Dorsey: Looking back at the life of poet Jack Gilbert (1925-2012)Written by John Dorsey | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A few months ago I was sitting with a few University of Toledo graduate fellows, discussing which prominent poets would be great to bring to the Glass City for a reading. Of course I offer up my friends like S.A. Griffin and Al Winans as possibilities and then we all start talking about Jack Gilbert.
At first my friends assume Gilbert is dead, until I assure them that, according to Wikipedia, he is still very much alive. That seems to do the trick. Of course I can’t blame them for thinking Gilbert was amongst the dearly departed, since he kept a low profile for nearly 50 years.
It hadn’t always been that way. When Gilbert first came onto the literary scene in 1962, after winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book “Views of Jeopardy,” he became an instant celebrity. Gilbert, who had taken part in Jack Spicer’s “Poetry as Magic” workshop at San Francisco State University, had grown up in a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pa., and all of a sudden he had the world at his feet. Fame, money, they were his for the taking. He was on the cover of magazines, his name hung on the lips of Hollywood celebrities. Then he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and promptly left the country, rarely to be heard from for the next two decades.
Last week I was sitting at my computer, when I start getting all these posts about Gilbert’s passing and, sure enough, it was true. Jack Gilbert died on Nov. 13. I tell my friend Zach Fishel and he is blown away. We had just been talking about him a few days before. In our discussion months earlier we had come to the conclusion that getting Gilbert to Toledo seemed impossible and besides we had heard he was very ill. We had moved on quickly, but on a personal level it was much harder.
Gilbert first came into my life via the lyrics of Canadian folk singer Doug “Duke” Lang, who wrote “Jack Gilbert talked about the marriage, not the love that lasts a week.” It was true. Once Gilbert’s words made it into your heart they stuck with you; they unpacked their suitcases and just stayed there.
Gilbert would not publish his second book “Monolithos” for 20 years and even then a section contained pieces from his first book. What his new poems showed was that he had used the intervening years to expand both his heart and his mind, falling in love and at one time teaching poetry for the State Department — simply discovering who he was as a person.
I have to be honest, for a long time I myself wondered why Gilbert hadn’t produced more. Did he have writer’s block? Was he lazy? Was he poetry’s answer to J.D. Salinger? Now upon more reflection, I realize that there is a patience that comes with age that I couldn’t understand then, and that for a poet, reflection is not only a good thing, but a job requirement.
Gilbert went on to publish a handful of additional works including “The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992,” “Refusing Heaven,” “Transgressions: Selected Poems,” “The Dance Most of All” and the recently published “Collected Poems.”
Why am I telling you about Jack Gilbert now? Why should you care? Because I have a strange respect for any human being who turns his or her back on fame, choosing instead a life full of introspection, and I don’t want this great man to be forgotten anytime soon. As long as readers like you are out there, he never will be.
For more info on Jack Gilbert, visit http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/1275
Until next time…keep your pencil sharp.
John Dorsey resides in Toledo’s Old West End. His work is widely published and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.