JACK GILBERT and The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart

by Norman Warwick

´It is interesting to note that poetry, a literary device whose very construct involves the use of words, is itself the word of choice by persons grasping to describe something so beautiful it is marvelously ineffable.´

That intriguing quote is made even more interesting when we consider its speaker.  Vanna Bonta, (left) (April 3, 1953 – July 8, 2014) was an Italian-American writer, actress, and inventor. She wrote Flight: A Quantum Fiction Novel. As an actress, Bonta played “Zed’s Queen” in The Beastmaster. She performed primarily as a voice talent on a roster of feature films, such as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, as well as on television. Bonta invented the 2suit, a flight garment designed to facilitate sex in microgravity environments of outerspace. The spacesuit was featured on The Universe television series, which followed Bonta into zero gravity to film an episode titled Sex in Space that aired in 2009 on the History Channel. On 13 November 2013, a haiku by Bonta was one of 1,100 haiku launched from Cape Canaveral on the NASA spacecraft MAVEN to Mars.

Jeremy Bass opened his 2012 essay on Gilbert´s poem, for The Los Angeles Review of Books,  by alluding to Bob Dylan. 

Bob Dylan

¨Of all the obscure references that proliferate in Bob Dylan’s eleven-minute epic Desolation Row´, he wrote, ´the most highbrow and literary would undoubtedly be that bit about ´Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower.´ Though Pound and Eliot are credited with shaping the twentieth century poetic landscape, they are often vilified for views on society and politics that turned respectively anarchic and conservative with age. The two high modernists were also criticized by many who saw their move across the pond as an abandonment of American literature: each chose Europe rather than America as the place to stage their revolution. In Dylan’s song the poets are mocked by ´calypso singers [who] laugh at them,´ yet there is something of the rarefied Trans-Atlantic that sticks in the imagination of a culture still so firmly rooted in anti-elitist ideologies. The end of Dylan’s verse can’t help but inhabit the world of those he mocks: ´Fishermen hold flowers / Between the windows of the sea / Where lovely mermaids flow´ inevitably brings to mind the final lines of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: ´We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown´.

It was three years before  Highway 61 Revisited, however, that  the poet Jack Gilbert (left) received unprecedented fame when his first book,  Views of Jeopardy, received the Yale Younger Poets prize and was nominated for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize. Robert Frost may have had his picture on the cover of TIME, but no poet had ever been offered photo spreads in  Vogue and Glamour. until then, no poet had  been so lauded by both the Beat counter-culture and the literary establishment they sought to oppose. But Gilbert, who died at age 87 in 2012 after a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s, belonged to neither the counterculture nor the academic elite, and though he set up shop in both San Francisco and New York City, his first book finds him despairing of both cities. Months after his newfound success, Gilbert left for Greece by way of a Guggenheim fellowship, leaving American culture and its literary scenes behind.

Although Gilbert eventually returned to the United States, Mr Bass reminds us that he ´never again entered the mainstream´. A self-professed “farmer of poetry,” Gilbert waited twenty years to publish his second book of poetry, Monolithus,   at the age of fifty-seven, and his third at the age of sixty-nine. In addition to being labelled willfully obscure, his poems are often dismissed as naïve and self-indulgent, belonging less to the post-modern era than to the Romantic and Modernist schools that inspired him. Recent reviews of his Collected Poems which Knopf published in March of 2012, decry Gilbert´s ´hopelessly Romantic´ imagery and personality, painting the picture of a poet who ´peg[s] his hopes on predictable personal epiphanies.´ Even his proponents warn of lofty rhetoric, out-dated vocabulary, and a studious avoidance of material that might resonate with modern readers. Still, this now-timely release has been praised as ´certainly among the two or three most important books of poetry that will be published this year´. Aside from his recent passing, and whether or not you side with the praise of mystique or the withering criticism against his indulgences, why should you read it?

That is not simply a rhetorical question as Jeremy bass answers it for us.

