Else Sinning Greatly: Jack Gilbert, His Vocation
The distance between vocation and career in contemporary American poetry is great. Career poets are everywhere to be found, recognizable as themselves. Like lobbyists or admen. Ill not profile them here. But vocation is something else, and all too rare. My title, of course, comes from Wordsworths Prelude, that moment of truth when, as a young man, he knew he had to be a poet. For life.
Ah! need I say, dear Friend! that to the brimJack Gilberts poems convince me that, like Wordsworth, he was called. He has vocation. He is a dedicated spirit. His book Monolithos (from Knopf in hardcover and Graywolf in paper, 1982) includes the poems he apparently wishes to preserve from his other book, Views from Jeopardy (Yale, 1962), and provides me with my subject matter.
In The Life of the Poet (Chicago, 1981), an original and necessary book, Lawrence Lipking argues that, in spite of the fashion for intimate, confessional biography, the life of the poetthe shape of his life as a poethas not been exhausted. Indeed, it has hardly been studied. We know far more about the facts of poets lives, their quirks and torments, their singularities, than we do about the life that all poets share: their vocation as poets. When Lipking says all poets share vocation, I take him to mean all poets deserving the name. After all, his book is about Keats, Dante, Blake, Yeats, Virgil, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Poe, Baudelaire, and Rilkepoets of that goodly company. According to Lipkings model, whether Gilbert belongs is for the next generation (and the one after that, and the one after that...) to decide, not me. But his life, the shape of it as a poet, does concern me.
I decided to write this essayI got my idea for itafter reading Gilberts poem My Graveyard in Tokyo.
It was hard to see the moonlightWhich gives me an appropriately oriental pause and makes me wonder just how long it has been since he wrote those letters. (Reading Pounds translation of Li Pos The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter, I have always wondered much the same thing. She, the River-Merchant's Wife, is sixteen, already two years married, and he, the River-Merchant himself, is five months gone into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies, presumably on business. She misses him. The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead. In her letter, she writes: If you are coming back, Please let me know beforehand, / And I will come out to meet you / As far as Cho-fu-sa. I have always wondered just how far Cho-fu-sa is?) That Gilbert was occupied witheven haunted bythe accuracy, or inaccuracy, of his perceptions as he communicated them in his letters, possibly years later, I like to think justifies the pause his poem gives me. How was the light... really? It is always hard to see.
My Graveyard in Tokyo carried me back, inevitably, to an earlier poem, In Dispraise of Poetry. There Gilbert describes, powerfully, the nature of his calling.
When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,Damned if he does, damned if he doesnt. Or saved? Being a poet, especially in America at the dead-end of the 20th century, is a risky business. (Try, for example, explaining yourself to your father, who sells insurance.) Being a poet requires the fascination Yeats hadat our centurys other end, its beginningof whats difficult. Gilberts poem connects for me with the White Elephant Sales, of the PTA or church variety, I remember from my Indiana childhood. Ungainly things I favored my mother with. It appears the gift could not be refused. So Gilbert writes his poems of necessity, because he has to write them. But who reads them?
In 1964 or 1965I think it was, I forgetI heard Gilbert read at the University of Washington in Seattle, where I was a graduate student. Innocent as I was then, I understood what was happening. The problem every poet facesnot of keeping, but of finding, an audiencewas evident to me, particularly when Gilbert read Orpheus in Greenwich Village.
What if Orpheus,Who receives poems in the spirit the poet intends? Who actually hears them? (Remember Keats and his unheard melodies, sweeter still.) Gilbert, I must say, as my ears remember himIve not heard him sincehas a voice with magic in it, a charming, Orphic voice. His instrument. (Roethkes ghost was there, too, nodding approval. I saw it.) Others have compared Gilbert, as a performer, to Dylan Thomas. Having heard Thomas on tape only, his disembodied voice, I trust the comparison nonetheless.
