For much of his career, Jack Gilbert has avoided the limelight, yet his spare, devastating poems have inspired a cult following. Sarah Manguso reports on a poet whose far-reaching influence is only beginning to be felt.
“I don’t want to be at peace,” Jack Gilbert pronounced shortly after his 80th birthday. Yet he has spent much of his life on remote Greek islands, on a houseboat in Kashmir, on a western Massachusetts farm, and in the remote outskirts of Sausalito, California, either alone or in the company of one other. He has never owned a home and has driven a car only twice. A sensible person might even say he’s sought a peace separate from the arena of the “career poets”—and maybe even separate from that of the career adult. But the unique kernel of Gilbert’s poetry is its fearless exploration of the adult heart. It takes a moment to have a fling or write one good line, but sustaining authentic emotional participation, as Gilbert has in his life as a poet, is terrifying and hard, and is practically a lost art.

Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh in 1925 and grew up in the East Liberty district. His father worked in the circus for a time and died after falling out the window of a Prohibition-era men’s club when Jack was 10. After failing out of Peabody High School, Gilbert sold Fuller brushes door-to-door, worked in steel mills, and accompanied his uncle to fumigate houses, a job he began when he was 10 years old. “The cyanide could knock you out with just one breath, and in a matter of minutes you’d be dead,” he said in 1991. “It was an eerie way to grow up.”

He was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh because of a clerical error, where he began writing poetry (having previously written only prose) and earned a B.A. in 1947. After several years in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Italy—a chapter notable for his relationship with Gianna Gelmetti, the first of the three women who appear in his best love poems—Gilbert made his way to San Francisco, where the Beat and Haight-Ashbury countercultures were beginning to thrive.

A word about the women in Gilbert’s love poems before I go on. More than a few readers bristle at Gilbert’s apparently “antifeminist” poems. Women appear as totem creatures of mystery and beauty in poems like “Dante Dancing,” “Finding Eurydice,” and “Gift Horses,” but I am convinced that conventional feminism is the wrong filter through which to read these works. In response to a question about his elegiac poems written for his lost wife, Gilbert explained: “It was about grief, not about me.” Despite relationships that had all the signs of intimacy—with Gianna, Linda Gregg, and Michiko Nogami—Gilbert found the women he “knew” unknowable. And so he may write: “We are allowed / women so we can get into bed with the Lord, / however partial and momentary that is.” In the introduction to his own poems in the 1983 volume Nineteen New American Poets of the Golden Gate, Gilbert wrote: “I relish the physical surface of a woman, but I am importantly haunted by the ghost inside.”

Back to San Francisco. Gilbert lived in the Bay Area for 11 years, from 1956 to 1967, during which time he attended San Francisco State, worked with Ansel Adams, took Jack Spicer’s magic workshop, and enjoyed a years-long friendly argument about poetry with Allen Ginsberg. As the story goes, Gilbert didn’t like much of Ginsberg's work until one day when Ginsberg walked through a roadless and undeveloped area of Sausalito to Gilbert's cabin. He read aloud from two pages of poetry he’d just written.

Gilbert liked it. It was the beginning of Ginsberg’s iconic poem “Howl,” read publicly for the first time in 1956 to wild acclaim, and published in 1958. Four years later Gilbert’s first book, Views of Jeopardy, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer. Gilbert enjoyed a year and a half of stateside fame, then won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964 and left for Greece with the poet Linda Gregg. Six years would pass before he returned.

Gilbert wrote poems in Greece (and Denmark and England) that became Monolithos, his second book, finally coaxed into publication by editor Gordon Lish in 1982, 20 years after Gilbert’s debut. (Lish wrote a one-sentence essay for the New Orleans Review about Gilbert’s poetry. It read: “Why I like Jack Gilbert’s poetry and why I think Jack Gilbert is one of the best American poets and why I publish[ed] Jack Gilbert’s books is, was, and shall be to bring about the embarrassment of the power of discrimination in force in the assembly of fucking Harold Bloom’s fucking canonicity list. The End.”) That book, too, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize—as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. By then, Gilbert had separated from Gregg and married Michiko Nogami.

In 1982, after only 11 years of marriage, Michiko died of cancer at age 36. Gilbert next published a limited-edition volume called Kochan, a collection of elegiac poems written for Michiko, whose ghost would inspire what many call his best love poems, written in the early 1990s. Those poems constitute much of Gilbert’s third book, The Great Fires, which appeared in 1994. By this point he had been teaching from time to time, stretching the money in order to live quietly abroad, writing.

Last year Gilbert turned 80 and published his fourth book, Refusing Heaven. Form appears incidental to content in the new poems, as ever in Gilbert’s work. In an interview in the 1990s Gilbert said, “Mechanical form doesn’t really matter to me. . . . Some poets [write within a form] with extraordinary deftness. But I don’t understand why. . . . It’s like treating poetry as though it’s learning how to balance brooms on your head. . . . It’s like people who think sexuality is fun. Sure, it’s fun, but it’s a way of getting someplace, not just running to the corner for a little spasm.”

