Born in 1925, Jack Gilbert grew up in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood and was educated at the University of Pittsburgh and San Francisco State. He spent various periods of his life outside the United States, primarily in France, Italy, and Greece, publishing infrequently. His five poetry collections include: Views of Jeopardy (1962), winner of the Yale Younger Poets Series; Monolithos (1982), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; The Great Fires (1994); Refusing Heaven (2005), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award; and The Dance Most of All (2009). His Collected Poems was published in 2012. He was married to the American poet Linda Gregg and later to the Japanese poet Michiko Nogami, to whom he dedicated a limited edition of elegiac poems, Kochan (1984). He presently resides in Berkeley, California.
The first part of this two part interview took place at New England College on July 10th, 2003 during a two day visit Jack Gilbert made to the New England College MFA program's summer residency. Li-Young Lee and Carrie Collins, Jack's partner at the time, were also present during this interview that took place in the dorm room where Jack was staying.
The second part of this interview took place at Henry Lyman's house in Northampton, Mass. where Jack lived from 2000 to 2009. Jack emerged from his room shortly after I arrived appearing frail and thin and sat on a couch in front of a picture window that looked onto a deep gulch that descended sharply behind Henry Lyman's house. He greeted me in a voice that was barely louder than a whisper and asked me where I wanted "to pick up," as if aware three years later of exactly where we had left off. I read the last part of his first interview back to him and then proceeded to ask him my first question, noticing, however, as I turned to push the record button on my tape recorder that I had left the machine's electrical cord at home. Rather than interrupt the interview, I decided to start transcribing our conversation as if nothing were amiss. Fortunately, Jack neither noticed that my tape recorder wasn't on or that I was writing down everything he said in long hand. He simply spoke in a clear, soft voice just slowly enough for me to transcribe his every word. After fifteen minutes or so of proceeding like this, I was so absorbed in what he was saying that I hardly noticed I was writing at all.
CD: Jack, your poems have so much human presence and pressure in them. Do you achieve this by working on the poems or by living your life? Or both?
JG: I don't write poems as a way of writing a poem. I think I'm more prone to writing a poem on something I think I see or know or understand that is new. It's like what I've I said about having an illicit relationship. It's not a question of cheating on somebody or wanting to get laid, or seeking physical pleasure. But for whatever reason there is this illicit relationship. If you've ever experienced that, caring about a man or woman in an illicit way, there's an emotional quality in that apartment that doesn't exist any other place in the world. I'm not saying it's good or bad. That sadness, that knowledge that this can't last, that you're hurting someone too much, the poem tries to capture this, this great tenderness. Maybe I'm playing with somebody else's baby so she can do the cooking. There's an intimacy in that illegitimacy that I think is unique, if the people are serious with each other. I want to confront death in my poetry. Like in the lines I read last night from my poem "A Brief for the Defense." "Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies / aren't starving someplace, they are starving / someplace else. With flies in their nostrils. / But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants." We must not let misery take away our happiness. It's a crazy thing to say because life can be horrifying. We live in a world that has death in it, and injustice and all these things. But it's important to go on being capable of happiness or delight in the world, not to ignore these other things, but to recognize that we have to build our poems within a bad terrain. It's just how life is.
CD: Yes, but what I'm amazed by is how you bring that reality, that life, into a poem, and also how you wed your craft of such spare, lyrical lines to what Matthew Arnold called "high seriousness." [This first question was suggested to me by Li-Young Lee.]
JG: To get the technicalities straight, so the form is done right, simple, all the technicalities, I think that's a waste of time. It's nice. But that's not what great poetry is. I think one of the main things is simply concrete detail. After all, speaking is one of the newer arts of human beings. Seeing is infinitely older. We react from seeing something much more than we react from hearing it said. We are designed to respond to physicality. Like in basketball game, the man is going shoot the ball to win the game, is standing there doing nothing at the line. Now what he is doing often is visualizing himself taking the ball, making it bounce in his hand, lifting the muscle, shooting, watching it go up and up, and down and down and in the basket. When he does that, then his body can sense, Oh, I can do that! And I can imitate that! If you tell me an abstraction then, it's no good. It may or not get through. Draw me a picture, make a movie, and let me see. Then I think that's what the large thing with poetry is. It's not all of it. It's one of the big parts. The concreteness. That's why abstraction, like with modern experimentalists and post-modern theorists, they don't have any feelings anymore. Why it's abstract. It's not human and therefore it can't have an emotional impact on the human reading the book, and therefore the person reading does not experience the things we talked about. At least that's how I see it. And if it's not going to have an emotional impact on the reader, that's ok, but I'm not interested.
