I was so sad to hear of Jack Gilbert’s recent death. What a truly great poet he was. I am posting a review of his book Refusing Heaven that was published in The Post and Courier in March 2005.
REFUSING HEAVEN Poems by Jack Gilbert, Knopf. 92 pages. $25.00
Many years ago, poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote a famous piece called FOR THE SAKE OF A SINGLE POEM, in which he describes the value of living your life to its fullest and waiting for the wisdom that time brings before you seriously attempt to write poetry. “You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime”, he instructs, ”and a long one if possible, and then, and only then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines.” It’s as if Jack Gilbert has lived his life, according to Rilke’s teachings . Gilbert’s latest book, REFUSING HEAVEN, is full of poems that could only have been written by someone who has lived his life intensely and honestly and then had the courage to report back all the suffering and joy that this rich life has brought. Luminous and profoundly moving, Gilbert has written the kind of poems that you copy on a little piece of paper, put in your pocket and carry around with you just in case you need to remember what it is you’re doing here in the first place.
The poems in REFUSING HEAVEN are wise and spiritual. The message of the title weaves the poems together. Nowhere is this message clearer than in the first poem “A Brief For The Defense,” which begins with the honest reminder Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies / are not starving someplace, they are starving / somewhere else….and moves toward the conclusion that We must risk delight, and accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world knowing that there will be music despite everything.” This kind of affirmation is the reason we read the greatest poets and the wisest prophets. We are all broken. We are all hurt.
Sometimes we need someone like Jack Gilbert to remind us that despite everything the world can be a beautiful place and that love in all of its manifestations is still the very best thing about being alive. We are lucky that Jack Gilbert is among us. Who else would remind us: We are given the trees so we can know/ what God looks like. And rivers/ so we might understand Him.