Friday, September 21, 2012

Jack Gilbert, Collected Poems, an encounter

what to say? jack the teaching assistant in the berkeley class where i first studied and wrote poetry 52 years ago. true, i really didn't understand the stuff at all! it took me six months of hard study through the following summer. he encouraged me and his yale winner views of jeopardy published soon after, making him temporarily famous in new york. in a paris review article, he said he soon got bored with the literary scene. off to live on a greek island, he dropped out of sight, not publishing again for twenty years. 

i did meet him one more time, at a reading in my home town, forty years later. oddly, he did remember me. i'd written a manuscript in every imaginable traditional poetic form. 'and what i told you after, now you can write a poem.' i did read a couple of his later books. on the web one jealous male poet called him an 'adolescent womanizer.' the ny times intimated this a strain in his work, and not the whole ballgame!

the paris article begins this way: On the rare occasions when Jack Gilbert gives public readings—whether in New York, Pittsburgh, or San Francisco—it is not unusual for men and women in the audience to tell him how his poems have saved their lives. and a lot of his ruminations on romance, travel, and poetry do include a lot of what i would call 'self-help', not in a bad way, yet, even if he lived his love of grit, the emphasis on positivity disguises him a bit. after reading the collected i picked out 85 poems to make my own selected. i've posted just a few i particularly like, not enough to spoil the whole volume and maybe interesting enough to make you buy it. 

one poem puts his finger on the relation between poetry and photography, lining up with my own interests:

                   Poetry fishes us to find a world
       part by part, as a photograph interrupts the flux
       to give us time to see each thing separate and enough. 
       The poem chooses part of our endless flowing forward
        to know its merit with attention.

and it's amazing how reading a poem will slow me down and bring me  back to the present. those who've discovered this fact can come alive in the trenches. too bad more people don't realize it. yet, as i said, it took me half a year to get the hang of it, and only when i realized all poetry about love and death did i penetrate the smokescreen. 

jack complains he doesn't write funny poems. ah, what could you call this:

                     GOING HOME

                            Mother was the daughter of sharecroppers.
                             And my father the black sheep of rich Virginia 
                             merchants. She went barefoot until twelve.
                             He ran away with the circus at fourteen. 
                              Neither one got through grammar school.
                              And here I am in the faculty toilet
                              trying to remember the dates of Emperor 

here and there it helps to look up the scattered classical references. and i would suggest the paris review interview. like many i think you'll find him fun and often consolling, and there's plenty of sex. 

a few poems here. i think he shows himself the most sympathetic when he describes the plights of others.