By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
When he died last year at 87, Jack Gilbert was a lesser-known literary outsider, a man who’d garnered attention from magazines and prize committees but fought stubbornly to remain anonymous. His obituary in The New York Times called him “Off the Literary Grid” in its headline and said “he was famous for eschewing fame”; his sometime partner, the poet Linda Gregg, told The Paris Review he “never cared if he was poor or had to sleep on a park bench.” But Gilbert’s fans sometimes rue that his commitment to a free, unconstrained, and often-impoverished lifestyle helped obscure what legacy he might have had.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things, had never heard of Jack Gilbert when she discovered him by odd coincidence in 2006—thanks, in part, to their shared last name. Since then, she told me, he’s become “the poet laureate of her life.” In our interview by phone, we discussed a favorite line from “A Brief for the Defense,” a poem that defends joy against its critics and insists on the centrality of pleasure and wonder in even dark realms of human experience, and how Jack Gilbert’s ode to joy became the defining text of Elizabeth Gilbert’s life.
Capacity for wonder is the subject of Gilbert’s latest, The Signature of All Things, her first novel in 12 years. The book chronicles the life and obsessions of Alma Whittaker, a 19th-century naturalist fascinated by the workings of flora and fauna. Gilbert’s celebrated books of nonfiction include Eat, Pray, Love and Committed: A Love Story.
Elizabeth Gilbert: In 2006, I taught creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville—a rotating chair that brought a new visiting writer each year. I was amused to learn that the writer before me had also been named Gilbert, a fact that caught my eye. (I started jokingly calling the position The Gilbert Chair.) The man had been a poet named Jack Gilbert, whom I’d never heard of. I started asking around about him. It turned out that he’d made quite an impression on the students, and the things I heard about him fascinated me. Jack Gilbert hadn’t taught them much about the business of poetry, or how to get published. Instead, he just tried to inspire them to have brave, full lives.
One of the graduate students told me he grabbed her arm one day, as she was leaving class.
“Do you have the courage to be a poet?” he said. “The jewels that are hiding inside you are begging you to say yes!”
Because he said these kinds of things, the students were all very taken with him.
So I found one of Jack Gilbert’s books and started to read. I fell in love with him completely—with his poems, but also with his unusual biography. He became the poet laureate of my life, and has been ever since then, for what he wrote and how he wrote and how he regarded his vocation.
Jack Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh in the 1920s. He worked in steel mills and then went out to become a poet. In the 1960s, he published his first book—which was nominated for a Pulitzer, and won the Yale Prize. Here was this charismatic, incredibly handsome, beautiful, and captivating person—in other words, everything you want your young poet to be. He became pretty famous for a poet, photographed for Vogue and so on, and could have easily banked on that for a long time. Instead, he disappeared.
He went to live in Europe for 20 years: He lived on mountaintops in Greece, lived in Denmark, went to Italy, had love affairs, never published but just kept writing. He scrapped by as best he could, and allowed himself to be completely forgotten. He was completely uninterested in fame, even bored by it. All he wanted to do was focus on his poetry and publish, oh, every 20 years. He did just two major interviews in his life, a brilliant one for the Paris Review, and another one with the famous editor Gordon Lish. Lish asked him how isolation had affected his career. Gilbert laughed and said, “I suppose it’s been fatal, but I don’t really care!”
Gilbert’s work is Whitmanesque—it’s grandiose, romantic, and very passionate. He’s only interested in the big mysteries: God, sex, love, suffering, redemption. He doesn’t dabble in anything short of that. And he lived a life that didn’t dabble in anything short of that.
He wrote what may be my very favorite poem, “A Brief for the Defense,” late in his life; there’s maturity in it no youth could ever muster. It feels like something that should be in Ecclesiastes—it’s biblical in its wisdom and scope. The poem takes on his the central trauma of human consciousness, which is: What are we supposed to do with all this suffering? And how are we supposed to live?
The first lines of the poem are:
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
So it begins with an admission of how devastating the world is, how unfair and how sad. He goes on to say what he’s seen from a life of watching very carefully: women at the fountain in a famine-stricken town, “laughing together between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future.” He describes the “terrible streets” of Calcutta, caged prostitutes in Bombay laughing. So there’s this human capacity for joy and endurance, even when things are at their worst. A joy that occurs not despite our suffering, but within it.
When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naïve optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye. Gilbert takes this middle way, and I think it’s a far better way: he says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy. That’s why the poem is called “A Brief for the Defense”—it’s defending joy. A real, mature, sincere joy—not a cheaply earned, ignorant joy. He’s not talking about building a fortress of pleasure against the assault of the world. He’s talking about the miraculousness of moments of wonder and how it seems to be worth it, after all. And one line from this poem is the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read for myself:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
This defines exactly what I want to strive to be—a person who holds onto “stubborn gladness,” even when we dwell in darkness. I want to be able to contain both of them within me at the same time, remain able to cultivate joy and wonder even at life’s bleakest.
Sometimes you are lucky enough to meet people who can do this. When I was a diner waitress in Philadelphia in the early ’90s, there was a homeless guy who used to come in and sit at the counter, who we all grew fond of and used to feed. He was brilliant, erudite, and well-read, and corrected me when I was a cheeky idiot 22-year-old and called James Jones, who wrote the beautiful novel From Here to Eternity, “a one-hit wonder.” Which is an idiot thing for a 22-year old to say. He said, “Hey kid, you can talk like that after you’ve made one masterpiece.”
He had trained as concert pianist when he was younger, and he lost his finger in an accident when he was well on his way to becoming famous. With this missing finger on one hand, of course, he would never become a concert pianist. He’d grown up in this very wealthy, very brittle family, and had never experienced much tenderness until he went to the hospital with his crushed finger. He told me: “I’ll tell you something, kid. The nurses were so kind to me, they were so warm to me, and they were so sweet in a way I had never known before.” I remember him holding up his hand then, showing me the missing finger, and saying, “It was worth it!”
