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Editorial: Jack Gilbert’s gift

Life, love and death. It is from these facts of existence Jack Gilbert carved what many in the literary establishment consider among the most important and original poetry of the 21st century by an American.

Gilbert died this month at age 87 in Berkeley, Calif., after developing pneumonia while suffering advanced dementia. He had lived a nomadic and at times spectral existence during his literary career and had lived and worked for years at a time in Northampton.

For this reason we take note of a passing of great poet who walked our streets, after coming to a city and place where he continued to create art that mattered.

Gilbert, Northampton’s poet laureate from 2005 to 2007 and a former writer in residence at Smith College, leaves a small, yet highly regarded oeuvre of poetry. In it, as the New York Times put it last week, Gilbert “spoke and wrote with enthusiasm about life in the world, without failing to acknowledge its terrors and miseries.”

While Gilbert saw success relatively early in his career, he was neither interested nor impressed with fame or popularity. His first collection of poetry, “Views of Jeopardy,” put him on the map in a big way when it was published after winning the 1962 Yale Younger Poets Prize and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. After a brief romance with fame, Gilbert parted ways with the literary establishment. He moved overseas, living mainly in the Greek islands while traveling to several other countries. It would be 20 years before his next collection, “Monolithos,” appeared, and was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Other critically acclaimed works would follow, infrequently, and sometimes after more than a decade.

At one point, his first two books fell out of print. Poet and longtime friend Bill Mayer told the Los Angeles Times last week that “it’s fair to say that Jack was America’s greatest living poet. He was unique in that he was not part of any [literary] school or group. He went his own way, and he lived pretty much for his life and his art.”

Because Gilbert lived for his art and cared little for fame, he became a poet’s poet — a man whose first jobs were as a steelworker and exterminator in his native city of Pittsburgh, Pa.

His poetry is also known for its ability to connect with wide audiences, perhaps a testament to Gilbert’s understanding of the human condition. Like Ernest Hemingway, who once answered that he was “getting the words right” when asked why he rewrote the final page to “A Farewell to Arms” 39 times, Gilbert also expressed a seriousness of purpose on the clarity of his writing.

In an extensive interview with Poetry Daily in 2003, some of which took place at the Northampton home of his friend and poet Henry Lyman, Gilbert remarked, “I love to write poetry, and I love to get it right.”

As news of Gilbert’s death traveled the literary world, Lyman told the Gazette his friend considered life to be “a gift from the universe, to be cherished and lived as intensely as possible.”

In an impatient age, it is remarkable we have as much of Gilbert’s fine work as we do.

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