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A Beast Bent on Grace

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Posted on May 17, 2012

By Steven Ratiner

“Collected Poems”
A book by Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert’s debut was a phenomenon. When he first appeared on the literary scene—winning the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize in 1962 for “Views of Jeopardy”—he was accorded a measure of celebrity that even today’s media-savvy luminaries would envy. (How many other poets find their photos featured in Esquire, Vogue and Glamour?) He was hailed for his unique voice and sensibility and, rising from the gritty landscape of industrial Pittsburgh, for taking a bold stance counter to the prevailing fashions.

And what did the young writer do after such a promising start? He packed his bags and vanished, spending years traveling across Europe, Greece and Japan, stopping to teach for a time when his money ran low. In a word: He lived, which it’s clear was his goal all along. Poetry was his tool for carving a path into raw experience and the depths of the self. Compromise (of the sort an academic career would require) did not suit his temperament. That his choices seemed to place not only his comfort but his emotional well-being at stake added heft to his subject matter and gravity to his voice. Gilbert could veer between the operatic and demotic to produce thrilling and unsettling effects. “How astonishing it is,” he wrote in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” “that language can almost mean, / and frightening that it does not quite.”

A full 20 years went by before his second collection was unveiled, and this too was a resounding success. “Monolithos” was the only title that year among the finalists for all three of the major prizes: the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Look at the rave reviews on that book’s dust jacket and you’ll find an array of literary lions who have probably agreed on nothing else in their careers. As he wrote in an earlier poem, his aim was to possess “the earth by language,” a grand ambition for any poet.

To see long excerpts from “Collected Poems” at Google Books, click here.

Like many in Gilbert’s generation, he was influenced by Ezra Pound’s emphasis on the image and, through Pound and Arthur Waley’s translations, the nuanced particularity favored by China’s Tang dynasty masters. To these approaches, Gilbert wedded an unflinching honesty, a diction that steered clear of rhetorical flourishes and a love for what he termed “true nouns”—the sort of concrete and elemental experience he could use to unearth the oldest themes in our cultural storehouse and make them breathe again in our atmosphere.

Where else but in Gilbert can a detailed description of cooking breakfast evolve into an interrogation of the divinity (“Going Wrong”)? Who else can fashion a lacerating little gem like “Married,” which begins: “I came back from the funeral and crawled / around the apartment, crying hard, / searching for my wife’s hair.” And when he believes he’s lost the last trace of her: “A year later, / repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find / a long black hair tangled in the dirt.” The mythic anguish of Orpheus in the underworld suddenly seems fused with something very much like the room in which you sit.

book cover


Collected Poems


By Jack Gilbert


Knopf, 432 pages


Buy the book

Essentially, Gilbert has spent his life as a recluse, in the time-honored Chinese tradition, whether living on the tiny Greek isle of Paros or in the midst of crowded cities. As he writes in “Spring”: “A taste for solitude. The knowledge / that love preserves freedom in always / failing. An exile by nature. Where, / indeed, would I ever be a citizen?”

Now, with Gilbert well into his 80s, the release of his “Collected Poems” gives us a chance to view the arching span of what he’s created. At the heart, the power of a poet’s work becomes a matter of penetration: How deeply does it insinuate itself into the core of our experience? Too often, I find myself reading verse in contemporary journals filled with bright surfaces and beautiful complexity, poems that, two minutes after the page is turned, I’ll never think of again. By contrast, we continually return to the work of Jack Gilbert because he gets under our skin. Simply put, my own solitude would feel more desolate if it had not been fortified by an engagement with his.

Steven Ratiner’s interview collection, “Giving Their Word: Conversations With Contemporary Poets,” has been reissued in a new paperback edition.

© 2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

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By Ed Romano, May 23, 2012 at 6:53 am Link to this comment

