I first encountered Jack Gilbert’s poetry in The Sun (American literary magazine, not British tabloid). A sentence from ‘A Brief for the Defense’ stuck with me, nagged me through summer: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”.
As one blessed with much comfort and satisfaction, I wonder at my privileges, wonder at the randomness of life, wonder why millions suffer through no fault of their own, and others live in shocking luxury through no virtue of their own. Gilbert’s taut, evocative, defiant poem comes the closest of anything I’ve read to elucidating the tension between grief and high delight. Gilbert doesn’t moralise or draw conclusions. Though he refers to both God and the Devil, for me the poem is Zen. Ultimately, none of us is in control. The secret, if there is one, is to laugh anyway, to listen for sound of oars in the silence and watch the island sleep. And to refuse to allow our lives to be defined by the worst of times.
A Brief for the Defense by 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 that 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 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.