Jack Gilbert, interviewed by Gordon Lish, 1962 (from Issue One of Genesis West)

POETRY IS THE ART OF PREJUDICE: An interview with Jack Gilbert

(Note: Originally transcribed from a tape-recorded conversation between Jack Gilbert and Gordon Lish, at Gilbert’s San Francisco apartment, July 18, 1962)

LISH: In your poem “Quality Is a Kind of Exile” you mention a lady asking what poets are like between poems. If the question were asked specifically about you and you had to give a prose answer, what would you say?

GILBERT: I’d be evasive. It’s the sort of question that can only make a fool of you.

LISH: But if you had to answer?

GILBERT: If I had to? Well, I’m a little like a mongrel dog, I guess. Not the sickly kind, or the savage or woe-begone kind. But the shorthaired, off-white type you still sometimes see trotting along in the city. Obviously on his own. The kind that survives.

LISH: Not a lap-dog?

GILBERT: Wait. Let’s not get this started off wrong, full of terse clever answers. It was my fault; that sounds pretty precious about the dog. I didn’t mean it like that, but it’s a hard question to answer quickly. I just mean that I’m not respectable. I’m thirty-seven years old and a kind of failure. I don’t really have an occupation. Most of the time I wander around looking at the trees. Or the concrete. And trying to understand and to have my life. And love. Kind of an urban Walden. I’ve never worked at a job more than six months at a time in my whole life. And most of those were in steel mills or washing dishes or selling Fuller Brushes. I’ve evaded all the adult responsibilities of marriage, a home, a car, a regular job, children, furniture, a bank account for emergencies, pipes, guns, and all the rest. While other people have been coping with their responsibilities as husbands and citizens and PhD’s, I’ve been off looking at the sea and trying to write a poem. Or living in the mountains. Or on the Lower East Side.

LISH: But you’re not part of the Beat Movement?

GILBERT: God, no! And I don’t go in for freakish behavior nor esoteric knowledge.

LISH: What do you conceive your world to be then? What audience do you write for, for example?

GILBERT: I suspect I’m like most poets in that I write with a vague audience in mind made up of a few friends multiplied and a bunch of heroes—most of whom are dead.

LISH: But certainly some poets have a more general public in mind?

GILBERT: Maybe so, but remember that the contemporary artist’s audience is not the same one aimed at by Edwardians and Victorians. One of the things that defines modern poetry is its separation from a general audience. Not because the poet wants it that way, but because what he wants to do pushes him beyond the scope of the bus driver.

LISH: All poets?

GILBERT: Well, just about all serious poets today are beyond the reader of good will who is inexperienced in current literature. It used to be there was usually something for anyone with a minimum education. If you listened to music, you could wait for the tune to come around again. Today you’d wait a long time. Or in painting, you could enjoy the way a lemon peel was imitated or be moved by the scene of a young boy saying goodbye to his mother before going off to the big city. You might not know anything about painting, but you’d remember when your boy Walter went off. In poetry you could enjoy the sense of beauty without any idea of the meaning—the lovely, hypnotic beauty-bath. But poets aren’t trying to do this anymore. Nor good composers, nor sculptors, nor novelists, nor architects. They are trying to do something different, and it involves the nature of poetry and the audience both.

LISH: What specifically is this difference?

GILBERT: In the old days, poets tried to create beauty, and to please. Most of them, anyway. Today, the major talents aren’t interested in creating beauty—not in the ordinary sense, and certainly not in the sense of providing recreation. Poetry before the First World War was usually an elevating experience taken dutifully after a good meal in the better homes; rather like going to church each Sunday to sit worshipful and empty-headed. Instead of providing instant-uplift or a passive sense of nobility, the poets now are trying to interest and disturb.

LISH: Surely this kind of poetry has been with us a long time.

GILBERT: I don’t mean it’s a new thing. However, I doubt if it’s ever been so predominant. And there is a difference between the serious art of today and art in the past in that our art is harder to misuse. You look at the painting elements in a painting today or you go home. You read contemporary poems as poetry, and actively, or you leave it alone.

