Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have a number of theories I won't bore you with to explain why Jack Gilbert isn't better known. Instead, I suggest that every person who claims to love poetry buy this collection (or one of the terrific volumes represented in it), read the work of this real and accessible master craftsman, and then buy another copy to donate to a library or to give a friend.
Gilbert wrote of love and loss, common themes for poetry, but like no other poet I know. And yet, his poems, for the suffering a reader might imagine was involved in the writing of them, are also life affirming. In "Half The Truth," he writes, "God has put off his panoply and is at home with us." Elsewhere we have the assertion, "I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,/but just coming to the end of his triumph." And in "A Kind of Decorum," the poet states, "my spirit sings like the perishing cicadas/while I sit in the back yard hitting an old pot."
Here also are poems earthy and philosophical without ornament to obfuscate. In "I Imagine the Gods," the speaker is given three wishes, and asks to eat not luxurious food, but "the great hog/stuffed and roasted on its giant spit/and put out, steaming, into the winter/of my neighborhood when I was usually/too broke to afford even the hundred grams." When told he could be given wisdom, he asks to go and see a woman he was too afraid to be with. Then the gods say they could make him famous again. His response is splendid:
Let me fall in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days.
That the nights will be full enough and my heart feral.
This book contains all five of Gilbert's volumes plus twenty-one previously uncollected poems. Most of these last pieces are not a striking as the others in the collection, but they are still good, and round the book out nicely.
I cannot more strongly recommend this book to poets and readers. Jack Gilbert's name should be familiar to everyone in love with the written word. In fact, I suspect if his poems were read by students, there would be more people in love with poetry.
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