Jack Gilbert, Poetryman

Understanding poetry has been a lifelong struggle for me.  For most of my life I thought I was hopeless.  

In the English classes of my school days, poetry was treated like the red-headed stepchild.  I gleaned that if it rhymed, it was poetry.  Otherwise, it was a pretender.

Thus, limericks with their complex rhyming scheme were poetry, and some nursery rhymes made the cut.  No one mentioned sonnets, haiku, epic poems.  Free verse seemed prose in which the length of the lines was nearly equal, without regard to the size of sentences or phrases—as if the writer had a secret deal with the typographer.

I did notice that what was proclaimed to be poetry often had a musical quality: rhythm, flow, picturesque language, and evocative words.  Since most great prose has all the same qualities, I couldn’t distinguish poetry from prose, the main difference being word count.

Over time I have found lines written by those who self-identified as poets.  The lines stuck with me for the beauty of the thought within.

 “Revelation must be terrible with no time left to say goodbye,” a first line of a poem by David Whyte, has stayed with me for years—because I pondered on it for so long before I got it.

Haiku combined extreme economy of words and precise choice of language to express grand visions or notions and became my only form of poetic expression.

I had never heard of Jack Gilbert, whose first book of poetry was nominated for the Pulitzer. He passed away in November 2012 at the age of 87.  Luc Saunders, an associate editor of The Sun magazine, impressed with Gilbert’s obituary in The New York Times, researched further.  The July 2013 Sun devotes five pages to Gilbert’s poems, plus an introduction to the man’s history and the vitality of his work.

Gilbert’s poems speared their way through my infantile understanding of poetry and left me appreciative for perhaps the very first time.

I will not soon forget “Failing and Flying,” a poem with opening line, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”  Twenty-two unrhymed lines later, the poem concludes, “I believe Icarus was not falling as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.

 And I thank Jack Gilbert for his interpretation of the Icarus myth.


About allevenson

Writer (of stories, journals, email dialogues), Reader (of books written by friends, recommended by friends, and works-in-progress of friends), Hiker (never met a trailhead I didn't like), Biker (more scenery for the buck than hiking) and lately, Blogger (about my Year on the Road at www.allevenson.wordpress.com).
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16 Responses to Jack Gilbert, Poetryman

  1. karen wittgraf says:

    I gave up a long time ago, worrying about prose vs poetry, rhyming or not. It’s all wonderful, regardless of how perfected or free versed it is. But- there is something about Haiku that keeps me counting syllables through the day…addicting.
    He is a poet of kind
    With thoughts that inspire the mind
    That comes from his heart.

  2. David Bauer says:

    I am writing from the silent and seemingly eternal high mountain plains at Laramie, WY and bound for Elko, NV where they host the annual cowboy festival. I can easily see how cowboys can be inspired by the vastness of the western landscape and sky. At any rate, one of my favorite poets is the Bard of Amhesrt, Emily Dickinson. Her poem Because I Could Not Stop for Death has always touched my heart and appears below.

    Because I could not stop for Death,
    He kindly stopped for me;
    The carriage held but just ourselves
    And Immortality.

    We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
    And I had put away
    My labour, and my leisure too,
    For his civility.

    We passed the school where children played,
    Their lessons scarcely done;
    We passed the fields of gazing grain,
    We passed the setting sun.

    We paused before a house that seemed
    A swelling of the ground;
    The roof was scarcely visible,
    The cornice but a mound.

    Since then ’tis centuries; but each
    Feels shorter than the day
    I first surmised the horses’ heads
    Were toward eternity.

  3. Colleen Rae says:

    It seems to me a time or two…
    You have been guilty of haiku…

  4. Viikki says:

    Just before your Haiku days , a group of us , at your insistence, attended a reading by David Whyte at Fort Mason in the San Francisco Presidio. We were spellbound by his passion and exquisite poetry . I am delighted that you tweaked this memory and will have to dig out his books of poety from the archives to revisit!

  5. Michael says:

    While I enjoy the rhythm and melody of poetry, it is the word painted perceptions that delight. Like reductions in cooking, poetry concentrates the tasting of life through language. Leonard Cohen is a contemporary master for me.

  6. 3 poems of simple, direct, first-person narrative about life’s confounding mysteries.
    First, Aubade, by Philip Larkin is one of my favorites:
    I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
    Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
    In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
    Till then I see what’s really always there:
    Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
    Making all thought impossible but how
    And where and when I shall myself die.
    Arid interrogation: yet the dread
    Of dying, and being dead,
    Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
    The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
    – The good not done, the love not given, time
    Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
    An only life can take so long to climb
    Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
    But at the total emptiness for ever,
    The sure extinction that we travel to
    And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
    Not to be anywhere,
    And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die,
    And specious stuff that says No rational being
    Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
    That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
    The anasthetic from which none come round.

