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Jack Gilbert, former Northampton poet laureate, dies at 87

  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>Jack Gilbert, Northampton's poet laureate, speaks with Janet Aalfs, left and Doug Anderson, right, before a tribute to him with readings by them and seven other poets Sunday in the A.P.E. Gallery.

    KEVIN GUTTING
    Jack Gilbert, Northampton's poet laureate, speaks with Janet Aalfs, left and Doug Anderson, right, before a tribute to him with readings by them and seven other poets Sunday in the A.P.E. Gallery.

  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>Jack Gilbert, Northampton's poet laureate, speaks with Janet Aalfs, left and Doug Anderson, right, before a tribute to him with readings by them and seven other poets Sunday in the A.P.E. Gallery.

Jack Gilbert, a former Northampton poet laureate who never cared too much for titles or fame, died Tuesday at the age of 87 in a nursing home in Berkeley, Calif. He was in the advanced stages of dementia and died after developing pneumonia.

Gilbert lived for many years in the Pioneer Valley and left his mark on the local arts community, which remembered him Wednesday as a quiet, quizzical man who wrote unconventional poetry, cared nothing for the fame it brought him, and valued living a full life above all else.

“He said it so many times — living was the most important thing to him,” said his longtime friend Henry Lyman, a poet living on Ward Avenue. “Poetry was not his way of life, it was his way of assessing his life and presenting his ideas to people. But seeing the world, falling in love, having relationships, that was most important to him.”

Lyman said his late friend first came to Northampton more than three decades ago because the woman he called his wife, Linda Gregg, lived here. He moved frequently, living in different countries, and returned to live in Amherst from 1992 to 1994. He moved back to Northampton in 1998, and rented a studio apartment from Lyman from 2000 until 2009, when his progressing dementia forced him to seek assisted living housing on the West Coast.

While in Northampton, Gilbert taught at Smith College as a writer-in-residence from 1999 to 2000. He was the city’s poet laureate from 2005 to 2007.

Born Feb. 17, 1925, in Pittsburgh, Gilbert grew up in a poor part of the city, Lyman said, and worked as a steelworker and exterminator. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh in 1954 and a master’s from San Francisco State in 1963.

Gilbert arrived in the Bay Area in the 1950s and attended Jack Spicer’s Magic Poetry Workshop, a seminal experience in his writing life. The poetry of the Beat Generation was in full flower all around him, but Gilbert and his work were no fit. He rebelled, not only against the Beats, but against the avant-garde language experiments and other endeavors in verse that were in vogue at the time. Chiefly, he stood against any poetry that he considered to be ephemeral or inconsequential.

“He wrote in very concrete terms, using what he called ‘real nouns,’ and avoided the abstract,” Lyman said, adding that he almost always wrote about people, places or experiences he had known. “The language he used was tangible and had a great intensity. It brought one down to the here and now and made one live through the experience being described.”

Gilbert’s first collection of poetry, “Views of Jeopardy,” was published as a result of his winning a contest, the 1961 Yale Younger Poets Prize, a prestigious honor that warranted notice in The New York Times. “Jeopardy” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

“He achieved overnight that fame, he was reading to huge audiences and he was in Vogue and Variety magazines, but then he walked away from it,” Lyman said. “He wanted to be living life.”

He moved overseas, living mainly in the Greek islands, and was largely absent from the literary world until the publication of “Monolithos” in 1982 — his first collection since his debut 20 years before and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

A limited-edition chapbook, “Kochan,” appeared in 1984 and was dedicated to another lover, Michiko Nogami. The poems of grief were inspired by Nogami, who had died of cancer at age 36 two years earlier.

He published three more works, “The Great Fires” in 1994, “Refusing Heaven” in 2006 and “The Dance Most of All” in 2009.

In March, Knopf published his “Collected Poems,” gathering his five original collections, along with a selection of uncollected poems, most of them never published before. The last collection spent 30 weeks on the Poetry Foundation’s list of bestselling new poetry books, reaching No. 1 and bringing Gilbert more widespread recognition.

Lyman said Gilbert considered life to be “a gift from the universe, to be cherished and lived as intensely as possible.”

Margaret Lloyd, a Northampton poet who was in a weekly poetry group with him for over 20 years, said his view of life mirrored his take on poetry. “He always challenged us to live a bigger life and write the next big poem,” she recalled. “He said, ‘dare to fail,’ and ‘go big,’ instead of writing the small, tidy poem. He said, ‘Write about the big subjects in your life,’ which is what he did.”

She said by sharing, praising and critiquing work in the group, he inspired her own writing. “He was a good friend and my greatest teacher and mentor,” she said. “This is a huge loss for us.”

Lyman described Gilbert as a quiet, reserved person. “But he could talk at great length about poetry, art, human relationships, love or people’s lives,” Lyman said. “He greatly appreciated humor and the telling of funny stories.”

He added that Gilbert often tried to “peer into people’s minds,” even if he had just been introduced.

“He had a very keen mind, and would ask questions like, ‘If you had three wishes, what would they be?’ or, ‘Are you happy?’ ”

Never married, Gilbert is survived by Gregg, whom he called “the most important person in my life,” and a nephew, Bruce Gilbert, of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this story.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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