Sarah Fay: How do you know when you’ve finished [a poem]?Jack Gilbert: If I’m writing well it comes to an end with an almost-audible click. When I started out I wouldn’t write a poem until I knew the first line and the last line and what it was about and what would make it a success. I was a tyrant and I was good at it. But the most important day in my career as a writer was when Linda said, Did you ever think of listening to your poems? And my poetry changed. I didn’t give up making precreated poetry, but you have to write a poem the way you ride a horse—you have to know what to do with it. You have to be in charge of a horse or it will eat all day—you’ll never get back to the barn. But if you tell the horse how to be a horse, if you force it, the horse will probably break a leg. The horse and rider have to be together.Fay: Is that why your style is unadorned and not ornamental?Gilbert: Oh, I like ornament at the right time, but I don’t want a poem to be made out of decoration. If you like that kind of poetry, more power to you, but it doesn’t interest me. When I read the poems that matter to me, it stuns me how much the presence of the heart—in all its forms—is endlessly available there. To experience ourselves in an important way just knocks me out. It puzzles me why people have given that up for cleverness. Some of them are ingenious, more ingenious than I am, but so many of them aren’t any good at being alive.Fay: You once likened it to a poet giving birth without ever getting pregnant.Gilbert: Yes. A lot of poets don’t have any poems to write. After their first book, what are they going to do? They can’t keep saying their hearts are broken. They start to write poems about childhood. Then what do they do? Some of it is just academic poetry—they learn how to write the poem perfectly. But I don’t think anybody should be criticized because their taste is different from mine. Such poems are extraordinarily deft. There’s a lot of art in them. But I don’t understand where the meat is. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this kind of poetry. It won’t change my life, so why should I read it? Why should I write it?
By the time some writers—particularly poets—are twenty-seven or twenty-eight they’ve often used up the germinal quality that is their writing, the thing that is their heart. Not for the great poets, but for many poets this is true. The inspiration starts to wane. Many have learned enough to cover that with devices or technique or they just go back and write the same stories about their childhood over and over. It’s why so much poetry feels artificial.