CD: Why do you think people are writing this way today? What do you feel happened?
JG: One of the things I suspect is that people mistrust feeling, in so many ways. In addition to that, the poets of today came after a golden age in American poetry with T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound. It seems to me that the next generations of poets had to become experimentalists to make a place for themselves, to do something different after those four giants. Those poets did their thing and a new generation came along after them and they wanted to do their thing, but now they have to chop down all the trees to make a space to grow their garden. Unfortunately they haven't been able to raise a good crop. Much of postmodern poetry has no significance at all. Unless you like puzzles. Unless you can figure out what the thing is about. The point is not to mystify the reader but to trick the reader into feeling something, knowing something. This whole absurdity about doubting the 'I' in poetry I don't understand at all. That's the source of communication of things that matter. At least, that's what I feel. I want to trust the speaker of the poem. It's like biting into gold, to see if it's true metal. Poets work by insight, not by cleverness. If not through inspiration, then through intuition. Not by mechanics or examining the nature of the way someone seeing something encounters something. In much postmodern poetry the eyeball follows a certain little trail and then translates what it sees back into something else, proclaiming then, "Yes that is a dog." What the hell good is that? If you're scientifically inclined, it's wonderful. It's an extraordinary science of cognition, but it's nothing that has anything to do with my life emotionally, and if it's not emotional what does it offer? It can offer beauty, perhaps, if you're interested in that. It's nice, but it's not going to change your life. Telling a story is very nice, but unless the thing, the novel, the short story does something to you as a person, then it's just another artifact. It may be pretty, it may be clever, causing you to say, "Oh, that was ingenious. I wouldn't have thought it was going to come out that way."
CD: Can you give me an example of a poem or a book of poems that changed your life in some way?
JG: The first influence on my poetry was ancient Chinese poetry—Li Po, Tu Fu—because it had this extraordinary ability to make me experience the emotional thing the poets were feeling, and doing it with no means. I was fascinated by that: how much you could do with so little. It's cumulative in a novel. You can do it by having 280 days of tales as an illusion of reality. What's his name, I forget it now, the guy who wrote Little Nell. He wrote stories for the newspaper in installments and finally he came to the place where he had to kill off Little Nell and he couldn't make himself do it, and he said to himself, "Now it's up. You have to do it." Finally one night, he gathered himself together and wrote down the thing and Little Nell died. He walked the streets of London all night with tears running down his face. That's art to me.
CD: So the change involves a deepening of your feelings, what Emily Dickinson called "the internal difference, where the meanings are."
JG: Your actual being is changed. My heart, for instance, was partially made by the songs of Frank Sinatra and by movies I went to when I was growing up. My heart was shaped by stories, by pictures, by songs. I believe we are made by art, art that matters. Not what's ingenious, clever, or hard to do. Not a mystery puzzle. I think if a poem doesn't put pressure on me, I don't feel uncomfortable in the sense of feeling more than I can feel, understanding more than I can understand, loving more than I am able to be in love. It enables me to do those things. If you try to copy an image and everything goes right, you may feel like more of a person afterwards. But I think that work of art is probably a failure. It's nice to put a novel on paper, a painting over the couch. But I don't want it unless it's significant, unless it has something to do with me. If it's just clever or entertaining or surprising, it's a waste of time for me. I enjoy it. I do it. I read the novel, you know, the simple story line behind a mystery of who killed the cat. That's entertaining, but that's not what I think poetry is about. I think it's something about putting pressure on me. If it doesn't put pressure on the reader, what's it for.
CD: I have heard that you have several hundred uncollected and unpublished poems lying around your house. Do you plan to publish these poems?
JG: That's right. I'm not sure what I intend to do with them.
