“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. I’ll not profile them here. But vocation is something else, and all too rare. My title, of course, comes from Wordsworth’s 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 brim
My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated Spirit.
Jack Gilbert’s 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 poet—the shape of his life as a poet—has 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 Rilke—poets of that goodly company. According to Lipking’s 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 essay—I got my idea for it—after reading Gilbert’s poem “My Graveyard in Tokyo.”

It was hard to see the moonlight
on the gravestones
because of the neon
in the parking lot.
I said I did in my letters.
But thinking back on it now
I don’t feel sure.
Which gives me an appropriately oriental pause and makes me wonder just how long it has been since he wrote those letters. (Reading Pound’s “translation” of Li Po’s “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 with—even haunted by—the 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,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.
Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. 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 had—at our century’s other end, its beginning—“of what’s difficult.” Gilbert’s 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 1965—I think it was, I forget—I 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 faces—not of keeping, but of finding, an audience—was evident to me, particularly when Gilbert read “Orpheus in Greenwich Village.”

What if Orpheus,
confident in the hard-
found mastery,
should go down into Hell?
Out of the clean light down?
And then, surrounded
by the closing beasts
and readying his lyre,
should notice, suddenly,
they had no ears.
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 him—I’ve not heard him since—has a voice with magic in it, a charming, Orphic voice. His instrument. (Roethke’s 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, been—in his life as a poet—indifferent 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,
I believe I have written
a few small poems
that still have life in them
and deserve to be kept.
Keep them.
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 Gilbert’s accomplishment, but not to me. They both have the classical about them, something Greek, worthy of the Anthology. (I refer to Pound’s “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 highway
and woke just before dawn,
to see people drifting toward me
across the fields. Silently
getting into trucks.
Blurred like first love.
Another inappropriate beauty
I leave out of what I am making.
And in another poem, Gilbert, describing his life on Monolithos, suggests that quotidian stuff is “Not Part of Literature” (the poem’s 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 Gilbert’s version of Rilke’s 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 Gilbert’s recent poems. Age is upon him. (I rather suspect that age has always been upon him.) Gilbert knows, full well, the meaning of Chaucer’s 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 fields
tonight and got thinking about age.
Began wondering if my balance was gone.
So there I was out in the starlight
on one foot, swaying, and cheating.
Orpheus, not in Greenwich Village this time but on Monolithos, still his own audience. The last word in Gilbert’s 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 hasn’t 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 “I’ll Try to Explain About the Fear”), is hard to come by, and often dangerous when had.

“Template” is Gilbert’s portrait of the artist as an old man, and with it I shall conclude. In part:

     ...I often think of an old man at Sadler’s Wells.

The only one left who had seen the famous dances.
When they did them again, despite the bad notation,
he would watch, patiently, saying, No, no,
     that’s not the way
it was somehow. Until they got it right. But he died.
Gilbert, himself, is that old man at Sadler’s 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.” Gilbert’s 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 “Author’s Note” to Monolithos, as “a man who has been naturally and seriously happy.”

William Slaughter
from The Key West Review, 1988