If you don't know Jack Gilbert's poems, I suggest you run out right now and get some. I've read a great deal about him over the last couple years, mostly to the effect that he was a poet who moved almost completely outside the poetry scene, which is an anomaly considering how well-known he seems to be. Curtis Faville writes about some of the poems and the man himself in this series of three posts. I hope you go read them all. Found via Silliman, who must spend half his life scouring the net.
Jack Gilbert [1925- ] is a poet I only recently had the experience of reading. After winning the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1962, at the age of 36--rather late in the game, as such things happen, even then, almost 50 years ago now--he went into a sort of self-imposed exile, steering clear of America, the American university system, the lecture and reading circuit, and spending large blocks of time in Europe, especially Greece.
In his formative years, Gilbert lived in San Francisco, rubbing shoulders with the local poet heroes of the time (Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth). Once Gilbert had published his first book, Views of Jeopardy, and gained national notoriety, he threw over these associations, and left for Europe. The American poetry scene--perhaps specifically the California poetry and art scene, with all its laissez-faire accommodation of counter-culture permissiveness and joie de vivre--just wasn't severe and demanding enough for his taste. Intuitively, he sensed that there were deeper levels to his spirit, and that older, Old World settings were the place to cultivate his austere daemon. This spiritual renunciation of the New World had symbolic as well as aesthetic meaning to Gilbert. More.
Perhaps the saddest elegy of all is the one fate writes of our own demise, anticipated, acknowledged, postponed, denied, rejected--finally, unavoidable. The full weight of what we cherished, were given to experience, to know, to accomplish, is served up as a conclusive summary--what we thought to say, or tried to, over and over again, over years of chances, is telescoped into relief--but, like the soldier on Bierce's Owl Creek Bridge, the release into emptiness leaves nothing but a false memory, another version of the story.
For the better part of his life, Jack Gilbert rejected the standard literary career, in favor of a kind of spiritual retreat, choosing a modest life, an attention to the detail of living privately, intimately, over the theatre of approbation and congeniality, of ambition and guile. One's tendency is to regard this renunciation as a virtuous sacrifice, but the benefits of aesthetic celibacy aren't what Gilbert was after. For a poet as committed to convulsive finalities and verdicts as Gilbert is, the drama of epitaphs is irresistable. More.
In 1982, after a hiatus lasting fully 20 years, in which he had been living for the most part abroad, mostly in Greece, Jack Gilbert broke his aesthetic fast and published his second collection of verse, Monolithos: Poems 1962 and 1982 [Knopf].
Imagine what the effect would be if your poems could only survive as fragments, moth-eaten papyri stashed in caves and forgotten for a thousand years in an arid, sparsely settled land. Would you be content to let half your lines--say, the left half--exist as testaments to the partial content of your assertions, to the sum of your sentiments? Are your poems as full enough of what you most wish to endure, over time, that what would survive would be somehow sufficient to your purposes?
But our lives and our poems are like different versions of the shadows of our selves. Who knows what Sappho looked like, what she liked to eat for breakfast, or what color of skin appealed to her? Perhaps it isn't important that we know--certainly we never shall--only that the quality of feeling she was able to transmit, much in fragmentary shards, is apprehensible to us, across the barriers of time, language, context, and material surface. More.
On another completely unrelated note: I've been asked why I don't really analyze the posts or poetry I reference here. Part of it is that I envisioned a blog of book excerpts and articles that I thought people should pay attention to, and part of it is that poetry is my first love and in some way everyone's first love is beyond rebuke and resistant to analysis. Ask me about fiction--I have an aesthetic already in place and a fairly lengthy history of publication to back it up. Poetry, eh, not so much. I still have the temerity of loose preferences and (why yes, I like Ted Berrigan and James Wright about equally; I think flarf is amusing, but written by well-meaning and intelligent folks lost somewhere up the tightly puckered asshole of theory; Ariana Reines and Lara Glenum both frighten and fascinate me (both are good things); Jack Spicer and Jim Harrison are both interesting for different reasons; I can't seem to read H.D. well but I love Vassar Miller) I plan to keep it that way, at least until my poetry library is 2/3 the size of my fiction library (it's about 1/5 right now). Sorry. If you want poetry analysis, you can go here and here and here and here.