Jack Gilbert, who has died at 87, was both an outsider and a major figure in modern American poetry. Defiantly unfashionable, dismissive of careerism and academia, he lived outside America for much of his life, publishing only five collections in five decades.
Initially associated with the Beats, he left the US after winning the Yale Younger Poets prize with Views of Jeopardy in 1962, eking out a living for many years on Greek islands. His second collection, Monolithos, appeared 20 years later, in 1982, but he made his strongest impression on US readers with two later collections, The Great Fires (1994) and Refusing Heaven (2005), winner of the National Book Critics Circle award. A final collection, The Dance Most of All, followed in 2009, and then, earlier this year, his Collected Poems, hailed by the New York Times as “a revelation”. Transgressions, the selection of his poetry which I edited for Bloodaxe, introduced his work to readers in Britain in 2006.
Gilbert wrote compellingly about passion, loss and loneliness. His poems are filled with a sense of wonder at existence and with his surprise at finding happiness – despite grief, struggle and alienation – in a life spent in luminous understanding of his own blessings and shortcomings. His work is both a rebellious assertion of clarity and a profound affirmation of the world in all its aspects. His celebrated poem A Brief for the Defense, which opens Refusing Heaven, is Gilbert’s post-9/11 carpe diem:
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 …
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
Poetry, for Gilbert, was “a witnessing to magnitude. It is the art of making urgent values manifest, and of imposing them on the reader. It is the housing of these values in poems so they will exist with maximum pressure, and for the longest time. It is the craft of doing so in structures that are a delight in themselves. And it is the mystery of fashioning poems in such a way that the form and the content are one.”
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he grew up during the Depression. His father died when Gilbert was 10, after falling out of the window of a Prohibition-era drinking club. Raised by his mother with three siblings, Gilbert left school early and worked as a pest exterminator, brush salesman, and in a steel mill. At 15 he discovered TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, and started writing poetry.
At Pittsburgh University, he was encouraged in his writing by the poet Gerald Stern, his exact contemporary, dropping out in 1946 to decamp to Paris where he lived rough for a time. Returning to the US, he finished college and tried working on photography with Ansel Adams before moving to Italy, where he met his first great love, the artist Gianna Gelmetti. In 1954 he left Italy for San Francisco, where he lived for seven years “like a hippy without drugs”, taking part in Jack Spicer’s famous Poetry As Magic workshops and Kenneth Rexroth’s Tuesday salons, and sparring with Allen Ginsberg on matters of poetry.
By the time Views of Jeopardy appeared in 1962, Gilbert was living in New York. With his first book nominated for a Pulitzer – and lauded by Stanley Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Muriel Rukeyser, Stephen Spender and other luminaries of the time – he was suddenly the most gifted new voice in American poetry, even photographed for Glamour and Vogue. He hated all the attention, and a Guggenheim fellowship gave him the means of escape; he knew he could make the $5,000 award go a long way.
In 1966 he left for Greece with the poet Linda Gregg, and they lived on Paros and Santorini, the setting of much of Monolithos, as well as briefly in Denmark and England, before separating in 1971. Back in San Francisco, Gilbert met his third great love and influence, the sculptor Michiko Nogami, later elegised in The Great Fires, and lived with her in Japan until her death from cancer in 1982. But Gregg remained the pervading influence, ever present in his life and work over five decades. “She was the most valuable person in my life,” he once said. “She’s the most important person in the world to me.” His Collected Poems is dedicated to all three of his muses.
Gilbert’s friend Henry Lyman took care of his literary dealings in his final years of failing health, giving him a place to live in Northampton, Massachusetts, until he had to be moved to a nursing home, in Berkeley, California, where he died.
• Jack Gilbert, poet, born 18 February 1925; died 13 November 2012
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010