Feature

Jack Gilbert, 1925–2012

The poet who never much cared for fame

Jack Gilbert had all he needed to live the typical life of a famous American poet. In 1962, when he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, he was under the wing of a prestigious publisher, had already been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and was reaping critical praise from some of the finest poets of the age. But he just wasn’t into it. “Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting,” he later said. “After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live.” The life he led, outside the literary bubble, inspired a slim but influential body of work that made him a famous American poet after all. 

Born to a poor family in Pittsburgh, Gilbert “worked as a steelworker and exterminator before launching his literary career,” said the Los Angeles Times.  He studied at the University of Pittsburgh, then headed to Paris before drifting westward to San Francisco. “The poetry of the Beat Generation was in full flower all around him, but Gilbert and his work were no fit.” He disdained poseurs, avant-garde language experiments, and “the comfortable life of tenure-track university professorship, which he thought was anathema to the well-lived life.” 

He and his then partner, the poet Linda Gregg, soon struck out for the Greek islands and “vagabonded around” Europe for years, said the San Francisco Chronicle. Gilbert later met the sculptor Michiko Nogami and moved to her native Japan, where he taught English. After her death to cancer at the age of 36, Gilbert wrote, “…I wanted / to crawl in among the machinery / and hold her in my arms, knowing / the elementary, leftover bit of her / mind would dimly recognize it was me / carrying her to where she was going.” 

Gilbert’s poems could have a life-changing effect on readers “with their blunt-force assertions, their challenging irony, their earthy sexuality, and their embrace of life as a big, messy possibility,” said The New York Times. “There is something very straight on about Jack,” said Deborah Garrison, poetry editor at Knopf, “and yet he’s a helpless romantic who loves the world and its pleasures so much—and our failures and our loneliness.”

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