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.


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.

Where Poetry Lives

“Where do poems live?” is a harder question than “Why is the sky blue?” “It depends”  may be the most accurate answer, but a live reading never did a poem any harm, and many are only alive when read aloud.

I know where screenplays live. They live on the screen – where the film is. The script itself is a demo version of what the film might be, and screenwriters have to be able to value a script as a script. Novelists published and unpublished have the pleasure of calling a work complete. Of course they’d love to see a stack of hard covers at a bookstore, but a PDF on an iPad is the same kind of experience as a student reading a used copy of Hard Times the night before her European History 102 exam, or at least the distinction is tiny compared with the ways we experience poetry.

The novel, I guess, created a planet full of people with rich psychological lives, the place where most literary thought lives being the interaction of page and eyeballs. My father would have turned 83 yesterday, and he rarely read books but could spend hours reading newspapers cover to cover with the same solitary exploration. I wonder at his thoughts on the civil war in Liberia, just like I wonder what my wife thinks of the row of George R.R. Martin novels on my bookshelf at home. He rarely talked about issues, but if asked could give you an informed opinion, inflected by his own experience growing up with “the war.”

There’s a famous story about Augustine of Hippo meeting Archbishop Ambrose of Milan. Neither one of them were saints yet – Augustine wasn’t even a Christian yet – and he was awed by the fact that Ambrose could read without moving his lips! To Augustine, who was no dummy, it was revolutionary that literature could live in the eyeball-page axis. To him and presumably most people, the written word was just shorthand for where literature really lived, spoken aloud.

bridge poem

The Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis is better known as the John Ashberry Bridge for the poem along its span.

It made Ambrose and his weird new faith alluring, to have a psyche and a conscience so private. This was the year 400, and already we were on that slippery slope to virtual reality helmets.

Poetry lives a double life, on the page and in the spoken word. Poems live on monuments, and some get domesticated for service at weddings and eulogies, but mostly they live being read aloud in small groups. Some friends of mine get together every once in a while just to have some drinks and read poems…at home, where we can control the audio. It’s slightly gauche in this setting to read your own work, at least before you’ve introduced some other published, contemporary poetry or dropped a few classics on the group.

Hearing poems made me write poems, and from this I got drafted to read with a group called the Verbal Supply Company, which hosts quarterly readings, usually at a bar called Halyards, not far from my house in Brooklyn. This Monday we’re moving to the Upper West Side for an evening. The group is celebrating its fourth year, so we’re all just doing extra short sets, and this time around many of the writers will be doing excerpts from memoirs and longer-form fiction. I’ll be doing some poems.


A previous Verbal Supply Company reading being called to order (photo by Brad Hamilton).


“Where do poems live?” is above all a practical question, to the person reading his or her poems. An article from 2014, by a poet named Rich Smith in Seattle, exhorting poets to stop using “the poet voice” keeps getting recycled online. It’s a reason people avoid readings: the dullness of readers, most of whom aren’t in fact performers, emphasizing the cadence and clarity of their work at the expense of any “Shazam!”

I try to be sensitive to that and give it some spoken-English life, but I can also relate to poets trying to honor their poems as literature, to insist on it having some life on the page the way a chapter of a novel does. We can’t help adding a dose of Saint Ambrose.

In its four years, the Verbal Supply Company has insisted that its readers come to a “rehearsal,” and guess what? The readers are more focussed, and the excerpts or poetry more thoughtfully read, a step closer to a theater showcase than an open mic night. When deciding, “Where does this piece live” at least a writer makes a conscious choice.

Past readings are archived online on the VSC website. So you can open a beer and listen at home. Tip your bartender. The third from the top, “Not Yet Fully Monetized” from last summer, is a good one to start with. (If you’re partial to morehastohappen, you can skip to my few poems at the very end, at 1 hour and 8 minutes.)

April 15, Lincoln’s Yahrzeit

Today, a friend reminded me, is Abraham Lincoln’s yahrzeit. Being a gentile, I didn’t know this word, but knew what she meant. It’s the day commemorating the anniversary of his death. Although I’m told that a yahrzeit is is mostly observed for one’s parents, Lincoln is a father of sorts to all of us Americans, so it fits.

I think of this every year, in fact, whenever I see or smell a lilac, on account of the Whitman poem that taught me to love poetry, the one that starts:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

There will be a lot more about poetry, and not just screenwriting and story-telling, here soon, and this was the poem that first got me, especially the later verses written just weeks after Lincoln was shot, verses like this one:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

His cadence and his open-endedness (I’m sparing you those verses; the whole poem is online here.) became standard, what American poetry is, but this poem, free-wheeling as it is, is bound together with such purpose, it’s what my friend Sean Sutherland co-founder of the Verbal Supply Company, likes to call a complete poetic thought, without being too bound to a single metaphor.

This poem gave me a habit, when faced with loss and impending loss, to look at the grander scale, without cheapening the depth of mourning. “In the scheme of things,” I’ll think, “I should be happy.”


It looks like it’s been a few years since Greg Trupiano of the Walt Whitman Project gave a walking tour, but I’m sure other literary tours of Brooklyn Heights and downtown hit some of Whitman’s sites, but no matter. Every year we have a yahrzeit for one of our fathers every time we see a lilac, like this young one poised to bloom (for the first time) in my dooryard: