Jack Gilbert Essay - Critical Essays


Jack Gilbert lived outside literary circles, often abroad, in solitude or in the company of a woman whom he loved. He found these conditions necessary to be able to concentrate on being alive and to discover the fresh perceptions that would become the subjects of his poems. The subject matter of his poetry is simply being alive and being in love, accompanied by an awareness that life ends in death and love ends in loss. Gilbert’s personae include the bard Orpheus, the lover of women Don Giovanni, and the aging magician and poet Prospero. The poems are personal and introspective, yet the themes and insights are universal.

Gilbert’s poetry is distinguished by its clarity, simplicity, and straightforward language and tone. Classical images, extended metaphors, precise language, and pacing characterize a style that is influenced by the modernists of the early twentieth century. Many of the poems are constructions of declarative sentences, often with endline enjambment and midline caesura for movement and emphasis. While seclusion, loneliness, loss, and mortality are significant themes, Gilbert’s final message is one of joy in being alive.

Views of Jeopardy

Views of Jeopardy introduces Gilbert’s clean, spare style and insights. Some of the poems are set in San Francisco; many are set in Italy and refer to his parting from Gelmetti. In his foreword to the volume, poet and critic Dudley Fitts writes that the subject of the book is “the art of poetry itself, and the problem is the tormenting one of communication.” The opening poem, “In Dispraise of Poetry,” introduces the idea of poetry as a difficult gift, but one that cannot be refused. Gilbert uses the symbol of the Greek bard Orpheus to represent the serious artist in an indifferent or hostile society. In “Orpheus in Greenwich Village,” Gilbert writes of the poet “confident in the hard-/ found mastery,” who descends into Hell, readies his lyre, and suddenly notices that his listeners have no ears. The poet in Views of Jeopardy is struggling against fashion: “the important made trivial.” San Francisco is “this city of easy fame.” It is apparent from Gilbert’s tone and subject matter that revision, time, care, and craft are Gilbert’s tools and that his influences are the classics and the modernists of the first half of the twentieth century; it is no surprise to the reader of Gilbert’s poems that he would leave the modern literary world to seek a more compatible place to write.


After twenty years of silence, Gilbert published Monolithos at the insistence of his friend and editor Gordon Lish. The volume, dedicated to Gregg, is divided in two parts. The first part, “1962,” consists of poems reprinted from Views of Jeopardy. However, the opening poem is not “In Dispraise of Poetry,” but rather “The Abnormal Is Not Courage,” in which Gilbert refers to his assertion that art and craft take time...

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