The fall I moved to Washington from Nashville, Tennessee, the poet Jack Gilbert gave a reading at the Library of Congress. During my first days in the city, Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven had become for me something of a vade mecum. On wobbly Metro rides to and from work (my first experience with public transportation), I read and reread the book, drawn to its fierce, lapidary verses as a kind of antidote to homesickness and the political blather emanating from Capitol Hill.
The poems trembled in my hands on the train yet somehow steadied me. Gilbert’s lines might have come from any continent in any century. They wouldn’t have seemed so out of place scrawled on papyrus or etched in stone.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Perhaps as arresting as the poems themselves was the fact that there were so few of them, three or four collections to speak of over the past half century, and decades of silence in between. As an aspiring writer feeling the pressure to publish, Gilbert’s output, or lack thereof, was provocative, borderline maddening. But what he lacked in prolificacy he compensated for in rigor. Precision of experience was as vital as precision of phrasing. Poetry was something to unearth, not manufacture. “The hard part for me is to find the poem—a poem that matters,” Gilbert explained in his 2005 interview with The Paris Review.
To find what the poem knows that’s special. I may think of writing about the same thing that everyone does, but I really like to write a poem that hasn’t been written. And I don’t mean its shape. I want to experience or discover ways of feeling that are fresh.
The reading was on the top floor of the library, in a carpeted ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows for walls. Book in hand, I passed through the metal detector, boarded the elevator, and secured a seat near the back just as Gilbert shuffled to the podium. He was frail, bowed over, his vandyke beard thin and bone white. In a voice little more than a whisper, a smoldering cinder where the fire had been, he struggled through a slim sheaf of poems, sometimes losing his place, sometimes pausing for uncomfortable lengths between words.
The poet Linda Gregg, one of Gilbert’s former lovers, was sitting in the front row. Frustrated, he asked at one point if she would read in his stead. Gregg demurred and, joined by a chorus of devotees in the audience, urged him to continue. On he read, louder and more determined now, buoyed perhaps by the groundswell of support. I felt myself sliding forward, awed to the very edge of the chair. Finally Gilbert turned to “A Brief for the Defense,” the defiant call to delight that inaugurates and sets the tone for the poems in Refusing Heaven. “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,” he read, “we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.”
And at that moment, somewhere off in the distance, something that sounded like a Metro train blared its horn. For the first time all night Gilbert looked up from the podium.
“It’s fitting,” he said, and read the lines again.
Drew Bratcher is a writer and editor in Washington, DC.