Although Jack Gilbert has divided Monolithos into two parts, dated 1962 and 1982, not all of the poems in the second section qualify as recent poems, for some of them, including “Angelus,” “My Marriage with Mrs. Johnson,” and “Singing in My Difficult Mountains,” existed in typescript as early as 1967. Monolithos, with its gleaning of the best from Views of Jeopardy and the later poems spanning close to twenty years, lacks the satisfying unity of books arranged to make overall statements and appears to derive its chief force from the excellence of individual poems. Such a book from a younger writer, or from one who had regularly published samplings of his work, would be less disquieting than from a fine poet whose work could be judged only from what appears in this volume and whose long silences do not indicate more work forthcoming. Perhaps unfairly, the reader looks for some major statement, some grace note, or even some portent of things to come.
As things stand, one must be grateful to have the poems—almost all of them—in Monolithos, but one must conclude that, although Gilbert has refined his art, he has not yet reached even the tentative position of a poet making order of his life, of his culture, and of the human potential. The individual poems are so sharp, so clear and the overall import of Monolithos so nebulous that one must wonder if the poet has more to say, or if one is to take the individual poems as fragments shored up against his ruin. The quiet fatalism of some poems in the 1982 section—“Trying to Be Married,” “More Than Friends,” “Walking Home Across the Island,” “Divorce,” “Meaning Well,” “Pavane,” and “Loyalty”—would suggest the latter. The book’s final poem, the ambitious and, for Gilbert, long poem, “Threshing the Fire,” would suggest a movement toward resolution, but it suffers from an obliqueness of personal reference that is likely to leave the reader wondering about allusions and their significance. These personal references, unlike the perhaps excessive allusions to writers, places, characters from literature, and other cultural oddments with which Gilbert strews his work, are simply not susceptible to understanding without an intimate knowledge of Gilbert’s life and consciousness. They are obscure because their referents exist outside the poem. The concluding poem in Monolithos, like others in the collection, implies a far more intense story than it is willing to tell, for the poems seem brutally attenuated, cut off before their fullest expression. Though the poet seems to strain for honesty, he does so against the odds, for he seems to want to tell something he does not yet know.
The spare but evocative details of the poems, particularly the new ones, suggest a whole person, but they do not yield that person in a palpable form. Instead, they provide what Walt Whitman would call “faint clews and indirections.” The so-called confessional poets sometimes tell more than the reader wants to know, while other poets objectify the personal to create dramatic situations and images which yield meaning without the need for knowledge of the purely personal.
Jack Gilbert straddles the line between what Louis Simpson (A Revolution in Taste, 1978) would call the confessional and the personal in poetry, but enough of the personal creeps in to obscure Gilbert’s intentions. In a poem such as “All the Way from There to Here,” for example, Gilbert writes of a “nine-story fall/ down through the great fir.” He mentions also his “crushed spine” and waiting for “the burning/ in my fingertips, which would announce,/ the doctors said, the beginning of paralysis.” Then, however, he changes the subject; neither in “All the Way from There to Here” nor elsewhere is that strikingly dramatic event brought to clarification or to conclusion. Much later (in “Alone on Christmas Eve in Japan”), Gilbert alludes to “this marred body,” but he provides no specific link with the earlier poem. Apparently, he assumes the reader knows more than he has been told.
One does not demand that Gilbert reveal all the details of his personal, physical life, but when a book sets up what appears to be a story line, the writer has an obligation to make the events significant, not occasional or incidental. The fall from a tree need not have happened to Gilbert—it may be a metaphor—but introducing it in the opening poem of the 1982 section of Monolithos sets up expectations which are never fulfilled; hence, it is a red herring—a false start in a book full of false starts. Monolithos, then, is a book one must judge on the basis of its individual poems. Its excellence depends chiefly upon the clarity of the opening twenty-six poems, in which Gilbert generalizes the personal to write predominantly about what must concern the artist, who is also a man and subject to love and...
(The entire section is 2026 words.)