I know Jack Gilbert pretty well. I really think he never wanted to let a poetry career get in the way of living his life. He’s older now and really can’t push himself out front in the world of poetry. But I don’t think, when he could, he ever wanted to. I think he’s not the kind of poet who gets up in the morning thinking about things he must do related to being a poet: getting published, getting a conference gig, getting an academic chair or award, etc. It isn’t like that for him.
He doesn’t drive a car but he’s traveled the world. He’s never owned a house; the sum of his possessions would fill a one-car garage or storage unit. One of my favorite ‘Jackisms’: “I only need to make enough money to afford my own life.” Since that life is a fairly modest one in terms of creature comforts and with no children to support, he’s worked (gave a reading, did a conference, taught a semester here or there) only enough for his own upkeep and little back-up savings. I don’t think he’s actively resisted the mythology that was created by his being absent from ‘the scene’ for years at a time, but he didn’t consciously cultivate that ‘reclusive persona’ either. He was just going off and living his life.
When he came back into view and was invited to do a big reading, he’d often accept. He enjoyed the limelight of a reading or an award... but he didn’t live for it. I cannot recall a single occasion where he engaged in the least bit of self-promotion when it came to getting an award, reading or teaching situation. Doing no self-promotion isn’t the same as promoting the mystique of an outsider poet. He was just outside; but he would come in from the cold, so to speak, happily, when circumstance and inclination coincided.
He is not one to be self-effacing when reading... but I never saw any overt performance in his reading and I never saw his public readings as haughty or narcissistic. He does like to ‘hold forth’ and to let people in the audience know what he values and stands for when it comes to poetry. And it isn’t a wide-ranging eclecticism or fashionable modes that he’s in favor of.
He could be very hard on the work of other poets. In a workshop or critical environment I’ve seen him push people pretty hard -- especially if they weren’t writing what he thought was ‘serious poetry.’ Light-hearted wordplayers and post-modernist tricksters, in particular, were spared no disdain. Good poets who were ‘trying to do something different for a change’ got an eyebrow beating as well. As a critic Jack certainly has his blind spots. I think his great virtue as a critic was that he always made people feel that writing poetry was an important engagement with the world... and one not to be taken lightly. He didn’t want to waste his time with poems that were merely conceptual or pure products of the poet’s imagination.
Anyway, I’m glad to see him picking up a few awards late in life. Bloodaxe is working on a Selected, I understand, so maybe his poems will find some new readers in the UK and Ireland.
Jim Finnegan manages the NewPoetry list and very kindly gave permission for us to publish this profile written for the list.
He is also one of the founders of Litstation.com, and when he wrote about it for us, he also gave us two poems which are posted in the About Poetry library: