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Jack Gilbert has had a remakably odd career. It began with winning the Yale Younger Poetry Prize in 1962 for Views of Jeopardy, a slender volume that was also nominated for that year’s Pulitzer Prize. Photo spreads in Vogue and Glamour followed and turned him into something now considered inconceivable: a poet celebrity heartthrob.
But Gilbert quickly eschewed his fledgling role in American pop culture and turned to Europe where he bummed around and didn’t publish another book of poetry for another twenty years. He has seldom published since. In 2005, he won the National Book Critics Circle award for Refusing Heaven and now it seems like the poetry establishment is circling the wagons and trying to figure out where Gilbert fits.
Gilbert refused to be swept along the currents of his times even though he closely associated with the Beats and, later, with the budding Language poets movement on the West Coast. Gilbert kept his head down and plumbed his material in his own way: sedate, sentimental lyrics sprinkled with sentence fragments that revives in his poems what is an otherwise antiquated pallor.
Gilbert’s spare and sincere style is easily dismissed; we’ve been conditioned to pay closer attention to poetry that contains linguistic fireworks or the obtuse or the ironic. Gilbert’s poems work the fetid brown ground of love and loss, and he’s so earnest in his approach it’s disarming.
That said, Gilbert has never really excited me and his poem that appears in the November 10, 2008, issue of the New Yorker does nothing to jumpstart my engine. I like the image of the boy’s mouth being “pulled out of shape” and the turn in the poem that follows: the wistful longing to recapture the ever-fading experience of youth. It reminds me of Wordworth’s Tintern Abbey, though Gilbert isn’t so much commenting on the experiential changes endured by the poet and how that alters perception and the very environment as he is commenting on the emptiness, pain, joy (feelings!) that we cannot retain even though the tactile senses remain. We forget; we can’t harbor our original pain, our angst, our loss.