LISH: I assume this would be your answer to the accusation of limiting your readers by the geographical, historical, mythological, and personal references in your poems.

GILBERT: It depends. I don’t believe in poems as cross-word puzzles—poems created as victims of the New Criticism. There should be a public level of the poem available to an educated reader who is willing to contribute a fair amount of thinking. On the other hand, there are some things you have a right to expect him to look up. Helot, for example, if he doesn’t know. But if a poem has too much of this, its function breaks down—becomes a game of scholarship.

LISH: Or of vanity.

GILBERT: Especially of vanity. Not always, though. Not all poets who go in for this sort of thing are trying to create the illusion of profundity by an illicit obscurity. Some are entirely sincere. Just as some of the surrealists are, or the word-manipulators, the logomaniacs.

LISH: Are you equating the pedant poets with the surrealists and the logomaniacs? Aren’t some of these people legitimately experimental poets?

GILBERT: Of course. But I’m tired of the kind of experimental poetry we’ve been getting. I don’t say it’s not poetry. There isn’t any one correct way to write poetry. Poetry is a word like love: an endless confusion of different things all warped into one word because no vocabulary of discrimination exists. So I’m not saying my way of writing poetry is the way. But I am admitting my weariness with the great body of poetry which is nothing more than a curious manipulation of words, what Kenneth Tynan has called literary masturbation—a sterile effort to force words to breed. After one or two pages of surrealistic poetry my mind just stubbornly refuses to be polite. Wallace Stevens put it very well when he said that the trouble with surrealism is that it invents rather than discovers. It’s a kind of trick anybody can learn who has imagination. You just throw your mind slightly out of focus so everything seems different. Or better yet, you learn to set your mind wrong so that each item is mechanically related to an inappropriate neighbor. It’s great when you’re starting out in poetry and words are a kind of fascination. But how can a poet sustain an interest in this kind of thing. Wait a minute, I was just reading something by Samuel Johnson. Here it is: “The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted.”

LISH: And yet your poetry isn’t devoid of experiment. For example, I’ve noticed in your poetry a peculiar distortion of line—as if the language were strange to you, new—especially this poem “The Poetry Line”.

GILBERT: All good poets today try to wrench the language, to freshen it. But my main concern with form is different. I’m concerned with how to make poems work. I think any group of my poems will show a range of solutions. Many poets have one or two ways to write a poem. The poem to them is like a cake-decorator where you put your different materials into the same bag each time and squeeze. The cake will be decorated differently each time, but the method is the same. My greatest difficulty is not finding subjects or language or conceits, but in finding the poem.

LISH: This would be a preoccupation with form rather than language then?

GILBERT: Yes, but obviously not form in the sense of sonnets or sestinas. In fact, I think the major esthetic problem in the 20th century is the attempt to escape Form with a capital Fto form in lower case. At the beginning of the century with the idea of Art for Art’s sake, with the influence of Flaubert, with the distaste for a world in which falsification had become standard, many poets went in for what Yeats called technical sincerity. They found truth in an esthetic technology. Recently poets (and artists in the other arts) have become discontent with Form as an object. They no longer are content to create a pretty, well-made thing. They want to make a poem that extends beyond the museum of perfection. Often they don’t particularly care how it looks—if it’s shaggy or messy or incomplete or exaggerated—as long as it has the effect on the reader that the poet intends. In fact, he may deliberately include the anti-poetic in order to prevent misunderstanding. He doesn’t want the reader coming along collecting jeweled phrases. I’ve talked to a number of the best writers working today about this. Some at length, like Pound, or some just briefly, like Saul Bellow, and I’ve found over and over that they want to escape the inhibiting quality of Form as a hieratic, imposed felicity. They want to devise a form that allows them to do things. Pound expressed it by saying his greatest contribution to younger poets was enabling them to get things back into poems—to make historical references, for example. This recurring groping for an open form can be traced through the whole history of European literature.

