Jack Gilbert in 1962.

 

On the rare occasions when Jack Gilbert gives public readings—whether in New York, Pittsburgh, or San Francisco—it is not unusual for men and women in the audience to tell him how his poems have saved their lives. At these gatherings, one may also hear wild stories about Gilbert: he was a junkie, he was homeless, he was married numerous times. In reality, he has never been addicted to drugs, has been impoverished but never homeless, and was married only once. The fascination with Gilbert is a response, above all, to the power of his poetry, but it also reflects the mystique of a life lived utterly without regard for the conventions of literary fortune and fame.

Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh in 1925. He failed out of high school and worked as an exterminator and door-to-door salesman before being admitted, thanks to a clerical error, to the University of Pittsburgh. There he met the poet Gerald Stern, his exact contemporary. Gilbert started writing poetry, he says, because Stern did. After college he traveled to Paris and worked briefly at the Herald Tribune before spending several years in Italy, where he met Gianna Gelmetti, the first great love of his life. But Gelmetti’s family, recognizing that Gilbert would never provide her with much financial or domestic security, persuaded him to end the relationship and he returned to America—first to San Francisco and then to New York—where his career as a poet began.

In 1962 Gilbert’s first book, Views of Jeopardy, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and was considered for the Pulitzer Prize alongside collections by Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams. The New York Times called Gilbert “inescapably gifted,” Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz praised his candor and control, and Stephen Spender hailed his work as “witty, serious, and skillful.” He was photographed for Glamour and Vogue, and was widely feted by the literary establishment. Although he continued to write, he did not publish again for almost twenty years. 

In 1966 Gilbert left the country with his companion, the poet Linda Gregg. They lived in Greece, on the islands of Paros and Santorini, and for a brief period in Denmark and England. “All Jack ever wanted to know was that he was awake—that the trees in bloom were almond trees—and to walk down the road to get breakfast,” Gregg, who remains close to Gilbert, says. “He never cared if he was poor or had to sleep on a park bench.” After five years overseas, the couple returned to San Francisco, where they separated. Gilbert soon met and married Michiko Nogami, a sculptor twenty-one years younger than him. They settled in Japan and Gilbert taught at Rikkyo University until 1975, when he was appointed chief lecturer on American literature for the U.S. State Department and he embarked with Nogami on a fifteen-country tour. In 1982, at the insistence of his friend and editor Gordon Lish, Gilbert published a second book, Monolithos. That same year, Nogami died of cancer. She was thirty-six. Gilbert published a series of poems dedicated to her in a memorial chapbook, Kochan, and then, again, went silent—this time for a decade, during which he lived intermittently in Northampton, Massachusetts; San Francisco; and Florida. 

The speaker in the poems of Gilbert’s third collection, The Great Fires: Poems, 1982–1992, often asks to be given a second chance: “Let me fall / in love one last time, I beg them. / Teach me mortality, frighten me / into the present. Help me to find / the heft of these days.” The Great Fires received many accolades and earned Gilbert a Lannan Literary Award. He did not publish again until last year, when The New Yorker presented eight of his poems over seven months in the run-up to the publication of his fourth book, Refusing Heaven. “Jack rises up like an eel,” says Alice Quinn, The New Yorker’s poetry editor. “He dictates how and when the world sees his poems.” In the new book, Gilbert’s work expresses a deep satisfaction in the ephemeral nature of life: “We look up at the stars and they are / not there. We see memory / of when they were, once upon a time. / And that too is more than enough.” 

Gilbert now lives a modest, solitary life in Northampton, where he rents a room in the home of a friend, Henry Lyman. It is a cedar-shingled house that looks out over a winding river and a vast meadow—an idyllic spot that Gilbert says brings him great comfort. This interview took place there in two sessions, in January and in July of this year. Gilbert, who is eighty, appeared frail—his hair white and windswept—but his eyes were startlingly bright. On both occasions, we had the same lunch that he and Lyman have almost every day: bruschetta with smoked salmon. Gilbert’s voice was high-pitched and he was hesitant to talk about himself. Instead he wanted to know where I was from, what I’d studied, what I wanted from life and from him. When the subject turned back to his work, he admitted that he hopes his poems give people a sense of possibilities.

