A Brief Defense of Flying and Failing

Jack Gilbert, by Robert Toby
Jack Gilbert, by Robert Toby

In Jack Gilbert’s poem “Failing and Flying”, he makes the important point that despite the common word on the street, “anything / worth doing is worth doing badly.” So I am going to stop procrastinating and just post this reading now. See, I procrastinate when I feel I don’t have time to do justice to what I want to do. I think, no there is so much I want to say, sources I need to acknowledge, phrases I need to polish–I’ll just do this tomorrow, and pretty soon tomorrow is gone, hell a whole week goes by!

Well it was three days since I recorded the poem below, so I’m not going to let four more pass before I share it with you here, not just so I can get all my words in order and seem like a stellar little poet blogger. Heck, I’m not that important in this post; Jack’s poem is, and though I am familiar with several of his poems, poems I really love, I am not yet that informed about the poet’s story. So why show off? I’ll just share with you a few sources from which I learned of the man, and try to keep my own ramblings brief.

Since Jack was a fellow Pennsylvanian, I’ll share with you first this thoroughly complimentary review of his Collected Poems from almost exactly one year ago in the Pittsburgh Sun Gazette. Gilbert died just two months after that review in November, at the age of 87. The cause of death was complications associated with pneumonia, but it is also reported that he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Here is a link to his obituary in the New York Times. And here is a more recent review of the poet’s life and work in The Sun, from just last month.

What all of the writers in the above articles celebrate is the poetry of a man who understood sadness, loss and suffering, but seemed to daringly go against the current of cynicism and write about it with honest, but hopeful, grateful colors. Like American poet Walt Whitman before him, Jack Gilbert seemed to embrace life for the living, even to the point of being thankful, as you’ll see in today’s reading, for the chance to lose.

To lose something means that one had to gain it first, right? In the poem I quoted above there is the now famous line, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” We all want to talk about that mythological failure and the lessons thereof, but we forget that for Icarus to plummet from they sky required an Icarus IN the sky. He did it! He flew. Did you? Did I? Those of us on the ground, were we so creative and daring with our use of wax and feathers?

In the same poem he talks of the so-called failures of a marriage, but maybe we are looking at things the wrong way. Two diverse personalities managed to live together for a time. Gilbert was a master of shaking his reader into a different viewpoint. In  his poem “Tear it down” he asserts that we should “unlearn the constellations to see the stars.” Here’s another poem of his called “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” in which he decries the very medium of his art.

We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can.

Alright, I’ve said enough for tonight. Read some of Jack’s poems and get to know one of the greatest recent voices in poetry. I trust you will enjoy the experience as I have.

In the last reading I posted I said that I couldn’t remember where I had stumbled onto the poem, but now I recall, as it was in the same nourishing presentation by Mark Dotty which introduced me to “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert. For one of the best presentations on the topic of “Why Poetry Matters Now” check out Mark Dotty’s 2008 presentation for the John Hersey Memorial Lecture in Key West Florida. You can just play the audio while you do the dishes, like I did, if you are short on time. You’ll thank me. Seriously.

And now the reading, with the poem’s text below so that you may follow along. I will only add that the spiritual metaphors in this poem to me are just that, metaphors, and one need not be religious to appreciate the truth in them. If this life is all there is, then let’s be grateful for having made a great splash. That’s how I see it. In the spirit of the opening lines of this post, and Jack’s admonition, I’ll check for typos tomorrow. Sweet dreams, friends.

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 mornings 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 cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Jane says:

    I’ll keep these words close to me ‘We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. ‘ Thanks for letting me discover Jack.


    1. Glad to have been part of the introduction. I know you two will get along swimingly. 🙂


  2. ebbtide says:

    As if I really needed more books to add to my Amazon wishlist. 🙂 Will have to see if the library has Jack in the meantime


    1. How did I miss this comment before? Thank you for listening/reading. I hope you find some good Gilbert poems! Let me know what you discover.


  3. I hear you about procrastination! “It has to be perfect!” : -) I’m so glad you posted this–it’s just right.

    I love Gilbert’s “Falling and Flying” and “Forgotten Dialect of the Heart.” Thanks for introducing me to “A Brief for the Defense.” I really like his insistence on “gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world,” and your reading beautifully brings out the tonal complexities of this poem.


    1. Thank you so much, Jennifer. That’s a great compliment. I was stunned by this poem the first time I read it, and cannot explain all the complex ways it resonates with me, and I am not sure I have plumbed every depth in it. I will be posting a recording in which a very talented young man from Germany put this recording to music and a beat that really brings it to life in ways I did not expect. Sorry it took me so long to find your comment!


  4. slpmartin says:

    An interesting perspective on the state of the world…I thought perhaps ‘a justification ‘ of sorts by the poet…brought to mind.. Candide’s Pangloss.


    1. Charles, I somehow missed these comments until now (taking a break from recording–That Chalice piece is a gorgeous challenge!) And yes, perhaps a justification, but also perhaps some irony. I’m not sure at times. I do think that a lot of his god references are very metaphorical. He lived a life, as I understand it that involved not marrying, but living with a few women along the way. He may have been spiritual with a Catholic upbringing, but I’m not thinking he in any way followed the letter of the law. 😉


  5. Jamie Dedes says:

    Sometimes good enough is good enough. At any rate this is an excellent post. Enjoyed much and appreciate the link to Doty.

    Happy Sunday, David.


    1. haha, thank you, Jamie. I’m happy to know you enjoyed it. Have a great Sunday also. 🙂


  6. Pingback: The Dad Poet

Talk to me:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.