LISH: But your poetry shows considerable concern with form in a more direct sense.

GILBERT: Sure. Any poet must be concerned with it. I would expect any poem of mine to meet all the tests of craftsmanship. And obviously form in this sense can never be separated from the other concern. And still, in some peculiar way, they are separate. No one has ever been able to say exactly how, but it is nevertheless true that a preoccupation with the formal construct produces a lesser poetry. Primary poetry deals with life. This is, of course, the most old-fashioned of positions. It has been repeatedly denounced by all the best modern critics like Northrop Frye, Warren and Wellek, Wimsett, and the rest. I always have the feeling they are annoyed that poems are written by people instead of being spontaneously generated out of the accumulations of books in the great solemn libraries. It’s an inconvenience. They remind me of the people who confuse technology with sex.

LISH: How does your attitude affect your poetry?

GILBERT: I am far more concerned with content than most poets, I think. I assume I manage all the technical elements adequately, of course. But usually my poems are caused by and impulse to communicate some part of my life rather than to please. I don’t want the reader to finish the poem and say how lovely it was. I want him to be disturbed. Even miserable. I don’t envy Spenser the slightest bit. I do envy the man who wrote Lear. And yet…it’s so hard to get it straight. At the same time I am always deeply concerned with the poem as a made thing. Always. Like something chopped out of stone that won’t weaken. But not as a decoration. Not a recreation. There are two kinds of poetry finally. The kind that gives delight, and the kind that does something else. Delight is fine. But in Lear or Oedipus there is something else. It’s a delight, too, but of a kind so different that it is misleading to use the same word. The first is recreation; the second change man. It is a grave misunderstanding to come from a performance of Lear concerned primarily with technical felicities. Ideally, one should cry at a good performance of Lear. If the critic can’t cry, he should be unfrocked.

LISH: Doesn’t this kind of approach set you apart from a lot of contemporary poets?

GILBERT: Maybe so, but an awful lot of the poems I see published remind me of the correspondence between Marx and Engels. Engels was always writing elaborate letters filled with ingenious, painstaking comments on Marx’s theories equating them mechanically with some current scientific thought. And Marx (or the reader) kept writing back, Dear Fred, please send the money.

LISH: But you go beyond just insistence on a relation to life in your poems. You seem preoccupied with moral values. Isn’t it true that most contemporary poets no longer accept the ideal of right and wrong?

GILBERT: Who knows? Surely it’s an exaggeration to say most. But it is true that a great many poets now shy away from this kind of subject in favor of a kind of genre verse. Partially I think this is the result of a moral paralysis that is current. But isn’t it also because they don’t have a sufficient motivation for writing? Isn’t a great part of poetry now being produced to support an established reputation? The poet is actually tired of poetry, but he must turn out poems to qualify for prizes, grants, and academic positions. What’s he going to do? He manufactures verse. And it’s a lot easier to deal with a small subject when you’re getting by on merely careful technique. And 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? He makes them out of books or he makes them out of the incidents of a normal, commonplace life. If he goes sailing off Long Island on Sunday afternoon and he wants to write a poem after dinner, he will probably write a poem about sailing off Long Island.

LISH: A small poem?

GILBERT: Oh, he’ll mention Charon at the end to make it seem big, but he is probably tired after a long day and he contents himself with making a respectable poem rather than trying to do anything to the reader. He’s unlikely to be what the Elizabethans admired so much, an over-reacher. You aren’t likely to get a big-boned poem straining its limits.

LISH: And you think this is the case with most poets today?

