When I visited Jack Gilbert in Northampton, Mass., eight years ago, one of the few questions I asked him was, "Do you think you'll publish another book of poems?" Mr. Gilbert said then that he didn't think so, but that his ex-wife was calling every day, trying to convince him that he should. The following year he put out his fourth book of poems, his first in 11 years. A fifth book has since appeared, and this year, Knopf has assembled Mr. Gilbert's "Collected Poems."
This very handsome, nicely put-together collection is a must for any fan of poetry, of Pittsburgh or of Pittsburgh-related literature. The collection is a real gift -- generously collecting more than 50 years of the poet's work, including a couple of long out-of-print volumes and more than 20 "uncollected poems."
Mr. Gilbert, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1925 and grew up in East Liberty, won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize in 1962 for his first book of poems, "Views of Jeopardy." After a brief stint as a lecturer, he retreated to Europe, living in a kind of self-imposed exile for many years and not publishing his second book until 1982.
One of the nice things about a career-spanning collection like this is that the reader is able to get a sense of the development and maturation of a poet. In his collected work, we are able to see Mr. Gilbert's style transition from a more traditional or classical style of poetry to a more simple, personal timbre.
What stands out in the strongest poems in this book is the way the poet is able to strike a balance between intellect and emotion. Mr. Gilbert can be a heady poet at times -- making references to ancient history, classical music, fine art and philosophy -- but it never feels contrived. These are merely some of the subjects that inspire him to conjure up a poem.
One senses that Mr. Gilbert views poetry as a form of philosophy and that each poem is an argument. And so a poem like "Tear It Down" will start with:
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows
and then argue that we should unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
Something that always struck me about Mr. Gilbert's work is just how risky many of his poems are. This takes shape in a number of different ways, but most commonly, the risk he takes is sentimentality. Over the years, he has become a master of the love poem, which can be a tricky business. But his love poems are always delivered with an honesty, a sincerity. One has the sense that the poet's motives are not false, that he is writing these poems because he needs to.
Another risk that Mr. Gilbert takes in his poems is experimentation; his literary influences are diverse, and we see that regularly throughout this collection. There is a surrealism to some of the poems, and at times, Mr. Gilbert's eye for the image takes over. "Finding Something," for example, begins:
I say moon is horses in the tempered dark,
because horse is the closest I can get to it.
The poet has a keen ear and he loves the sound of language, but also there is meaning behind the language that he uses.
Without a doubt, what is most impressive about this collection is Mr. Gilbert's largeness of scope or vision. These are ambitious poems with serious subjects -- love, loss, mourning. However, the poems are seldom bogged down with the pain of loss without acknowledging the beauty and abundance of life. More often than not, these poems are a celebration of life and its generosity.
Although Pittsburgh is not very present in the early poems, Mr. Gilbert consistently references the city in his middle to late work. It was Pittsburgh that lasted, he says in "The Spirit and the Soul." Pittsburgh is an essential part of his being and his poetry. It is the very real place of Mr. Gilbert's childhood that he returns to again and again, but Pittsburgh also represents all that has changed, all that is memory for him.
Pittsburgh is fortunate to have had such a strong literary history and fortunate to be able to claim Jack Gilbert as one of its native sons. This collection proves him to be one of our finest poets.bookreviews
Scott Silsbe works for Caliban Book Shop and is managing editor of The New Yinzer (newyinzer.com). First Published September 2, 2012 4:00 AM