That’s the “stubborn gladness” Jack Gilbert was talking about. When you weigh the sorrows against these tiny moments of grace—on the balance, it is still worth it to be a human being.
I don’t think you can write that poem as a young person. I don’t even know if you can write that poem as an old person who hasn’t been paying close attention. And that’s a fundamental feature of Jack Gilbert—a commitment to paying attention, to not wanting to miss it, and not wanting to turn an eye from it. He has another poem that’s a conversation between him and the gods, who offer him a chance to be famous if he would just give up his weird life. But he doesn’t settle for that. He says:
Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present.
Give me something real, he’s asking, and he’s not fooling around. Who makes a prayer that includes the words “frighten me”? That’s a bold thing to ask for. It’s not “frighten” me in the sense of bungee jumping or surfing—it’s wanting to stand on the edge of the abyss and look in, look in carefully with an alert gaze. It’s a commitment to literature, and a commitment to living.
I saw the same quality in my great aunt Lolly, who has not had an easy life—but she’s the most stubbornly glad person I’ve ever met. When she was 85, I visited her and she said to me, “Guess what? Guess what I have, Liz?”
“What,” I said.
“I have cancer,” she said, and this big grin spread across her face. “Isn’t that interesting?”
And that’s part of stubborn gladness, too: to regard things, even the hardest things, as—at their base—interesting. It’s hard to say that without sounding like a Pollyanna, but the people who you know who can really do this are not innocents. You see it, too, in Steve Job’s last words: Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.
Full-on wonder, even at the moment of death.
Jack Gilbert addresses this experience directly in “A Brief for the Defense”: “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,” he writes, “We should give thanks that the end had magnitude.” That’s another one I always lean on. At least it was magnificent—you lived and died, that’s magnificent. To be able to summon some sort of wonder and gratitude for the fact you got to live and die is the highest calling. It is the best way to go through life—it beats it almost any other model of thinking I’ve ever encountered. I like it better than anything.
As someone who struggles with anxiety and cowardice, as we all do, I’m profoundly inspired by this full-on commitment to wonder, to wonder as a response to anguish or difficulty. It makes everything a puzzle, right? A catastrophe is nothing but a puzzle with the volume of drama turned up very high. For now, I’m best with stubborn gladness when taking on the challenges in my writing life. Because writing can be a very dramatic pursuit, full of catastrophes and disasters and emotion and attempts that fail. My path as a writer became much more smooth when I learned that, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.
So, How do we get through this puzzle? That’s funny, I thought I could write this book and I can’t, instead of, I have to drink a bottle of gin before 11:00 to numb myself at how horrifying this is. You could almost call it a spiritual practice I’ve cultivated over the years. I really worked to create that kind of relationship—so that it’s not a chaotic fight. I don’t go up against my writing and come out bloody-knuckled. I don’t wrestle with the muse. I don’t argue. I try to get away from self-hatred, and competition, all those things that mark and mar so many writers’ careers and lives. I try to remain stubborn in my gladness.
We have this very German, romantic idea that if you’re not in pain, and if you’re not causing pain by making your art, then you’re not really doing it right. I’ve always questioned that. That’s one thing that’s drawn me to Jack Gilbert—especially when I learned about his relationship to the Beats, who he felt were talented, but blowing it. They weren’t reverent enough towards the work, he thought, to want to live clean, sober, disciplined lives in respectful awe of what they were doing. I think this comes from a romantic view—I mean, listen to the language we use to talk about creative process: “Open up your vein and bleed.” “Kill your darlings.” I always want to weep when people speak about a project and say: “I think I finally broke its back.” That is a really fucked-up relationship you have with your work! You’re trying to crack its spine? No wonder you’re so stressed out! You’ve made this into battlefield! We should know enough about the world to realize that anything that you fight fights you back.
I actually have this bright young writer who I really love and who I’m semi-mentoring. When he told me that he’d finished his book, he related his triumph in terms of sex and death: “I love my book. I feel like I killed it. And now it’s so hot—I’m going to put this thing out into the world, so everybody can fuck it!”
Ok, he’s 25. But I’ve been to other parts of the world where it is not the assumption that we must beat our art into submission. Indonesian artists say you should begin and end your work with a prayer of gratitude—it’s a more reverent kind of collaboration. I respond to that attitude better. I think it’s what people have been doing for a lot longer than German Romanticism, which still has its claws in us. I like the idea of collaborating with something respectfully, rather than trying to break it and kill it.
But to write this way, to live this way, takes courage. I have an uncle who’s a great reader of poetry, and I shared Jack Gilbert’s work with him. He said he didn’t like him, and I asked why. My uncle said, “I like the poems, but I don’t like the way the poems make me feel I haven’t lived a brave or interesting enough life.” That’s the pain and pleasure of reading Gilbert. He offers an uncompromising challenge to his readers: Make the very most of your life, no less. In this, he holds up a model of something I would so love to be. Sometimes I brush up against in it sideways ways, and then skirt away from it again—because I long for security and affirmation more than I long for the purity of a life spent in examination of the poetic mysteries.
“Do you have the courage to be a poet?” Gilbert asked the graduate student, after all. We need courage to take ourselves seriously, to look closely and without flinching, to regard the things that frighten us in life and art with wonder. We tend to surround ourselves with the things that make us feel safe, but can then wall us in. We’re aspirational, we’re ambitious, we’re insecure, we want comforts. Live bravely when you’re young, we say. And maybe again when you retire, if you play your cards right.
Jack Gilbert refused that argument: No, I’m just going to live that way every single day of my life, thanks. And he did, by all accounts.
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