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Audio: Jack Gilbert reads his poems

Reading poems from The Great Fires, some of them in earlier versions, Jack Gilbert looks back on the loves and solitudes of a life lived acutely, seen in terms of the Pittsburgh steel mills where he worked as a youth: “Eighth-of-an-inch gauge isn’t much of a life. But you get some giant mill, or shear, that will shear three-quarter-inch steel, that’s big. That’s a powerful machine.”

I Imagine the Gods

by Jack Gilbert

I imagine the gods saying, We will

make it up to you. We will give you

three wishes, they say. Let me see

the squirrels again, I tell them.

Let me eat some of the great hog

stuffed and roasted on its giant spit

and put out, steaming, into the winter

of my neighborhood when I was usually

too broke to afford even the hundred grams

I ate so happily walking up the cobbles,

past the Street of the Moon

and the Street of the Birdcage-Makers,

the Street of Silence and the Street

of the Little Pissing. We can give you

wisdom, they say in their rich voices.

Let me go at last to Hugette, I say,

the Algerian student with her huge eyes

who timidly invited me to her room

when I was too young and bewildered

that first year in Paris.

Let me at least fail at my life.

Think, they say patiently, we could

make you famous again. Let me fall

in love one last time, I beg them.

Teach me mortality, frighten me

into the present. Help me to find

the heft of these days. That the nights

will be full enough and my heart feral.

Jack Gilbert, “I Imagine the Gods” from The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992. Copyright © 1994 by Jack Gilbert. Included in Vox Populi for educational purposes only.


Jack Gilbert (1925 – 2012) described himself as a “serious romantic.” Over his five-decade-long career, he published five full collections of poetry.

Born and raised in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania neighborhood of East Liberty, he attended Peabody High School. Gilbert then worked as a door-to-door salesman, an exterminator, and a steelworker. 

He was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh and graduated in 1954. During these college years he and his classmate Gerald Stern developed a serious interest in poetry and writing. 

Gilbert received his master’s degree from San Francisco State University in 1963.

After college, Gilbert went to Paris and worked briefly at the Herald Tribune before moving to Italy. Gilbert spent two years there before moving to New York and then to San Francisco, where his life as a poet began.

His work has been distinguished by simple lyricism and straightforward clarity of tone, as well as a resonating control over his emotions: “We look up at the stars and they are / not there. We see memory / of when they were, once upon a time. / And that too is more than enough.” His first book of poetry, Views of Jeopardy, (1962) won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Gilbert was quickly recognized.

He then retreated from his earlier activity in the San Francisco poetry scene, where he had participated in Jack Spicer‘s Poetry as Magic workshop, and, in 1964, moved to Europe. Living on a Guggenheim Fellowship, he was invited to tour 15 countries as a lecturer on American Literature for the U.S. State Department. He then lived briefly in England, Denmark, and Greece before returning to San Francisco in 1967.

His books of poetry were few and far between; however he continuously maintained his writing and contributed to The American Poetry ReviewGenesis WestThe QuarterlyPoetryIronwoodThe Kenyon Review, and The New Yorker. Gilbert was the 1999-2000 Grace Hazard Conkling writer-in-residence at Smith College.

Gilbert was also a visiting professor and writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee in 2004. Author Elizabeth Gilbert, who discovered Jack Gilbert when she succeeded him in the same writing chair, declared, “He became the poet laureate of my life.”

On April 15, 2013 it was announced that Gilbert’s Collected Poems was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. The Pulitzer jury’s citation read: 

a half century of poems reflecting a creative author’s commitment to living fully and honestly and to producing straightforward work that illuminates everyday experience with startling clarity.

Much of Gilbert’s work is about his relationships with women. While in Italy, he met Gianna Gelmetti, a romantic partner who appears frequently in his work. The relationship ended after a year. Gilbert was a close friend of the poet Linda Gregg, whom he met when she was nineteen and his student in San Francisco, and with whom he was in a relationship for six years. Of the poet, Gregg once said, “All Jack ever wanted to know was that he was awake—that the trees in bloom were almond trees—and to walk down the road to get breakfast. He never cared if he was poor or had to sleep on a park bench.”

He was also in a significant long-term relationship with the poet Laura Ulewicz during the late fifties and early sixties in San Francisco. Ulewicz was a great influence on his early work; in fact much of his characteristic style for which he later became known came directly from her, and his first book was dedicated to her. Gilbert also was in a relationship with Michiko Nogami, another former student and a Japanese language instructor 21 years his junior, about whom he wrote many of his poems. Nogami died of cancer at the age of 36, in 1982. Gilbert died on November 13, 2012 in Berkeley, California. [bio adapted from Wikipedia]

From NY Times Obituary

9 comments on “Audio: Jack Gilbert reads his poems

  1. Lisa Zimmerman
    February 8, 2023

    “Teach me mortality, frighten me

    into the present. Help me to find

    the heft of these days.” Thank you, Jack. You are missed.


  2. Lex Runciman
    February 7, 2023

    “… not ‘what’s happening,’ but the importance of what’s happening…. one of the few ways we have to make what’s important visible.”


  3. Arlene Weiner
    February 5, 2023

    I remember reading that when Gilbert was in a nursing home, Linda Gregg visited him and read him some of his poems, and he gestured to ask, “Mine?” and she affirmed that they were his.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      February 5, 2023

      Certainly the best poet that’s come out of Pittsburgh, and one of the best poets in American literature. The poems have a mystical quality which I find very moving.


  4. Teuta Sadiku ukidas
    February 5, 2023

    Nice poem. Wonderful performance.


  5. Shaheen Dil
    February 5, 2023

    WOW! What a fantastic poem. It made my day!


    • Vox Populi
      February 5, 2023

      Yes, Gilbert was the best one of us.

      Michael Simms Publisher/Vox Populi Founder/Autumn House Press Author/Nightjar (poems) Author/American Ash (poems) Author/Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy (novel)


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This entry was posted on February 5, 2023 by in Opinion Leaders, Poetry and tagged , , , , , .

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