National Poetry Month Week One: Jack Gilbert’s “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”
April 5, 2013
My life has been enriched reading Gilbert’s poetry — at times acerbic, quirky, and irascible — but I need to take him in small doses. There’s a risk in getting too close to fire.
Emily Dickinson famously wrote that “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Jack Gilbert’s poetry approaches that more often than not.
“He takes himself away to a place more inward than is safe to go,” the poet and novelist James Dickey said of Gilbert. “From that awful silence and tightening, he returns to us poems of savage compassion.”
“The hard part for me is to find the poem—a poem that matters,” Gilbert told The Paris Review. “To find what the poem knows that’s special. I may think of writing about the same thing that everyone does, but I really like to write a poem that hasn’t been written. And I don’t mean its shape. I want to experience or discover ways of feeling that are fresh. I love it when I have perceived something fresh about being human and being happy.”
Here is Jack Gilbert’s poem, “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”:
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
Get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
-From THE GREAT FIRES: POEMS, 1982-1992 (Alfred A.Knopf, 1994)
Here is an audio recording of Gilbert reading this poem on April 12, 2005 at The New School in New York: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19351