Fifty years after his first book appeared—Views of Jeopardy, which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize—and just months after the publication of his Collected Poems, the Pittsburgh-born poet Jack Gilbert has died, at age 87. “A city of brick and tired wood,” he called his native city. “Primitive Pittsburgh.” Many of his poems have a straightforward lyricism that grabs you right away. According to a piece about the poet that was published just yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, “At Gilbert's readings, audience members were known to burst into tears.”
Reviewing the Collected Poems in the New York Times earlier this year, Dwight Garner called it “a revelation,” and “among the two or three most important books of poetry that will be published this year.” Garner noted that Gilbert “deploys the word ‘nipples’ ” more often than any “other major American poet,” but that he also seeks the ineffable—“a beast bent on grace,” Garner concluded, borrowing a phrase of Gilbert’s own. “Imagine how impossible it would be / to live if some people were / alone and afraid all their lives,” Gilbert wrote, in the 1982 poem “Games,” which Garner quoted.
In a Paris Review interview from 2005, Sarah Fay asked Gilbert, “Did you ever think you would live this long?” “I once dreamed that I’d live to be sixty,” Gilbert answered. “In those days that was how old you could live to be. But many of my ancestors lived to a hundred. I have this mechanism, this body, which has been so kind to me.”
He died on Sunday in Berkeley.