‘The Poet Who Loved Women’ at the Li­brary

Sunday Star - - CROSSWORD -

I was work­ing in D.C. when I first en­coun­tered the po­etry of Jack Gil­bert. I sel­dom read mod­ern po­etry in those days, but a re­view in The Wash­ing­ton Post con­vinced me a book he’d just pub­lished might be worth a tr y.

The next day, on my lunch break, I walked over to Kramer Books, found a copy of “The Great Fires,” read a poem or two, and im­me­di­ately car­ried it up to the counter and bought it.

Doubt­less it was Gil­bert’s ac­ces­si­bil­ity that con­vinced me to make that pur­chase. I had en­joyed po­etry in high school — “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Ozy­man­dias,” “The Rime of the An­cient Mariner” — but when I first en­coun­tered mod­ern po­etry in col­lege, I felt way out of my depth.

The stuff seemed will­fully ab­struse (most of­ten, I hadn’t a clue what the poet was try­ing to say), and lis­ten­ing to cer­tain pro­fes­sors and stu­dents wax, well, po­etic about its virtues didn’t help. My ego told me the whole thing was a sham, but some deeper part of me feared I might be just too stupid to un­der­stand the stuf f.

But in Gil­bert I found a poet who wrote verse I could eas­ily grasp and en­joy — “I light the lamp and look at my watch. / Four-thirty. Tap out my shoes / be­cause of the scor­pi­ons, and go out / into the field. Such a sweet night. / No moon, but ur­gent stars.” — a poet who, de­spite such clar­ity, the dust jacket of my new book as­sured me “stands with the mod­ernist giants.”

With his un­pre­ten­tious name and un­pre­ten­tious po­etry, Jack Gil­bert made me think I might not be so stupid af­ter all, that, in­deed, I too might be “mod­ern”!

But, as it turned out, there would be more to like about Gil­bert than just his ac­ces­si­bil­ity. In the para­graph above, I gave you the open­ing lines of his poem “The Edge of the World,” now let me quote the rest of it: “…. Go back inside / and make hot choco­late on my bu­tane burner. / I search around with the ra­dio through the skirl of the Le­vant. ‘Tea for Two’ / in Ger­man. Fi­nally, Cleve­land play­ing / the Rams in the rain. It makes me feel / acutely here and every­body some­where else.” This dis­tance, this sense of ex­ile, is an es­sen­tial part of Gil­bert’s work.

In 1962, his very first book of po­etry won the cov­eted Yale Younger Po­ets Prize, bring­ing him world­wide ac­claim. But then, with what ap­pears to have been a cold in­ten­tion­al­ity, he turned his back on celebrity and spent the rest of his days lead­ing an ob­scure and pen­ni­less ex­is­tence in lit­tle-known parts of the world. Judg­ing from the po­etry he wrote in those long, hid­den days, he was of­ten hun­gry, of­ten happy, oc­ca­sion­ally lonely, but al­ways un­blink­ingly alive and think­ing. I’ll ad­mit to be­ing a bit of a ro­man­tic when it comes to artists, and the life Gil­bert chose for him­self fea­tures pre­cisely the sort of ex­ile and re­jec­tion of all that the world holds dear that the ro­man­tic in me most ad­mires.

Fi­nally, and prob­a­bly most im­por­tant, I came to love and sym­pa­thize with Gil­bert be­cause of Michiko.

Not long af­ter Melissa and I got mar­ried, it dawned on me — as, doubt­less, it has dawned on many be­fore — that mar­riage is a con­tract with an in­her­ent, if un­stated, ter­mi­na­tion date. Bar­ring some un­likely ac­ci­dent, one part­ner will pre­cede the other into dark­ness. The thought of los­ing Melissa fills me with ex­is­ten­tial dread. It is un­bear­able. I don’t know what I would do. I do know what Gil­bert did when he lost his wife, Michiko.

He wrote some of the most pow­er­ful po­etry ever writ­ten about love, loss and life’s cruel brevity. That po­etry com­forted me when my fa­ther died. It has, I hope, com­forted friends I’ve shared it with af­ter their losses. I think you would find it help­ful too.

To­mor­row night, at 6:30 p.m., in our Eas­ton li­brary, the Push­cart Prize-win­ning poet Sue Ellen Thomp­son will give a talk (spon­sored in part by the Tal­bot County Arts Coun­cil, with funds from Tal­bot County and the Towns of Eas­ton, Ox­ford, and St. Michaels) en­ti­tled, “The Man Who Loved Women: Jack Gil­bert and His Po­ems.”

Thomp­son’s lec­tures are al­ways in­formed by deep re­search, pre­sented with a cool pre­ci­sion I find mes­mer­iz­ing, and re­ceived by our pa­trons with great en­thu­si­asm and, in­evitably, ex­tended ap­plause. I hope to see you there.

BILL PEAK

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