Sunday, January 08, 2006

Refusing Heaven

I read Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven over the weekend. The book came out a year ago and you may remember blog talk about the poem with the woman wiping barbecued chicken grease on her breasts. It’s an understatement to say Gilbert is controversial. He represents everything the “post-avant” despise in poetry, and everything the “romantics” wish that poetry would return to being—poetry’s “true business.”

Most of the reviews I read on Refusing Heaven took one side or another in this controversy. Unfortunately, this does not tell us very much about the poetry itself. I am tired of reviews that point out the differences between, say, Jack Gilbert and John Ashbery, and then take sides. This is no way to shed light! What’s enlightening is to point out the differences between a good Gilbert poem and a bad one, a good Ashbery poem and a bad one.

I loved Gilbert’s 1994 book The Great Fires, even though I am not generally in love with that “type” of poetry. Often Gilbert is too direct and “sincere” for my more decadent taste. I have little patience for lines like “The man slices / tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish / and scrambles eggs,” and am similarly impatient with abstract generalities like (opening the book at random) “Grief makes the heart / apparent as much as sudden happiness can.”

Nevertheless, anyone who doesn’t recognize the greatness of The Great Fires seems stubbornly blind to me. Gilbert reminds me of Hemingway more than anyone else, and of course a lot of us are tired of that sort of writing, but like Hemingway, Gilbert’s best work has an undeniable greatness. Read “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” and other poems on Scoplaw’s blog.

So why was I so disappointed by Refusing Heaven? I like the opening poem, “A Brief for the Defense,” very much. But the book pretty much went downhill from there for me. Perhaps the concrete and the abstract don’t come together the way they do in the earlier book. So many of the poems end in abstractions that don’t quite work: “The soul is ambitious / for what is invisible. Hungers for a sacrament / that is both spirit and flesh. And neither.” There is also the question of Gilbert’s attitude toward women, which some readers find offensive partly because of his excessive “romanticization” of women. I am about as romantic as anyone can be, but I do cringe when a line begins “The reason we cannot enter the same woman twice is . . . .”

Still, there are lines I love in Refusing Heaven, and some of the best are about Pittsburgh, as in “A Taste for Grit and Whatever”:

. . . Is it because
Pittsburgh is still tangled in him that he
has the picture on his wall of God’s head
torn apart by jungle roots? Maybe
growing up in that brutal city left him
with a taste for grit and whatever it was
he saw in the titanic rusting steels mills.

Gilbert makes great discriminations, like “the quiet that is the music of that place, / which is the difference between silence and windlessness” from “Music Is in the Piano Only When It Is Played.” But while there are wonderful lines, it’s hard to find wonderful poems in this book. The poem about Pittsburgh, for example, goes on to a conclusion that I just don’t find credible: “Why the erotic matters so much. Not as / pleasure but a way to get to something darker.” One could come up with a dozen adjectives to describe Gilbert’s poetry, and they would apply equally to Refusing Heaven and The Great Fires. I find it fascinating that poems so alike in their style and form and voice can be so different in quality.

Gotta go: Y Tu Mamá También is on TV and I feel a need to see something great.


Diane K. Martin said...

Can't comment on Gilbert's books as I've read neither, although I remember you recommending The Great Fires. But I do appreciate the way you talk about these books. I, too, am tired of people talking about one type of poetry vs. another type of poetry instead of looking how a poem (or book) works or does not within the poet's aesthetics.

louise said...

Hi Robert- re Gilbert, I think I'm probably an anomaly b/c I DO think Gilbert objectifies the women in his poems, but it doesn't offend me at all-- and here's why: to me it seems that it is so deeply entrenched in Gilbert's style, his aesthetics, to objectify or "fetishize" whatever it is he is writing about. I think the bbq sauce is being objectified, if you want to call it that, just as much as the woman. Because in deep image poetry, this is what one does-- a focused concentration that borders on obsession--
Some have accused Gilbert of "orientalism" in the Michiko poems, but I think it's more that through his relationship with her, that culture influenced him, I think of say, Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging (which I'm studying at the moment)and how the intense, almost erotic focus on each flower could be seen as objectification. What I'm saying is, we all do this in our poems, and in our everyday absorption in beauty, at least all of us that work in the vein of choosing images to represent complex thoughts/feelings--I think Gilbert is aware of the shortcomings of this process, as in the Forgotten Dialect of the Heart, "What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.", but yet, he is compelled, as many poets are, to try this tactic anyway. In other words, objectification, yes, sexism, no. And certainly, objectification is a big part of erotic love. What passionate lover hasn't delighted in obsessing over the tiniest detail of the beloved's body-- the certain curve or freckle that strikes us as *just so* and doesn't that tiny detail evoke for us this persons individuality on some level.
Maybe it's also because from what I know of Gilbert's life he seems to understand deeply the complexity of love and male/female relationships. Just his fact of dedicating the book in part to Linda Gregg and their ongoing support of each other (including a reading they did together fairly recently in Greece that is webcast somewhere, it was great to watch) seems to recognize her with great respect beyond the erotic/romantic.
Just my two cents. I am loving Dragging the Lake. It's a wonderful, complicated book Robert. Congratulations--

Robert said...

