Poetry exists to embody the harsh wonder of existence, the improbability of consciousness. It honors mortality, measures the precise gravity of joy, returns us to the infantile delight of our first words, so happy to discover that "tree" means we hold in our mouths that huge, fragrant, shushing thing under which we love to play. Because it strives to say the unsayable, poetry can give pleasure and solace at once, easing the ache of our essential solitude by welcoming it.
No living American poet takes the job more seriously or joyfully than Jack Gilbert. In the 47 years since Views of Jeopardy won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, Gilbert has published four additional collections. The Dance Most of All extends and deepens his decades-long exploration of characteristic themes and subject matter: the nobility of love, sexual desire and grief; his years of chosen poverty in Greece and elsewhere; the Depression-era Pittsburgh childhood; the wonder of performing the simple tasks that keep us going. Almost entirely free of metaphors, the poems rely on direct statement, suppress the use of "I," and never succumb to nostalgia or sentimentality.
As one poem, The Mistake, puts the matter: "It is worth having the heart broken,/a blessing to hurt for eighteen years/because a woman is dead."
For all the sorrow and longing in these poems, they possess a buoyancy that recalls — despite considerable differences in tone and diction — the uncanny giddiness in the work of Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost at his least domesticated. Though Gilbert has won most of the prizes available to an American poet, his work has always made clear that such accolades finally don't mean much. Far better to make poems worthy of the great ones, poems that never tire of rendering the truth that "We touch finally only a little./Like the shy tongue that comes fleetingly/in the dark. The acute little that is there."
John Repp is a poet and fiction writer.