JG: Well there are several reasons. One is, I've never had much impulse to publish. I waited 14 years between my first and second book. Ten years between my second and third book. I love to write poetry, and I love to get it right. Sometimes I'm a workaholic, getting it to where I think it's right. But, I guess one of the things is that I don't believe in poetry today, because it's involved with money so much, and careerism. I don't believe people would continue to write poetry, most of them, if there was no money to be made in poetry. You don't make money directly in poetry, but if you get noticed you get jobs in colleges, things like that. Then you can buy a house and raise a nice family so you can be proud of yourself. But I don't like that use of poetry. I love it, and still love it, in my memory, when there was no money to be made in poetry. When nobody could make money off poetry.
CD: But perhaps you're hiding your light under a bushel basket.
JG: Well it's not going to change anybody's life.
CD: You just said that a good poem changes a person's life!
CD: And you write good poems.
JG: Yes, but that doesn't mean I have to do it all of the time.
CD: Every ten or fourteen years?
CD: The MFA students were deeply moved by your reading last night.
JG: That's impressive. When I give a reading I'm surprised at the people who take it seriously because we live in an age of entertainment. Today's children grow up on electronic games, sports, and other things. But I think generally there isn't time to take things seriously nowadays. I'm not bitter about it. I don't feel like it's sour grapes because I'm lucky enough that I can publish what I publish. But I don't know what you're going to do about the fact that the audience for poetry today is basically not there, unless you're writing a kind of puzzle that gives people a rush of happiness in solving it.
CD: There's a young woman in the program who was thinking about leaving yesterday. She confessed that she was terrified of taking herself seriously as a poet. She approached me about an hour ago to tell me that she had decided to remain in the program. I asked her why and she said because of your reading last night. That was the only reason she gave.
JG: Bless her. That's a very nice thing that you told me.
CD: And because of Jack Gilbert's poems that she heard last night for the first time. She's twenty one years old and she's been brought up on electronic games. She's a reader also.
JG: How do you explain the fact that poetry has changed so much? It seems to me that a lot of people want to be poets; they want to be poets for a very human reason; they want to get recognition, and if there's no recognition, I think there would be a few poets. There'd be a few, perhaps, but not many. I hate to say it, but it's true, at these writing conferences it's all about fixing up a poem so it will sell. Nobody wants to talk about how a poem works, what its purpose is. They all want to deal with the outside of the poem. Does it look good? Should I take the left line out and put it over here? How should I make the rhythm correct and such. But hardly anybody talks about the strategies of poetry, or how you make poetry live, how to use concrete detail rather than similes, goddamned similes, the weakest kind of resource there is in poetry. People are so much in love with similes. It's a pity. The mechanics of poetry have little to do with design. There's no pressure, it seems to me, to write poems that matter today. Everybody wants to write poems that will be celebrated, but that doesn't mean that they matter. Poetry has changed my life and I think it's changed other peoples' lives. I don't see it changing people's life today.
CD: Because of the recent failures of poetry? Because of video games? Because of careerism? Because of MFA programs?
JG: All of those are true, and should be dealt with, but poets can't afford to be so delicate. You have to succeed in the midst of corruption and wanting to write poetry because you want to be admired, so that you will be able to have more girlfriends or something like that. That's human. That's not what worries me, it makes me mad, but it doesn't worry me. What makes me worry is that they don't know why they are writing poetry. What's the reason to write poetry? It's not a hobby. It's one of the major ways of keeping the world human. We have almost nothing else, no craft that deals specifically with feeling. The novel to some extent, but it embodies a different kind of empathy than a poem does, and I suppose film to a degree, but motion pictures are only able to show you the outside of what's happening. Poetry works on the inside of what's happening.
CD: That is the state of things, but if we had more of your poems wouldn't that be a service to the world?
JG: That's not a fair way to argue.
CD: Why not? Wouldn't it provide an invaluable cultural and social service, as your reading did last night for the students, faculty and guests?
JG: Well I think it came about when poetry got mixed up with money and fame, and such. I didn't come from that kind of background. As I said about ancient Chinese poetry, and it's the same with ancient Greek poetry, it's not because of its historical value per se, but because of its value as great art. Somebody once said writing poems is a bastard art, a queenly profession. But it's not like that now. There's a cheapness to so much poetry. I would like to see a moratorium on poetry for twenty five years and see how many people are writing poems, seriously. I think you would have about a dozen left.
CD: You once said that Greek sailors don't play on the beach and I don't write funny poetry.
JG: Right. That's nice. That's one of the reasons to publish. Someone quotes a poem to you on the street and it turns out to be yours.
