Here are three poems by Jack Gilbert. Jack's an older poet, but still living. If you like these, you can find a good collected book of poems called The Great Fires which is still in print. Jack’s famous, but only to poets. He won the Yale in 1962 for his first book Views of Jeopardy, from which I have selected “The Abnormal Is Not Courage.” The poem is an exploration of courage and features his particularly deft handling of shorter sentences and fragments in a halting but powerful progression. It’s one of those poems I read every year. “Married” is an elegy for his wife Michiko Nogami. It’s a later poem, full of a deep emotion, but very restrained on the surface. “Married” is only four sentences long, but it captures the entire process of grief. “The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart” was written even later in his career and combines the elements of the first two into what I believe is a mature, accessible style.
I think all three poems are more or less transparent (though complex!) and should get your brain and you emotions churning. These are not poems you read and then ask, "What are they about?" You just dive into what they are about. Again, meant to be read aloud, you do yourself a disservice if you don’t at least whisper them at your monitor.
I had the good fortune to meet Jack after a reading he gave at an ivy league school. I was a sophomore attending a nearby mid-sized liberal arts college, and had gone to the reading with a few of my friends. Somehow we got up the guts to ask him out to a bar after the reading. He dithered a bit, explaining he’d love to go but he had a dinner to attend and a speech to give. Lucky for us, a black-clad ivy boy slid up and tried to ask Jack (no shit) if he thought his work was too hermeneutically inviting via his use of classical allusion; should he not actively resist such pre-determinacy? We got Jack (and his notebooks) to ourselves for the next six hours. He missed both the dinner and the speech. I’ve hung out with a lot of older poets before – but Jack was certainly the most generous, the most entertaining. He actually asked our opinions about poems in progress and debated our proposed changes with us, pimply undergrads that we were.
Second (and much better) story about Jack. Apparently, he was giving a reading somewhere (I’ve been told in Pittsburgh) when a man entered a bit late. He stood in the back of the auditorium, wearing a black overcoat and not visibly reacting. It made Jack a hair nervous, but he continued with the reading. When he was finished, the usual line formed of people wanting to go down to the front and say hello. The man in the black coat strode down the line and walked right up to Jack. He looked him in the eye and said in a quiet but firm voice, “I just wanted you to know, your poetry saved my life.” Then he turned and walked out, apparently not wanting to explain things further.
The Abnormal Is Not Courage
The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
Tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers,
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
The bravery. Say it's not courage. Call it a passion.
Would say courage isn't that. Not at its best.
It was impossib1e, and with form. They rode in sunlight,
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
It is too near the whore's heart: the bounty of impulse,
And the failure to sustain even small kindness.
Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month's rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife's hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
reporting Michiko's avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.
The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart
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. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.