I wanted to do. But I still feel grateful. It’s almost unfair to have been as happy as I’ve been. I didn’t earn it; I had a lot of luck. But I was also very, very stubborn. I was determined to get what I wanted as a life.

That he was a brilliant mind and intellect is hard to argue with, but he cared little for that. He truly felt so much of what we aspire to: consistent awe, wonder, love, and, of course, happiness that he could not see any reason not to focus on these wondrous aspects of life. Cleverness, intellectuality, experimentation, and obsession with form all felt boring, and worse, inessential:

So much poetry that’s written today doesn’t need to be written. I don’t understand the need for trickery or some new way of arranging words on a page. You’re allowed to do that. You’re allowed to write all kinds of poetry, but there’s a whole world out there.

He spoke with this confidence, often bordering on arrogance but only because he didn’t care a lick about anything else besides his loves and passions. “Fame,” he remarked, “is a lot of fun, but not interesting.”

On top of his actual genius and mastery of poetry, it’s this unabashed embrace of happiness that makes Gilbert urgent in our world, especially in our artistic world. We fear happiness the way some parents now fear even the scent of peanuts because of the subsequent allergic reaction. We view happiness as shallow, distracting, unreal, unhelpful, and largely impossible – a sort of persistent myth and delusion. But Gilbert’s life and works show us all firsthand the beauty of real and abiding happiness, a happiness that persists even in the “Streets of Calcutta…in the cages of Bombay,” i.e in the places of the most immense suffering. On one level, Gilbert explains that “If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction/we lessen the importance of their deprivation.” Yet even these beautiful lines slightly misrepresents the whole of his thought in which we all need to acknowledge, foster and cherish the happiness engendered from “the conscious heart, the fact that we are the only things in the entire universe that know true consciousness. We’re the only things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world that know spring is coming.” He ponders, “Why do so many poets settle for so little? I don’t understand why they’re not greedy for what’s inside them. The heart has the ability to experience so much—and we don’t have much time.”

Indeed. He will be missed.

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