CD: But I sense there is an underlying current of humor in a lot of your poetry and without it you wouldn't be able to be as serious as you are.
JG: I hope it's there. It's just like you need short poems and long poems. You need happy poems and unhappy poems. You need a variety of poetry. Humor is particularly like a poem for lovers. "When I hear people talk about how passionate / they are, I think of two cleaning ladies / at a second-story window watching a man / coming back from a party where there was / lots of free beer. He runs in and out / of buildings looking for a toilet. 'My lord,' / the tall woman says, 'that fellow down there surely loves architecture.'"
CD: From your poem "Lovers." I also think your poem "Going Wrong" concludes on a various humorous note. "Take out the fish / and scrambled eggs. I am not stubborn, he thinks, / laying all of it on the table in the courtyard / full of early sun, shadows of swallows flying / on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy."
JG: It's also very nice to hear from somebody else. Yeah, I laugh a lot.
CD: Well this student deciding to stay here in this program instead of going to law school, that's a very physical, real change.
JG: Well it's wonderful and so flattering. It's great to hear. I went to a reading several years ago and after it was over—this is going to sound pompous—several people who knew I was in the audience came over to me and formed a circle, which was good for my vanity. I'm saying this ironically. Then suddenly a man in his early forties, maybe his late thirties, just an ordinary guy, came pushing through this group that had formed around me, and without saying hello or introducing himself, said, "I want you to know that you've been keeping me alive with your poetry since 1982." Without giving me time to respond, he pushed his way to the other side and disappeared. I never could find him. But that was deeply moving.
CD: Jack, I know I've asked you this three years ago, but I wonder if you could elaborate a bit further on why you waited so long to publish between each of your four books.
JG: I didn't want to immerse myself in the poetry world, to fight those battles, to argue and argue.
CD: Why did you start writing poetry in the first place? Do your family read poetry and encourage you to write it?
JG: I don't come from any background. My parents were farmers. My father ran away from home when he was young to become a circus performer.
CD: So what interested you about poetry as a child and young man?
JG: My mind was just so fixed on understanding. I had a huge appetite to understand.
CD: Many of your poems appear to turn on fine ironic points. I'm thinking of such lines as "What we feel most has / no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds" from "The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart," as if to say there really are names for those things we feel most but they must be expressed as synecdoches, or the concluding lines from "Voices Inside and Out": "'Less and less,' I think. / The Brazilians say, 'In this country we have everything / we need, except what we don't have," which is such a sharp litotes, or those wonderful paradoxical lines from "The Great Fires": "Love lasts by not lasting." But you've also proclaimed in your poem "The Abnormal Is Not Courage" this straightforward Platonic aspiration, "The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding. / Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage, / not the month's rapture. Not the exception. The beauty / that is of many days. Steady and clear. / It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment." Such sentiment appears to belie any overriding ironic intent in your work. Do you view irony as a necessary function of a poetic dialectic in which your expression shifts back and forth between direct and ironic speech?
JG: Irony is the wrong word. It's almost insulting. All irony is this way for me. I was always interested in attaining a clarity and logic in which reason won out over decoration. There's always the danger of making something clearer than it is. Of course I'm interested in writing about complex things, but I recognize the danger of being too clever in doing this.
CD: How do you feel you have safeguarded yourself against cleverness?
JG: I love it, and I love vanity. It's one reason I gave up giving readings. I got so good at it, I felt I could control an audience.
CD: Why did grow so wary of your talent for reading so well?
JG: I would like to think I was really smart at seeing my weaknesses.
CD: Which were?
JG: My pride and my strength.
CD: Why do feel your pride and strength were also your weaknesses?
JG: I came to see what performance does to someone. It rots you. You become so vain. This is why I refuse to give readings. Because I am weak, it's hard to resist the power. You're like an actor who can capture the audience with your words, your style, your appearance.
CD: Then where does your real power come from?
JG: I don't trust myself. I love the effect so much. It's like if you have the power to make women fall in love with you. I don't want to become that person, that performer, that figure who can intoxicate his audience. If I wanted to I could make a lot of money. But then I wouldn't want to give it up.
CD: What is the power in you to resist the power?
JG: I would like to think it's the strength of real pride.
CD: How do you distinguish real pride from false pride?
