Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Dan Albergotti reads “A Stubborn Ode” by Jack Gilbert.
Dan, as I searched for a copy of “A Stubborn Ode” I came across your recommendation in Post Road Magazine in which you mention a moment when a friend read “A Stubborn Ode” to you out loud. Was that the first time you were introduced to Jack Gilbert’s work? What else can you tell us about that moment and about discovering the work of Gilbert?
Dan: That was basically the first time. The friend in the anecdote is Melanie Carter, a fine poet whose amazing “Water to Sky” I once discussed in an essay on metaphor in Poets & Writers (Jan/Feb 2012). She’s the person that introduced Gilbert to me, most definitely. At the time, she had recently discovered his work when she attended a summer seminar at Bennington where he was a visiting faculty member. She came back from that seminar singing his praises, but I was skeptical and resistant. In fact, I think her reading that poem aloud to me was probably provoked by a question from me along the lines of “What’s so great about this guy’s work?” I can still almost hear the poem in her voice and see the image of her clutching the book to her chest when she was finished. Within a year, I was a devotee, a full-fledged member in the cult of Gilbert. If any of your readers are unfamiliar with his work, I would encourage them to rectify that tragic situation as soon as possible, starting with his magnificent third collection, The Great Fires, in which “A Stubborn Ode” appears. (I would also encourage readers to seek out Melanie Carter’s work, some of which is available online.)
Chris: What are the particular elements in this poem that illustrate Gilbert’s essentiality?
Dan: The poem seems to compress everything—and I mean everything—down into a hard, sharp gem. It is intimately specific and broadly universal. There is achingly personal grief (for his late wife Michiko, “buried in Kamakura”) and pure empathy for the suffering of others. In one way, it seems like anything but an ode with its aggressively prosy diction and line-breaks. Yet it is certainly what its title claims: an ode, and stubbornly so, damn it. It’s even coyly sonnet-esque in its 14 lines. In a way, the poem seems like it could be a response to Theodor Adorno’s pronouncement “No poetry after Auschwitz” (that’s a common reduction—I think the actual quote is closer to “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”). The poem catalogs disappointments, injustices, griefs, savagery, and despair. It quietly says, yes, yes, yes, yet nevertheless.
Chris: So was it Gilbert’s ability to compress emotion that finally won you over then? Or was it something else in that year of becoming a devotee that made you a convert?
Dan: As with most passions, it’s hard to point to one thing or to condense the experience into a pithy description. All I can say is that “A Stubborn Ode” led me to read The Great Fires, and it was over from there. I jokingly (somewhat) referred to “the cult of Gilbert” above, but my conversion experience is not uncommon. If you want evidence, check out the prices listed for signed first editions of his work by second-hand book dealers.
But in an effort to more fully answer your question, I will point to something I wrote for Borderlands in 2005: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/coming-end-his-triumph-retrospective-jack-gilbert. That piece began as a review of his fourth collection, Refusing Heaven, and metamorphosed into a short career retrospective. In that essay, I refer to Gilbert’s entire life being a poem. It’s easy to become a devotee when you perceive that. Happily, I turned out to be wrong about his imminent death and no fifth collection. The Dance Most of All was published in April 2009, and Jack died in November 2012.
Chris: I completely lose it at the tenth line, “All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.” There are several succinct, declarative lines like this in the poem that make the piece—I like how you said it—“a hard, sharp gem.” Is there a line or part of this poem that is especially poignant for you? What do you hope readers of this poem will walk away with?
Dan: The poem begins with a three-word fragment: “All of it.” And it ends with a four-word sentence: “And I say, nevertheless.” Even in their brevity and simplicity, each feels especially poignant to me. Between them in the poem, I believe there is, as I said above, everything—all of it. Everything that Gilbert provides, and everything that the readers feel as well: their own horrors, griefs, sadness, despair. I hope readers feel all of that when they read the poem, and I hope they walk away saying stubbornly, with Jack, “nevertheless.”
Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008) and Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), as well as a limited-edition chapbook, The Use of the World (Unicorn Press, 2013). His poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Five Points, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and two editions of the Pushcart Prize, as well as other journals and anthologies. He is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University.
Chris Petruccelli doesn’t know what he is anymore. His chapbook Action at a Distance won the 2014 Etchings Press Chapbook Contest. His poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. In his spare time Chris enjoys running and whisky.