GILBERT: It seems to be true of most poetry today. Probably it has always been true of most poets. And it is only fair to say that all poets would like to write great poetry. It is also true, though, that if ninety-nine percent of the poets writing today stopped publishing, it would not be a loss. It might not even be noticed. We are in danger today of the kind of misguided tact that has so hampered modern British poetry. A kind of insidious conspiracy of courtesy. If there could be a truly unmalicious literary pogrom, it would do more for American literature than even making them publish anonymously. Or how about another way? You know how in the Congressional Record they have all those speeches that were never actually delivered in Congress? They save everybody’s time by waiving the reading and just print it so the people back home can see it and be satisfied their Congressman is making his voice heard. Suppose we publish a huge book called The Very Finest American Poetry of 1962? Everyone will waive the poems being actually published anywhere except in those thousands of pages of unreadable tiny print. And each poem who sends in something will automatically be issued a certificate saying he has published so-and-so many poems in 1962, and they have been declared to be the very finest of the year. It will be signed by all the right people. Then the poet can just turn this over to the head of his department when culling time comes around. The reward of promotion will be for the greatest number of certificates—and these will be given for assiduity, just as now. And he can get duplicates to send his mother, or to show his wife’s friends, or to send to the Fulbright and Guggenheim and Ford people. Or to have lying around when he has a girl up he’s trying to make.

LISH: Do you think these people who are involved in poetry to further their careers or who make mild poems out of trivial material are dangerous to the reader?

GILBERT: Mostly in being dangerous to themselves and other poets—in that they reduce poetry to something toilet-trained and comfortable. They pretend poetry is just like everything else, only fixed up funny. Like sex. Everybody understands now that sex isn’t really dirty. A little odd at times, but certainly nothing to be disturbed about. Like the sensible books on technique say. And it’s good for you. Rosy, reasonable sex. Well, it is dirty. And fantastically intimate. A kind of insanity. Of course, they often feel the same way about insanity. It’s kind of like the common cold now. And they can’t get over the secret feeling that their friend really knows, at the bottom, how silly he’s being. Someone once said to Blake that after all when he looked at the sun he saw a bright copper penny like the rest of us. Blake replied that when he looked at the sun he saw a choir of singing angels.

LISH: You feel the poets really don’t know the difference?

GILBERT: Who knows anything about poets? But I remember talking recently to a poet who teaches at the University of California who kept saying how it’s all nonsense to criticize professors for not having enough life in their poems. Take him for example, he said. One of his favorite things was to go walking up and down the main street of Oakland at night. Now I’m not making fun of him. He is quite intelligent and talented, and he sincerely believes he’s getting close to the brute reality of non-academic life walking up and down there in Oakland. It’s admirable that he wants to reach reality, but it scares me to think a man so intelligent can become so insulated that he isn’t even aware how far he is from the demon world of actuality.

LISH: What poets do you think are in touch with that demon world?

GILBERT: First let me take back that bit about the “demon world.” It sounds like the dark-world-of-unnamable-evil out of somebody like Huysmans or Lovecraft. And let me say that most poets have had contact with the world beyond the academy and domesticity when they were young or in the army or on their year tour of Europe. But how many of them have recently lived for any time really with hunger or corruption or danger or ecstasy or madness or the alien or romance or physical labor or poverty or anything? Or evil? Directly, I mean.

LISH: All right, but what poets do you admire?

GILBERT: In the world, or writing in English, or just in America.

LISH: Let’s say just American.

GILBERT: It’s hard to answer. I admire some things in many, many poets. You remember in The Lost Weekend how the guy is hurrying down the street full of ain and he sees a new book by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a window and he stops and crouches down to read what he can of the two pages that are half open? In the middle of his hurry and unhappiness? Well, I’ll tell you the people I’d crouch down like that to read. Pound and Eliot, of course. And Williams. And Frost. And Auden, if I’m allowed both him and Eliot. And Marianne Moore. Lowell and Duncan and Wilbur and Creeley. Shapiro and once upon a time Ginsberg. And Laura Ulewicz and Richard Hazley and Gerald Stern and William Anderson and Jean McLean. And others I’ll think of later. It’s a fine century for poetry.

LISH: Doesn’t that contradict what you were saying before?

