The Highbrow

The Recluse

Rescuing the poet Jack Gilbert from oblivion.

In 1962, a young poet named Jack Gilbert won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award for his first book, Views of Jeopardy. He was not only talented but handsome, in a slight, romantic sort of way, and Vogue and Glamour fêted him with photo spreads. Accolades piled on, and audiences lined up to hear Gilbert read from delicate lyrics praising “the faint sound/ Of women in the moving leaves.”Views of Jeopardy, slim debut though it was, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Gilbert’s literary celebrity seemed assured—until he turned his back on it. Around 1963, he moved to Europe to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence; he had “places to explore and savor,” as a friend of his recently put it. He published only two more books of poems over the next three decades.

Gilbert exiled himself in more than a geographic sense: Today, he’s relatively unknown except to a few ardent devotees, such as Gordon Lish. His fourth book, Refusing Heaven, was published this March, in his 79th year, and hasn’t received much attention. His poems aren’t included in any major anthologies on my shelf. This is not only a shame, but somewhat mystifying. Gilbert isn’t just a remarkable poet. He’s a poet whose directness and lucidity ought to appeal to lots of readers—the same readers who can’t abide the inward-gazing obscurity of much contemporary poetry. Indeed, what’s powerful about Gilbert is that he is a rarity, especially in this day and age: the poet who stands outside his own time, practicing a poetics of purity in an ever-more cacophonous world—a lyrical ghost, you might say, from a literary history that never came to be.

Gilbert was born to a middle-class family in Pittsburgh in 1925 and grew up during the Depression. As a teenager, he began writing poetry under the influence of Pound and Eliot, with a Provençal lilt. He flunked out of high school and then college and moved to France after the war, where, according to a recent profile, he sold stolen gas rations on the black market, checking off every box on an aspiring post-Modernist poet’s European itinerary. After making his way back to the United States in the late ‘40s, he fell in with the Beat poets congregating in cold-water flats in San Francisco. There he attended fractious cafe readings and Kenneth Rexroth’s weekly salons. His early work is influenced by the casual conversational style then in vogue: “I’d walk her home after work/ buying roses and talking of Bechsteins,” one poem begins.

But some ascetic impulse in him rebelled at his comrades’ boisterous appetites. In “Malvolio in San Francisco” he complains, “Two days ago they were playing the piano / With a hammer and a blowtorch./ Next week they will read poetry/ To saxophones … They laugh so much./ So much more than I do./ It doesn’t wear them out/ As it wears me out …” The titles of his poems from this era have the quality of muted protest: “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” and “Quality Is a Kind of Exile.”

So Gilbert began to construct an alternate world for himself, “bent on grace,” writing under “the light which explains our secret conviction of exile.” Where the Beats’ poems were full of America, Gilbert’s were filled with Europe—with Perugia, with Don Giovanni, with Île St. Louis, with the arcaded shadows of classical antiquities and “their beautiful Latin,” and with the consecrating principles of high modernism. His debt to early Ezra Pound was more and more evident. A standout poem from Views of Jeopardy crisply articulates the tension between what Gilbert saw as the vigor of the new art being made in America and his own reverence for tradition:

What if Orpheus,
confident in the hard-
found mastery,
should go down into Hell?
Out of the clean light down?
And then, surrounded
by the closing beasts
and readying his lyre,
should notice, suddenly,
they had no ears?

This is a telling historical document as well as an effectively simple lyric poem. In it, Gilbert succinctly pits Orpheus’ “hard-found mastery” against the ribald forces of Greenwich Village modernity. Yet even as the speaker identifies with Orpheus, he is unwilling to declare his wholesale antipathy to the “closing beasts.” Throughout Views of Jeopardy, one can detect a subterranean anxiety: A generation earlier, a poet like Wallace Stevens might have worried that he wasn’t European enough. Gilbert, it seems, had the opposite concern: He was worried that he wasn’t American enough. That, due to his temperament, he would not be able to keep riding the tide of what was happening stateside; he was a high lyricist, not a yawper.

And so Gilbert went off to Europe again. It was here, living on a pittance, that he began to write what became his best poems. In them, the sense of “alienation from one’s own kind” (in Dudley Fitts’ phrasing) that haunted Views of Jeopardy was transformed into something more elemental: a radical cultivation of solitude, which is manifested in the poems as a struggle (never successful) to erase the ego. This struggle, needless to say, was the kind of idea much bandied about in the 1960s and ‘70s but rarely acted upon, let alone truly lived by. Taken together, Gilbert’s poems capture what it might be to live out a spiritual quest for authenticity, helpfully set against a classical backdrop of Mediterranean blues and bleached-out whites.

