Poet Jack Gilbert, who touched the lives of countless readers through lucid, lyrical poems that explored classic themes such as love, death, and the good life, passed away Tuesday at age 87. Though Gilbert eschewed the literary limelight and would never have considered serving as U.S. Poet Laureate, he came to the Library at least twice: in 1963 to record his work for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, and in 2006 to read his work. His 2006 reading, part of joint program with Miranda Field, was the subject of a recent Paris Review blog post by Drew Bratcher. In his brief post, which is well worth reading in its entirety, Batcher recounts the difficulty—and courage—with which Gilbert, coping with Alzheimer’s disease and failing motor functions, read his poetry to a captivated audience. While some poetry readers place little stock in live events, Bratcher’s account demonstrates that live readings can result in a powerful collective experience and can reveal important insights into the essence of a poet or a poem.
Though Gilbert’s entire reading is available on the Library’s website as a webcast, the recording almost never saw the light of day. Patricia Gray, then head of the Poetry and Literature Center, debated whether to make the recording available online due to Gilbert’s difficulties. Ultimately, she decided that Gilbert’s poignant, awe-inspiring performance deserved to seen by a larger audience.
As I listen again to Gilbert’s halting, determined reading of “A Brief for the Defense,” I marvel at his commitment to embrace the delight of being alive while acknowledging the realities of human suffering and personal tragedy. I’m also reminded of another of his poems, “Failing and Falling,” which rejects the notion that a marriage which ends prematurely is a failure:
…How can they say
The marriage failed? Like the people who came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
And said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
But just coming to the end of his triumph.
Like Icarus, Gilbert soared to amazing heights in his poetry. His final reading at the Library, and the final years of life, should not be seen as a failing of his powers. Rather, he was just coming to the end of his triumph.