Gilbert's long career is also an extended discourse on perspective. In an early poem dedicated to Robert Duncan ("Perspective He Would Mutter Going to Bed") he writes of
to stand. To receive. A place to go
into from. The earth by language.
It is surely the case that this most literally self-marginalized of poets has acquitted himself of a wish to remain apart so that he might more clearly inhabit the realms of feeling Keats wrote of in his grand debut, which lined up art and feeling in a not-to-be-trumped ideal order. Whether you connect the dots the way Keats did will say a lot about how you feel about Jack Gilbert's work, whose dangers are not so much those of sentimentality, carnal obsession and sloppy language (as other critics have noticed), but the claims to a more robust authenticity, one unavailable to those of us who struggle in the status quo, which in turn leads him to resort to brandishing the didactically tinged and manipulative pronoun "we" (as in "We find out the heart only by dismantling what/ the heart knows"). So we do, except when we don't.
It was Keats who wished for a world of feelings rather than thoughts, and Gilbert, whose language does not opt for the sensuous particularity of English Romanticism, has literalized just such a bias in the course of what amounts to a literary and emotional pilgrimage. The lived journey, as the songwriters sing, has made his career the stuff of legend in some quarters, while being little known in others—the distinction arising according to the litmus test of feeling-as-authenticity. If feelings are of the highest order to you, if feelings are the touchstones authenticating your life, then Gilbert's work may be of importance to you, may well be something consulted and admired, esteemed, even loved. More specifically, if you think that feelings signify in a way superior to wishes, dreams, reflections, and intellectual thought, then Gilbert is your man. There is however the problem, endemic to all poetry, that the feelings of one are strictly speaking unavailable to others, except by analogy (hence poetry—i.e., metaphor). The problem is made all the more vivid when feelings are pressed into the service of values. I would argue that Gilbert's work dramatizes the old debate between poetry and philosophy, between whether content or words chiefly bear the weight of significance. If the former, then translation is possible, and many roads appear leading to the temple. If the latter, then nothing the poem says could have been otherwise, without seriously damaging its DNA. This has been the position of most American poets since the dawn of the MFA, and it is surprising (and it must be admitted, refreshing) to find a student of Theodore Roethke striking out altogether for the antithetical territory.
And yet in lighting out for this territory, Gilbert suggests that the poem resides not in the words. The words are like a cloak draping classical figures that are just as happy to go nude, except that the cloaking provides a registration or orientation in history. In fact, in an early poem called "Registration," Gilbert writes,
Where the worms had opened the owl's chest,
he could see, inside her frail ribs
the city of Byzantium. Exquisitely made
of ironwood and brass. The pear trees around
the harem and the warships were perfectly detailed.
Is then Gilbert that rara avis, a philosophical poet? Well, yes and no. Yes, he believes that poems are, at bottom, metaphysical: they are literary manifestations of emotional experiences, often ones that would be vitiated by particular language or justifying rhetoric. In "Recovering Amid the Farms," for example, the poet describes a young girl's coming and going ("I watch from hiding for her sake"), an experience that comes closer to a Wordsworthian intimation or a Botticelli moment than a description per se.
Except sometimes when, just before
going out of sight behind the distant canebrake,
she looks quickly back. It is too far for me to see,
but there is a moment of white if she turns her face.
The distrust of language must of necessity root itself in feeling, Gilbert seems to say, for feeling rights the ship of grammar, the rules governing meaning's procession, rules that because they are indifferent to our individual experience, necessarily betray our aims. Why then would we want to dress them up further? Understatement is the way forward.
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong.
("The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart")
There is another sense in which Gilbert's poems are philosophical, namely, they often proceed by propositions, as in the early "Poetry Is a Kind of Lying":
Poetry is a kind of lying,
necessarily. To profit the poet
or beauty. But also in
that truth may be told only so.
The intention to define, to say X is a kind of Y, is tied, of course, to perspective, to establishing the truth of matters by acknowledging scale and field of view—which includes margins. Gilbert is more interested in establishing a consistent tonal field than in increasing diction's dynamic range, of tracking the to and fro of thought by means of saturation and hue. Hence his poems share a look. They are, as if referencing the title of his second book, Monolithos (actually the name of the hill behind his house in Greece), monolithic. He eschews stanzaic form, preferring bolts of language straight down the page to recursive forms.
Because of their allegiance to the spirit, rather than the substance, the feeling hinted at, rather than nailed down in words, Gilbert's poems are wary of the forms that sustain and enrich the productions of most of his colleagues. In fact, the visual impression is of rectangular lots of words like boxes of type, in length gesturing toward iambic pentameter—which is also an orthographic look, as well as a form and may well itself be a "ghost meter" but not panning out when scanned.
What most clearly distinguishes Gilbert's work and what separates it from the Standard Model of poetic discourse, is its reliance on incomplete sentences. In one sense this mannerism reminds me of Superman self-speak ("Must find a phone booth."), in which the rules of grammar have a merely honorific status. In a wider sense, the widespread use of sentence fragments disables the engine of grammatical dynamics in favor of a more imagistic standard, reminiscent of Suzanne Langer's observation that the lyric poem more closely resembles a picture than a story. Gilbert's poems may give us stories, but they leave us with the impression of images suffused with emotion, of ghostings recorded by a haunted bard.
