The poet Jack Gilbert, who had been battling dementia for many years, died Tuesday in Berkeley. He was 87.
Gilbert -- who was featured in Monday's L.A. Times -- had been in frail condition at a nursing home for several years before he developed pneumonia over the last couple of days, and he succumbed early this morning, said Bill Mayer, a poet and longtime friend. Mayer was among a group who kept a vigil at Gilbert’s side during his final hours. Fellow Bay Area poets Larry Felson and Steven Rood were among the group, as was Louise Gregg, the sister of the poet Linda Gregg, who was closest to Gilbert and knew him almost from the beginning of his 50-year writing career. Linda Gregg, who lives in New York, was unable to fly to the Bay Area before Gilbert’s death.
“I think it’s fair to say that Jack was America’s greatest living poet,” Mayer said Tuesday by telephone from his home in Berkeley. “He was unique in that he was not a part of any [literary] school or group. He went his own way, and he lived pretty much entirely for his life and his art.”
Gilbert’s place among the major voices of American poetry in the last half century is sometimes overlooked in critical appraisals of his work, including a number of recent reviews that have greeted his “Collected Poems” since it was released in March by Knopf. The reason, to a large degree, is that Gilbert, who from the beginning was a literary rebel among rebels, made many enemies among the literary establishment during his writing life.
Gilbert was a poet of great talent with an intellect to match, who could easily intimidate others in the room, no matter who was gathered there. He also had a tremendous ego and could be withering in his attacks on his targets. He wrote poetry his way, and lived his life according to his own rules. Along the way, he often disparaged fellow poets and others – publicly, at times – who disagreed. He thought poetry should aspire to greatness. Why not try to equal the Greeks? he would ask. He had no use for the sort of academic poetry, that, though well-crafted, was merely admirable. “I want poems that matter,” he would say -- poems capable of changing a reader’s life. Anything less, he believed, was a waste of the reader’s time. And the usual career path that was afforded by composing such poetry -- a tenure-track university position, regular publication in the literary magazines and steady critical acclaim -- he considered to be the lifestyle analog of the mediocre poem. A life not worth living, and not worthy of a poet who was serious about his or her work.
He occasionally delivered this sermon at poetry conferences, where poets in attendance, naturally, often took offense, and sometimes stormed out in protest. His enemies mounted fast and wide.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1925, Gilbert shot to fame at the start of his career, and disappeared – by choice – almost as quickly. His first collection of poems, “Views of Jeopardy,” was a sensation when it arrived in 1962. It won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. At a time when the fame of the Beats had broken through into the national consciousness, Gilbert was about as famous as any American poet, even posing for a photo spread for Vogue. Gilbert loved being famous, he would later say, but he didn’t find it interesting.
So he dropped out. Not in the manner of the Beats and the counterculture they helped spawn, but in his own way. He moved abroad and back, taught at San Francisco State a bit and started a poetry workshop. His pupils, many of them very fine poets in their own right, described him as a superb teacher. But the demands of a full-time university life were not for him, so he went the opposite way. He set out with Gregg, then his wife (as he called her, though Gilbert never officially married), for a life away from contemporary life in the Greek islands and elsewhere. He published very little for 20 years, until the arrival of “Monolithos” in 1982, which was a Pulitzer finalist. In the years that followed, he would publish three more collections, but in the meantime, his first two books had dropped out of print.
Gilbert’s career, then, is a curious paradox of establishment acceptance and rejection. He won some prestigious awards, and was nominated for many others. Yet his poems do not appear in the anthologies of modern American poetry along with the likes of Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and John Ashbery. It seems curious, and unjust, that such anthologies, which often include hundreds of poems, cannot find a place for “Pewter,” “The Abnormal Is Not Courage,” or “A Brief for the Defense,” to name three.
Some critics and other readers are put off by certain trivial qualities in Gilbert’s work, for example his penchant for drawing upon favorite motifs again and again – the moon, the Aegean, women’s breasts. But this seems to say less about Gilbert and more about the culture of our time, when we have difficulty acknowledging significance, when our post-postmodernist irony makes us uncomfortable with a literature – or any art, for that matter -- of seriousness or weight. This can make it easy to deflate the large so it better fits the scale of our perspective. But to do so is to miss the size of its import. And this tendency has at times failed to adequately recognize the seriousness, power and originality of Gilbert’s poetry.
His work, which is often emotionally fraught and always composed in spare, direct language, is rare in contemporary American poetry in that it so often connects with a wide audience beyond the often claustrophobic world of poetry. And it often connects profoundly. Some readers of his work have reported that their lives really have been changed by some of his poems. And many readers of serious literature, if not modern poetry in particular – those who enjoy reading Philip Roth novels and Grace Paley stories, if not Ashbery so much – are often drawn to Gilbert’s clarity, emotionality and intellectual heft.
Viewed in this light, the poetry of Jack Gilbert is not only among our most important, it is among our most necessary.