Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > The Poet Who Loved Women at the Talbot County Free Library
I was working in D.C. when I first encountered the poetry of Jack Gilbert. I seldom read modern poetry in those days, but a review in The Washington Post convinced me a book he'd just published might be worth a try. The next day, on my lunch break, I walked over to Kramer Books, found a copy of The Great Fires, read a poem or two, and immediately carried it up to the counter and bought it.
Doubtless it was Gilbert's accessibility that convinced me to make that purchase. I had enjoyed poetry in high school—The Charge of the Light Brigade, Ozymandias, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—but when I first encountered modern poetry in college, I felt way out of my depth. The stuff seemed willfully abstruse (most often, I hadn't a clue what the poet was trying to say), and listening to certain professors and students wax, well, poetic about its virtues, didn't help. My ego told me the whole thing was a sham, but some deeper part of me feared I might be just too stupid to understand the stuff.
But in Gilbert I found a poet who wrote verse I could easily grasp and enjoy—“I light the lamp and look at my watch. / Four-thirty. Tap out my shoes / because of the scorpions, and go out / into the field. Such a sweet night. / No moon, but urgent stars.”—a poet who, despite such clarity, the dust jacket of my new book assured me “stands with the modernist giants.“ With his unpretentious name and unpretentious poetry, Jack Gilbert made me think I might not be so stupid after all, that, indeed, I too might be “modern”!
But, as it turned out, there would be more to like about Gilbert than just his accessibility. In the paragraph above, I gave you the opening lines of his poem The Edge of the World, now let me quote the rest of it: “.... Go back inside / and make hot chocolate on my butane burner. / I search around with the radio through the skirl of the Levant. 'Tea for Two' / in German. Finally, Cleveland playing / the Rams in the rain. It makes me feel / acutely here and everybody somewhere else.” This distance, this sense of exile, is an essential part of Gilbert's work. In 1962, his very first book of poetry won the coveted Yale Younger Poets Prize, bringing him worldwide acclaim. But then, with what appears to have been a cold intentionality, he turned his back on celebrity and spent the rest of his days leading an obscure and penniless existence in little-known parts of the world. Judging from the poetry he wrote in those long, hidden days, he was often hungry, often happy, occasionally lonely, but always unblinkingly alive and thinking. I'll admit to being a bit of a romantic when it comes to artists, and the life Gilbert chose for himself features precisely the sort of exile and rejection of all that the world holds dear that the romantic in me most admires.
Finally, and probably most important, I came to love and sympathize with Gilbert because of Michiko. Not long after Melissa and I got married, it dawned on me—as, doubtless, it has dawned on many before—that marriage is a contract with an inherent, if unstated, termination date. Barring some unlikely accident, one partner will precede the other into darkness. The thought of losing Melissa fills me with existential dread. It is unbearable. I don't know what I would do. I do know what Gilbert did when he lost his wife, Michiko. He wrote some of the most powerful poetry ever written about love, loss and life's cruel brevity. That poetry comforted me when my father died. It has, I hope, comforted friends I've shared it with after their losses. I think you would find it helpful too.
Tomorrow night, at 6:30 p.m., in our Easton library, the Pushcart Prize-winning poet Sue Ellen Thompson will give a talk (sponsored in part by the Talbot County Arts Council, with funds from Talbot County and the Towns of Easton, Oxford, and St. Michaels) entitled, The Man Who Loved Women: Jack Gilbert and His Poems. Ms. Thompson's lectures are always informed by deep research, presented with a cool precision I find mesmerizing, and received by our patrons with great enthusiasm and, inevitably, extended applause. I hope to see you there.
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