Being surrounded / by the closing beasts, his audience without ears, is an intolerable prospect to a poet, like Gilbert, who deserves the name. Perhaps that is why he has, seemingly, beenin his life as a poetindifferent to celebrity and fame in the usual (public) sense. Instead he has chosen to live most of his adult life out of America... out of the way of all that. Not by addiction or play, by choices, he says in The Whiteness, The Sound, and Alcibiades. He has chosen, instead, not to publish much, preferring silence to speech for years at a time. In Leaving Monolithos, the Greek Island he lived on, he says, Yesterday / I burned my papers by the wall. Why sell out? For what?
But has he written enough? He must be sixty by now, or almost, and all he has are two small books, one of which mostly contains the other. A conversation about Gilbert, I overheard, between career poets, prizing themselves, at a Literary Festival a while back. It occurs to me, recalling that conversation, to ask: How much writing is enough? And how much is too much?
For example, I have a friend, a man older and wiser than I am, who has been writing poems all his life without publishing, or trying to publish, any of them. He has one I especially like called Found Among His Things.
Finally, dear wife,My unnamed friend has a small celebrity, but I believe him. A few small poems are all it takes. Pound, in "A Retrospect" from his Literary Essays, says: No man ever writes very much poetry that matters (New Directions, 1954). Surely Gilbert has written his share. Pound may seem an unlikely standard by which to measure Gilberts accomplishment, but not to me. They both have the classical about them, something Greek, worthy of the Anthology. (I refer to Pounds translations and his lyrics.) They both trade in chiseled lines. Simplicity, directness, and clarity are their virtues.
What Gilbert leaves out of a poem tells me as much as what he puts in. His poem Mexico, for example, makes that point.
I went to sleep by the highwayAnd in another poem, Gilbert, describing his life on Monolithos, suggests that quotidian stuff is Not Part of Literature (the poems title). But of course it is, as the inappropriate beauty in Mexico is, and he always manages to get it in. A nice irony.
No doubt you have by now sensed that I find in a few small poems of his something like Gilberts version of Rilkes Letters to a Young Poet. I am not making, or staking, claims for his poems as poems or trying to further his reputation here. Rather, I am proposing that he is useful and that he has much to teach us, young poets and old readers alike, about poetry and being a poet.
Time passing is real and felt in Gilberts recent poems. Age is upon him. (I rather suspect that age has always been upon him.) Gilbert knows, full well, the meaning of Chaucers lament: the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne. In other words, my words: Writing gets harder every year. How long does time take?
In More Than Friends, Gilbert tests himself. Capacity, resistance.
I was walking through the harvested fieldsOrpheus, not in Greenwich Village this time but on Monolithos, still his own audience. The last word in Gilberts poem, cheating, reminds me that poetry is always a kind of cheating, or hedging, against time and death. (In Between Poems, Gilbert says: Commonly, I provide / against my death, / which comes on.) Poets deserving the name need not be reminded of their own mortality. They purchase their balance with their poems. (Gilbert hasnt lost his.) And language is their only currency.
In an earlier poem, Poetry is a Kind of Lying, Gilbert says flatly: Poetry is a kind of lying, / necessarily. To profit the poet / or beauty. But also in / that truth may be told only so. The truth he is after in his poems, that trying to understand, he calls it (in Ill Try to Explain About the Fear), is hard to come by, and often dangerous when had.
Template is Gilberts portrait of the artist as an old man, and with it I shall conclude. In part:
...I often think of an old man at Sadlers Wells.Gilbert, himself, is that old man at Sadlers Wells, unable to forget the way / it was somehow. When the King of Siam disliked a courtier, when Orpheus went down into Hell, when the moonlight, in defiance of neon, struck the gravestones in Tokyo, or didn't.... He is that old man, wanting to get it right, and he is willing to work, hard, for it. Echoing Virgil: hoc opus, hic labor est. Gilberts vocation shines through. Quietly and persistently, he spends himself, living and writing his poems.
All this, mind you, is guesswork. I have not met, but I do know, Jack Gilbert. In and through his poems, I imagine the man, the shape of his life as a poet. That such a life of long accomplishment, imaginary or real, is still possible, given the weight and press of career in contemporary American poetry, heartens me. (See The Abnormal Is Not Courage.) Gilbert has reason to describe himself, in the Authors Note to Monolithos, as a man who has been naturally and seriously happy.