NYU for Smithsonian

Jack Gilbert: most of his reviewers unfortunately focus on what his poetry lacks.

Past Puritan contributor William Doreski discusses Jack Gilbert, inspiration for his poem from Issue 12: Winter 2011, “To An Old Poet Dying Young.”

When I wrote “To An Old Poet Dying Young,” Jack Gilbert was still alive. A few years before, he had visited the college where I teach, at my invitation, and had read and answered questions from students. He had been friendly and gracious, as visiting poets usually are. Despite his advanced age he had seemed pretty chipper. A couple of years later I heard that he had begun the long sad descent into Alzheimer’s, and I was deeply disturbed. I wrote this poem in response, but rather than discuss it I would like to say a little about Gilbert’s poetry.

Reviewers typically dwell on his poetry’s apparent simplicity, its tendency toward statement, its lack of stanza breaks, its blocky form, and its candid emotional themes. “Plain-spoken, unmetered, pared to essentials,” claims Dwight Garner. But this describes what his poetry lacks rather than what it accomplishes. Gilbert’s best poems may seem readily grasped, but they are aesthetically complex and emotionally oblique. They layer imagery and registers of diction to construct small but highly charged worlds in which the slightest nuance can be life-changing. The tone is consistently elegiac, and leaves little room for the jokiness currently fashionable. Irony abounds, but some reviewers are oblivious to it, and consequently miss the self-critical stance the speaker takes toward his own experience.

William Logan claims in a review of Refusing Heaven that Gilbert’s poems “are interesting, not for the honesties they intend, but for the ones they conceal.” But they aren’t deliberately concealing honesties: they are working to uncover them, and finding it difficult work. Genuine honesties are hard to find because the world itself has concealed them. Gilbert’s best poems—and certainly he has his clunkers—require subtle and ironic readers to appreciate them. If that makes their essential honesty difficult, it is difficult in the way that Robert Frost (in “Directive”) required, “so the wrong ones can’t find it, / So can’t get saved.”

Gilbert’s death last year darkens my poem from meditation to elegy, and shifts the relationship between his poems and his readers. Whether poets die young, like Keats and Chatterton, or old, like Wordsworth and Gilbert, their poems—although changed by their deaths—survive them, proving that the past, to paraphrase Faulkner, is never really past.

William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. His most recent collection of poetry is Waiting for the Angel (2009). He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors. His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in many journals, including Massachusetts Review, Notre Dame Review, The Alembic, New England Quarterly, Harvard Review, Modern Philology, Antioch Review, and Natural Bridge. He won the 2010 Aesthetica poetry prize.

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