Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh in 1925, a contemporary of Gerald Stern. In fact, in a Paris Review interview, Jack credits Gerald with the reason he started writing poetry.

I started writing poetry because I finally got to go to college and I met Gerald Stern. We started hanging out together. I was interested in writing novels, but he was always talking about poetry—usually poetry, sometimes fiction. We were competitive with each other. So I decided I would write poetry for a semester and then go back to writing novels. I never went back.

Jack, now in his eighties and still writing (like Stern), is something of an enigma to the poetry world. He won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1962 for Views of Jeopardy, and then didn't publish again for twenty years. One of the reasons I admire him is that he is more concerned with the work than "being a poet" or marketing himself in any way. With that in mind, let's jump right into one of his poems.

Searching for Pittsburgh

The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.
Trying to escape the mildness of our violent world.
Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where we played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning the Earth.
Locomotives driving through the cold rain,
lordly and bestial in their strength. Massive water
flowing morning and night throughout a city
girded with ninety bridges. Sumptuous-shouldered,
sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable.
All grip and flood, mighty sucking and deep-rooted grace.
A city of brick and tired wood. Ox and sovereign spirit.
Primitive Pittsburgh. Winter month after month telling
of death. The beauty forcing us as much as harshness.
Our spirits forged in that wilderness, our minds forged
by the heart. Making together a consequence of America.
The fox watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again.
In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont. On Greek islands
with their fields of stone. In beds with women, sometimes,
amid their gentleness. Now the fox will live in our ruined
house. My tomatoes grow ripe among weeds and the sound
of water. In this happy place my serious heart has made.

He has always fought against the grain, even as a student. He flunked out of high school and worked as an exterminator and door-to-door salesman before being admitted, thanks to a clerical error, to the University of Pittsburgh. From the same Paris Review interview:

I failed freshman English eight times. I was interested in learning, but I wanted to understand too, which meant I was fighting with the teachers all the time. Everybody accepted the fact that I was smart but I wouldn’t obey. I didn’t believe what they said unless they could prove it.

This being at odds with his environment is a subject of many of Gilbert's poems, as in "Rain," in which he laments the control that the natural universe has over him:

Suddenly this defeat.
This rain.
The blues gone gray
And the browns gone gray
And yellow
A terrible amber.
In the cold streets
Your warm body.
In whatever room
Your warm body.
Among all the people
Your absence
The people who are always
Not you.

I have been easy with trees
Too long.
Too familiar with mountains.
Joy has been a habit.
This rain.

Jack prefers fire to water, heat to light, passion to cold reason. I close with "The Great Fires," a typical Gilbert poem that breaks with the notion that a poem's particularity is more important than its message, that the poem is more important than its referent world.

Love is apart from all things.
Desire and excitement are nothing beside it.
It is not the body that finds love.
What leads us there is the body.
What is not love provokes it.
What is not love quenches it.
Love lays hold of everything we know.
The passions which are called love
also change everything to a newness
at first. Passion is clearly the path
but does not bring us to love.
It opens the castle of our spirit
so that we might find the love which is
a mystery hidden there.
Love is one of many great fires.
Passion is a fire made of many woods,
each of which gives off its special odor
so we can know the many kinds
that are not love. Passion is the paper
and twigs that kindle the flames
but cannot sustain them. Desire perishes
because it tries to be love.
Love is eaten away by appetite.
Love does not last, but it is different
from the passions that do not last.
Love lasts by not lasting.
Isaiah said each man walks in his own fire
for his sins. Love allows us to walk
in the sweet music of our particular heart.

Jack Gilbert's CV would be longer than a girder forged in a Pittsburgh steel mill. In keeping with his attitude about awards, you can look up his bio for yourself. I hope his poems themselves speak to you about why I consider him one of my top ten Pittsburgh poets!


Elliot MacLeod-Michael said...

The first one was to me the strongest. It is rich but not overwrought and his word choice is nearly flawless. I can tell he really has love for the city.

Terry Lucas said...

Thanks, Elliot! Glad you enjoyed...

Unknown said...

Then there's this one, from The Great Fires

Measuring the Tyger

Barrels of chains. Sides of beef stacked in vans.
Water buffalo dragging logs of teak in the river mud
outside Mandalay. Pantocrater in the Byzantium dome.
The mammoth overhead crane bringing slabs of steel
through the dingy light and roar to the giant shear
that cuts the adamantine three-quarter-inch plates
and they flop down. The weight of the mind fractures
the girders and piers of the spirit, spilling out
the heart's melt. Incandescent ingots big as cars
trundling out of titanic mills, red slag scaling off
the brighter metal in the dark. The Monongahela River
below, night's sheen its belly. Silence except
for the machinery clanging deeper in us. You will
love again, people say. Give it time. Me with time
running out. Day after day of the everyday.
What they call real life, made of eighth-inch gauge.
Newness strutting around as if it were significant.
Irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry.
I want to go back to that time after Michiko's death
when I cried every day among the trees. To the real.
To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.

Terry Lucas said...

Thanks for sharing!