Jack Gilbert (1962)

Yves Bonnefoy (1973)

I am in the mood for the big and ancient themes, so I click on Jack Gilbert’s recording in The Listening Booth. “This is Jack Gilbert. Today is January 10th, 1962,” he announces. He’s going to read from his debut book, Views of Jeopardy, winner of the year’s Yale Younger Poets Prize. He says that it is going to be published in three weeks. It is poignant to hear him read his poems just a short time before the myth of the poet will take over—instigated by his fleeing to Europe, his passing long periods in poverty and solitude, his passionate love affairs, his romanticism, and his seriousness.

Though many of the poems in this book score his feelings of alienation from the poetry cultures of San Francisco and New York, the nearly lapidary opening and closing poems of the reading get at much of what I admire in Gilbert’s poetic sensibility. He announces that the opening poem of the book is a kind of credo and that it is dedicated to Ezra Pound. Here is “In Dispraise of Poetry” in its entirety:

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
He gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
That to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.

Gilbert reading voice is dry, clipped, articulate, and formal; it is rangy, elegant, and learned. I hear the “Ts” in this reading especially, they seem aurally to accentuate a sense of artifice and style; the “Rs” at once suggest grandeur and graveness. In this fable, the gift of poetry is both beauty and beast; and throughout his career, Gilbert acknowledges his great susceptibility to and wariness of beauty. The aesthetic rigor of the poet must rise to the nearly unbearable obligations that his art imposes.

The beautiful white elephant recurs in “The Whiteness, The Sound, and Alcibiades.” What the speaker has intuited in his “concern for whales and love, / for elephants and Alcibiades” is what has led him to arrive at a house with only “a broken pair of shoes, / no profession, / and a few poems.” This meaningful blankness, reiterated in an image of a white ox later in the poem, is what the poet lives for: “For ten years I have tried / to understand about the ox. / About the sound. The whales. / Of love. And arrived here / to give thanks for the profit.” Gilbert’s sensing of what is incommensurable and imponderable in human experience—yet utterly so dear—deepens my imagination and keeps enlarging my consideration of the great themes.

The sound of him saying “Alcibiades” in this recording is, perversely enough, where I hear the sense of the erotic in the poem. The conjuring of this fine and corrupted Athenian statesman is to let us in on another unknowable, but one that is evocative of the malign, mercurial, and lasciviously truth-bearing.


Sensuous otherworldliness is what leads me from Gilbert to Yves Bonnefoy’s 1973 reading of his poem “Théâtre,” the lengthy opening section of his first collection of poems, Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve (On the Motion and Immobility of Douve), published in 1953. Bonnefoy’s sonorous voice and the fearsome drive of the recitation are entrancing. He reflects that after he wrote these verses, he discovered that “they were speaking about death and the resurrection of poetry as such.” In this poem, Douve is a female lover, the poetic process itself, and also, the French word for moat or ditch—a figure of separation and limit. The opening is strange and luminous and haunted:

Je te voyais courir sur des terrasses,
Je te voyais lutter contre le vent,
Le froid saignait sur tes lèvres.

Et je t’ai vue te romper et jouir d’être morte ô plus belle
Que la foudre, quand elle tache les vitres blanches de ton sang.

I saw you running on the terraces,
I saw you fight against the wind,
The coldness bled on your lips.

And I have seen you break and rejoice at being dead—O more beautiful
Than the lightning, when it stains the white windowpanes of your blood.

(trans. Galway Kinnell)

The epigraph of Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve is a citation from Hegel: “But the life of the spirit is not frightened at death and does not keep itself pure of it. It endures death and maintains itself in it.” Decomposition, shattering, and life force animate one another in section after section of “Théâtre.” The body is a theater of form and formlessness in the poem; there are many moments in the piece where the breakdown of the body prompts the beginning of music. The baroque strain of the erotic that I sometimes hear in Gilbert also tends to well up in parts of “Théâtre.” Listen to section X:

Je vois Douve étendue. Au plus haut de l’espace charnel je l’entends bruire. Les princes-noirs hâtent leurs mandibules à travers cet espace où les mains de Douve se développent, os défaits de leur chair se muant en toile grise que l’araignée massive éclaire.

I see Douve stretched out. On the highest level of fleshly space I hear her rustling. Black-princes hurry their mandibles across that space where Douve’s hands unfold, unfleshed bones becoming a gray web which the huge spider lights.

I don’t understand it all, but I fall under its sway each time I hear this poem; each time, it seems to come at me, bursting with news.


These two poets, born within two years of each other in the twenties, possess a vital relationship to the elementary. Although Gilbert’s reading takes place at the very beginning of his career, and Bonnefoy reads a poem that is, by the time of the reading, twenty-years old, I hear a shared tone in the pairing: a nearly despairing faith in the transfigurative power of language. Bonnefoy moved to Paris in 1944, where for a short time, he was affiliated with the Surrealists; Gilbert’s citation of Pound reminds me of that modernist poet’s arrest in that same year for treason. In these readings, there is a sense of what language is like in the hands of a poet with a personal knowledge of historical and political disaster, and in the hands of one whose personal loneliness becomes a figure for integrity and seriousness. Both Gilbert and Bonnefoy examine the nature of being in lyrical and philosophical registers. Bonnefoy’s “Théâtre” casts a darker spell than Gilbert’s poems, but a conviction of the spiritual, that is, a longing for what appears fundamentally alien and other, seems a bridge between both poets’ distinctive voices.


Sandra Lim is the author of The Wilderness (forthcoming in 2014 from W.W. Norton), selected by Louise Glück for the 2013 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006). She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.