May 3


Transgressions: Selected Poems by Jack Gilbert
Bloodaxe Books, £9.95

Review by Luke Kennard

Gilbert is one of those beautiful curmudgeonly American recluses who has published four books in fifty years. He’s written great lines like, “The horse wades in the city of grammar.” and

…how frightening it must have been before things had names.
We say peony and make a flower out of that slow writhing.

(From ‘They Call it Attempted Suicide’)

This is the first time Gilbert’s work has been available in this country – or, at least, it would be if all of us didn’t buy our books on import from Amazon anyway. Let’s put it another way: this is the first time Gilbert’s work has been available in Waterstones.

The Waterstones where I grew up used to stock a whole shelf-load of Charles Bukowski’s Black Sparrow Press titles. This was odd because it wasn’t a big poetry section by any means – in fact apart from thirty plus large-format 200-pagers of Bukowski’s unedited, self-published, seemingly endless poems about drinking and masturbating, all they had was the collected Pam Ayres, "The Nations Favourite Love Poems" and then BANG! you were in Theatre and Criticism. I guess this was in the days of relative autonomy and the store manager was a big Chuck fan. I don’t recall a single volume ever leaving the premises, but the edges were all smudged black with casual thumbing.

Gilbert_jack Jack Gilbert is described as “defiantly unfashionable” – this isn’t just a blurb platitude: it’s a fact about Gilbert’s image. But it’s a troubling fact: see, the thing is it’s always been fashionable to be defiant. And in Gilbert’s case it’s doubly troubling: we are to believe he is unfashionable although he has won two of the hippest lit awards in the States, the Yale Younger Poets Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Whoa there, blurby! Really unfashionable is some guy who eats dogfood and publishes his poems on paper aeroplanes.

Gilbert makes a lot of direct references to ancient mythology (which usually sets my teeth on edge, but here not so much) and has that big John-Fante-Chuck-Bukowski style arrogance – never wholly unattractive – a kind of ‘I’m a godamn writer’ swagger. So exactly who Gilbert is defying probably depends on who you think of as fashionable – and whether you think of “fashionable” as a slur. Maybe he’s anti-academic. But not anti-Yale. (Which is about as academic as they come.) Maybe he’s anti-post-avant. Is post-avant fashionable? I don’t even know who I am anymore. [Sobs.]

What I think the blurb means here is that Gilbert is “defiantly unfashionable” as far as the avant-garde are concerned (or so the blurb conjectures) – and the avant-garde, as any fule kno, define themselves by being defiantly unfashionable (“fashionable”, as they see it, meaning prize-winning, university-lecturing, magazine-publishing poets with nice hair). “Defiance” is the watchword, kids. Naturally, there is nothing less fashionable than wanting to appear fashionable. So if anything, Gilbert is defiantly fashionable. All of this shows, I think, the rhetorical force of Ron Silliman’s “School of Quietude” carping. It’s not going to sell any books on either side, but it sure fuels a lot of anger, bitterness and boredom. Anyway, fuck politics (which in poetry world just means sour grapes or wounded defence of your greenhouse – and probably couldn’t be further from the mind of a poet who has lived as rich and full a life as Gilbert. Did he piss away every evening posting bitchy messages on discussion forums? Hell no! He was getting drunk and married and cheap properties on Greek islands! If ever a better case against the internet has been made it’s this one.)  – let’s dance.

‘In Dispraise of Poetry’ is from the 1962 collection "Views of Jeopardy":

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly meant worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.

Now, I don’t have much patience with the complaints of poets, but the elephant story is wonderful, right? My wheelie bin just blew over. I’ll be back in a second.

Some of Gilbert’s other 1960’s poems are a bit 1960’s:

Two girls barefoot walking in the rain
both girls lovely, one of them is sane.

Yes, those are bongos you can hear – and over there is Ken Kesey feeding your teenage daughter acid. So the 80’s come as a relief:

That’s what I remember most of death:
the gentleness of us in that bare Greek Eden,
the beauty as the marriage steadily failed.

