Friday, November 16, 2012

`It's Just Not the Way I Work'

Reading a poet who lives to age eighty-seven only after his death feels shoddy and disrespectful. I’d heard Jack Gilbert’s name but it floated in the ether of things I don’t know and never pursued. After he died on Tuesday I borrowed his Collected Poems (2012) from the library and spent a couple of hours reviewing a man’s life in the lines he chose to leave behind. Much has been made of Gilbert’s unconventional poet’s life, the way he frequently moved, shunned academia and some of the trappings of the poetry industry, and periodically disappeared from view like Sonny Rollins. I read his Paris Review interview and found things to admire:

“I didn’t want to stay in New York and go to dinners. I was also puzzled by the fact that so many of the established poets didn’t like each other. There’s competition, naturally—and naturally you relate to someone who can promote you. That’s not awful; that’s the way the world works. It’s just not the way I work. But don’t get me wrong, what they’re doing—these meetings where they give each other prizes—I think it’s wonderful.”
The interviewer questions this apparent approval of business as usual among American poets (is he being ironic?), and Gilbert goes on: 

“The people who are famous have earned it; they’ve earned it to an extraordinary degree. They’ve given their lives to it, they’re professionals, they work hard, and they raise families. And they’re very smart, they stay at their desks all the time—they send out everything. They teach, which is not easy. What they do is important, but there’s no way that I would use my life for that.” 

I admire Gilbert’s apparent equanimity. Few of us can reject a way of life, or anything else for that matter, without bad-mouthing it. I like his detachment, his ability to separate act from actor, and to praise people whose lives he chooses not to emulate. At least in these matters, Gilbert behaves like a rare grownup. So I wish I could say I was smitten by Gilbert’s poems and that I’d posthumously discovered a new favorite, but that’s not the case. Gilbert’s poems, from early to late, feel slight and casual like notes left on the kitchen counter. Their affect is flat, reminding me of Joan Didion’s prose. They’re bloodless anecdotes, like the small stories we swap with family and friends – sometimes pleasant or amusing, but not really poems. They’re under-developed snapshots, an impression heightened by general formlessness and rhythmic slackness. I understand that he wishes to sound emotionally cool and understated, not to break a sweat or rant. In the Paris Review interview he talks about the centrality of heart to his work, but the vital signs are so faint it’s difficult to detect a beat. Here’s the final poem in the new book, “Convalescing”: 

“I spend the days deciding
on a commemorative poem.
Not, luckily, an epitaph.
A quiet poem
to establish the fact of me.
As one of the incidental faces
In those stone processions,
Carefully done.
Not claiming that I was
at any of the great victories.
But that I volunteered.”


Gary in Nairobi said...

I respect your critique. It helps me in reconsidering mine. What I like about Jack Gilbert is, on reflection, the life more than the words on paper, perhaps. In his case it's hard to separate them, though, in my mind, and perhaps was in his, too.

Steve Abernathy said...

"Shunned academia" is a bit of a myth about Jack. "Shunned a tenured faculty position" is accurate. He lectured often in colleges throughout his life, helped by his friends and admirers in academia.