From Our Staff | April 12, 2005

[By Rebecca Dunham]

If I were to meditate upon literary matters today, one of the greatest delights that comes to mind is Jack Gilbert’s new book, Refusing Heaven. This is a roughly once-in-a-decade pleasure. Gilbert’s last book, The Great Fires, was published in 1994. As a testament to his popularity, it went through seven printings. It is the very rare book of contemporary American poetry which garners no prizes and yet is deemed essential enough to be read by that many people. In the entire stretch of his career, Gilbert, age 79, has published only two other books: Monolithos: Poems 1962-1982, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Views of Jeopardy, the 1962 winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He has also published a limited edition of elegiac poems titled Kochan.

I discovered Gilbert’s work only recently, I must confess. I remember people talking about The Great Fires when it was published, but the poems didn’t grab me. I can only explain my lack of enthusiasm by way of saying that sometimes we need to mature ourselves to understand what makes a poem or novel great. I read The Great Gatsby several times as an undergraduate, and frankly, it seemed good but a bit dull in places. I didn’t get what all the talk was about. When I read it again, several years later, in graduate school, it finally hit me—this book was fantastic—and I could understand why it had been assigned so often. Sometimes, we need to change and grow before we can appreciate a work of literature.

But back to Jack Gilbert. I came across some poems of Gilbert’s, from Refusing Heaven, in The New Yorker over the past year. Specifically, the poem “Bring in the Gods.” As you may have guessed by now, I was blown away. I went out and read The Great Fires. Finally understood what everyone had been talking about, a decade later. It turns out, the poems in The New Yorker were the only ones Gilbert even bothered publishing from Refusing Heaven. And the book is filled with other gems, all working together to create a whole which I deem worthy of his reputation—no small order.

Technically, Gilbert’s spare poems maintain a beautiful lyricism, strong in image and sound. They do so with straightforward and direct language, capable of declaring exactly what it is that he means. In the same poem, “Refusing Heaven,” the speaker can state: “But he chooses / against the Lord. He will not abandon his life.” And later, “He is . . . like a wooden ocean out of control. / A beached heart. A cauldron of cooling melt.” Each time I read, and reread, Gilbert’s poems, I feel I am learning better the craft of poetry, as well as the craft of how to truly live in this life.

For Gilbert is one of the last, real Romantics writing today. And he pulls it off. Refusing Heaven declares its thesis from the start, in “A Brief for the Defense.” Gilbert insists “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world.” He does not shy away from the sorrows and injustices of this world, this life. But he finds ways to see beyond them as well, to embrace life’s beauties as “truly worth / all the years of sorrow that are to come.”

Refusing Heaven. Jack Gilbert. Knopf: New York, 2005. 92 pp. $25, cloth.