Sometimes all you have to do is mention stuff:

Monolithos was four fisherman huts along the water,
a miniature villa closed for years, and our farmhouse
a hundred feet behind. Hot fields of barley, grapes,
and tomatoes stretching away three flat miles
to where the rest of the island used to be.

Gilbert_transgressions The unusual “hot fields” acts as a kind of oven here, cooking up the images that follow it. Actually, that sounds silly. Never mind. The whole of Gilbert’s second collection "Monolithos" is full of this kind of understated, well-chosen description – so that his reflections in ‘Trying to be Married’ are genuinely touching; on witnessing his wife in the moonlight: “How fine she is. How hard we struggle.” At its best, Gilbert’s imagery is subtle, unsentimental and hard-won. “They were cutting the spring barley by fistfulls / when we came…” that sort of thing. And I love “…our hearts in their marvellous cases…” And even the shimmer of Beat poet arrogance doesn’t completely ruin the following:

Apollo walks through the deep roads back in the hills
through sleet to the warm place she is.
Eats her fine cunt and afterward they pretend
to watch the late movie to cover their happiness.

Maybe hating classical reference in contemporary poetry makes me an inverted snob: maybe that’s what I am. It especially gets under my skin when combined with a self-consciously demotic register. It started and finished with Eliot. End of story. But just when I’m cursing Gilbert for getting the ludicrous “fine cunt” stuck in my head (being sung in madenning falsetto by a man with a twisty moustache and a trilby) I’m utterly stunned by something like ‘The Cucumbers of Praxilla of Sicyon’:

What is the best we leave behind?
Certainly love and form and ourselves.
Surely those. But it is the mornings
that are hard to relinquish, and music
and cucumbers. Rain on trees, empty
piazzas in small towns flooded with sun.
What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.

Woo! Yeah! That confidence, that Giant-of-American-Literature vibe is totally persuasive here – just like it is with Raymond Carver’s verse. My favourite of Gilbert’s 80’s poems is a tiny little thing called ‘Games’ which perfectly mixes the playful and the furious:

Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.

That one is going in my teaching scrap-book – which is more or less the highest accolade I can give. In Gilbert’s 90’s collection, "The Great Fires", this plain-spoken wisdom is combined with a eulogistic sensibility – following the sudden death of his wife, Michiko. These are poems rich with the sweetest correlations:

The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.

Bam! There are plenty of hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments in "The Great Fires". It’s great, isn’t it, when poetry is as good as a film or a novel or some music: when it gets over its inferiority complex and isn’t just poetry about films, novels and music; when it’s actually just good poetry? Of course it is: that was a rhetorical question.

Remembering his Chinese friend
whose brother gave her a jade ring from
the Han Dynasty when she turned eighteen.
Two weeks later, when she was hurrying up
the steps of a Hong Kong bridge, she fell,
and the thousand-year-old ring shattered
on the concrete. When she told him, stunned
and tears running down her face, he said,
‘Don’t cry. I’ll get you something better.’

It’s really hard to make happiness readable or interesting. Even despite the fact that we’re probably too squeamish about money in this country to understand the Chinese attitude to gifts, the above poem is gorgeous, somehow poignant and uplifting. Gilbert achieves joy in the face of agony and personal tragedy. At one point he writes about the abbot of a monastery giving him syrup-water and cake as a kind of treat – but Gilbert can barely stand it: it is far too sugary. Gilbert observes that this is a simple misunderstanding of pleasure due to inexperience; the idea that joy is born of undilluted, uncontrasted sweetness. I’m not going to quote from that poem directly as I really like the way the central image has stayed with me. The only exception to this superb writing is the collection’s title poem, ‘The Great Fires’.  Maybe I have no soul, but lines like this:

Love is apart from all things.
Desire and excitement are nothing beside it.
It is not the body that finds love.
What leads us there is the body.
What is not love provokes it.
What is not love quenches it.

make me want to bring up Coldplay or Keane. Read it again: can you hear the one-finger piano line, jangly guitars and soupy production in the background? Part of Gilbert must be aware that this is the syrup-water of poetry. If he wanted to seduce me, he’d better start waxing lyrical about the arches of my feet and avoid telling me what love is altogether. It’s moments like these where the Giant of American Letters strut starts to feel obtrusively like a strut. Still, it’s only the occasional passage that feels emptily ponderous to this sarcastic smart-arse. And Gilbert is wise; probably wise enough to reject being called wise; his wisdom shines out of every other poem. Soon the seer is back with his concrete specifics:

     …A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.

