Review: Collected Poems

Reviewed by DREW CALVERT

collected poems

The San Francisco Renaissance, that loose federation of poets and novelists who gathered in the Bay Area after World War II, is most famous for having organized the first public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (and thus given birth to the Beat Generation), but its influence was more far-reaching than that.  It was also more varied.  As with any renaissance, this one was cliquish, even factional: while Ginsberg cultivated his image as a twentieth-century Whitman and Kerouac descended from madcap literary celebrity to middle-aged alcoholism, a lesser-known group of near-surrealists gathered at the State College of San Francisco for a workshop called “Poetry and Magic.”  Taught by Jack Spicer, the workshop combined a modernist aesthetic with elements of ‘theosophy,’ a strain of mysticism that, earlier in the century, had captured the imagination of William Butler Yeats.  “Poetry and Magic” occasioned a kind of sub-renaissance (sometimes called ‘the Berkeley renaissance’), and it had a notable influence on a number of successful American poets, including the young Jack Gilbert, who died in mid-November at the age of eighty-seven.  His Collected Poems were published in March, 2012, not long before his death.

From 1962, Gilbert spent most of his time in Europe, Mexico, or Japan, far from the heart of America’s counter-culture, and the Collected Poems are a testament to his transition from North Beach scenester to full-blown visionary recluse.  To read them in chronological order is to witness a poet being pulled under by his poetic impulse into a realm of sparse truths – like Kerouac the Buddhist, only better.  As a poet, Gilbert was never political or professorial: none of his poems are about the indignities of capitalism or students saying adorable things in seminars.  Instead, his themes are timeless and universal: art, God, death, and love.  It is also striking how many poems are explicitly about a severe kind of loneliness that comes with artistic isolation.  Rather than spin this loneliness into a mythology of America or life on the road, as Ginsberg and Kerouac did, he focused on his immediate surroundings: a city in Denmark, an island in Greece, a house in rural Japan.  Gilbert was known for having consciously removed himself from both the literary establishment and the emerging subculture: he rebelled against the platitudes of the Berkeley café as much as he rebelled against Robert Frost or family values.  And though he was a self-exiled poet, his exile was not defined by a preoccupation with an imaginary homeland.  His poems about Pittsburgh, where he was born in 1925, are more concerned with personal memory and the imagination than a collective political consciousness; they succeed because they link authentic provincial memories to a vast and generous worldview in a declarative, unaffected voice.  Many of the most poignant moments in the collection arise when Gilbert delves beneath his persona as an exiled poet and writes plainly about what it means to live secluded.  In “Alone on Christmas Eve in Japan,” he makes a tentative note, like a patient experimenting with new medication:

Wondering if the quiet I feel is that happiness

wise people speak of, or the modulation

that is the acquiescence to death beginning.

A number of these early poems are haunted by the anxieties of his proto-Beatnik forebears: the anxiety of growing old (and thus becoming more Wordsworth than Keats), the anxiety of being too far gone (on account of drugs or mental illness), and, most of all, the fear of losing one’s magic, usually expressed through allusions to Shakespeare’s Prospero.  But by the 1980s, Gilbert had entered a different kind of phase, one that transcends Berkeley as the promise land of poetic expression and proves how ephemeral and even irrelevant an art scene’s posturing can be.  In a poem called “Betrothed,” he returns to the theme of seclusion with growing confidence:

They say we are born alone,

to live and die alone.  But they are wrong.

We get to be alone by time, by luck,

or by misadventure…

Following the death of his wife, Michiko, there is a phase in which this loneliness is mixed with a profound and sometimes overwhelming grief.  In one poem, Michiko returns as somebody’s pet dalmation; in another, she is “a smokestack making the sky more visible.” There are other partners, and there are other women—the collection is not short on nipples and thighs.  But Gilbert’s eroticism is less interesting than his desolation.  Here is “The Abandoned Valley,” which reads like a garrulous haiku:

Can you understand being alone so long

you would go out in the middle of the night

and put a bucket into the well

so you could feel something down there

tug at the other end of the rope?

In many of the later poems, he marvels at the persistence of his memories of Pittsburgh—memories that are also meditations on how he became a poet.  These are the opening lines of “Growing Up in Pittsburgh”:

Go down to the drugstore at the corner,

it said.  At the drugstore it said,

Go to the old woman’s house.  On her porch

was scribbled: Where has love gone?

To the arcades of the moon, I wrote.

It is interesting to contrast this poem with the one that opens the collection, “In Dispraise of Poetry,” which is a more straightforward ars poetica:

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier

he gave him a beautiful white elephant.

The miracle beast deserved such ritual

that to care for him properly meant ruin.

Yet to care for him improperly was worse.

 It appears the gift could not be refused.

One of the complaints about contemporary American poetry is that it is too self-conscious. It is more interested in the mysteries of art than the mysteries of life.  Gilbert’s ‘miracle beast’ is a wonderful image, but there is something well-behaved or inevitable about it; whereas ‘the arcades of the moon’ leaves one speechless.  It is the kind of line that the ‘Berkeley group’ gathered to promote: if there is one quality that connects these poets, from Jack Spicer to Robert Duncan to Kenneth Rexroth, it is an edgy playfulness that results from their rejection of formalism or craft.  Larry Levis, one of the most consistently surprising American poets, pulled this off as well as anyone.  Consider his poem “Anastasia & Sandman” from his final collection, Elegy:

Old contrivers, daydreamers, walking chemistry sets,

Exhausted chimneysweeps of the spaces

Between words, where the Holy Ghost tastes just

Like the dust it is made of,

Let’s tear up our lecture notes & throw them out

The window.

Let’s do it right now before wisdom descends upon us

Like a spiderweb over a burned-out theater marquee,

Because what’s the use?

I keep going to meetings where no one’s there,

And contributing to the discussion.

These lines are irresistible.  And yet if the reader is to experience magic, there needs to be less poetry.  This is especially true of poets abroad, too many of whom affect a global omniscience and end up with cheap exoticisms.  Gilbert, by contrast, reveals what G.K. Chesterton once called ‘the ecstasy of the ordinary,’ and his career as a whole proves that one can be a serious writer without obeying the orthodoxies of any one literary circle.  Berkeley was crucial to his development as a poet, and industrial Pennsylvania was essential to his view of America, but neither of these places truly defined him.  By the end of his career he was no longer part of a scene; he was part of an ancient tradition:

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…

Unlike Yeats, Gilbert didn’t try to create his own personal cosmology, though he did entertain a similarly romantic and mystical view of the world.  Nor did he indulge in too much confession, what Kerouac once called “a frazzler of the heart you were born with.”  Instead, these poems are marked by an attempt to articulate what turns out to be a resilient germ of spiritual longing—one that arises in isolation and transcends one’s surroundings without ignoring them.  It is this deeper form of engagement that made Gilbert both accomplished and accessible: his poetry is a testament to a need that endures beyond any literary movement.  As Gilbert himself puts it:  “My body is a / blessing / and my spirit clear.  But the waiting does not let / up.”


Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His essays have appeared in The Literary Review and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Review: Collected Poems

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