GILBERT: I hope not. It’s exactly because I think we are in one of the great centuries for poetry that I feel so strongly. The last fifty years has been a golden age for English poetry. But it’s a constant race against being inundated with proficiency. We are in danger from a glut of mediocrity of an extraordinary high calibre. The problem is to write the poems that matter. Too many poets are concerned with poems as art objects. It’s a clever kind of juggling. It’s beautiful, and very difficult, and even admirable. But it mustn’t usurp the center of poetry. We will never get people like Chaucer or Villon or Dylan Thomas or Baudelaire or Blake or Homer or Sophocles or Shakespeare by making merely beautiful things. We’ll get them only from a poetry that is significantly involved with life. And I don’t mean domestic life. Certainly the poetry must also be technically competent, but the important thing is to exceed this. So many poets now seem to aim at the adequate poem rather than the important one.

LISH: Doesn’t this dearth of important poetry at the moment owe, in part, to the feeling of many poets that life no longer holds significant subjects? What do you, for example, consider significant material?

GILBERT: All the conventional subjects for poetry. Love, death, man, virtue, nature, magnitude, excellence, evil, suffering, courage, morality. What is the good life. What is honor. Who am I.

LISH: But isn’t that just the point? Aren’t the conventional subjects too confused and wearied from a surfeit of examination and the blurring of values?

GILBERT: That’s why poets shirk.

LISH: They try something more manageable?

GILBERT: Not only that, but they don’t have enough experience or involvement to try the other. It’s what I was saying before. Most of the poets are trying to earn a living and support a family. That usually means teaching school. And after a while, it means teaching school comes first. Poetry comes second. You meet very few poets whose lives are devoted primarily to writing poetry. The may love poetry, and respect it; they may be competent, well-trained, well-meaning, good people. But you don’t become a great poet in your spare time. Besides, nice guys seldom write exciting poetry.

LISH: But even if that’s true, doesn’t part of the reluctance to deal with large moral problems come from the complexity of the problems today—obsessed with relativism, wanting to be fair, to be objective? No longer understanding all of anything, especially the major values?

GILBERT: That’s true, but it’s exactly why poetry is crucial now. Poetry and the novel have largely taken over the function of philosophy for us. Philosophy is locked up in epistemology and can’t get out. No philosopher asks any more: What is the good life? What is justice? They deal with technical problems about cognition and even more with a kind of verbal paraphernalia. Poetry seems almost the only device we have for persisting at problems without their being mysteriously transformed into an abstract game. It seems almost our only escape from the blind alley of sophistication where comparative anthropology and psychiatry have led us, seeing that there are so many sides to any question that it is impossible to have convictions. Poetry is almost the only way we can escape from the vicious constipation of moral relativism. Because poetry is the art of prejudice. If prejudice is the inability to discuss a conviction calmly, then poetry is prejudice. Prose is rational and fair. It works out an idea and gives all the evidence. Poetry doesn’t. It doesn’t argue, it demonstrates.

LISH: Then you do see absolutes. That is out of fashion, isn’t it?

GILBERT: I think most good poets see absolutes, but they mistrust themselves because they think they’re not being fair. Well, poetry isn’t fair. Poetry, at it’s best, doesn’t try to be fair. Poetry is one-sided, and being one-sided, it can say what truth is. As the art of prejudice, poetry eludes the modern situation where everything seems true and nothing seems to matter very much. The poet has a way of thinking that, peculiarly, breaks through the ambush of qualification and gets to the other side where you so often can see the truth all along but can’t find your way through the jungle of intellectual ceremony.

LISH: Somehow this seems a lot like the attitude of the Beat poets.

GILBERT: Well, it is true that one of the reasons the Beat Movement got so much attention (outside of their gift for publicity) was that their intellectual crudity helped them to break through the impasse of sophistication and establish some contact with subjects that mattered in a real world. Just as the Italian Renaissance was possible partly because the people in Florence were provincial. It could never have happened in Byzantium.

LISH: You say the beats were intellectually crude.