JG: Real pride gives up, false pride keeps performing.
CD: How do you feel now in looking back on your life, your career?
JG: Grateful. I lived my life so richly in so many ways. By falling in love. By being poor. I lived my life in such a wide range of being me. Not deliberately, but that's the way it happened. I've had an extraordinary life.
CD: How many times have you fallen in love?
JG: Three times. But there is another way of falling in love. There's the pleasure of just being close to a woman. It's interesting the range of being in love before it turns to pleasure. I've been so lucky. It's like when you reach the time of dying—a feeling of gratitude that' you've had all the life there was for you. It's hard for me not to feel content because when I was fifteen and realized death, believing still in God at that time, I said to myself, "I know God can take me, but not before I've had my life." I spent that year making a list of those things I wanted, starting with love, having a physical relationship. Among my books and all those things, there are lists of what I wanted first. And I don't feel now there are any of the important things I missed. There's still sorrow because you lose a lot, but at least you're still there. It was not vanity for vanity's sake, or pleasure, but for what was important. I lived all my dreams. I feel so lucky and grateful because I don't believe in God, so I don't have anyone to thank. For me, it's just the pleasure of realizing how much I was able to have.
CD: You know what's missing here—any talk about your poems or your life as a poet.
JG: Oh, that was maybe seventh on my list.
CD: Why was that? You seem to have pursued your life with what Kierkegaard called "a purity of heart in willing one thing," namely poetry.
JG: Because that feels about right.
CD: You've put most of your time into poetry? Why then is it so far down your list of things you wished for most out of life?
JG: What's better than that? My other priorities have prevented me from becoming rich, vain and unhappy. It's because I'm greedy, the other things, wealth and fame, aren't sufficient. They disappear.
CD: So what doesn't disappear?
JG: Love, access to my life, access to people. I love being myself, to experience what there was in my life. The thing that always frightened me was to miss the important things, not from the eyes of the world, but from my eyes, my heart, my experience.
CD: But wasn't poetry a vital exercise for you in finding enduring expression about those things that meant most to you?
JG: Sometimes I think I write poetry for vanity.
CD: I would like to read you your poem "Tear It Down" and get your response in light of what you've just said about vanity:
TEAR IT DOWN
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.
JG: That's very nice to hear.
CD: Do you feel this was written out of vanity?
JG: Yes, but also more a delight. What moves me is hearing what I've done.
CD: You write in this poem, "Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh" and "Rome is better than Rome." Do you feel in some curious way that Jack Gilbert is better than Jack Gilbert when he's writing?
JG: Yes, sure, but I take that for granted. It's like coming across a piece of grass. It's just a pleasure. It's manifest in front of me.
CD: So you feel like a witness that transcends yourself.
JG: I just feel lucky. I don't feel like I own it. I made it, but that's different. It's more about the pleasure that's just there when it's done, whether anyone sees it or not. I see it myself, quietly. I'm not showing anyone.
CD: So you have a very large but selfless sense of your own audience?
CD: This selfless awareness reminds me of Ivan Ilych's death-bed epiphany in Tolstoy's story "The Death of Ivan Ilych." Ivan struggles to ask for forgiveness from his wife, but in his weakness utters "forgo" instead of "forgive," knowing in the end that it doesn't matter if she's understood.
JG: That's a very nice way to say it. I have so much gratitude and I don't have any regret for it. My gratitude is very simple in this way.
CD: You must get up in the morning feeling very happy.
JG: Yes, most of the time, but I'm also very angry about aging, about not being able anymore to do things I want to do. I don't bother myself about the loss. I feel it, and the anger diminishes. So much has been given to me.
CD: I remember you once telling me when you lived with my wife and me in Iowa for a few months that many poets of your reputation and prestige enjoy flying on planes and going places, but that you're content just to stare out the window of the Greyhound bus.
JG: Yes. I like my memories of being hungry and lost. I relish all those things. The experience of being myself. To be privileged to have been there, in my life.
CD: Like a guest of yourself?
JG: Not a guest, but to have had it.
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About the Author
Chard deNiord is the author of four books of poetry, The Double Truth (The University of Pittsburgh Press), Night Mowing (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003), and Asleep in the Fire (University of Alabama Press, 1990). He is an associate professor of English at Providence College. He lives in Putney, Vermont with his wife Liz.