´Gilbert’s work embraces what most poets have been trying for decades to subvert. A self-proclaimed “serious romantic,” Gilbert writes poems full of feeling, working to cultivate “something that matters to the heart,” a romantic notion approached these days with a strong inoculation of irony, if at all. While many poets working with such hot materials might seek a mitigating factor when casting them into verse — fragmentation and abstraction are two modes currently in fashion — Gilbert courts danger by pursuing a far more traditional approach. Crystalline imagery, direct speech, the language of place and the self are hallmarks of Gilbert’s style from his first poem to his final book.

“You hear yourself walking on the snow. / You hear the absence of the birds. / A stillness so complete, you hear / the whispering inside of you,” the poem “Betrothed” from Gilbert’s third book, The Great Fires begins

When I hit the log
frozen in the woodpile to break it free,
it makes a sound of perfect inhumanity,
which goes pure all through the valley,
like a crow calling unexpectedly
at the darker end of twilight that awakens
me in the middle of a life.

Gilbert’s spare style and unhurried pace also push against current trends, away from what Stephen Burt has coined the elliptical mode, poems in which, in the words of Henri Cole, “the truth-seeking function of the lyric is forsaken in favour of surface.”

In a 2005 interview in The Paris Review, Gilbert admitted, ´I like ornament at the right time, but I don’t want a poem to be made out of decoration. If you like that kind of poetry, more power to you, but it doesn’t interest me´.

What Gilbert is interested in is intensity, and a fiery measure of compression, often conveyed in clipped or fragmented syntax, conveys this in even the slightest poems:

The man is doing the year’s accounts.
Finding the balance, trying to estimate how much
he has been translated. For it does translate him,
well or poorly. As the woods are translated
by the seasons. He is searching for a baseline
of the Lord. He searches like the blind man
going forward with a hand stretched out in front.

as he put it in The White heart of God, from The Great Fires collection.

According to the Bass review in The Los Angeles Review of Books ´Gilbert’s search for that intensity of purpose becomes an almost religious quality in his poems. Yet in searching out “something that matters to the heart,” Gilbert is not interested in confession, in poems occupied solely with the self and its story. “Poetry is a kind of lying,” he says in a poem of the same title from Monolithos “Those who, admirably, refuse / to falsify…are excluded / from saying even so much.”

For those familiar with Gilbert’s work,  Collected Poems offers a rare chance to read, in their entirety, his first two books of poems. Until now, neither book has been available in print, and used copies have been known to fetch as much as a thousand dollars on sites like Amazon and eBay. It will be a relief to those who have admired Gilbert’s severity in later years to find that he is, in fact, human, capable of errors in both judgment and execution. Poems from Views Of Jeopardy find Gilbert writing in received and invented forms, a far cry from the single-stanza he would settle into in his later work. A Villanelle entitled Elephants comes wrapped in a frieze of obscure abstractions that would have pleased Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren to no end:

 I walk my mornings in hope of tigers that yearn
for absolute orchards and the grace of rivers, but instead
the great foreign trees and turtles burn

down my life, driving my hands from the fern
of tenderness that crippled and stopped the Roman bed
in my blood. All night the statues counsel return

even so, gesturing toward Cézanne and stern
styles of voyaging broken and blessed.

Gilbert’s stern style continues to bear homage to the mot-just of Pound’s A Few Don’t’s, but this early paean to Eliot seems, in retrospect, a style that he had to slough off in order to embrace a more direct mode of speech. Other poems in Views of Jeopardy seem mere experiments with form and sound:

“The oxen have voices / the flowers are wounds / you never escape from Tuscany noons // they cripple with beauty / and butcher with love / sing folly, sing flee, sing going down” (“Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell”).

Still others find Gilbert, for all his independence from schools of taste, a victim of his time:

The four perfectly tangerines were a clue
as they sat singing (three to one)

in that ten-thirty a.m. room
not unhappily of death
singing of how they were tangerines
against white
but how
against continuous orange
they were only

(The Four Perfectly Tangerines)

Reading  Views Of Jeopardy in light of Gilbert’s later work is instructive not only for what he would cast off, but also for the modes of creation he would nurture into a mature style. Several poems from  Views of Jeoparedy would later be reprinted as a first section in  Monolithus, among them In Dispraise of Poetry.

