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The Well-Packaged Estrangement of Jack Gilbert

When Dwight Garner in the New York Times, or anyone else, tells me that something is likely to be one of the year’s “two or three most important books of poetry” my sweeping generalization Geiger counter starts bleating and its needle jumps around in the red zone. That’s not because I don’t believe in important books, but rather because I happen to be a lover of sweeping generalizations, which is why I react so when I see others indulge. For my part, I always considered Jack Gilbert—who is something of a sweeping generalizer himself—to be slightly more important than his poems.

This impression comes from having met the man on Paros in 1979 in the month of September, well before having read him with any attention. At the time, Greece was just recovering from the brutal “Regime of the Colonels” and all of my friends in Athens were communists. The country was in the throes of modernization, which would lead six years later to full membership in what was known then as the European Economic Community. We know through hindsight, and Gilbert says as much in the Paris Review, that this push was dogged by the Fates from the beginning and would end in modern economic tragedy. Gilbert’s concern is with the loss of a “bucolic” and pre-electronic Greece. His concern is with the loss of a “civilization”—which he doesn’t identify—“that lasted for four hundred years.” Twentieth century Europe is of no interest at all. The popular urge to modernize is of no interest at all. “You can’t go to Paris anymore, it’s not there.” (Paris Review, “Jack Gilbert, The Art of Poetry No. 91.” Interviewed by Sarah Fay.)

Critics tend to crumble when the subject of Gilbert is on the table. Even Garner’s approach is inflected by nostalgia. Gilbert’s poems are “passed around like samizdat” (an unfortunate bit of red Romanticism implicitly comparing Gilbert to, say, Tsvetayeva or Pasternak). Likewise, the poem he quotes in the opening of his review is “as weathered as a piece of driftwood or a late Chet Baker song.” It’s as though a screen has to be contrived in order to project an image of what Gilbert is up to. It’s no wonder. This is exactly what the poet himself does in his own poems. The screen is often exile and foreign lands, and the image is of Gilbert the rebel, the traveler, or the loner who looks for truth behind the veil of language. He is seen to represent the antithesis of what is often conceived of as a corporate, consensus-built canon of contemporary American poetry that is underpinned by gainful employment in a vast archipelago of MFA programs. He is known for “spending many years on remote Greek islands. His has been a kind of permanent exile dictated by temperament.” (Garner 2012, NYT).

I would suggest Gilbert’s so-called exile is evasive and touristic. His interest is not in the complexities of place, but in idealized settings and how he can morph them into templates for personal epiphanies.

Even in his early poems, one of Jack Gilbert’s favorite tropes was to use the world to mirror a fairly predictable array of personal abstractions: sorrow, romantic love, passion, silence and the heart. Often his poems are built around an escape hatch, through which the poet retreats, away from the world and back to the abbacy of self. “Bartleby at the Wall,” first published in Poetry Magazine in 1965, does just that.

The first twelve lines are as arresting as they are stark. The image of a hanging fills the reader’s mind. George Orwell would have approved. As with so many male writers of the period, the mock-casual tone and the illusion of raw reportage are indebted to Hemingway. The language is deliberately flat. Repetition is used the way Cézanne would outline swathes of color, to emphasize the presence of the thing. The rope “…hangs down thirty-five feet. / Just hangs down.” The opening of Gilbert’s poem might as well have been plucked out of In Our Time, with the poet as engrossed in and dedicated to what he is seeing as Hemingway’s narrators. But then, in a move that seems like a gesture of impatience, the narration takes a discursive turn.

I’ve been at this all month.
Trying to see the rope.
The wall.
Carefully looking
At the bricks.
Seeing they are
Umber and…

And so forth. None of what follows is particularly interesting or believable. The poem’s only saving grace is that the narrator himself seems to come to just this same conclusion, admitting that vigorous sight has turned into failed insight.

As the oeuvre evolves, the wall will become the world. The slum will develop gratuitously and the poet will peg his hopes on predictable personal epiphanies that after five poems become iterative and annoying.

Originally Published: April 2nd, 2012

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...