Monday, March 14, 2005


I have sometimes said that at least part of the reason why Jack Gilbert has been so vituperative in his rejection of language poetry is because, were he but a bit younger, he would have been a language poet himself. I was thinking of this reading the profile of Jack in the current issue of Poets and Writers. In some ways, the article suggests that Jack hasn’t changed a bit. But the romantic posturing that looks sweet & foolish in a young man seems completely embarrassing in someone turning 80 & the piece left me depressed for days.


I first met Jack in the fall of 1966. I was his student at San Francisco State the following spring &, eleven years after that, we read together at the Poetry Center. We’ve always gotten along personally, tho we’ve always argued. The very first time I met Jack, I was sitting on the sloping lawn of the quad on campus with some friends exclaiming at how terrific the work of Louis Zukofsky was. Jack listened to this, then announced that he had just published a review of Zukofsky saying that what was wrong with the man was that he didn’t write poetry that a teenager could appreciate. I was out of my teens at the time by about all of eight weeks.


What I liked most about Jack was his utter commitment to writing – he would rail at the other faculty members in the creative writing department at SF State who wouldn’t walk 100 yards down to the “gallery lounge” to hear Allen Ginsberg or George Starbuck or Carolyn Kizer or Lew Welch. For a kid who’d grown up largely without male models for anything, seeing a grown man with this degree of commitment for the poem was enormously helpful. It was in Jack’s class where I first met Robert Duncan & George Stanley. Gilbert had been something of a protégé of Stephen Spender, but had arrived in San Francisco in the 1950s in time to take Jack Spicer’s Magic Workshop, a detail he never neglected to mention. He must have been the oddest character in a group that could have blended into a bar scene in Star Wars. And his commitment to his students was equally complete: he organized a birthday party on a psychiatric ward for my first wife, who was hospitalized at the time.


Four years before I’d met him, Gilbert had won the Yale Younger Poets prize, back in the days when the brand still had some meaning. But it was a poem that he published in a special issue of Genesis West also in 1962 that had the greatest influence on me – it certainly had a fair amount to do with opening me up to the possibility of language poetry when I first met Bob Grenier a few years later. And it’s what I mean, frankly, when I say that Jack could have been exactly that.


The Genesis West feature is very much a Gilbert phenomenon, in that his poems for the most part are printed on the right-hand page with extravagant salutary statements on the left, after the obligatory photograph highlighting his intense good looks (in those days the comparison would have been to Montgomery Clift, but in actuality he looked more like a younger, shorter Jeremy Irons). The very first such quote comes from Kenneth Rexroth, but on the next left-hand page are four more from F.W. Bateson, Dudley Fitts (who had picked Gilbert’s manuscript for the Yale series), Theodore Roethke & Muriel Rukeyser. The next quotation, the longest one, is from Denise Levertov. After that, one from Stanley Kunitz. Then, broken into lines, a cable from Stephen Spender. Finally a quote from The Times, tho it is not clear whether it is the New York or London publication. There are just eight poems surrounded by all this praise, followed by a 12-page interview conducted by Gordon Lish (who would go on to become the quintessential New York trade press editor). It is worth noting just how carefully the New American types are contrasted with the School of Quietude in that sequence.


The poem I’m thinking of faces the Kunitz comment & it’s the first two lines in particular that point directly toward langpo. The title is “Singing in My Difficult Mountains”:


Helot for what time there is
In the baptist hegemony of death.

For what time there is summer,

Island, cornice. Weeping

And singing of what declines

Into the earth. But of having,

Not of not having. What abounds.

Amazed morning after morning

By the yielding. What times there are.

My fine house that love is.


With four decades' hindsight, I can see now the degree to which Jack’s strategies in this ten-line stanza are derived from the influence of Gilbert’s old Pittsburgh homeboy Gerald Stern: the use of incomplete sentences, the mid-line periods. Yet what really strikes me is the Olsonian element of those first two lines (and, not coincidentally, the last line as well). Helot for what time there is / In the baptist hegemony of death. The language is deliberately torqued almost to the point of absolute opacity – the two nouns that are not selected for their strangeness are – no accident here – time and death. If Jack was interested in communicating here, he would have written something more along the lines of Slave for what time there is / In the pure onslaught of death. But he didn’t, he gave the language what I suspect he may have thought of as a Shakespearean twist both there & in the deliberate inversion of the last line that puts its final emphasis on not just a verb, but the least active verb there is, so that it must absorb the weight of what’s come before.¹


Two pages later, Gilbert’s next poem is an imitation – I’ve heard Jack himself call it that – of Robert Duncan, whose title is its first line:


“Perspective,” he would mutter, going to bed.

“Oh che dolce cosa e questa

Prospettiva.” Uccello. Bird.


And I am as greedy of her, that the black

Horse of the literal world might come

Directly on me. Perspective. A place


To stand. To receive. A place to go

Into from. The earth by language.


Who can imagine antelope silent

Under the night rain, the Gulf

At Biloxi at night else? I remember


In Mexico a man and a boy painting

An adobe house magenta and crimson

Who thought they were painting it red. Or pretty.


So neither saw the brown mountains

Move to manage that great house.


The horse wades in the city of grammar.


The earth by language…the city of grammar. Gilbert can almost feel it, but he can only talk about it & that coming right to the edge of language writing without ever getting there is sort of the tantric sex of this & so many other of his first-rate works. I remember at the time thinking that the phrase “Or pretty” juts out there so awkwardly, it functions almost as a scar of sincerity on the work itself.


These are in fact fine poems, especially if you can get past the yawning sentimentality that is at the heart of so many of his heroic-tragic images – there is a side of him that is very much Jeff Koons without the irony – but they aren’t language poetry so much as a demand that it needs to exist. Having studied with Jack – and a Jack Gilbert who very much directed my reading towards the likes of Duncan & Spicer – it seems obvious to me in retrospect that when I finally got it, could see not only writing about language but through it, I would have to take that path. The great tragedy is that Jack himself never took that step.





¹ The passive verb of being is very close in kind to the incomplete sentence itself, two devices that are often frowned upon by undergraduate English teachers, but on which an enormous amount of contemporary literature rests. No one has written more intelligently about this phenomenon that Barrett Watten in his great essay on the work of Larry Eigner. If you look at how Gilbert uses these devices here, you can also see how it reflects of another poet almost as deeply an isolato as Gilbert: William Bronk.