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