The Poet Who Loved Women at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
I was working in D.C. when I first encountered the poetry of Jack
Gilbert. I seldom read modern poetry in those days, but a review in
The Washington Post convinced me a book he'd just published might be
worth a try. The next day, on my lunch break, I walked over to Kramer
Books, found a copy of The Great Fires, read a poem or two, and
immediately carried it up to the counter and bought it.
Doubtless it was Gilbert's accessibility that convinced me to make
that purchase. I had enjoyed poetry in high school—The Charge of the
Light Brigade, Ozymandias, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—but
when I first encountered modern poetry in college, I felt way out of
my depth. The stuff seemed willfully abstruse (most often, I hadn't a
clue what the poet was trying to say), and listening to certain
professors and students wax, well, poetic about its virtues, didn't
help. My ego told me the whole thing was a sham, but some deeper part
of me feared I might be just too stupid to understand the stuff.
But in Gilbert I found a poet who wrote verse I could easily grasp and
enjoy—“I light the lamp and look at my watch. / Four-thirty. Tap out
my shoes / because of the scorpions, and go out / into the field.
Such a sweet night. / No moon, but urgent stars.”—a poet who, despite
such clarity, the dust jacket of my new book assured me “stands with
the modernist giants.“ With his unpretentious name and unpretentious
poetry, Jack Gilbert made me think I might not be so stupid after all,
that, indeed, I too might be “modern”!
But, as it turned out, there would be more to like about Gilbert than
just his accessibility. In the paragraph above, I gave you the
opening lines of his poem The Edge of the World, now let me quote
the rest of it: “.... Go back inside / and make hot chocolate on my
butane burner. / I search around with the radio through the skirl of
the Levant. 'Tea for Two' / in German. Finally, Cleveland playing /
the Rams in the rain. It makes me feel / acutely here and everybody
somewhere else.” This distance, this sense of exile, is an essential
part of Gilbert's work. In 1962, his very first book of poetry won
the coveted Yale Younger Poets Prize, bringing him worldwide acclaim.
But then, with what appears to have been a cold intentionality, he
turned his back on celebrity and spent the rest of his days leading an
obscure and penniless existence in little-known parts of the world.
Judging from the poetry he wrote in those long, hidden days, he was
often hungry, often happy, occasionally lonely, but always
unblinkingly alive and thinking. I'll admit to being a bit of a
romantic when it comes to artists, and the life Gilbert chose for
himself features precisely the sort of exile and rejection of all that
the world holds dear that the romantic in me most admires.
Finally, and probably most important, I came to love and sympathize
with Gilbert because of Michiko. Not long after Melissa and I got
married, it dawned on me—as, doubtless, it has dawned on many
before—that marriage is a contract with an inherent, if unstated,
termination date. Barring some unlikely accident, one partner will
precede the other into darkness. The thought of losing Melissa fills
me with existential dread. It is unbearable. I don't know what I
would do. I do know what Gilbert did when he lost his wife, Michiko.
He wrote some of the most powerful poetry ever written about love,
loss and life's cruel brevity. That poetry comforted me when my
father died. It has, I hope, comforted friends I've shared it with
after their losses. I think you would find it helpful too.
Tomorrow night, at 6:30 p.m., in our Easton library, the Pushcart
Prize-winning poet Sue Ellen Thompson will give a talk (sponsored in
part by the Talbot County Arts Council, with funds from Talbot County
and the Towns of Easton, Oxford, and St. Michaels) entitled, The Man
Who Loved Women: Jack Gilbert and His Poems. Ms. Thompson's lectures
are always informed by deep research, presented with a cool precision
I find mesmerizing, and received by our patrons with great enthusiasm
and, inevitably, extended applause. I hope to see you there.