Friday, August 2, 2019

Thought Provokers

The Lost Hotels of Paris

The Lord gives everything and charges
by taking it back. What a bargain.
Like being young for a while. We are
allowed to visit hearts of women,
to go into their bodies so we feel
no longer alone. We are permitted
romantic love with its bounty and half-life
of two years. It is right to mourn
for the small hotels of Paris that used to be
when we used to be. My mansard looking
down on Notre Dame every morning is gone,
and me listening to the bell at night.
Venice is no more. The best Greek islands
have drowned in acceleration. But it’s the having
not the keeping that is the treasure.
Ginsberg came to my house one afternoon 
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets it right even that much.
We look up at the stars and they are
not there. We see the memory
of when they were, once upon a time.
And that too is more than enough.

– Jack Gilbert (1925-2012)

I only recently discovered the poetry of Jack Gilbert, which seems to invite readers to rethink things we had assumed or taken for granted. It presents an interesting new take, in the most matter-of-fact tone. 

This one also has an outdated view: regarding men ('we') as the real people, while women (the 'them' whose hearts can be visited and bodies entered) are not included but form some separate category. A widespread attitude of an earlier era from which Gilbert comes, I suspect it's unconscious in him. Even the most original thinkers can absorb cultural biases without realising. Other poems, however, suggest that he did not objectify the individual women in his life.  

This particular poem seems, also, rather 'first world' – e.g. not everyone has easy access to the beauty spots of Europe. Even so, its basic proposition offers some possible comfort in the face of the many ills of the world.

I like the way he anticipates a future when many great landmarks we know will be no more ... and then finishes with the scientific fact that we are indeed, right now, looking at the past of the stars we see (because of how long their light takes to reach us).

'And that too is more than enough.' I have to say yes. Sometimes, particularly when many aspects of the world appear dreadful,  I forget that life itself is the gift. For which, after all, I am inordinately grateful. And I'm grateful to be reminded by this poem.

I learn online that Gilbert was noted for both the lyricism and the simple straight-forwardness of his language, and for being 'the great American writer who turned his back on fame and insisted on life and work on his own terms absolutely,' rejecting conventional notions of success after early acclaim (he won the Yale Younger Poets award with his first book).

His friend and one-time partner, the poet Linda Gregg, said of him, 
'All Jack ever wanted to know was that he was awake—that the trees in bloom were almond trees—and to walk down the road to get breakfast. He never cared if he was poor or had to sleep on a park bench.'
He was short-listed for the Pulitzer. The jury's citation read: 'a half century of poems reflecting a creative author’s commitment to living fully and honestly and to producing straightforward work that illuminates everyday experience with startling clarity'.

Here he is discussing his work, and reading some of it (one of several YouTube videos in which he's featured):

A number of his poems can be read at Poetry Foundation; there are books, including a Collected Poems published in 2014, available from Amazon; and you can read a detailed account of his life and work in this New York Times obituary.

Material shared in “Thought Provokers’ is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors.


  1. What an intriguing poet. I like his nostalgic tone, remembering all that is no more. Very cool, Rosemary.

    1. Yes, marched to the best of his own drum, evidently. And the plain language is used to awaken startling ideas and questions.

  2. I love that you use the phrase "matter-of-fact" to describe the tone of this piece. Because it is exactly what I thought when I read, "What a bargain." I even chuckled a little.

  3. In the poem mention of Notre Dame felt eerie, now. Thank you for the post Rosemary.

    1. Yes, we have now tasted a bit of his future, in that respect!

  4. " drowned in acceleration" How cool is hqat image? I can see the islands fast-forward on film. Interesting work.

    1. True – the 'plain language' is not exactly ordinary, upon examination!

  5. Wonderful! Loved – really loved – the poems in the video and very much enjoyed Gilbert's thoughts on poetry – in particular, his remarks about falling in love with your craft FOR YOURSELF ... like, the elephants who had been taught to dance, caught dancing in the moonlight FOR THEMSELVES. An awesome perspective. Thanks for this, Rosemary!

    1. You'd probably enjoy his other YouTube sessions too, Wendy. (I did.)

  6. Rosemary, thank you for sharing this poem, and its author.
    Anyone associating with Ginsberg would be unorthodox, i think. i really like the voice of the poem, a matter-of-fact tone, like talking to a friend.
    It will be interesting to know when was the poem written & published, just to get an insight into what was around him that time. This is a poet lamenting what was, and what could be. :)

    1. As far as I can work out, it seems to have been part of his first published volume, in 1962, at a time when he was living in Europe.

    2. Thank you, Rosemary.
      I was wondering if he can be considered as one of the Beat poets like Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti, because as you said, his words "invite readers to rethink things we had assumed or taken for granted". I guess Jack Gilbert is one poet I will have to read.
      Oh, and i just read his poem "Michiko Dead" and it left me with a lump in my throat.


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