Much has been made of Gilbert's associations with women, and it would not be unfair to describe his work as that of a sensualist, properly understood. It is by means of the flesh—in his case, women, that we come to understand the necessity for spirit, or as he writes in "Moreover": "We are allowed/ women so we can get into bed with the Lord." In Gilbert's case, three women have become the subject of this degree of veneration, and these appear in the dedication like Seneca's Graces.
An audacity attends these poems too, their references to "the gods" and "the Lord," which are likely as not to land with a thud on the ears of some. They not only reference gods, but something of the godlike infuses many of the poems as if Gilbert were invoking Muse-like powers with nary a knowing glance to the camera. The astonishment—or disparagement—that goes with such does put us in mind of his relationship to classicism—or one variant of that airy descriptor: the accessibility of the self to myth. The titles alone put us in mind of a mythical propensity ("Orpheus in Greenwich Village," "The Plundering of Circe," "The Sirens Again," "Finding Eurydice," "The Greek Gods Don't Come in Winter"). The seriousness with which Gilbert, who famously spent ten years in Greece near the start of his publishing career, writes of classical figures reminds me of other Modern (and exilic) Hellenes like Cavafy. Consider the short poem "Going There":
Of course it was a disaster.
The unbearable, dearest secret
has always been a disaster.
The danger when we try to leave.
Going over and over afterward
what we should have done
instead of what we did.
But for those short times
we seemed to be alive. Misled, misused,
lied to and cheated,
certainly. Still, for that
little while, we visited
our possible life.
Such classical restraint allows actual distancing to sound familiar, especially as the distancing comes from the ample deployment of abstractions: not the thing (the evocation), but its mention (the invocation), as if abstraction were language's elegy for the direct expression of fact. Indeed, it's impressive how much of Gilbert's work is elegy—not only poems that explicitly reference the death of lovers—say, of his wife Michiko, of cancer at thirty, who is the subject of many poems here. Elegy is a way of marking the felt journey by acknowledging the negative power of absence:
In whatever room
Your warm body.
Among all the people
The people who are always
With classicism the trick is to try for resonance by tying into a set of references that have cooled from the religious beliefs that gave rise to them. Accordingly, one acknowledges and is charged by the passion by which belief itself struggled into existence, while maintaining the aesthetic distance necessary to keep quelled systems "literary." The result is that
We cobble love together
from this and those of our machinery
until there is suddenly an apparition
that never existed before.
("Painting on Plato's Wall")
At its best, this kind of poetry can achieve a grandeur and a majestic poise that is, more often than not, unavailable otherwise to the daily agenda of verse. Consider "Bring in the Gods":
Bring in the gods I say, and he goes out. When he comes
back and I know they are with him, I say, Put tables in front
of them so they can be seated, and food upon the tables
so they may eat. When they have eaten, I ask which of them
will question me. Let him hold up his hand, I say.
The one on the left raises his hand and I tell him to ask.
Where are you now, he says. I stand on top of myself, I hear
myself answer. I stand on myself like a hilltop and my life
is spread before me. Does it surprise you, he asks.
One of the propositions most in evidence in Gilbert's work is one with ties to Nietzsche, the Yeats of "Lapis Lazuli," and to the Derek Mahon of "The Snow Party." The purpose of Gilbert's poems, you might say, is to show us a world of reciprocal compensations, not overseen by common herd morality, but by an explicit, unifying sense of poetic justice. Even as a vision this world has gone by the wayside, and yet until recently, every college student made its acquaintance in the second half of the literature survey:
There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.
("A Brief for the Defense")
Likewise, in the same poem, he writes,
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
This is true as far as it goes, but you wouldn't want to make policy on it. On the other hand catering to the expansion of subjectivity has always been a goal of poetry: we fully spend our lives working our way out from the self. The poet reminds us that we also need to work our way in. The process often requires a good deal of unlearning. Gilbert excels in recommending such deconstructions, as in the poem, "Tear It Down":
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
It may be that a life lived in the pursuit of subjectivity runs afoul of our social natures. It is, after all, a kind of reverse engineering of what life lays before us. I would suppose that Gilbert's allegiance to classical principles also entails the saving idea that it's not necessary to proselytize subjectivity. It's enough that representatives of the soul have made their registrations and continue to do so even if they are, as Milton says, "fit though few." Again, it may be that how you come down on this idea of intense subjectivity, of holding on to ecstasy and pain, of feelings long evaporated, will determine whether you think Gilbert's career was worth the price paid to give it such luster and troubadour grandeur. Readers should be aware that revisiting ancient sources carries with it the whiff of ancient values. The aristocratic code to which the poems often allude sometimes remind me of certain stories of Isak Dinesen, for example.
Be that as it may, Gilbert has put in a claim as an American literary figure, and I am persuaded on the basis of his most memorable poems to recognize his stature as approaching that of a major poet, although I often want to consign him to what I call the maverick tradition: not Roethke or Wright, but Vachel Lindsay, Jack Spicer, and Charles Reznikoff, distinguished outliers of our verse tradition. His whole career must look to him like a pilgrimage to deeps and destinations beyond the shores of realism, but to his readers the same journey may also look like an escape. It's all a matter of perspective, of course. And wouldn't you know it that the perspectivalist who demands steadfast pursuit of love over many terrains also demands of imagination's engine that it never succumb to its means, but that it never stay long in idle, either? Thus the poet cannot separate himself from the career of his words and becomes, in spite of himself, what he wished in any case to be: an exemplar a way of life beyond the reach, if not the imagining, of his readers.