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Jack Gilbert thinks poets should be greedy for "what's inside them."

by Sarah Manguso

"I don't want to be at peace," Jack Gilbert pronounced shortly after his 80th birthday. Yet he has spent much of his life on remote Greek islands, on a houseboat in Kashmir, on a western Massachusetts farm, and in the outskirts of Sausalito, California, either alone or in the company of one other. He has never owned a home and has driven a car only twice. But the unique kernel of Gilbert's poetry is its fearless exploration of the adult heart.

Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh in 1925 and grew up in the East Liberty district. His father worked in the circus for a time and died after falling out the window of a Prohibition-era men's club when Jack was 10. He was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh because of a clerical error, where he began writing poetry (having previously written only prose) and earned a B.A. in 1947. After several years in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Italy, Gilbert made his way to San Francisco, where the Beat and Haight-Ashbury countercultures were beginning to thrive.

Gilbert lived in the Bay Area for 11 years, from 1956 to 1967, during which time he attended San Francisco State, worked with Ansel Adams, took Jack Spicer's magic workshop, and enjoyed a years-long friendly argument about poetry with Allen Ginsberg. Gilbert didn't like much of Ginsberg's work until one day when Ginsberg walked through a roadless and undeveloped area of Sausalito to Gilbert's cabin. He read aloud from two pages of poetry he'd just written.

Gilbert liked it. It was the beginning of Ginsberg's iconic poem "Howl," read publicly for the first time in 1956 to wild acclaim, and published in 1958. Four years later Gilbert's first book, Views of Jeopardy, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer. Gilbert enjoyed a year and a half of stateside fame, then won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964 and left for Greece with the poet Linda Gregg. Six years would pass before he returned.

Gilbert wrote poems in Greece (and Denmark and England) that became Monolithos, his second book, finally coaxed into publication by editor Gordon Lish in 1982, 20 years after Gilbert's debut. That book, too, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize--as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. By then, Gilbert had separated from Gregg and married Michiko Nogami.

In 1982, after only 11 years of marriage, Michiko died of cancer at age 36. Gilbert next published a limited-edition volume called Kochan, a collection of elegiac poems written for Michiko, whose ghost would inspire what many call his best love poems, written in the early 1990s. Those poems constitute much of Gilbert's third book, The Great Fires, which appeared in 1994. By this point he had been teaching from time to time, stretching the money in order to live quietly abroad, writing.


Last year Gilbert turned 80 and published his fourth book, Refusing Heaven. His is an aesthetic of exclusion. "There is usually a minimum of decoration in the best," he has said. "Both the Chinese and the Greeks were in love with what mathematicians mean by elegance: not the heaping up of language, but the use of a few words with utmost effect." Despite their streamlined appearance, Gilbert's poems are not sentimental, obvious, or thin.

One of my favorite poems from The Great Fires contains even fewer elements than a classical haiku: the poem simply describes a man carrying a box. "He manages like somebody carrying a box / that is too heavy, first with his arms / underneath. . . . Afterward, / he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood / drains out of the arm that is stretched up / to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now / the man can hold underneath again, so that / he can go on without ever putting the box down." The lines appear almost inconsequential. But the title of the poem is "Michiko Dead."

In a recent interview in The Paris Review, Gilbert asked, "Why do so many poets settle for so little? I don't understand why they're not greedy for what's inside them. . . . When I read the poems that matter to me, it stuns me how much the presence of the heart--in all its forms--is endlessly available there."  

What is the most important thing a poet must seek, I asked him. His response: "Depth and warmth."

Sarah Manguso is the author of a story collection and two collections of poetry, including Siste Viator (Four Way Books). She earned degrees from Harvard and the University of Iowa, and lives in Brooklyn.

2007 by Sarah Manguso. All rights reserved.

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