by Jack Gilbert
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
As Joss Whedon is to television (for me) and Jim Gaffigan is to comedy (for me), so Jack Gilbert is to poetry (for me). And word is quickly spreading through the internet (updated even to Wikipedia now) that he died earlier this week.
Sometimes there are artists who you're sure are speaking directly to you when they are working in their medium. They have labored for hours, days or years over a scrap of dialogue, the turn of a stanza and even though the moment of laughter or insight runs through you quickly, there is something of that understanding that never leaves you, that feels like an ongoing relationship that is always happening.
Jack Gilbert was one of the few poets out there who always seemed accessible in both his work and as a human to me. I had no trouble sharing him with other people and loved passing him along through a bookstore. Accessibility is such a dirty word in the art world these days. It seems to be synonymous with simple or cheap, but Gilbert was neither. He was, I think, one of the most well-rounded philosophers of our time who was just as concerned with living well as he was with writing (not always the paradigm for an artist). He was responsible for one of the best days that I’ve had in 2012 (reading his book of poems by the lake while wearing a white dress and drinking iced coffee), crystallizing the pain and recovery of several break-ups, and he gave one of my favorite Paris Review interviews. He’s one of the books that I keep bedside for sleepless nights and one of the people that I quote for boldness or quietness (“but anything worth doing is worth doing badly”).
I had this idea of meeting him one day (the way you do with all the people that have created things that made you better at becoming yourself). The scene goes something like this: we have been introduced through some literary connection and a friend (knowing my fervor) has set up a meeting at a tea shop somewhere near Union Square. Gilbert's white beard is a wispy halo around his chin and he smiles and the brief time that has been set aside for me passes quickly with us talking the whole time. But I realize as I’m departing (re-wrapping my knitted scarf around my neck), that I haven’t asked him hardly anything; that he has been asking me about my favorite books, who I ask to read my work, what my favorite part of having a conversation is, gothic themes that I found in Jane Eyre that I continue to introduce inexpertly into my own poems. And the afternoon is gone and I’ll never ask him all the things that I should have liked to have known about him.
Kind people often leave our sight quietly and too quickly.
I'll never meet him now, but (in a way) that doesn't matter. That is not him, but that is my idea of him (borne from art). And I am grateful to have known someone like that. I am glad that he lived such a good, full life and that he populated it with poems of subtle compassion and exquisite grief. For all of your moods, good poems make good company.
Waiting and Finding
by Jack Gilbert
by Jack Gilbert
While he was in kindergarten, everybody wanted to play
the tomtoms when it came time for that. You had to
run in order to get there first, and he would not.
So he always had a triangle. He does not remember
how they played the tomtoms, but he sees clearly
their Chinese look. Red with dragons front and back
and gold studs around that held the drumhead tight.
If you had a triangle, you didn’t really make music.
You mostly waited while the tambourines and tomtoms
went on a long time. Until there was a signal for all
triangle people to hit them the right way. Usually once.
Then it was tomtoms and waiting some more. But what
he remembers is the sound of the triangle. A perfect,
shimmering sound that has lasted all his long life.
Fading out and coming again after a while. Getting lost
and the waiting for it to come again. Waiting meaning
without things. Meaning love sometimes dying out,
sometimes being taken away. Meaning that often he lives
silent in the middle of the world’s music. Waiting
for the best to come again. Beginning to hear the silence
as he waits. Beginning to like the silence maybe too much.