 

INTERVIEWER

You once said that you were the only person you knew who left Pittsburgh a true romantic—one who woke up happy, though aware of his mortality, every day.

JACK GILBERT

It’s true—it wasn’t easy in Pittsburgh. But I’m sure there were others. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever think you would live this long?

GILBERT

I once dreamed that I’d live to be sixty. In those days that was how old you could live to be. But many of my ancestors lived to a hundred. I have this mechanism, this body, which has been so kind to me. I’ve never been in a hospital, except once—I fell.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a poem about that, “All the Way from There to Here.” 

GILBERT

I was supposed to die. I fell head down from ninety feet. When I didn’t die right away, they let me go home. I insisted because it was Christmas. If I was going to die, I wanted to die under the Christmas tree with Linda. I still didn’t die. But I couldn’t support my own torso because I’d broken my spine and chest. Linda and I wanted to go to Europe, so I had them build something that was like an exoskeleton. After saying goodbye to the doctors, I walked toward the door with Linda and when I got halfway there the doctor in charge said, Oh, one thing. If you feel a little bit of tingling in your fingers, that will mean that the paralysis has started. That never happened. So I’ve been blessed.

INTERVIEWER 

What were you doing ninety feet up?

GILBERT

Showing off. I was with Linda and her father didn’t approve at all. I mean, he was resentful that I was bedding his daughter without any official rights. On Christmas Day we went up on his mountain to find a tree that would suit Linda. We were walking along and he was behaving himself. We kept walking until we came to these trees. He was crazy about nature. He said, You know, if you cut off the top of that tree—if you could cut just the top—the tree wouldn’t die, and it would make it a more attractive tree without that spindly, weak top. 

Being the bad guy with his lovely daughter, I immediately took the rope and saw and started climbing. I didn’t know anything about it. I knew a lot about apple trees because I’d spent time in an orchard. But not a forest. I was way up there. I climbed to the top, but I’m no fool—I tied myself to the trunk. I thought I would tug on the treetop until it snapped, except in the middle of doing this there was a big gust of wind that snapped the thing, and it fell on me and was pushing me down. I was all right at first because I had tied myself in, except after a while—they couldn’t get to me quickly enough—my thighs started to give way. I was heroic about it, but my thighs gave way, and the rope too. I plummeted down, shearing off the branches. I was going so fast that the speed just butchered the tree. Luckily I landed on dirt.

INTERVIEWER

How was it that you knew about apple trees? 

GILBERT

I spent two summers on my grandparents’ farm. And when I was thirteen, we lived in a huge house on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. I don’t know if my father stole it—this was during the Depression. During the day, my mother and father went into town, leaving my siblings and me all alone in this magnificent house, three stories high and no one there but us. We played on the roof, in the laundry chutes. It was extraordinarily dangerous. It was lovely, legendary. We owned that little world. In the back of the house were two orchards, one filled with peaches, the other with apples. We were always in the apple trees—frequently falling down. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you would have become a poet if you’d stayed in Pittsburgh?

GILBERT

Why not? I was kind of a strange boy to be in Pittsburgh. I spent so much time reading. Even if I started a book that was boring, it was almost impossible for me not to finish it. I couldn’t get the story out of my head until I knew what happened. I had such curiosity. And you might not think it, but the power of Pittsburgh, the grandeur, those three great rivers, was magnificent. Even working in the steel mills. You can’t work in a steel mill and think small. Giant converters hundreds of feet high. Every night, the sky looked enormous. It was a torrent of flames—of fire. The place that Pittsburgh used to be had such scale. My father never brought home three pounds of potatoes. He always came home with crates of things. Everything was grand, heroic. Everything seemed to be gigantic in Pittsburgh—the people, the history. Sinuousness. Power. Substance. Meaningfulness. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you name some of your early influences? 

GILBERT

Almost any book in the library—knights saving ladies, cowboys trying to kill the bad guy. I just devoured books; each new story opened a new vista.