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.

If this poem (and others like it) showcases Gilbert’s compression and control, it also illustrates a less-visible attribute of his style: distance. As his Collected Poems show, Gilbert is drawn to the most intense subject material (death, love, life’s meaning and purpose) and speaks of it in the most direct language he can muster, ´the forgotten dialect of the heart´. But Gilbert also employs a diverse range of techniques that distance the perceived “I” of the poet from the heat of his materials, as if Gilbert were some forge-master in one of the great factories from the Pittsburgh of his youth who, drawn to the most fiery and luminous piece of ore, must use cold metal tongs in order to lift that brightness as close as possible to the eye. Fictional personae — from Ovid to Robinson Crusoe, Dante to Prospero — appear in all of his books. And in his most searing poems about divorce, betrayal, and grief, Gilbert often employs the third person, creating a separation between speaker and subject that allows the poem to speak even more powerfully about the emotional seed of its generation. Meaning Well, from  Monolithus, much like In Dispraise of Poetry, finds Gilbert employing another of his favorite devices — allegory:

Marrying is like somebody
throwing the baby up.
It happy and them throwing it
higher. To the ceiling.
Which jars the loose bulb
and it goes out
and the baby starts down.

Any discussion of Gilbert’s poetry inevitably provokes stories about his life. When Gilbert left for Greece, he settled with his companion, the poet Linda Gregg, (right) on the relatively uninhabited island of Santorini. The move would prove pivotal for both of their poetry, but the relationship was not to last, at least not in the mode in which it had previously existed.

Eight years / and her love for me quieted away,

Gilbert writes in Trying to be Married, also from Monolithus   (Gregg continued to be a close lifelong friend of Gilbert’s up until his death.)

Many of Gilbert’s poems record the great loves of his life: his first love, an Italian woman named Gianna Gelmetti, Gregg, and his wife, Japanese sculptor Michiko Nogami, who died from cancer at the age of thirty-six. If, as Gilbert writes in Harm And Boon in the Meetings,

´Grief makes the heart / apparent as much as sudden happiness can´

The subject of love—complete with its sudden happiness and grief—provides the impetus for Gilbert’s crowning achievements, The Great Fires  and Refusing Heaven, his third and fourth books, the latter of which was awarded the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. These poems, such as The Great Fire´s Measuring The Tyger, find Gilbert welcoming a more associative strain into his composition, one that augments his style without sacrificing the delicate blend of simplicity and depth he had already achieved:

Barrels of chains. Sides of beef stacked in vans.
Water buffalo dragging logs of teak in the river mud
outside Mandalay. Pantocrater in the Byzantium dome.
The mammoth overhead crane bringing slabs of steel
through the dingy light and roar to the giant shear
that cuts the adamantine three-quarter-inch plates
and they flop down. The weigh of the mind fractures
the girders and piers of the spirit, spilling out
the heart’s melt. Incandescent ingots big as cars
trundling out of titanic mills, red slag scaling off
the brighter metal in the dark. The Monongahela River
below, night’s sheen on its belly. Silence except
for the machinery clanging deeper in us. You will
love again, people say. Give it time. Me with time
running out. Day after day of the everyday.
What they call real life, made of eighth-inch gauge.
Irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry.
I want to go back to that time after Michiko’s death
when I cried every day among the trees. To the real.
To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.

Even when heart-breaking or tender, Gilbert is never easy, and his claims on some of the most traditional aspects of poetry — love, death, and God — are made by their sheer ferocity and surprise. 

Descendants of keats´negativite capability, Gilbert´s poems twine the beauty and pain of life effortlessly without ever struyggling to reolve the two-

Much of our current poetry is built on a foundation of mockery, irony, and cynicism. Responding to the thought-patterns and intellectual climate of the day, it argues for what is no longer possible and for what has been degraded, seemingly discontent with the scope of its own knowledge and familiarity, yet incapable — or unwilling — of overthrowing that complacency in search of something greater. Gilbert may have long since turned from a style that seems pertinent to modern society, but he has done this so that he might “experience [life] in an important way,” and “say something to someone that they will feel significantly inside themselves.” Eliot and Pound left America when Europe was a cultural and intellectual magnet; Gilbert left when America — birthplace of Dylan and the Beats, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll — was the place to be. He left not in the hope of something better, but in search of “the second-rate…the insignificant ruins…the unimproved” (Less Being More,  from Refusing Heaven. 