That’s better, right? And you have to love the simple Walden-of-the-90’s feel to ‘The Edge of the World’:

I light the lamp and look at my watch.
Four-thirty. Tap out my shoes
because of the scorpions, and go out
into the field. Such a sweet night.
No moon, but urgent stars. Go back inside
and make hot chocolate on my butane burner.
I search around with the radio through
the skirl of the Levant. ‘Tea for Two’
in German. Finally Cleveland playing
the Rams in the rain. It makes me feel
acutely here and everybody somewhere else.

He’s not trying to do any more than evoke the simple pleasures of solitude – and it works. Another good decade, then. "Transgressions" concludes with a set of poems selected from Gilbert’s most recent collection, "Refusing Heaven" (2005). The sheer force of these poems is breath-taking. As you can probably tell, he’s not a poet afraid of drawing grand conclusions from the mistakes and the baffling detritus of everyday life:

      …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.

There is a powerful sense of weighing-up to these last poems. The writer reflecting on his life and his craft. And I guess Gilbert is famous enough to get away with name-dropping:

Ginbserg came to my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets it right even that much.

(From ‘The Lost Hotels of Paris’)

‘What I’ve Got’ depicts the poet crawling around his house, completely isolated and suffering some severe and debilitating fever.

No telephone and nobody going by out there in the field
I could call to. And God knows what I had. Realised
I was on all fours again. Interesting, something said
as I dragged myself onto the bed. Interesting?
another part said. Interesting! For Christ’s sake!

It’s odd – the poets who make it across the Atlantic and those who don’t. Why do we insist on the loveless, lowest-common-denominator brutality of Bukowski and his imitators? Why do we sell him to our students on the flimsy pretext that poetry doesn’t have to be about flowers and clouds? We could have it so much better. Jack Gilbert deserves to be more of a household name in this country – and this selected should go some way towards addressing that.

© Luke Kennard, 2007



May 8


I just came across an interview with John Ashbery at the New York Times.... it's from two or three months back but it's worth looking at. You can see it by clicking here but I've saved you all that effort by cutting and pasting the thing down below. They used to say I was inconsiderate and uncaring, but all that's changing. Albeit slowly.

Your new collection of poems, “A Worldly Country,” reminds us of the demanding nature of your work and your resistance to personal confession. Do you think Americans are too enamored of their own life stories?

Yes, I do. In my case, it is things that I don’t know yet that most interest me. My own autobiography is so uninteresting to me I have always thought it surely wouldn’t interest anyone else.

Ashbery As one of America’s most celebrated poets, you can’t really find your own life boring?

I thought other people would find it boring. My mother was always telling me not to talk about myself or put myself forward. That’s where I got this idea. Whenever I went to visit a friend, she would say, “Don’t wear out your welcome.” I always worried about this throughout life: is my welcome wearing out at this particular moment?

Which hasn’t kept you from publishing a very large quantity of poems, more than 20 collections in all?

If I wrote much more, would anybody read it? Does anybody read it now? There can be such a thing as too much poetry, and I try not to write it.

That’s very considerate of you, and I assume there are at least a few hundred of your own poems that you have chosen not to publish.?

Well, that’s what everyone is talking about with Elizabeth Bishop.

You’re referring to the controversy that erupted last year when her leftover poems and rough drafts suddenly appeared in a book of their own, a generation after her death. Various critics argued that she should have destroyed them since she didn’t want them published?

I think she just hadn’t made up her mind. Some writing you don’t like that much at the time you write it, but you don’t want to destroy it either, because maybe someone will come along sometime and find it more interesting than you think it is.

