Jack Gilbert – Working Class Poet

“If 99% of the poets writing today stopped publishing, it would not be a loss.” – Jack Gilbert

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Jack Gilbert – 1925-2012

At a poetry session, Leonard asked, “If you could have a poet give your eulogy, who would it be?”

I knee-jerked, “Jack Gilbert.”

My fellow poets looked at me. “How come?”

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 9.03.57 AMDamn! I don’t necessarily agree with Gilbert’s assertion about the 99%, so I had to think. I was attracted to Gilbert because he was a blue-collar guy, born in Pittsburgh (how can you not love the Steelers?) flunked out of high school, worked in steel mills, admitted to the University of Pittsburgh on an apparent clerical error. But it was more than that.

Jack was a working class poet. He didn’t like poets who had nice comfortable jobs at universities, and who wrote impressive-sounding poems about things that didn’t matter much. He said that most American poets didn’t even actually want to write poems, but had to in order to keep getting grants and positions. Gilbert said: “If he’s a man teaching at a university, as he probably is, and married to a wife he courted years ago, and has several quite healthy children […] what’s he going to make his poems out of? […] You aren’t likely to get a big-boned poem straining its limits. […] They reduce poetry to something toilet-trained and comfortable.” He said that the only things really worth writing about were these: “Love, death, man, virtue, nature, magnitude, excellence, evil, suffering, courage, morality. What is the good life. What is honor. Who am I.”

Jack Gilbert would have been 91 yesterday.

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About Jim Brennan

Jim is a Philadelphia-based writer, author, poet and editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.
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2 Responses to Jack Gilbert – Working Class Poet

  1. Paul B says:

    Thank you for the introduction to Jack Gilbert! I was slightly surprised that I had never heard of him but I don’t think much of his work has been published this side of the Atlantic.

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    • Jim Brennan says:

      I’m learning about new poets myself, Paul. Gilbert’s won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first collection, Views of Jeopardy in 1962. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship and &5,000 (a lot of money in those days) and spent the next two decades in Europe, and lived in Greece, Denmark and England. So he was in your neck of the woods.

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