At eighty-five, Jack Gilbert has published just his fifth short collection of poems. Once, around 1962, Gilbert seemed poised to become ubiquitous. His first book, Views of Jeopardy, had won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and was published to wide acclaim. He himself looked great: commanding, intense, a little wounded. It was no doubt the best moment in history for a seriously handsome young poet to come onto the scene. He was profiled in Glamour and Vogue. (Robert Lowell, another handsome poet, had been the subject of a story in Life some years before.) Great photographs of poets were taken in those decades: Cartier-Bresson’s images of Lowell, Nancy Crampton’s shots of Anne Sexton, the images of Dylan Thomas’s American tour, the famous group portrait of poets and writers at a reception for Dame Edith and Sir Osbert Sitwell, at the Gotham Book Mart in 1948.
What happened next brought Gilbert a version of fame different from what fate had prepared: he vanished. He spent years in Greece and then in Japan. He wrote but almost never published, preferring to practical and worldly success different kinds of pleasure: the smells of almond trees in blossom, the sight of some farmers plowing a field. (“He never cared if he was poor or had to sleep on a park bench,” his former companion, Linda Gregg, has written. Some people back home got the idea he was homeless.) His next three books arrived at wide but narrowing intervals: Monolithos in 1982, The Great Fires in 1994, Refusing Heaven in 2005, and now, to everyone’s surprise, a new volume, The Dance Most of All.
Gilbert had performed a trick few poets accomplish without dying: he became a symbol of repudiated worldliness. There is always an audience for visible asceticism, the monk in our midst: Gilbert’s poems showed people a path to livable sensuality, accord with nature, and meaningful, indeed spiritual, carnality. He became that most unusual presence in postmodern poetry, a poet of happiness. The poems were advertisements for a life built upon the bedrock of sex, walks, mellow companionship, and food. His pared-down vocabulary was made up mainly of multiple-use items: “heart,” “body,” “truth,” “love.” It was the vocabulary equivalent of a Swiss army knife. Gilbert did the one big thing early, shunning the American table set for him, and what he has done since has derived from that moment of unconsciously canny myth-crafting. His poems are submitted the way receipts are submitted, after the fact, a little torn and frayed. They are proof of his expenses and evidence of his extraordinary thrift.
It thrills people to hear Gilbert denigrate the modern, mechanical world, the business of poetry, the “dinners and meetings” he says he left behind, the requirement that writers “hang out.” In place of the experience he caricatures in terms of cars, money, mortgages, and children, Gilbert offers a counter-caricature, as though boning branzino and cooling one’s lover’s …