Illustration of the moon behind a row of trees.

Last week I learned about the great American poet Jack Gilbert and his celebrated poem A Brief for the Defense.

I’ve since learned how well-known it is and for good reason.

From his obituary in The Guardian: “Gilbert wrote compellingly about passion, loss and loneliness. His poems are filled with a sense of wonder at existence and with his surprise at finding happiness – despite grief, struggle and alienation – in a life spent in luminous understanding of his own blessings and shortcomings. His work is both a rebellious assertion of clarity and a profound affirmation of the world in all its aspects. His celebrated poem A Brief for the Defense, which opens Refusing Heaven, is Gilbert’s post-9/11 carpe diem:”

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants. 
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not 
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women 
at the fountain are laughing together between 
the suffering they have known and the awfulness 
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody 
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta, 
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
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. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Hearing this poem made me want to check out more of his work and I picked up The Great Fires.

I’m only part of the way through it but I have a favorite so far; it’s called Tear It Down:

We find out the heart only by dismantling what 
the heart knows. By redefining the morning, 
we find a morning that comes just after darkness. 
We can break through marriage into marriage. 
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond 
affection and wade mouth-deep into love. 
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars. 
But going back toward childhood will not help. 
The village is not better than Pittsburgh. 
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh. 
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound 
of racoon tongues licking the inside walls 
of the garbage tub is more than the stir 
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not 
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever. 
We should insist while there is still time. We must 
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already 
in our bed to reach the body within the body.

Poetry is still an enigma to me, but I always enjoy the time spent reading poems. I might read ninety-nine poems that do nothing for me but that single one that does makes it all worthwhile.

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