An edition of collected poetry published during a poet’s lifetime rarely contains his or her entire work. In the case of Jack Gilbert, we are left with a complete testament. What Gilbert reaped from his cultivation is invaluable to any reader. No one else in recent memory has written out of the ruins and failures of a life — divorce, old age, death — with as much satisfaction not for what was achieved, but for what was lived. No one now writing provides the same reprieve from our culture of internet-bred immediacy. And in a world increasingly hard-wired to group-think and corporatized expectations, no one offers the same stillness of thought or sense of fierce individuality. “We die and are put into the earth forever,” Gilbert writes in “Tear it Down.” “We should insist while there is still time.” Jack Gilbert’s poems offer us a rare engagement with the most fundamental forces. More than anything, his poems offer, as he put it, “a chance to be alive, [and] to experience the importance of being alive.” They offer us a life.

We sometimes hear people say, “words fail me.” Have you ever been stymied trying to write about something you care deeply about, frustrated that everything you come up with falls short?

Whether grief, elation, bafflement, or love — we often fall victim to cliché or manage a fair approximation at best.

In this poem, Jack Gilbert suggests that love — the most intense and wide ranging emotion human beings are capable of experiencing — might be the most challenging to describe in words. It’s ironic how Gilbert acknowledges the imperfection of language with a poem that is perfection in itself. 

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. 
Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it wrong. We say 
bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient tongue
has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.

~ from Jack Gilbert: Collected Poems (Knopf, 2014)

Pittsburgh native Jack Gilbert once described himself as a “serious romantic.” Born four days after Valentine’s Day in 1925, he flunked out of high school but was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh due to a clerical error (yes, really!).

photo 5 Many of his poems are about love and his relationships with specific women. The “Michiko” in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” is the sculptor Michiko Nogami, (left) a former student 21 years his junior, with whom he lived in Japan until she died from cancer at age 36.

The cultural references in the poem, especially the “spiral Minoan script,” reflects Gilbert’s time living in Greece and brought back fond memories of my visits there. The Phaistos Disc in the photos is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all time. At least 4,000 years old, it was discovered by an Italian archaeologist in 1908, and people have been trying to decipher its mysterious code ever since.

Recently, after working together for six years, Dr. Gareth Owen (linguist researcher with the Technological Educational Institute of Crete) and John Coleman (phonetics professor at Oxford), figured out what the mysterious language sounded like and what some of it means. Reading in a spiral direction from the outside to the inside, they’ve concluded it’s a prayer to a Minoan goddess.

Because the inscriptions were made by pressing hieroglyphic “seals” into soft clay, producing a text with reusable characters, the Phaistos Disc is considered by some to be a very early example of “movable type printing.” Fascinating!

Jack Gilbert, who published five volumes of poetry, died at age 87 in 2012 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. I love the idea of dreaming about lost vocabularies that might express some of what we no longer can. And I am grateful to poets for inventing their own lost vocabularies, giving voice to our deepest yearning.i

That whole notion of lost vocabularies had me sending a copy og Gilbert´s poem to my mate. and frequent contributor to these pages, Michael Higgins (right) who, as a driving member of The Edwin Waugh Dialect Society, knows a thing or two about lost vocabulary, the remembering of words as they fall out of usage. Having written all these pages, and borrowed heavily from others in exploring my thoughts, I found that Michael, as always, put it all rather more succinctly in his reply to my e mail, saying:

´Read Jack Gilbert.  Very good. Tranquility and very quite yearning. 

The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart very provoking in its dawning (un) certainty.

Dialect indeed,

The prime source for this article was a piece written by Jeremy Bass, for The Los Angeles Review Of Books and the on line site at Jama´s Alphabet Soup.

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