Jack Gilbert Then and Here and Here and Later

A few years back, when I was more involved on the programming side of the Fall for the Book Festival, I helped to bring poet Jack Gilbert to speak at George Mason University — certainly one of my most memorable evenings at the festival.

nbcagilbertHow I came about bringing Gilbert to Mason is a story in itself. In March 2005, I attended a poetry reading at the Folger Theatre in D.C. — one that was sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and that featured Gilbert, Maxine Kumin, Gary Snyder, and Irving Feldman. As anyone knows who has seen Gilbert read recently, he seems frail at the podium, he sometimes struggles with reading his own work, he’ll stop mid-poem and start over from the beginning to try to keep his way. And yet, throughout it all, he’s completely mesmerizing. A hush falls over the audience, as a group not just respectful but almost reverent, careful not to miss a word. After the reading at the Folger, four lines were set up, one for each author, and while the three other poets — masters of the form — chatted with a few fans, the line for Gilbert’s signing stretched long throughout the crowd. The copies of his latest collection at that time, Refusing Heaven, got snatched up quickly, and I missed the opportunity to buy a copy of the book by this poet whom I’ve never read or even heard of but who’d quickly left me in awe.

Turns out, however, that I had indeed read his work, just recently in fact. I just didn’t know it was his.

While the crowds waited, I ended up chatting at length with one of the women hosting the event — another person I didn’t know but should have: Alice Quinn, then poetry editor of The New Yorker. (We ended up in such a long discussion that afterwards several people assumed we were old friends — several poets, I should add, who would surely have made better use than I did of 10 minutes with The New Yorker. Really, I don’t know how I stumble into things.) Quinn, long a champion of Gilbert’s I would learn, clued me in about his career, his importance as a poet, and the fact that she’d recently published some of the poems from the new collection, including a short one that I’d read the previous fall and that had hung with me long after I’d put aside that issue. “That was him?” I asked. “Oh, I really liked that one” — revealing some core ignorance, I’m sure, with each word from my lips.  

I started to reprint that poem here, but then found an audio clip of Gilbert reading it. Please do check out “By Small and Small: Midnight to 4 a.m.” 

A few weeks later, during a planning session for Fall for the Book, we were talking about poets and I explained how enamored I’d become of Gilbert and, with the go-ahead from our director, Bill Miller, I emailed my new friend, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, and got the contact information for one of the greatest poets working today (one I’d only recently even heard of) and asked him if he’d like to come to Fairfax and read a little from his new book. 

Sometimes, stumbling blindly works, it seems.

Interestingly, when the festival itself arrived, we were all as unprepared and unaware as I had been. We’d assigned Gilbert to a small meeting room, but the number of people who showed up for his reading would have overflowed the space about four times over. We relocated him quickly to a large ballroom, and needless to say, he commanded the venue quite well: charming, witty, challenging, and unforgettable.

coverRecently, new works by Gilbert have been showing up in various spots. The latest issue of The New Yorker features the poem “Waiting and Finding.” In late February, Granta published two of Gilbert’s poems — “Meanwhile” and “The New Bride Almost Visible In Latin” — to kick off a new series focussed on contemporary American poets. And next month brings the publication of a new collection, The Dance Most of All. Add that one to your Amazon cart now.

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