One of America’s greatest poets of the past century died this past November. Jack Gilbert was 87 years old and had suffered for several years from Alzheimer’s. He was unique in the world of poetry because he achieved great acclaim yet shied away from public attention. He preferred to live in self-imposed exile in far-away places like certain Greek islands, Japan, and Denmark. He passed up attending conferences, teaching, cocktail parties, and the rest of the literary swirl that often can captivate and distract poets and writers from their true calling—the farming of the soul, solitude, and the creation of genuinely passionate writing.
The New York Times listed his book of Collected Poems (Alfred Knopf publisher), which came out ironically the same year as his death (2012), as the only book of poetry to crack the top 50 books of the year, which included mainly nonfiction and fiction best-sellers. This collection includes all of his published poems during his lifetime—poems known for their clarity, intimacy, and emotional power. In an age when abstraction and excessive surface ornamentation is often valued and even surprisingly rewarded in literature, it is refreshing to read a master whose style is at once profound yet simple. When reading this poet, you cannot help but sense that the man was at home with his heart and unafraid to connect it directly to the page.
I feel especially lucky that I knew this great artist and was able to call him my friend. He was a mentor to me years ago when I was a very young poet starting out. I remember him for his advice, tenderness, and the seriousness with which he approached life and words. The story of our meeting and subsequent friendship is too lengthy for this column. However, I would like to share one of my favorite poems of his. It is about the death of his wife. She was a Japanese woman named Michiko. See how he creates a wonderful and moving metaphor for the grieving process to which we can all relate:
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. 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.
I urge you to seek out Jack Gilbert’s poetry. His poems, like hard, chiseled marble, stand as beautiful relics in these confusing and turbulent times.
Address correspondence and poem submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org or Neil Carpathios, Shawnee State University, Dept. of English & Humanities, 940 Second Street, Portsmouth, OH 45662. (740-351-3478).