Obituary: Jack Gilbert / Called finest U.S. poet of a generation
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Jack Gilbert, the Pittsburgh-born poet whom many consider the finest poet of his generation, died Sunday in Berkeley, Calif. He was 87 and had suffered for years with Alzheimer's, said his publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf.
His output was relatively slim -- he published seven volumes of poetry excluding collections in 50 years -- and he always kept a low profile, eschewing book parties and readings of his work.
"It's not a business with me," he told NPR in a 2006 interview. "I'm not a professional of poetry, I'm a farmer of poetry."
Yet his poems about Pittsburgh, childhood, food, sex and personal pain were celebrated for their clarity and power.
Part of his poem "Trying to Have Something Left Over," reads:
Often I took care of the baby while she did / housework. Changing him and making him laugh / I would say Pittsburgh softly each time before / throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburgh with / my mouth against the tiny ear and throw / him higher. Pittsburgh and happiness high up. / The only way to leave even the smallest trace. / So that all his life her son would feel gladness / unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined / city of steel in America. Each time almost / remembering something maybe important that got lost.
"He was probably America's greatest living poet," said John Schulman, owner of Caliban Books, who republished one of Mr. Gilbert's earliest tomes. "His work had the smokiness and grandeur of Pittsburgh's industrial life as a backdrop and a soulful, post-beatnik honesty. He traveled with the hipsters in the late 1950s and early '60s, but I think being married later to a Japanese woman made him more attuned to the Zen factor in poetry."
"Jack had tremendous charisma," said Esther Tucker of Squirrel Hill, whose late husband, Ray, was a close boyhood friend of Mr. Gilbert.
"When I was dating Ray, one night all of these poets from Pittsburgh and California just starting showing up in his living room and Jack was one of them," recalled Mrs. Tucker, who owned an antiquarian bookstore in Squirrel Hill for decades.
"He was really handsome. But more than that, he just had something. And he was a wonderful poet, one of the few modern poets I can understand."
In 1957, Mr. Gilbert joined Jack Spicer's "Poetry as Magic" workshop at San Francisco State College, where he earned a master's degree in English.
In 1962 his first book, "Views of Jeopardy," won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The award brought him attention unusual for a poet, with his photo in Esquire, Vogue and Glamour. But he eschewed the spotlight and set out to see the world, going to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship and spending the next 20 years in England, Denmark and Greece. He also toured a number of countries lecturing on American literature for the U.S. State Department.
The Academy of American Poets, in its bio of Mr. Gilbert, describes him as "something of a self-imposed exile: flunking out of high school; congregating with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Spicer in San Francisco but never really writing like a Beat poet; living in Europe and writing American poetry inspired by Pound and Eliot."
During the 20-year period before his next book, he returned to Berkeley and became involved with poet Linda Gregg. In 1970, he met and married sculptor Michiko Nogami and moved to Tokyo for a while. She died after 11 years of marriage. Many of his poems are about these relationships and losses.
His second book of poetry, "Monolithos," didn't come out until 1982 -- the same year his wife died. It won prizes from the Stanley Kunitz Memorial and the American Poetry Review.
"It was a long silence between 1962 and 1982," Mr. Schulman said. "When 'Monolithos' came out it was earth-shattering. He hadn't published a book for so long, the publisher felt the need to make half of it a reprinting of the previous book to remind people of who he was."
Mr. Gilbert went on to publish "The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992" in 1996; "Refusing Heaven" in 2005, winner of an award from the National Book Critics Circle; "Transgressions: Selected Poems" in 2006; "Tough Heaven: Poems of Pittsburgh," also in 2006; and "The Dance Most of All" in 2009.
He also co-wrote two erotic novels, "My Mother Taught Me" in 1964 and "Forever Ecstasy" in 1968, under the pseudonym Tor Kung.
After his wife's death, Mr. Gilbert migrated to western Massachusetts, where he lived, wrote and taught until illness overtook him.
In March, his 432-page "Collected Poems" came out to high praise and is now in its third printing. (See the Post-Gazette's review here.)
First Published November 15, 2012 12:00 am