    And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
    A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
    That slows each impulse down to indecision.
    Most things may never happen: this one will,
    And realisation of it rages out
    In furnace-fear when we are caught without
    People or drink. Courage is no good:
    It means not scaring others. Being brave
    Lets no one off the grave.
    Death is no different whined at than withstood.

    Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
    It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
    Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
    Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
    Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
    In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
    Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
    The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
    Work has to be done.
    Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

    I love Theodore Roethke too: Here’s The Geranium
    When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
    She looked so limp and bedraggled,
    So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
    Or a wizened aster in late September,
    I brought her back in again
    For a new routine–
    Vitamins, water, and whatever
    Sustenance seemed sensible
    At the time: she’d lived
    So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
    Her shriveled petals falling
    On the faded carpet, the stale
    Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
    (Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)

    The things she endured!–
    The dumb dames shrieking half the night
    Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
    Me breathing booze at her,
    She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

    Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me–
    And that was scary–
    So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
    Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,
    I said nothing.

    But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
    I was that lonely.
    Here’s a third by Sharon Olds: Sex Without Love
    How do they do it, the ones who make love
    without love? Beautiful as dancers,
    gliding over each other like ice-skaters
    over the ice, fingers hooked
    inside each other’s bodies, faces
    red as steak, wine, wet as the
    children at birth whose mothers are going to
    give them away. How do they come to the
    come to the come to the God come to the
    still waters, and not love
    the one who came there with them, light
    rising slowly as steam off their joined
    skin? These are the true religious,
    the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
    accept a false Messiah, love the
    priest instead of the God. They do not
    mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
    they are like great runners: they know they are alone
    with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
    the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
    vascular health–just factors, like the partner
    in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
    single body alone in the universe
    against its own best time.

  7. Karen says:

    All the comments are fascinating and makes me want to look at poetry again, besides “The highway man came riding, riding ..”

  8. David L says:

    As in advancement of all ideas, in whatever form they come,, some are appealing, some are not, and some are crap. I find some poetry inspirational and some not, some beautiful, some the worse of exaggeration parading in costume..

  9. Bob Morgan says:

    As a poet, I sometimes have a very productive day, and then at times, though hard I try, my brain just goes away. Nothing seems to help at all, I just must wait awhile. And then my brain shows up again, and I can’t help but smile. But sometimes when my brain comes back, its logic still is gone, and I must try and try again, sometimes I try ’til dawn. My wife tells me to walk around until my thoughts I find, She claims my brains deserve relief, because they’re in my behind.

    • Ars Poetica
      A poem should be palpable and mute   
      As a globed fruit,

      As old medallions to the thumb,

      Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
      Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

      A poem should be wordless   
      As the flight of birds.


      A poem should be motionless in time   
      As the moon climbs,

      Leaving, as the moon releases
      Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

      Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,   
      Memory by memory the mind—

      A poem should be motionless in time   
      As the moon climbs.


      A poem should be equal to:
      Not true.

      For all the history of grief
      An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

      For love
      The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

      A poem should not mean   
      But be.

  10. Introduction To Poetry

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    Billy Collins

    • Keith Douglas, dead in the War at age 24 wrote this poem shortly before his end.
      It ranks very high on my list of great poems.

      Remember me when I am dead
      and simplify me when I’m dead.

      As the processes of earth
      strip off the colour of the skin:
      take the brown hair and blue eye

      and leave me simpler than at birth,
      when hairless I came howling in
      as the moon entered the cold sky.

      Of my skeleton perhaps,
      so stripped, a learned man will say
      “He was of such a type and intelligence,” no more.

      Thus when in a year collapse
      particular memories, you may
      deduce, from the long pain I bore

      the opinions I held, who was my foe
      and what I left, even my appearance
      but incidents will be no guide.

      Time’s wrong-way telescope will show
      a minute man ten years hence
      and by distance simplified.

      Through that lens see if I seem
      substance or nothing: of the world
      deserving mention or charitable oblivion,

      not by momentary spleen
      or love into decision hurled,
      leisurely arrive at an opinion.

      Remember me when I am dead
      and simplify me when I’m dead.

  11. Douglas uses an igneous rhyme scheme in this poem. You’ll note the last word in a 3 line
    cluster rhymes with the last word in the cluster following it, and so on.

  12. Colleen Rae says:

    Serenity is…
    Not freedom from the storm, but
    Peace amid the storm

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