Monday, November 10, 2008

Jack Gilbert, Risking Delight

Jack Gilbert is one of America's finest living poets. Mary Karr highlights his work in her Poet's Choice column this week, which is laudable.

However, though the excerpt from "A Brief for the Defense" she chose is salient if brief (in part the same excerpt that appears on the Gilbert page at, overall it really does not do proud an under-appreciated poet like Gilbert. Here is the poem in its entirety:

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our loves because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The -----Bengal tiger-would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
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. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit that there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Jack Gilbert

One can empathize with Karr and her limited number of column inches, yet still ...

For those unfamiliar with Gilbert, here's a few more.



Charles Gramlich said...

"we must risk delight." Lana and I were talking last night about folks who live their lives in too much fear to enjoy them.

Ed Baker said...

I just found my Jack Gilbert letters...1970/etc
...some of them
thanks to Nancy and Geof's recent visit..

Lisa said...

wow. thank you. I do not know Gilbert's work, but that's going to change. Those final lines - hearing the sound of oars - worth all the years of suffering to come... wow.

Ed Baker said...

start w Jack's VIEWS of JEOPARDY

also, you might enjoy his students work I think that they married...

Linda Gregg when not imitating Jack, she's pretty "good"

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

I have a real soft spot for Jack Gilbert, as I do Gerald Stern. There is something there that just touches me deeply ... I love his recent "Refusing Heaven" ...

Lisa, I heard a kind of echo in those oars of the closing lines of Gatsby ... "So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past."

Charles, there is that, too, folks just trapped in fear ... I think he's also speaking to those frozen with despair, completely overwhelmed by life ... there are so many -

Ed, you keep us true ...