GILBERT: Yes, but that doesn’t mean dumb. Let me make it clear that I’m not attacking them. It’s pointless for people to keep kicking them now when the whole thing is in such disrepute. Five years ago, people in the universities hated the movement but were secretly fascinated. Now they are genuinely contemptuous and indifferent. It is useless to attack it or defend it now on doctrinaire grounds. It’s more important to evaluate it; not only fairly, but with knowledge. It was the most important literary movement of a quarter century in America. Why did all that talent and opportunity come to so little?

LISH: Why, then?

GILBERT: Mostly because of inadequate character and the repudiation of intelligence. Most of the poets in the movement are incapable of maturity. Any examination of the work of, say, Ginsberg and Corso (and Kerouac in prose) show a failure to grow. In fact, they are dedicated to the opposite. They apotheosize all the infantile qualities: impulsiveness, resentment of discipline, incapacity for self-discipline, short attention span with a consequent preoccupation with the moment, mistrust of authority and order, egocentricity, and all the rest. At first this gave their work the freshness and energy that’s usual when gifted children start out in any field: poetry, tennis, science, music, chess, whatever. But it also has a similar tendency to come to nothing. To predictably pass through a stage of exaggeration and a kind of hysteria, followed by bitterness, and finally a withered passivity. They are like those insects that get arrested at the larvae stage. I forget their name. They have all the parts, but they just don’t continue. If you want a case in point, read the interviews involving Ginsberg and Corso and Burroughs in the Journal for the Protection of All Beings. It’s sad and rather frightening to see people of such native talent ending up in such juvenility. And it’s not just in that one example. Almost anything they do now shows it. Look at Ginsberg’s piece in Pa’lante where he’s approaching middle age lost in a hopeless confusion of the most elementary philosophical problems.

LISH: And you say this failure of character goes along with the repudiation of intelligence?

GILBERT: Yes, in favor of some kind of intuition. I think intelligence has produced almost everything that is noble in man. Of course, when I say intelligence, I don’t mean just syllogistic logic. I mean the total capacity for perception and understanding available to man. Logic, intuition, gestalt, common sense, empathy, and all the rest. They want to rely on primitive, clumsy impulsiveness alone. Anyone who has lived where intelligence has been replaced by intuition (such as Apulia or Mexico or India) knows how quickly life becomes diminished to something close to the animal. These people feel more at ease in those conditions. They evade the complexity life really has; and they can escape awareness of themselves into sensation. When you realize how little these people like being themselves, you begin to understand why they want to escape consciousness.

LISH: But I thought the idea was to arrive at a greater awareness of the self. And to be more open to love.

GILBERT: They talk a lot about love, but they experience almost none. Neither for people nor the world. Their natural condition is unhappiness. And because they have so little genuine appetite for the world, they go in constant fear of boredom. That’s why they are quiet so little. After all, there is something radically wrong when you have to go to always more violent and stranger devices to get a response. A man who delights in the world isn’t so dependent on drugs and alcohol and novelty. And the sad thing is that even so they manage to squeeze our always less response. If you’ve been to any of their parties, you must have noticed how much it was like an hysterical woman straining for an orgasm synthetically. And the poetry is the same. Almost none of it stands up under rereading. In the first place, it all ends up sounding curiously anonymous. And in the second place, despite the cult of energy, all that violence of language and image seems curiously slack after six months. The poems just don’t wear well.

LISH: None of it?

GILBERT: Certainly some remains. Parts of Howl and Kaddish, for example. And besides, it depends on who you mean when you refer to the Beat Movement. It’s as Procrustean a word as academic. I certainly am not talking about Creeley or Duncan or Olson. And I think Whalen and Snyder will produce important poetry. But for the rest, if you travel around America, you find the reputations of five years ago washed up like great dying whales. And beginning to stink.

LISH: There’s that figure whales. Whales and elephants and Alcibiades. What precisely do you mean by whales?

GILBERT: You know without my telling you that no poet means precisely anything. It’s not a one-to-one relation. That’s allegory. It means a lot of things. For one, it’s the impossibly literal world. And it’s what you can’t reduce to the human scale. For me, trying to think about a whale, that endlessness down in that infinity of depth, in darkness, moving around—with a mind inside it…

LISH: Doing things.

