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Literary Biographies with Sue Ellen Thompson #4- Jack Gilbert, the Man Who Loved Women


Welcome to Delmarva Public Radio’s celebration of National Poetry Month featuring “Literary Biographies with Sue Ellen Thompson.”  I’m your host Harold Wilson. Today’s lecture: “Jack Gilbert, the Man Who Loved Women,” is the fourth and last in our series of talks by Sue Ellen on the life and work of three great American poets: Robert Frost, Jane Kenyon, and Jack Gilbert.  Sue Ellen, an important poet in her own right, has published five books of poetry, served as editor of the 2005 edition of the Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry and is the recipient of numerous awards including nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. Her poems have been read a number of times on National Public Radio’s “The Writer’s Almanac.”

All four of the programs in this series are produced by Delmarva Public Radio with the cooperation of the Talbot County Library in Easton, Maryland and The Talbot County Arts Council that funded the original lecture series on which this program is based. All of the lectures were recorded in the Frederic Douglass room of the Talbot County Public Library before a live audience.

Reading the poetry of Jack Gilbert, it is very difficult not to think of French author Albert Camus and his wonderful moral essay The Myth of Sisyphus. (Remember Camus’ essay was published in 1942, two years after the German occupation of France. It didn’t become popular in the United States until the late 1950s.) In Camus’ essay, we find ourselves strangers in a world deprived of light and illusions. We are exiles here, and our exile is irrevocable since we carry no memories of a lost homeland and no hope of a promised land. In Jack Gilbert’s poem, “It is Difficult to Speak of the Night,” Gilbert says that the voices in the dark of his poem “still keen of the divorce / we are born into.” I would suggest this divorce is the exile that Camus speaks of.

If Robert Frost is a poet of the human voice, and Jane Kenyon a creator of deeply personal lyric poems perhaps we might say that Jack Gilbert is a writer of moral poetry. I don’t mean moral here as the weighing of good and evil, right and wrong, but moral in the way the French use the term: as a lucid chronicler of the human condition.  Gilbert’s short declarative sentences lay bare the challenge of human existence and offer a call to delight in those unexpected moments of beauty in a world of suffering and alienation.

Perhaps this explains why, at a poetry reading, a man in a black overcoat entered late and stood in the back of the room. After the reading he walked down the queue of people lined up to speak to the poet and said to Gilbert, “I just wanted you to know, your poetry saved my life.” Then he turned and walked out, no comment or further explanation.  This is the power of Jack Gilbert’s poetry.

And now, Sue Ellen Thompson and “Jack Gilbert, The Man Who Loved Women.”

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