Jack Gilbert: “How is THAT a poem?”

One book that got me through this grueling winter is Refusing Heaven, a collection of poems by Jack Gilbert, from 2005. I handwrote one poem from it, “Trying to Write Poetry,” and carried it around in my pocket when I didn’t feel like carrying a book, in a not-too-successful attempt to memorize it.

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It could be that some lines from it resonated with the idea of poetry I got from Irish theologian John O’Donohue, who talks a lot about finding truth in the penumbral places. “Trying To Write Poetry” starts: “There is a wren sitting in the branches/ of my spirit and it chooses not to sing./ It is listening to learn its song./ Sits in the Palladian light trying to decide/ what it will sing when it is time to sing./ Tra la, tra la the other birds sing/ in the morning, and silently when the snow/ is slowly falling just before evening…”

“Knowing that passion is not a color/ not confused by energy…”

In many Jack Gilbert poems, you ask yourself “How is that a poem?” Which is always a completely legitimate question of the reader to ask – and often the door to the room where the meaning is clear.

Sometimes Gilbert’s poems are best read as extraordinarily concise character-building sketches, that character being the “I,” the narrator. That’s not something we usually say about poets, but take this poem from Refusing Heaven:

By Small and Small: Midnight to Four A.M.

For eleven years I have regretted it,

regretted that I did not do what

I wanted to do as I sat there those

four hours watching her die. I wanted

to crawl in among the machinery

and hold her in my arms, knowing

the elementary, leftover bit of her

mind would dimly recognize it was me

carrying her to wherever she was going.

A touching memory, but how is it a poem? I couldn’t really defend it from someone who says it isn’t one! Though I do see some poetry in the title: “By Small and Small.” The late night hours are often called the “small” ones, and the small memories and regrets can be the ones that stick in our craws. And small mercies can be the most meaningful ones, at the end of life and throughout.

Gilbert’s favorite topics are his young years spent in Italy, his home town Pittsburgh, and his late wife. In “Less Being More” he writes of a “he.” “It started when he was a young man/ and went to Italy. He climbed mountains…” (The first choice a poet like Gilbert makes is to write of an “I” or a “he” or a “she.”) It ends:

                           …. He began hunting

for the second rate. The insignificant

ruins, the negligible museums, the back-

country villages with only one pizzeria

and two small bars. The unimproved.

 

My kind of guy! And my kind of poet.

Comments

  1. Kelly Ryan says:

    Beautiful Charlie!

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