GILBERT: Yes, and silent. I can’t make any adjustment to it. Like Lawrence said: “I said to my heart, who are these? / And my heart couldn’t own them.” He was talking about fish. And he says someplace else in the poem: “There are limits / To you my heart; / And to the one God / Fish are beyond me.” Whales in this sense, the sudden sense of the alien nature of the universe not translatable into human terms. But what particularly interests me is the sense of magnitude. It’s out of scale, and not just physically. It threatens my life, the formulations on which I operate. I have to redo my mind. There’s a poem by Rilke where he goes along describing a statue. All of a sudden, for no reason, he breaks off and says: You must change your life. When I think about whales, it’s the same in a way. Or elephants or love.

LISH: Or Alcibiades, evidently.

GILBERT: Or Alcibiades. He was the Golden Boy of 4th century Athenian culture. Pericles was his guardian, Plato his teacher. A fine athlete, a brilliant general, handsome, marvelously intelligent, popular, everything. A summation of the Golden Age. And what happened? He went bad. He was vain, treacherous, selfish, sacrilegious, debauched, dishonest, and a traitor twice over. His aid to the enemy during the Syracuse campaign destroyed Athens. Just about the finest product of the most notable civilization man has accomplished, and it turned out like that. This haunts me like the whales. Like the irrational East haunted the Greeks. Like the irrational still frightens the French. It is so much the problem today. It is so often our most endowed people who go wrong—become corrupt, sexually distorted, criminal, mad. I don’t mean just because of irrationality, or course. You might just as well call it Evil as it has been so often called to simplify things. But whatever the name, it is clear that Cordelia has little relevance for us except as a lost Eden. What concerns our time is Goneril. That’s why insanity, homosexuality, and semi-criminality are so common among poets. These prevent him from escaping into the obliviousness of normal life. Especially in modern times, the poet often has a built-in inability to succeed, so he is forced to associate with whales.

LISH: And you intend to continue to live with them by choice?

GILBERT: Well, I’m not crazy, queer, or crooked (Ai! Is there any group I haven’t offended?)…anyhow, I don’t know about it being by choice. Certainly after this interview I’m not likely to be tempted by either the universities or the foundations. It’s a choice in that I prefer whales and love and the rest; but then Heraclides said a man’s fate is his character. In any case, I intend to go on wandering around having my life and watching for whales—willingly. And with delight.

LISH: One final thing. Before the Yale printing of Views of Jeopardy, you were almost completely unpublished and unknown, weren’t you?

GILBERT: Before sending the manuscript to Yale, I had submitted poems to editors only twice in the twenty years I’d been writing poetry.

LISH: And now you have been nominated for next year’s Pulitzer Prize competition.

GILBERT: That’s true. And it makes me happy in a shamelessly uncomplicated way. To be nominated, I mean. I’m thinking of writing a poem, though, called “How It Feels to Be Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize Competition the Season Robert Frost Published His First Book in Fifteen Years.”


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6 Responses to Jack Gilbert, interviewed by Gordon Lish, 1962 (from Issue One of Genesis West)

  1. Pingback: Gordon Lish’s interview with Jack Gilbert @ Unsaid Magazine » Numéro Cinq

  2. Pingback: The Pantograph Punch — Internet Histories | 10 December

  3. Pingback: Jack Gilbert, poet (1925-2012) | Sombrero Books

  4. At last.Now maybe we can stop calling a cult poet. I knew Jack when he was in love with my sister in law, Gianna Gelmetti, in Perugia in 1960. We kept up an abundant correspondence for many years after. A unique poet, a unique person. Cleveland Moffett

  5. Pingback: Jack Gilbert, o el Walden urbano, sobre qué es lo importante en la vida

  6. Pingback: Om vores sande natur, bevæggrunde og at lede efter hvaler. /On our true nature, motives and watching for whales. | Charlotte Luxhoej.com

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