I.M. Jack Gilbert (1925-2012)

Jack Gilbert died Tuesday at age 87 due to complications resulting from pneumonia. The poet has been suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease, according a New York Times obituary.

Born in 1925 in Pittsburgh, Gilbert spent a significant portion of his life in San Francisco, where he earned his MA and taught at San Francisco State. He also lived in Europe for nearly two decades.

Gilbert wrote five books of poetry, the first of which, Views of Jeopardy, won the 1962 Yale Younger Poets Prize and was nominated for the Pulitzer. Knopf published Gilbert’s most recent collection, The Dance Most of All: Poems.  His 2005 collection Refusing Heaven, also published by Knopf, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Many of Gilbert’s poems address feelings of separation, loss and grief, perhaps in some cases as a result of the death of his wife of 11 years, sculptor Michiko Nogami. Before his marriage to Nogami in 1971, Gilbert was in a relationship with the poet Linda Gregg. As the Times reports, for a poet of his stature, Gilbert was somewhat “off the literary grid.” John Penner at The Los Angeles Times writes:

“‘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.”

Read two of Gilbert’s poems in Granta– “Meanwhile” and “The New Bride Almost Visible in Latin.”

Read five poems at The Poetry Foundation: “Bartleby at the Wall,” “Fidelity,” “It is Difficult to Speak of the Night,” “The Sirens Again,” and “What Is There To Say.”

Here is “Failing and Flying”:

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.

–Melinda Wilson  & John Deming