One of my favorite poets, Jack Gilbert, died recently. In a cruel twist of what he likely would see as poetic irony, he died of Alzheimer's, a cruel, slow erasure for a man whose genius and soul was composed of words. Luckily, in 2009, Knopf published his "Collected Poems, which gathered his five original collections (some of which were out of print), plus some new work, so at least his extraordinary voice would not be lost to the world. Gilbert's work had magnitude, and I am grateful for the gift of it to the world.
If you're unfamiliar with his work, please go get a copy of "Refusing Heaven," which is a good place to start and was the Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. It's out in paperback so is very affordable.
This poem, one of my all time favorites, says it all.
A Brief For The Defense
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 morning 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 cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.