Thanks for your comments, Louise! I'll try to find that webcast of Gilbert and Linda Gregg. I think you're bringing up a really important subject that doesn't get talked about much--how "objectification" is fundamental to so much of art. I've heard people define sentimentality as the substitution of objects for emotions--e.g., giving someone flowers rather than articulating your feelings in words, which is so much harder to do--but so much of poetry is exactly that, especially, as you say, any poetry using images (which is most poetry!). It necessarily risks sentimentality, but we do it for just the reason Gilbert says: that images ("amber, archers, cinnamon ...") seem to evoke those complex feelings so much better than mere words.

Robert said...

The webcast you're talking about must be the one available here Definitely worth watching!

Beverly said...

Another definition of sentimentality I recall was Salinger's (who had his own bent toward the sentimental). I found it after a Google search along with this apt comment (from a Donald Johnson who seems to be a professor at UCSB):

One of Salinger's characters, I believe, did define sentimentality as "when you care more about a thing than God cares about it," which is a useful and clever definition as long as God doesn't resemble Salinger too closely. Certainly it's easy to make the case that Salinger cared more about the Glass family than God would have cared about them.

Robert said...

I remember hearing that Salinger quote, Beverly. Caring more about a thing than God cares about it" may be a good definition of love itself!

Pamela said...

Robert, wouldn't that also be an inversion of Emily Dickinson's definition?

Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus'--

These lines have always astounded me. For me, Gilbert's style is the opposite of Dickinson's own circuitousness. I liked The Great Fires very much.

Thanks for the webcast link.

Robert said...

That Dickinson quote IS an interesting twist. That's what makes Dickinson so great!

Beverly said...

Mary Rueffle has an essay on sentimentality in the current issue of West Branch. I read as much of it as I could, standing up in Diesel Books while my daughter got a quick haircut at Alexander Pope (hairsalon, not poet). I enjoyed it but didn't buy the issue, so I have to go back and finish it at some point.

Diane K. Martin said...

Beverly, can you summarize what she is saying about sentimentality?


Robert said...

Yeah, we want to know! I'll have to go into Fog City News when I'm in downtown SF on Tuesday and see if they've got West Branch.

Robert said...

I read Ruefle. What a great essay! Hard to summarize but thought-provoking. Here are some excerpts:

“During the last residency, it was my privilege and pleasure to share the company of the other poet-teachers one evening, and I thought you might be interested in what they talk about when they get together informally. They talk about cats.”

“I’d been using Gardner’s definition of sentimentality—causeless emotion, that is, indulgence of more emotion than seems warranted by the stimulus—for many years in teaching students why their sentimental poems don’t work, and in explaining to myself why my own sentimental poems don’t work. Until one day I realized that ‘causeless emotion’ was an even better definition of poetry.”

“Keats said only one thing was necessary to write good poetry: a feeling for light and shade. I like that he had the sense to call it one thing, and not two things.”

“As I speak, blood is coursing through our bodies. As it moves away from the heart it marches to a 2/4 or 4/4 beat and it’s arterial blood, reoxygenated, assertive, active, progressive, optimistic. When it reaches our extremities and turns toward home—the heart—well, it’s nostalgic, it’s venous blood (as in veins), it’s tired, . . . homesick now, and full of longing. When we first write our poems, how arterial they seem! And when we go back to them, how venous they seem!”

“In his manifesto ‘Toward an Impure Poetry,’ Pablo Neruda warns us, ‘We must not overlook melancholy, the sentimentalism of another age, the perfect impure fruit whose marvels have been cast aside by the mania for pedantry: moonlight, the swan at dusk, “my beloved” are, beyond question, the elemental and essential matter of poetry. He who would flee from bad taste is riding for a fall.’”

“Though fear of freedom is an entanglement in increasingly unimportant decisions—should I use chiasma in my work?—fear of security also retards.”

“We are human beings. Our expressions are always inadequate, often pitiful. Poetry is sentimental to begin with. To write a sentimental poem is an act of redundancy.”

Beverly said...

Thanks Robert for that great summary. I could never have attempted one without the essay in front of me because I don't think it's summarizable. Your strategy of selected quotes hit the hight spots.

Todd said...

nice thread, although salenger's quote (offered through the voice of one of his characters) has been misrepresented throughout.