Sometimes it Takes a Poet

“We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment.”

This is an excerpt from a poem by Jack Gilbert who recently died. I wrote him a letter a few years back to try to put into words what this poem did for me.  When I have written what might qualify as a “fan”  letter I try to make it so remarkably moving, witty, revelatory, and profound that surely they will see me as someone of merit with extraordinary insight. They will want to have dinner with me and long talks by a slow flowing river. Then, when I’ve posted those few letters and heard the mailbox clunk shut, I realize that the one-way-street aspect of admiration is exactly what it should be. It is enough. Anything else is about my little, persistent, (yet surely attractive) ego. So, though Michael Chabon, William Zinsser, Bill Moyers, Jack Gilbert (the above-mentioned poet) and Eddie Izzard may have kept a folder labeled “Claudette” I don’t need to know about it.

Back to this poem “A Brief for the Defense.”  I heard it read by Jack Gilbert in a video at a UCLA awards ceremony that he was unable to attend. I was sitting in a large auditorium listening to a series of awards for fiction, non-fiction, journalism, etc. and finally, poetry. He began to read and I saw that the poem was asking a question that has haunted me for years, each time going  unanswered for I never got traction. I could find nothing to hold onto.  It eluded me and left me feeling poor in spirit and a lesser person than I would like to be. More than anything, it left me wanting. My question was, and remains something like: What right have I to be happy in a world so tough and unrelentingly filled with poverty, pain, injustice and deprivation? What right?

 As I watched and listened to the image of this elderly poet, unknown to me until this evening, he came to a line at which a storm of tears swept my face. It was a punch to the heart, the kind you have waited for and realize you will never forget.  He asked my same question but didn’t stop.  He pushed further and found the answer in the wider, knotty human condition into which we are all born with its tragic, elegant and breathtaking beauty.  I couldn’t have done it by myself. I needed a poet.  2013 was a year deserving of such a poem as this.

Enough about my epiphany. There may be something here for you.

A BRIEF FOR THE DEFENSE  from Refusing Heaven—Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment.  We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.  To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island:  the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.