Gilbert’s assumption that poetry could be a spiritual quest cut against the grain of his time. As the years passed, he refined his distinctive early style without trying to expand or elaborate upon it, as if to entrench his point of view. All Gilbert’s poems have a distinct movement, a fluidity of perception that relies little on narrative, and a great deal on the contrast between finely observed detail and perfunctory sentence fragments. The effect is definitely his own—learned, perhaps, from Eliot, but in the place of Brahmin distance and the chill of the Thames one finds Mediterranean climes and an almost pagan appetite for flesh and fruit. “On Stone” concisely captures the anomalous and conflicting impulses in Gilbert’s work:

The monks petition to live the harder way,
in pits dug farther up the mountain,
but only the favored ones are permitted
that scraped life. The syrup-water and cakes
the abbot served me were far too sweet.
A simple misunderstanding of pleasure
because of inexperience. I pull water up
hand over hand from thirty feet of stone.
My kerosene lamp burns a mineral light.
The mind and its fierceness lives here in silence.
I dream of women and hunger in my valley
for what can be made of granite. Like the sun
hammering this earth into pomegranates
and grapes. Dryness giving way to the smell
of basil at night. Otherwise, the stone
feeds on stone, is reborn as rock,
and the heart wanes. Athena’s owl calling
into the barrenness, and nothing answering.

No other poet I know captures so well a mind torn between the pleasures of austerity and the fecund, intoxicating powers of abundance. What Gilbert is searching for, poem after poem, are the ideal circumstances where the two intersect, and privation becomes a form of richness, a sharpening of the attention. He is often called a poet of loss, but his poems of loss describe bereavement with a strange relish. In fact, what differentiates Gilbert from the few poets who share his aims—say, Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, and A.R. Ammons—is how obsessively and flintily he suggests that solitude is the only way to know one’s place in the world. To be sure, he was twice married—first to the poet Linda Gregg and then to the sculptor Michiko Nogami, who died of cancer at age 36 and whose death prompted many of his most stunning poems. But even these relationships serve in his work as reminders of the barriers that can’t (and shouldn’t) be broken through.

If Gilbert is such a powerful poet, why isn’t he more widely read today? There are the long silences, of course. More to the point, his lofty language is the vocabulary of a much older age. His poems’ stark simplicity challenges the au courant assumption that surface complexity is desirable. This is why some critics dismiss Gilbert as sentimental; his vision is inflected by what Helen Vendler called “romantic primitivism,” an outlook that, to some readers, undoubtedly seems naive. (This is a poet who is disappointed to find “pigeons” in San Francisco rather than elegant “birds.”)

Gilbert doesn’t help his cause with his decidedly old-fashioned obsession with women. In nearly all his poems, women serve as vessels for accessing a vertiginous lyric intensity the poet can’t derive anywhere else. A similarly celebratory vibe crops up in the work of poets like James Laughlin and Czeslaw Milosz, usually to my dismay—such poems seem far more nostalgic than the rest of these poets’ work. But I find Gilbert’s obsession with women not only tolerable but compelling, partly because it’s more self-conscious. Consider the poem “Sects”: “It got me thinking of the failed denomination/ I was part of: that old false dream of women./ I believed it was a triumph to have access to their mystery, to see the hidden hair, to feel their spirit topple over … / I had crazy ideas of what it was.” Gilbert’s poems about women can, I think, be thought of as still lifes in the manner of visual arts, where we still find such deliberate, rational acts of paying reverence to female beauty acceptable—even expected. These poems are part and parcel of his larger project: rescuing from the debilitating forces of cynicism a conviction that transcendence can await us in this world.

That notion, of course, went out of date somewhere around the time Gilbert began writing. But none of this matters to me when I read Gilbert. To call his poems sentimental is to close one’s ears to the animating impulse of his work. His vision, at its most inclusive, is Horatian, teaching values that aren’t often emphasized—staying abidingly true to his sense of solitary vocation, come what may. His poems are like the hopeful songs of a man clinging to the mast of a sinking ship. As he puts it in an early poem-manifesto “The Abnormal is Not Courage,” what he is after is “Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh./ Not the prodigal son, nor Faustus. But Penelope./ The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.” It’s not a fashionable stance, but it’s an enduring one.