There are no little spasms in Gilbert’s poems—just giant ones, the immeasurable subjects of love and death, quiet but also somehow deafening. Gilbert’s is an aesthetic of exclusion. “There is usually a minimum of decoration in the best,” he has said. “Both the Chinese and the Greeks were in love with what mathematicians mean by elegance: not the heaping up of language, but the use of a few words with utmost effect.” Despite their streamlined appearance, Gilbert’s poems are not sentimental, obvious, or thin.

One of my favorite poems from The Great Fires contains even fewer elements than a classical haiku: the poem simply describes a man carrying a box. “He manages like somebody carrying a box / that is too heavy, first with his arms / underneath. . . . 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.” The lines appear almost inconsequential. But the title of the poem is “Michiko Dead.”

In a recent interview in The Paris Review, Gilbert asked, “Why do so many poets settle for so little? I don’t understand why they’re not greedy for what’s inside them. . . . When I read the poems that matter to me, it stuns me how much the presence of the heart—in all its forms—is endlessly available there.”

What is the most important thing a poet must seek, I asked him in February. His response: “Depth and warmth.”
Originally Published: February 27th, 2006

Born and raised near Boston, writer Sarah Manguso earned her BA at Harvard University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her books include the poetry collections Siste Viator (2006) and The Captain Lands in Paradise (2002); the story collection Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (2007); the...

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  1. August 25, 2007
     Lori and Patrick

    Jack Gilbert rocks! Thanks for sharing. We treasure his quest to define love.

  2. January 7, 2008
     David Rollison

    I have been told that Jack now has Alzheimer's--godspeed to a brave, lovely man.

  3. January 15, 2008
     Owen Hunt

    I remember Jack at parties in San Francisco in the 70s, where he would be in a deep discussion about literature with someone on his right, and at the same time, playing--and winning--a game of chess with someone on his left.

    The above information about Alzheimer's upsets me...I would appreciate more information on this.

  4. January 29, 2008
     John W.

    Much of Jack's last book is wrought with his struggle over the past several years with dementia and, simply, growing older. His recent poem in the New Yorker, written about Pittsburgh, was heart wrenching for similar reasons. That said, he's been struggling with the disease now for several years and still conducts himself with erudition-- of the many poems I've read, his might be my favorite. He released a very small chapbook of Pittsburgh poems entitled Tough Heaven, and is, as I understand, working on a new and collected. I would be thrilled to chat about him more--

  5. March 21, 2008
     Robert V.

    Jack Gilbert's poetry is for the reader,

    a way of entering into the body and

    music that is the heaven--- here and

    now--- that we are allowed in this life.

    The heaven of the mind and the senses,

    that may be a revelation of our shared

    Soul, as human beings. It is a poetry---

    as Jack stated during an April 30, 2006

    NPR interview with Debbie Elliot---

    created not by a professional of poetry,

    but by a "farmer of poetry"; that

    perceptively attempts to fathom the

    depth and breadth of the miniscule, yet

    magnificent, field we cultivate. My

    recommendation for the reader, is to

    enter Jack's poetry by slowing down,

    and reading aloud, the living work of an

    extraordinary and singular life well

    lived. Also, if the opportunity arises,

    obtain a copy of "Poems To A Listener",

    1991, an reading/interview, produced

    for broadcast by his friend, Henry


  6. April 19, 2008
     elliott higgins

    The finist of all america's poets. His first book had poems that I read in many a Unitarian Church

    Serivce. America seems to forget it's greatist. It is interesting that Ginsberg and Gilbert could not reconcile each others poems. A poet that lived like a poet and new love and death closer than most humans.

  7. July 2, 2008
     Craig Perrin

    I took a creative writing

    class with Jack Gilbert at

    San Francisco State in

    1966. Each week we'd read

    and discuss the work of one

    student. On my night, Jack

    said, "One of these poems

    won a prize from the

    Atlantic Monthly. I don't

    think much of their taste in

    poetry and I don't think

    much of these poems --

    except for one about 'the

    crushing shoe of God.'"

    Tonight I realize that his

    was that shoe, and I can

    finally say, "Thank you, Jack


  8. July 31, 2008
     david eberhardt

    i think of jack, sharon, robert and gary and adrienne and thank god american poetry is still alive

    not totally buried under right wing america

    were there ever any poets on the right?

    heinrich von kleist? the writers of national anthems and hallmark cards? eg "don't weep, i am not dead, i am not here"

    rome also had great poets

    dave- left, poet activist, baltimore, md

  9. September 30, 2008
     Steve Abhaya Brooks

    Jack's poetry, his presence, and his

    words were reassuring to me

    when I was a young poet in San

    Francisco, thirty five years ago.

    Is there an address where I can write


  10. February 9, 2009
     Eva Gasteazoro

    I am writing to obtain information on

    the rights to translate Jack Gilbert into

    Spanish. I am an MFA candidate of

    Creative Writing in Spanish at NYU. One

    of my courses is on literary translation.

    I have been a translator into Spanish

    for more than 20 years, and have

    translated the work of other writers,

    including my own into English.

