Jack Gilbert: Major voice in American poetry


Jack Gilbert, who died on 13 November, was a prize-winning poet known for his clear and subtle verse. His many honours included the Yale Younger Poets prize for his 1962 debut Views of Jeopardy, and a National Book Critics Circle award for Refusing Heaven. Born in Pittsburgh in 1925, he wrote often about his native city, as well as about his childhood, food, sex and personal pain. He also wrote the novels My Mother Taught Me and Forever Ecstasy.

A major voice in American poetry, he was initially associated with the Beats, but he always maintained his status as an outsider, defiantly unfashionable and publishing only five books in over five decades. After Views of Jeopardy he didn't publish another collection, Monolithos, for 20 years. He made perhaps his strongest impression with his last two books, The Great Fires (1994) and Refusing Heaven (2005). His Collected Poems was published to acclaim in March this year.

Dropping out of high school, he discovered Eliot and Pound at 15, and began to write. He lived in Paris for a time, as well as Italy, Denmark, Greece and England. Gilbert was a private man who rarely attended book parties or gave readings. He wrote compellingly about passion, loss and loneliness. His poems were filled with a sense of wonder at existence and with his surprise at finding happiness – despite grief, struggle and alienation – in a life spent in luminous understanding of his own blessings and shortcomings. His work is a rebellious assertion of clarity and a profound affirmation of the world in all its aspects. His poems are about being alive: the nature of the self, the life he lived and the people he loved.

"Poetry, for me, is a witnessing to magnitude," he wrote in The Landscape of American Poetry in 1965. "It is the art of making urgent values manifest, and of imposing them on the reader. It is the housing of these values in poems so they will exist with maximum pressure, and for the longest time. It is the craft of doing so in structures that are a delight in themselves. And it is the mystery of fashioning poems in such a way that the form and the content are one."