Are you saying you won’t mind if all your scribbles and random jottings are brought out in a book after your death?

No, I won’t mind. I think it will be understood that I didn’t publish them myself if they are published posthumously.

Your name is practically synonymous with bohemia’s last flourish in New York in the ’50s, and I am wondering if you feel much nostalgia for those years.

I left the country in 1955 and stayed away for 10 years, in France. So I missed out on a very crucial period. I am still trying to piece together things that happened while I was gone, like the Everly Brothers, for instance.

Of all the main members of the so-called New York School of poetry — Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch and Barbara Guest — you’re the only one who is still alive. Do you think of them often?

I do. I had a dream not long ago about James Schuyler, who seemed to be kind of nudging me to see if I had finished writing the introduction to a reissue of his selected poems, which is coming out soon, actually.

In the past few years, poetry sales have reportedly been climbing, perhaps because a poem appeals to shortened attention spans.

That’s true. It doesn’t take so long to read a poem, and if you need a quick fix or consolation, you can get it.

Where do you turn for consolation?

Probably to a movie, something with Barbara Stanwyck.

Although you have won dozens of awards and accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur grant, you have never been asked to serve as poet laureate of the U.S. Is that a snub?

I really don’t think I’m poet-laureate material.

It’s not something you would like to do?

I don’t think so. To be poet laureate you have to have a program for spreading the word of poetry. I’m just willing to let it spread by itself.



May 12


Two quite unrelated things……

First, my good mate Nigel Pickard back in Nottingham has finally lost all sense of reality and decided to start, in partnership with poet Rosie Garner, a poetry magazine called FIN. I think it’s not going to be on the infoweb but on good old-fashioned paper. The address is Rosie Garner and Nigel Pickard, FIN, PO Box 9207, Nottingham NG14 7WP, and I quote:

It needs bloody good poetry and subs at £12 for 4 issues. Cheques made payable to FIN. First issue so far includes poems by Mark Halliday, Hugo Williams, Sheenagh Pugh; oh, and hopefully someone called Stannard. Out September.

And when they say “bloody good” they mean it.


Second, my son (I have more than one, but this is the one called Tim) Tim has a website here, but if you click here instead you will go directly to a remarkable piece of honesty posted there by his girlfriend and partner of quite a few years now (how many? I have no idea but quite a few) Charlotte. I’ve known Charlotte quite a long time, but didn’t really know most of this, I’d just seen some of the outward manifestations of her problems.

I’ve also lived with someone who had a severe but different kind of mental illness, and I’ve never been able to find the words to describe what life at that time was like – for me, I mean. For her, I know that life could be … well, beyond words, I think. Fucking horrible.

Think yourself lucky if even being in the same house as someone suffering like that has passed you by. But also, if this had to happen, which perhaps it did, think yourself lucky if you have had to deal with someone you love suffering like that, because (unless you’re a total idiot) you will learn something about what matters in this life, and what doesn’t.

Whatev. I think Charlotte’s thing is worth reading.



May 16


The explained person
Deep blue ice
Having taken advantage
Good and bad
A Ling
Certain ailments
Overheard speech
Platitude Junction
Evian and Celia
The distant waters
A good sex life
The concrete folly
What mice think
Bleach explained
The wonderful country
What words (can) do
Natalie and Jessica
Japanese as a 2nd language
A haircut because it’s hot
Rapid heartbeat
I wish you were
Sunset radio
Tips and Hints
Parking violation
Shambling delight
College English
Nobody will
My new number
Understand what this
Matches are made of wood
Is about
Choiceness raw material
Love this
Back to your home
Solitude explained
Nana Yimi Jiano
Hair wax museum
Bicycle adventures
Our experiences
Cult fish
What my Dad wrote

Separate flush nuts and impress temperature grids. Remove all large or discoloured leaves. Mark growth points with inedible pencil or waterproof masker. Align all outlet valves and fluent lines. Encompass all living beings within realm of spiritual endeavour. Place shadow lines on window still at twilight. Increase number of warning fires as the year progresses until growing area is encircled by internal flame.


