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Infinite Books: The Collected Poems of Jack Gilbert

I don’t remember where I first came across Jack Gilbert’s work, but I do know I was the student who checked both his Views of Jeopardy and Monolithos out from the Virginia Tech library for months on end. I also know that when I finally returned them, they were immediately checked out by someone else in the MFA program there, and I know she kept the books for nearly as long as I did. I remember talking to a professor and being just in awe that he actually *had* a copy of Jeopardy: at the time, the cheapest I could find the thing on the used sites was $200 (it’s apparently just been re-released by some who-knows press). Monolithos was slightly easier to find but still a whopper at maybe $80+—far outside my grad-student budget.

Some of the above’s the reason to be so excited about Gilbert’s Collected Poems finally being released (March 17)—for $35, none of us need go hungry or into debt to have our own copies of some of the best 20th century American poetry. But I’d argue the best aspect of Gilbert’s Collected finally being released allows for what’s amounted to a secret thread to come to light.

I grant that it’s debatable how *secret* Gilbert’s work’s been—he won the National Book Critics Circle Award in ’05 for Refusing Heaven, after all, but both Jeopardy and Monolithos have been hugely regarded yet essentially unavailable for decades now (five in the case of Jeopardy). Of course, part of their lure had to do with that unavailability, but the trick is that there are thing which are tough to find but not that great (if you’ve shelled out $400 for both volumes, or gone endlessly hunting enough to gather your own collection the 22 uncollected Salinger stories, you know this); Gilbert’s Collected helps shut down that potential narrative by putting the man’s whole catalogue into our hands.

            And it really, really is a hell of a catalogue. Ignore the temptation to treat Gilbert’s work so highly because of how irregularly it was released (from ’62 to ’94 he published three books, one of which was half full of poems from the earlier book). Here’s a line from his fantastic interview at the Paris Review, about what happened after he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize: “The next day I roamed about trying to find a way to feel about what had happened. I finally lay down under the Brooklyn Bridge to try to feel something. I lay there all afternoon, and then I called the people at Yale.”

Much of what makes Gilbert such a revelation to read is contained in those lines, in that form of thinking. Of the things poetry can do better than anything else is that it allows for a consideration of what one can or should feel. If that seems simplistic, consider how you feel, right this second, about the day outside. Here’s a stupid reference: in the movie Men In Black, Tommy Lee Jones looks at Will Smith at one point and says something about how beautiful the stars are, and how easy it is to overlook them or forget them. It’s largely a throw-away line (though here I am, a decade after seeing it, not throwing it away), but I’d argue it’s got its own help to offer.

And the help it offers is largely the help Gilbert’s poetry offers: his work forces open the door of consideration for the reader to pause and really think of what s/he feels or thinks about something. Lots of poetry does this, sure: good poetry’s got mystery at its heart and demands a level of readerly investment, forcing us to lean in closer and put our own thoughts and considerations on the line as well when we read. What reader doesn’t occasionally feel the jangling of Yeats’ old line about the worst being ful of passionate intensity and the best lacking all conviction?

Take the first lines from Gilbert’s “Tear It Down” from The Great Fires: “We find out the heart only by dismantling what / the heart knows.” I’ll easily admit that lots of contemporary poetry starts with similar presmises—assertions which ground the poem and reader in a consideration of a thing. What I think Gilbert does that’s more rare and precious and fantastic than just about anybody’s ever done is that when he makes these statements, he’s being fundamentally real—dude’s wrestling with the real, basic world. The easy knock against Gilbert is that his poetry’s prosaic, too every-day and dull in its flat, gray ways. “What is the best we leave behind? / Certainly love and form and ourselves. / Surely those.” So begins “The Cucumbers of Praxilla of Sicyon” from Monolithos, which continues:


But it is the mornings

that are hard to relinquish, and music

and cucumbers. Rain on trees, empty

piazzas in small towns flooded with sun.

What we are busy with doesn’t make us

groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights

and the cucumbers.


The poem feels almost too plain, yet the door Gilbert’s hefted open allows, if the reader’s willing, for a consideration of prosaic mysteries and hunger. Also, and maybe best, Gilbert’s infinitely specific: don’t like cucumbers? Tough: this is the poem about cucumbers, and notable for its lack is any moment of Gilbert reaching around and out for the reader, advising “well, if you don’t like cucumbers, substitute whatever you hunger for.”

That, I’ll claim, is among the most magical aspects of Gilbert’s work. In the interview from above, he say “Why do so many poets settle for so little? I don’t understand why they’re not greedy for what’s inside them. The heart has the ability to experience so much—and we don’t have much time.” I remember reading the interview some time back, I can’t remember, and being struck by this idea of greediness, what Gilbert meant. Weirdly, if you read Gilbert’s work all the way through, you’ll notice this greediness he talks about actually comes off as something like humility—he wants to experience all that he can, all that his own heart offers, but not once does Gilbert make grand claims that it’s what everyone should do, or that there’s some clear thing we’ll all find in ourselves if we take this ‘greedy’ path. What his work and example offers is something like a lesson on honestly trying—trying to be clear and truthful with ourselves, trying to find what to feel. Note, reader, not what’s best to feel, just what one should. You’re insane not to purchase this book rapidly.