Poet Jack Gilbert passed away on November 13, 2012, and with it came a host of literary obituaries and stories about the poet’s life. In the techno-crazed quick twitch of 2012, Jack’s passing made it all the more clear: it’s okay to be an old school writer; there are even benefits to doing so.
Let’s delve into this piece from the The Sydney Morning Herald:
Gilbert was a peculiar figure in the contemporary poetry world in the sense that he wasn’t exactly in it. A restless man who travelled a great deal, lived frugally and occasionally lectured or taught to support himself
Wasn’t exactly in it. Today, many poets find themselves pressured to be fully “in it.” We may think otherwise, but American poets are a fairly small group. Being “all in” increases the likelihood of knowing someone who knows someone who blurbs your book or gets your foot in the old creaky door of a contemporary poetry publisher. Part of being a poet is getting published, right? And there certainly seems to be a correlation between publishing and connections. This is nothing new to poetry of course, but thanks to social media “connecting” can feel like it never shuts down. All of a sudden trying to connect can sap hours each day away from a writer who should be/could be focusing on their craft.
…travelled a great deal. Throughout history, writing masters of all genres have talked about the benefits to travel. Traveling is easier than ever these days, but with jobs that tie us down, shortening attention spans and the ability to “see” even the most remote places while holding a remote in hand… it feels as though the longing or appreciation of true rooted travel hasn’t yet matched the ease with which we now can.
…live frugally and occasionally lectured or taught to support himself. Again, many graduating MFA poets are becoming truck drivers, police officers, bankers, teachers, etc. These jobs can certainly add to the body of a poet’s work and, indeed, have. But I’ve also met countless would-be poets who got so caught up in the 10-hour workdays that years passed and then a few more and then more still. There are fiercely talented poets who are in their fifties and have yet to pen the book that’s long been blossoming inside them. The sad part is they likely never will. Jack’s life in a way reflects the “eat to live, don’t live to eat” mentality. He worked to live rather than lived to work, in part because living including poetry and everything necessary to foster it.
The article goes on to say:
Famous for eschewing fame, he did not go to writers’ conferences or cocktail parties, gave readings sporadically and did not publish a great deal, either.
This too is “different.” Many writers today, as alluded to above, are encouraged to “get out there and sell themselves” in order to network and make the connections that could shape their career. And the publishing industry, thanks to the simultaneously rise of self-publishing and e-Books, has poets publishing their own work at perhaps greater speeds than ever before. This isn’t to point out only the negatives, there are plenty of benefits of this, but it’s worth noting that even in the go culture of today, there are alternatives and in those alternatives there are important lessons that even us modern poets can learn from a poet like Jack Gilbert.