    Would you be kind enough to help me

    get in touch with either Mr. Gilbert or

    with the person in charge of rights?

    I thank you in advance.


  11. February 21, 2009
     James Dissette

    Jack Gilbert's The Great Fires has been the only book of poetry on my work desk for 18 years. My shelves of Merwin, Neruda, Akhmatova et al—all those I love, await for my cyclical return. But Gilbert is always at hand. I wrote Jack a few years back to ask if I could publish him in limited edition but my letters went unanswered, or the idea silently declined, which I certainly respect.

    I'm saddened to learn of his health issues. I hope he knows what he has given to us all

  12. February 21, 2009
     James Dissette

    Erratum for previous post. I do realize The Great Fires was published in 1994 making my 18 year friendship with the collection more like 15 years. But Monolithos is close at hand and the poetry gods forgiving (of some things), one hopes.

  13. June 2, 2009
     sudie sides

    Does anyone know where I can get a copy of Views of Jeopardy? Somehow, we have lost this precious book.

  14. July 18, 2009
     Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

    I discovered Jack Gilbert's poetry through that Paris Review interview mentioned above. I was so moved by the raw truths in his reflections that I went out and bought "The Great Fires" and "Refusing Heaven".

    I read and re-read these rich, profound and moving poems, runes carved out of the fullness of life, and wonder why the world beyond America has heard so little of one of your greatest poets?

    If I had the money today I would make a pilgrimage to his door just to thank him, but I guess he would not want that - genuine readers are his reward.

    So I pass him on to other writers in New Zealand, and the word spreads.

    Thank you Jack.

  15. August 7, 2009

    Jack is now living in Berkeley CA. If someone would like to visit him, contact me at [email protected]

    Unfortunately he's not able to answer letters these days. (Not that he was ever too good at that.)

  16. February 24, 2010
     alice lichtenstein

    I stumbled on "Michiko Dead" and felt my heart explode. I didn't know anything about Jack Gilbert (my bad), but this piece and the comments have enlightened me. I teach "Michiko Dead" this semester--it is exactly its Haiku-like compression that blows my mind--but its form on the page is also powerful--it is a box of a poem,a tightly-creased origami---unfolding as you read--or peer in.

    Hopefully, the experience of dementia for this poet is the practice of letting go.

  17. March 14, 2010
     Ed Doell

    I too was Jack's student at SF State in 1966-1967. His words and identity then and since have influenced much of my life.

    Sometimes I wonder...who would I be without my experience and learning with him at such a young age?

    Sometimes great people help others to make great changes. Jack is that for me.

  18. March 25, 2010
     Cleveland Moffett

    I met Jack in Perugia in 1960 when he was in love with my sister in law, Gianna Gelmetti. I had nothing to do but wait for my wife to give birth to our first child, so Jack and I had a lot of time to wander the streets of that fine eerie old town together. We kept in touch, I went to Paros, he came to Brussels (once on a State Department cultural assignment) and we wrote each other letters in between. I now have scores of them, many of his are very autobiographical. They need a good home. (Henry Lyman is looking into it.) I'm not as old as Jack is, but almost. Cleveland Moffett

  19. April 17, 2010
     Joseph J. Kearney

    I am just a nobody that had the extraordinary good luck to stumble across Jack Gilbert's poetry. This is a man who sees things as they are, a rare gift for anyone, and is able to communicate it with great and simple beauty. Thank you.

  20. April 29, 2010
     Melissa Tuckey

    Thanks for this nice profile. I was having
    a bad poetry day and went looking for
    Jack Gilbert online and found this profile.
    I also keep his poems close and return to
    them often-- as a measure of what poetry
    can do. Love his work and his attitude.

  21. August 14, 2010
     Susan Schmidt

    I'm another one of Jack Gilbert's students from that aforementioned class at S.F. State in 1966. His work and persona changed my life in some ways, it certainly has been a beacon for me in my own writing. I have always had his work close by and had been "working" with his again for a couple of weeks when I found out about his health situation. I have been haunted ever since by his voice, his wonderful words and persona. I prefer to think that he wandered into one of his beautiful poems and never returned. Thanks for this opportunity. Susan Schmidt

  22. December 21, 2010
     Ronald Jorgensen

    In New York in the 60s, before finding Views of Jeopardy, I heard him give "The Abnormal Is Not Courage" in a coffee house. Now as much as then I've given it to many others with the same tonality and movement I can never forget receiving. That night he said to us it wasn't just about courage; other qualities like integrity, love and, to me, all that makes us speak of character in a person, a group, a nation. So his poem has widened onto our entire cultural in its radiance. Of course I could go on about his other poems; that one started it all with him. And it will hold its place with all his successors. With his courage, before he comes to "the end of his triumph", and his pursuit of love infinity that marks him to be, despite his protestation, in the best sense of the word, mystic, I have confidence in what I feel is his destiny to write poetry through the dementia. Not diverted, lessened, defeated by it but taking it right through, poem by poem, to wherever the end is. And as much as we can, we with him.