No explain, Kemo Sabe



May 22


My American pen-pal Crystal has been complaining to me of late about online poetry discussion forums. Crystal is a poet with a healthy interest in picking fights with people, but she also has a very low boredom threshold. She told me once that when she has sex she expects the man, whoever he may be, to

Oh, I’m digressing already. Anyway, she’s been complaining to me about poetry forums. Apparently something called “ameripoet” (I think that is its name; I could be wrong; I could even have dreamed it) is one of the busiest American-based forums, but Crystal says that nobody there has talked about poems for a month and a half. But she says it’s pretty good if you want to know about who has books coming out when, and readings and book launches, or if you need to get laid in the Chicago metropolitan area. Which Crystal doesn’t; she’s done Chicago. Crystal also says that on another site she got into an argument with a self-opinionated poetry professor from one of the leading colleges in the top left-hand corner of North Dakota; the argument started out by being about whether capital letters should be at the beginning of lines or the end, and wound up being about hair, and whether poets should care or not about how they look. (Answer: They should, but they don’t.)

I don’t know much about poetry forums here in the UK. I’m technically a member of a couple, but my contributions to them, and my interest in them, dried up a long time ago. It was like being in a club I’d joined by mistake. Sometimes there would be one member of the club who was talking all the time and nobody was getting a word in edge ways; other times everyone was talking at once but not about anything that had much to do with my interests, which are primarily poetry about model aircraft, the history of mittens, and how to avoid stomach problems when travelling in Asia. Also they were not listening to each other. And though this club boasted lots of members there only ever seemed to be the same little handful there whenever I showed up. It reminded me of the Methodist Church my parents dragged me to when I was a kid: that boasted hundreds of members too, but where were they? Never in church, that’s for sure.

To tell you the truth (for a change) when I get together in real life with my mates who are also poets we don’t seem to talk about things like line-breaks, or whatever happened to the semi-colon we used to love so much, or how much a sestina is worth these days; we seem more often to have a few beers and complain about the lack of parking in the city centre, or the price of underwear in Marks & Spencer. Oh, we usually slag off a few poets just for the sake of it; if you’re going to have some beers you want to have fun, too. On special occasions we do have get-togethers where we talk about poems – kind of like a workshop in a pub,  but with people you actually like; but not often: special occasions are rare when you get to our age. None of us will ever see 25 again.

Anyway, is being online real life? Sometimes I’m troubled by myself. Am I ungenerous? Too smug but with nothing to be smug about? Do I think I have nothing left to learn? Do I need help? Do we? Do plumbers, for example, have online discussion forums about plumbing, but then rarely discuss actual plumbing? When they meet their plumber pals do they sit around talking about copper piping and washers? (Actually yes they do (my uncle the plumber (who lives next door to a pub) tells me) but pretend the answer is no, just so as I can continue with this.) Are poets lonely people? Do they spend sad hours at the computer sweating over the next great poem, and relieve the tedium by going online and, if not adding their two penn’orth to whatever the latest “thread” is, starting up another one of their own? Does being online, and having what people call a web-life, confirm your existence? Does it convince you you’re actually alive? Does that question, online as it is, and coming as it does from someone who has two websites, take the biscuit, and when the biscuit is gone, also the cake? Crystal says that poets have websites for the same reason people have blogs. Crystal has lots of opinions; you have to admire someone like that. And you also have to admire her underwear and her hats. Especially her hats.

(I’m sorry. There is a big time gap here, about 35 minutes or so. I fell asleep, and dreamed of

[text deleted; kitten inserted Littlekittenfluffy ]

Did you ever see that episode of “Father Ted” where they have a TV advert for a priests’ chat line? If you didn’t, the clip is here …

Maybe they should have a similar thing for poets, but would you call it?

Yeah, so would I.



May 30


I just realised the next post is a few days overdue. I'm sorry. It's been raining and I've been busy. I went to Guangzhou and got sick and it was raining torrential sub-tropical rain and I got wet. Please wait a moment. I am not usually this remiss. The next post will be posted shortly.