Collected Poems

By: Jack Gilbert

This is a review of the entire body of work of my greatest heroes. I doubt these words about him and his will do either any justice. Yet, they point in a profound direction, so we’ll continue.

Jack Gilbert was an ascetic, a poet who attempted to live poetry. He found immediate fame in his first work. Rather than relish in it, he headed for Europe and obscurity. Living a simple life in near poverty among common folk, twenty years would pass before he published a second book of poems, again to great acclaim. He chose to spend his life in authentic, direct contact with the world — the personification of Henry David Thoreau’s line: “I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains.”

What’s best about reading Jack’s Collected Poems, is that they help you find roaring awe in the raw material of life. I keep my copy within arm’s length of the commode. Each encounter serves as an antidote to the wants of consumerism and comfort and the “good life” we could have if we just had a little bit more.

Jack Gilbert reminds of the basic and the real. Rather than buy that new car, he’ll make you want to sell the one you already have and wander. Or fall in love and have your heart shattered. Or walk through the poor part of town at high noon in the summer and sweat and sunburn and smile about it. His work is a testament to the unrelenting joy of the blast furnace of the everyday.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

I’m not going to include quotes for this book. I haven’t had the inclination to cleave the whole of a poem. Instead, here’s the entirety of one of my favorites:

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

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