Gerard, I am not a Vietnam vet, but I was heavily involved in the anti war movement in those days. I was in the Korean conflict as it was called. (They didn’t want to give it the title of a full fledged war). I see these wars as the logical outgrowth of our economic and cultural system and believe that any anti war stance that ignores this system is on a fool’s errand. I am presently going through some medical issues that have kept me from watching Democracy Now for a few days. I’ll get around to it. I did read that over 40 veterans were involved in returning thier medals to the Masters of Death. Some of that went on during the Vietnam fiasco, but I don’t remember it to the extent it was in Chicago….I don’t think our brains are of much use in tackling the enormous problems we are now facing. The more we think and talk about our societal problems the worse things seem to get. What we need is to have our noses rubbed in the horror our government is spreading around the globe. Since our imaginations are atrophied ,to say the least, we need to see pictures like that of the little Vietnamese girl I wrote about. During the Vietnam war pictures of the devestation we were working on the Vietnamese population were on the nightly TV news. This is what aided the anti war movement and made it grow so large. The government learned a lesson from that and reporters are no longer allowed to be in the thick of the action….What is needed now is heart….heart and imagination at least as much as brains. Whenever I hear the justifications given by the government for its actions around the world I think about, or look at the picture of that child. and I know that those of us who are adamantly opposed to government policy are on the right track. Lest this all sound too depressing….I think we must be grateful for the blessings that have been given to us…family and friends…things like waking up to a sun shiny morning ( today). Thanks for your comments.
  SURFBOY, Thanks. You see the face of God in what I wrote, because He/She allows me the vision to understand the situation. It is the grace of God that moves us when we have compassion for others. Without him I’d still be hanging around the beer halls.

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By gerard, May 22, 2012 at 6:04 pm Link to this comment

Can Do Jack:  Good to hear from you again.  Thanks too for your tightly bundled bio.

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By gerard, May 22, 2012 at 5:36 pm Link to this comment

Ed:  I didn’t see your tragic ode until today and it brought tears. I hope you saw the video of the Vets from Iraq and Afghanistan throwing away their medals in Chicago yesterday. It was a real victory for all you guys who did what you thought you had to at the time, things which left terrible scars.
  Life doesn’t make sense. I try to laugh it off because the incongruities are so insanely gratuitous and ironic. But it’s not really a bit funny. Just keeps me from crying. Or screaming. The odd thing is: I still think humans can do better—and will—if the wind blows right. Love.

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By Ed Romano, May 22, 2012 at 7:42 am Link to this comment


            Her name is Viengsamone

On the top shelf of my dining room cabinet
There is a picture of a nine year old
Vietnamese girl. It’s been there for many years.
In the photo she stares at me
With eyes partially blinded
By the explosion of an antipersonnel bomb.
Her blouse is rolled up to reveal a long
Blistered spider like scar fromed by the bomb.
The fact that she is an angelic child
Adds to the pain of looking at her.
If she is alive today she is a mature woman
But to me she will always be a child -
A child with an expression that seems to ask -
Why did you do this to me ?
Does God hear the screams of children like this ?
Where is His wrath for a nation
That makes war on babies ?
I’m sorry child. I have no answers.
I am ashamed to be human.


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By CanDoJack, May 21, 2012 at 3:22 am Link to this comment


OK, I won’t love poetry. But, I love your comment.

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By CanDoJack, May 21, 2012 at 3:11 am Link to this comment

Thanks for the article, well done

As I look across the scene today, wild and woolly—
I as well as the scene—I think of Ellie Hathaway
in Carl Sagan’s Contact and repeat “They should have
sent a poet.”

I came with no baggage
I will leave with no grip
I will live to the limits
of life ‘fore I slip
away to the darkness
where I dwelt ‘fore I came
You can put up a tombstone
But don’t add any name

off the cuff:

Some day on the way to YouTopYa
Some one will bravely suggest
a reply to the seven deadly sins
and every one will wrestle
with the one with which they begin
well what shall we do with pride
with what shall we pride replace
no one will say but way deep inside
every one will ditch pride for grace

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By gerard, May 19, 2012 at 10:05 am Link to this comment

Surfboy:Poetry is a disease.  You catch it—or you don’t. Part of it is understanding the words; part is misunderstanding the words; still another part is understanding the same word more than once or in more than one way.  It’s the ability to open one eye and see; to open both eyes and see something else; and not to open either eye, only to realize you are blind. Poetry is “grace under pressure” that turns you into a “beast bent on grace.” Poetry is the most insane sane thing in the world. You catch it by reading it—preferably aloud, or listen to a poet who knows how to read.
  Don’t fall in love with it. People who “love” poetry are all mediocre creeps. Better to hate it, than that.
  Once you “get” it, you will always have it. You probably already have it. It just got buried under something when you were growing up. Clean out your closets. Love. Try writing some. Don’t be afraid.
  P.S. Wall Street types hate poetry.

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By gerard, May 18, 2012 at 9:49 am Link to this comment

“A Beast Bent on Grace”—precisely!  A guy who could find a name like that to describe us has got to be a good poet!  I browsed through, and—sure enough—a good poet.  From one “beast bent on grace” to another, thanks for the tip.

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