joy has been a habit...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Jack Gilbert


Suddenly this defeat.
This rain.
The blues gone gray
And the browns gone gray
And yellow
A terrible amber.
In the cold streets
Your warm body.
In whatever room
Your warm body.
Among all the people
Your absence
The people who are always
Not you.

I have been easy with trees
Too long.
Too familiar with mountains.
Joy has been a habit.
This rain.

           – from Views of Jeopardy, 1962


This early Jack Gilbert piece is typical of his view of and need for isolation – “Suddenly this defeat” – in the wake of love. I’m fascinated by the fact that his poetry – in terms of imagery, theme, and music – has been constant. What he discovered in his first book, Views of Jeopardy (1962), has remained in his work, and is certainly evident in his most recent collection, Refusing Heaven (2005).

His sense of place is particular and effective: browns gone gray, the cold streets, in whatever room. He is, I think, attempting to counter the negative state of the dark weather, the cold, the crowd – made real by your absence and not you – with the necessity of the repeated “Your warm body”. The speaker’s voice is so inviting and real.

The poem begins and ends with rain – a metonymy for all that escapes us, not just sadness. The speaker’s life is weeping. Gilbert writes:

I have been easy with trees
Too long.
Too familiar with mountains.
Joy has been a habit.

Easy, familiar, habit. Our lives settle into their expected motions. Time drifts. Suddenly – the rain. And Gilbert moves the reader to a deeper level. “This rain,” he writes, leaving us there on the page – connected to loss in a wholly specific yet universal way.

Gilbert has so many great works that settling into one is no practical task. Open any book to any page, and your world will tremble.


Sandra said...

What a beautiful last line to your post. I love Gilbert's work. Thanks for sharing the poem.

Collin said...

I agree with Sandra.

Great choice...of poem and your words.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks Sandra and Collin for the comments. Gilbert is wonderful. I've gained so much from reading him.

Suzanne said...

I keep coming back to this Sam. Thanks.

C. E. Chaffin said...

God, this reminds me so much of the early Strand, "Keeping Things Whole." I wonder if Gilbert had an influence on Mark. Wonderful clarity and brevity here.

LKD said...

"Joy has been a habit."

I'll probably carry that line around inside me for the rest of my life.

It reminds me very much of Kenyon's line, which I also carry with me everywhere I go:

"There are keener sorrows than these."

There have been a few times in the last few years during which I've toyed with the idea of having a few lines of poetry tatttooed on my body, on my wrist or ankle, or the back of my neck. "I have been too easy with the trees to long" is mighty tempting.

Thanks for posting this and all the poems you post, sir.

They feed me.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks for the read Suzanne. Glad you like the Gilbert piece. And CE, I have no doubt that Strand was influenced by Gilbert. I agree with you about the lines, Laurel. "I have been easy with trees / Too long" is such an amazing notion.