Extracts from Jack Gilbert’s Paris Review Interview

I enjoyed those six months of being famous. Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting. I loved being noticed and praised, even the banquets. But they didn’t have anything that I wanted. After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live. I didn’t want to be praised all of the time—I liked the idea but I didn’t invest much in it.

Paying attention to being alive. This is hard—when I try to explain, it sounds false.

When I read the poems that matter to me, it stuns me how much the presence of the heart—in all its forms—is endlessly available there. To experience ourselves in an important way just knocks me out. It puzzles me why people have given that up for cleverness. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this kind of poetry. It won’t change my life, so why should I read it? Why should I write it?

Poetry is an unnatural art, as my mother said to me one day. She had been reading some of my poems and said, Jack, why do you do this? What does it mean? And I told her. She said, Well, if that’s what it meant, why did you have to go all the way around the barn to say so? It’s true. So much of that elaborateness is not necessary. I really want to say something to someone that they will feel significantly inside themselves, and if I’m not doing that then I’m wasting our time.

I can teach people how to write poetry, but I can’t teach people how to have poetry, which is more than just technique. You have to feel it—to experience it, whether in a daze or brightly. Often you don’t know what you have. I once worked on a poem for twelve years before I found it.

[The subject of your poems?] Those I love. Being. Living my life without being diverted into things that people so often get diverted into. Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security—all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, a house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward—the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives—until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice.

[Description or compression]?  Neither. I would say presence, feeling, passion—not passion, but love. I usually say romantic love, but here I don’t mean being thrilled. I mean the huge experience of loving another person and being loved by another person. But it’s more than just liking someone or thinking they make you happy.

The hard part for me is to find the poem—a poem that matters. To find what the poem knows that’s special. I may think of writing about the same thing that everyone does, but I really like to write a poem that hasn’t been written. And I don’t mean its shape. I want to experience or discover ways of feeling that are fresh. I love it when I have perceived something fresh about being human and being happy.

Ezra Pound said “make it new.” The great tragedy of that saying is he left out the essential word. It should be make it importantly new. So much of the time people are just aiming for novelty, surprise. I like to think that I’ve understood, that I’ve learned about something that matters—what the world should be, what life should be.

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