A Glance at Jack Gilbert’s “A Stubborn Ode”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jack Gilbert, please take a look at the bio link in the previous post. For those of you who know about his work or just don’t care, read on!

For a few years now one of my favorite poets has been Pittsburgh’s own Jack Gilbert. According to his bio, he is currently living in Western Massachusetts, and his work reads, for me at least, as a sensitive yet tough-minded exposition on the realities of rust, decrepitude, and the sufferings of our day-to-day lives. Yet, a sense of grace and acceptance, a tenuous dignity, belies the heartache and very real sorrow that accompanies his speakers’ lives. Enough with the lead-in! Please note the bibliographic information and if you like this piece below, I bet you’ll want to get a copy of the collection for yourself.

Gilbert, Jack. The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Here’s the poem:

A Stubborn Ode



All of it. The sane woman under the bed with the rat

that is licking off the peanut butter she puts on her

front teeth for him. The beggars of Calcutta blinding

their children while somewhere people are rich

and eating with famous friends and having running water

in their fine houses. Michiko is buried in Kamakura.

The tired farmers thresh barley all day under the feet

of donkeys amid the merciless power of the sun.

The beautiful women grow old, our hearts moderate.

All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.

When Gordon was released from the madhouse, he could

not find Hayden to say goodbye. As he left past

Hall Eight, he saw the face in a basement window,

tears running down the cheeks. And I say, nevertheless.


The stubbornness here is the speaker’s refusal to succumb to the sorrow suggested by the “sane woman,” “the beggars,” and the “farmers,” yet, at line 6 Gilbert moves into his own biography to make more poignant and power the final sentence of the 14th line. Michiko was his wife, who had died from cancer, and Gilbert manages to include her passing (by mentioning her burial city) amongst the other injustices and sorrows that befall the living. Here, then, Gilbert’s speaker is associating himself with the survivors, with those who are “waning.” And in doing so, the poem seems to suggest that, despite the “blinding,” “the power of the sun,” and seperation of friends, the speaker will accept it all without qualification, explanation, or complaint.


There’s a lot more to say, especially about form here, but I’d rather stop now, and let the piece work itself into your mind and heart. Feel free to use the comment feature to open a dialogue about this piece, what you like, don’t like, don’t get, or where I’ve misread in my scant gloss above.                            



3 Responses to A Glance at Jack Gilbert’s “A Stubborn Ode”

  1. writerchick says:

    Hi Puddlehead,
    What an incredible piece. It is so complex and saturated with image that I think it would take a long time to decypher it. I envy writers who can find this kind of depth and yet be so raw with it. Good read. Thanks.

    Hey, WC. Thanks for reading the piece. It really is fabulous. A reader could write pages on it, and I find the best poems cannot be paraphrased. This is one of them. I mean, if someone asked, “What’s it about?” Uuhhh. A lot of things. The images build without much explanation, and that’s got to be one of this poem’s strongest points. Especially since those images are bookended by “All of it” and the sentence, “And I say, nonetheless.” Both of which are rather vague, at least by themselves. Stay tuned, I’ll put another Gilbert piece out there in the next day or so. Probably “A Brief for the Defense,” a poem which got a lot of people angry about his attitude. Thanks again, and keep on keepin’ on over at your site, and by that I mean with the synopsis.

  2. almostgotit says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment posted on my blog, and for the invitation that I come visit you and Jack Gilbert over here on yours. Nice to discover a new poet, and enjoyed your commentary as well. Take good care! – Almost Got It

    Thanks for swinging by, and I’m glad you liked Gilbert’s piece. Poetry has a funny way of making people feel more human, and I think I will put a few poems a week up here with quick comments on why I like them. Also, I think there are more Billy Collins videos out on youtube, have you seen those too? I think “My Last Cigarette” or “My favorite Cigarette” or something like that is out there, From Nine Horses, maybe? I don’t remember. Anyway, thanks again, and stop back for more poems later, eh?

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