Jack Gilbert dies at 87; unconventional poet knew fame and obscurity

Jack Gilbert, a poet who eschewed conventions of career and writing style to develop a singular voice that combined intellectual heft with a spare specificity of language that made him among the major figures of American poetry over the last half-century, has died. He was 87.

Gilbert, who was in the advanced stages of dementia, died Tuesday in Berkeley after developing pneumonia, said Bill Mayer, a poet and longtime friend.

Jack Gilbert obituary: The obituary of poet Jack Gilbert in the Nov. 14 LATExtra section said the location of Gilbert’s final public reading was the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City. His final reading was at the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Assn. in New York. —

Calling Gilbert “America’s greatest living poet,” Mayer said his friend “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.”


PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2012

A writer who knew both fame and obscurity, Gilbert produced five collections of poetry, relatively few given a career that spanned more than five decades. But the poems that he produced were starkly original, an uncommon combination of intellect, craft, clarity and emotionality that often appeal to general readers of serious literature far beyond the close-knit world of poetry.

Born in Pittsburgh on Feb. 17, 1925, Gilbert worked as a steelworker and exterminator before launching his literary career. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh in 1954 and a master’s from San Francisco State in 1963.

Gilbert arrived in the Bay Area in the 1950s and attended Jack Spicer’s Magic Poetry Workshop, a seminal experience in his writing life. The poetry of the Beat Generation was in full flower all around him, but Gilbert and his work were no fit. He rebelled, not only against the Beats, but against the avant-garde language experiments and other endeavors in verse that were in vogue at the time — chiefly, he stood against any poetry that he considered to be ephemeral or inconsequential.


Gilbert’s first collection of poetry, “Views of Jeopardy,” was published as a result of his winning a contest: the 1961 Yale Younger Poets Prize, a prestigious honor that warranted notice in the New York Times. “Jeopardy” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

And then Gilbert dropped out. He abruptly dissociated himself from literary circles and traveled abroad. He gave interviews and published essays, along with a smattering of poems — mainly in the journal Genesis West, produced by one of his earliest champions, the literary editor Gordon Lish.

Gilbert taught at San Francisco State and started a Bay Area poetry workshop. But he disdained the comfortable life of tenure-track university professorship, which he thought was anathema to the well-lived life — and to writing good poetry. He often voiced that view, earning enemies in the literary establishment.

He and poet Linda Gregg, his romantic partner at the time, left for four years overseas, mainly in the Greek islands. Gilbert remained absent from the literary world for some years, until the publication of “Monolithos” in 1982 — his first collection since his debut 20 years before. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.


A limited-edition chapbook, “Kochan,” appeared in 1984 and was dedicated to another lover, Michiko Nogami. The poems of grief inspired by Nogami, who had died of cancer at age 36 two years earlier, are at once expressions of pain, longing and affirmation of one’s life in the middle of unbearable sadness.

Many of the Michiko poems appeared in “The Great Fires” in 1994, which he followed with “Refusing Heaven” in 2006 -- winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize -- and “The Dance Most of All” in 2009. In March, Knopf published his “Collected Poems,” gathering his five original collections, along with a selection of uncollected poems, most of them never published before. The last poems published during Gilbert’s lifetime were four chosen from the uncollected works that appeared in the May-June edition of the American Poetry Review.

The last collection spent 30 weeks on the Poetry Foundation’s list of bestselling new poetry books, reaching No. 1, bringing Gilbert a notoriety that had long eluded him.

Gilbert was diagnosed with dementia about a decade ago, and his mental acuity had steadily disintegrated. In 2007, he gave his final public reading, at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City. The last poem he read that night in his deliberate manner was one of his earliest, “Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell.” He delivered one slow syllable at a time: “The oxen have voices/ the flowers are wounds / you never recover from Tuscany noons / They cripple with beauty / and butcher with love / sing folly, sing flee, sing going down.”


Never married, Gilbert is survived by Gregg, whom he called “the most important person in my life,” and a nephew, Bruce Gilbert, of St. Petersburg, Fla.