Thursday, November 15, 2012

Jack Gilbert: The Dance Most of All

I do not intend this blog to become one long obituary or saga of ills, but one must celebrate the passing of greatness and those things that tug at the heart.

So Jack Gilbert died last Sunday in Berkeley, at 87, after a struggle with Alzheimer's.
[Reminding me of Oppen, also of Berkeley, also taken by that ravaging disease, but at 76.
I am pretty sure the longer struggle with Alzheimer's is no cause for celebration.]

From the NYT' obit:

Mr. Gilbert, who won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1962 for his first book, “Views of Jeopardy,” and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005 for his fourth, “Refusing Heaven,” was a peculiar figure in the contemporary poetry world in the sense that he wasn’t exactly in it. A restless man who traveled a great deal, lived frugally and occasionally lectured or taught to support himself, he spoke and wrote with enthusiasm about life in the world, without failing to acknowledge its terrors and miseries. 
Famous for eschewing fame, he did not go to writers’ conferences or cocktail parties, gave readings sporadically and did not publish a great deal, either. His output over a half-century included a mere five slim volumes; his “Collected Poems,” which Knopf brought out earlier this year, squeezed the entire oeuvre into 400 pages. Reviewing it in The New York Times, Dwight Garner called it “a revelation, almost certainly among the two or three most important books of poetry that will be published this year.” 
With their blunt-force assertions, their challenging irony, their earthy sexuality and their embrace of life as a big, messy possibility, his poems were for many readers both serious and accessible, connecting to their own feelings of having to endure in an often cruel, unfair world. 
“On the rare occasion when Jack Gilbert gives public readings — whether in New York, Pittsburgh or San Francisco — it is not unusual for men and women in the audience to tell him how his poems have changed their lives,” The Paris Review wrote in 2005. 
His work is redolent of place: Pittsburgh, where he grew up, or San Francisco, where he lived in the 1960s, or Mexico or Greece or Denmark or Paris or other places he called home at one time or another. His poetry expresses a worldview genuinely of the world. One of his best-known poems, “A Brief for the Defense,” opened with these lines about the need to accommodate oneself to tragedy:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

Jack Gilbert's last book, "The Dance Most of All," was published in 2010 and this poem, I think, is my favorite, as of now:

He was no Oppen.  Oppen, as his mind got all snarled, gnarled, and shrunken -- I always envision the Alzheimer's brain -- the autopsy still being the moment and means of diagnosis -- as a dried up, beyond chewy pretzel that can no longer hold onto its big grains of kosher salt -- Oppen took to nailing his poems to pieces of wood.

He probably did the same with what I might jot on a Post-It.  "Buy juice but not the kind with food coloring or cane syrup but not too pricey either.  And yogurt, some Kroger low carb vanilla and peach but also some lowfat plain.  The fake sugar in the blue packets, not the pink."  This is what happens when you haven't been in a grocery store for a long long time but you still want what you want and you need to help the people helping you to get it right.

Or not.  I think Oppen stopped eatting.  I'm not sure Gilbert ever did. Eat much, I mean.

Oppen typed, I believe.  Gilbert wrote in big block letters, messy, but with remarkably few corrections.  The pages I have seen photos of looked like the graphic production of a frenetic fourth grader, the poetry flitting across the parameters of the lined paper -- clearly a big tablet of writing paper, with traces of the previous indented.  How often I have read that he was frugal.

"Ovid in Tears" absolutely spanks Marianne Moore's "Poetry." At least today, when it is cold, and pewter. and the gardens in which the brain of Ovid weeps are as far from imaginary as can be.

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