The only ones who know spring is coming: Jack Gilbert

The poet Jack Gilbert died this week, after a long illness (which usually means cancer, but in his case meant Alzheimer's…a story well told in the Los Angeles Times). 

Gilbert was brilliantly eulogized in Andrew Sullivan's irreplaceable blog, and in passing Sullivan mentioned the name of his poetry editor Alice Quinn, formerly of The New Yorker. (No wonder his site has been featuring poetry as of late!)

In any case, Quinn referred us to an interview in The Paris Review, in which Gilbert talked about two types of poems, which perhaps could be distinguished as poems about what just happened, poems of the broken-hearted, and poems of thought.

Gilbert suggested that poetry is a way to fearless examine matters of the heart, as much as thoughts in the mind, and perhaps his great skill is using that craft to think through the heart's pains: 

"INTERVIEWER: In your interview with Gordon Lish in Genesis West,
you say that there are two kinds of poetry. On the one hand, there are
poems that give delight; on the other, there are poems that do something
else. What do you mean by “something else”? 

GILBERT:  I think serious poems should make something
happen that’s not correct or entertaining or clever. I want something
that matters to my heart, and I don’t mean “Linda left me.” I don’t want
that. I’ll write that poem, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m
talking about being in danger—as we all are—of dying. How can you spend
your life on games or intricately accomplished things? And politics?
Politics is fine. There’s a place to care for the injustice of the
world, but that’s not what the poem is about. The poem is about the
heart. Not the heart as in “I’m in love” or “my girl cheated on me”—I
mean the conscious heart, the fact that we are the only things in the
entire universe that know true consciousness. We’re the only
things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world
that know spring is coming."

Not sure Gilbert is right about that: When a Clark's Nutcracker hides nuts in pine trees for winter, does it not know at some level that spring will come? But the point is that in his work Gilbert thinks through big ideas, and comes up with what we may not have thought of before. Agree or disagree, one can be changed by his insights. So it is with a poem Sullivan/Quinn led with, called Failing and Falling

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.

It’s the same when love comes to an end,


or the marriage fails and people say


they knew it was a mistake, that everybody


said it would never work. That she was


old enough to know better. But anything


worth doing is worth doing badly.


Like being there by that summer ocean


on the other side of the island while


love was fading out of her, the stars


burning so extravagantly those nights that


anyone could tell you they would never last.


Every morning she was asleep in my bed


like a visitation, the gentleness in her


like antelope standing in the dawn mist.


Each afternoon I watched her coming back


through the hot stony field after swimming,


the sea light behind her and the huge sky


on the other side of that. Listened to her


while we ate lunch. How can they say


the marriage failed? Like the people who


came back from Provence (when it was Provence)


and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.


I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,


But just coming to the end of his triumph.

Arguably a rethinking of Auden's famous meditation on the same story (and Brueghel's painting) and, as unsparing as the thought remains, a rethinking of the suffering of Icarus as well. 

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Landscape_with_the_Fall_of_Icarus_-_WGA03322

If you look closely, you can see Icarus hitting the water near the ship. 

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