Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven

I’m half way through Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, and my favorite poem so far is the very first poem in the book:


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.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m having a hard time getting back to serious reading and haven’t felt like tackling some of the longer works I have sitting on the shelf like H.D.’s Collected Poems or The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz. So I looked back on my Amazon Wish List and downloaded this work on my Kindle.

I was amazed that, sight unseen, I had chosen a work that began with “Sorrow Everywhere. Slaughter everywhere.” It felt that Gilbert was speaking directly to me, had somehow read my mind at this very moment, just as he had when I read “The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992” and added this work to my list in response.

Although at times I find his poetry too cerebral, perhaps too pontifical, (personal weaknesses I’ll sometimes admit to) poems like this one resonate with me, particularly lines like “Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not/ be made so fine.” Beauty is for me the saving grace in a world too often lacking in it, particularly in man-made places like the “cages of Bombay.”

For me the most powerful line in the poem, though, is “To make injustice the only/ measure of our attention is to praise the Devil,” perhaps because I’ve never quite thought of it that way. Too often I feel guilty when I’ve focused on beauty rather than devoting myself to helping to solve the world’s problems or redress injustices. Perhaps man’s greatest strength is the ability to make “music despite everything.” I’m certain that my love of the blues can be tied to that truth.

4 thoughts on “Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven

  1. The classic–and often anthologized Auden piece (Musee d Beaux Arts) has a lot in common with this poem.
    It even has a small ship, and while Auden does not suggest that there is some sort of obligatory equivalence in delight and pain, he does deliver an example of it; the boy falling of the sky, which might amaze any of us despite the tragedy. I like Auden better, partly because Gilbert does not persuade me of his case, and Auden is so cynical that we may feel we don’t matter, which I suspect is his point. The poem is finally about how the old masters “fully understood the human position of tragedies.

  2. Thanks for introducing this poet to me, Loren. In these difficult times it’s comforting to read that it’s OK to ‘risk delight’. It’s easy, and perhaps natural, to feel guilty (a kind of guilt which says: ‘Perhaps I should be suffering as much as the people in North Africa or Japan, for I have it so undeservingly good’) and depressed about recent events. But we sometimes forget that wonderful, human qualities and actions can emerge out of tragedy, even smiles and laughter.

  3. This poem resonates with me too, Loren. I am constantly amazed by the gentleness and smiling attitudes of people who live in appalling conditions. There was a man living on a rubbish heap in Kenya on the TV last week and asked why he smiled he said I cannot let my children think I am unhappy.

  4. Hi Loren – love this poem. I hadn’t heard of Jack Gilbert, so thanks for the introduction to his work.
    The question he addresses has been on my mind – how to respond to the knowledge of the duality in our world – leaking nuclear power plants, violence, war, greed and seemingly endless political stupidity. And then… there is just the sheer wonder and beauty of the natural world, love in all its forms, and connecting with works of art – which can take us to the other end of the spectrum.
    Jack Gilbert gives a response in a couple of lines that you quoted: ” To make injustice the only/ measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
    Perhaps it’s part of an individual’s development to come to acknowledge and address the darkness that is part of our world, and to gratefully embrace the wonder of it all too.

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