I read an interesting “response” poem today to a poem I know intimately; Jack Gilbert’s Tear It Down, from his book, The Great Fires.
I read The Great Fires in Graduate school and it influenced me deeply. It’s written in the voice of an ascetic that knows the desires of the world, the ruin of human appetite. I could feel the dry hills of Greece, his slow, torturous love for Michiko as she lay dying, her chamber pot in the corner with her ankles that were like weak, white doves. All of these images impressed themselves upon me. I carried that book around like a life raft. At the time I was adrift.
Here is the original:
Tear It Down
We find out the heart only by dismantling what the heart knows. By redefining the morning, we find a morning that comes just after darkness. We can break through marriage into marriage. By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond affection and wade mouth-deep into love. We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars. But going back toward childhood will not help. The village is not better than Pittsburgh. Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh. Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound of racoon tongues licking the inside walls of the garbage tub is more than the stir of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not enough. We die and are put into the earth forever. We should insist while there is still time. We must eat through the wildness of her sweet body already in our bed to reach the body within the body.
- Jack Gilbert
And here is the response poem:
From this distance, he can see that the man
is not Jack Gilbert. And he is not yet himself.
Being himself would not be better than being Gilbert.
Only Gilbert is more than Gilbert. Failure is better
than success in the same way that this poem
is still getting at something as it descends
into parody, elegy, and palimpsest at once.
We die and are put into the earth forever
is a line directly stolen from Gilbert’s “Tear It Down.”
Putting it in this poem means neither success
nor failure nor larceny. People need to read it
even if its magnitude of beauty is too difficult
for people. When I spoke with Jack on the telephone
to invite him to my university the next fall, he mostly
wanted to talk about my Italian name, to ask about
my poems. He wanted to know what I wanted
from poetry. I said I’d like to say something
to someone born two hundred years from now.
I think he approved, or I may have just heard
his enormously generous spirit smiling.
After his summer in Greece with Linda,
he could not remember ever having talked to me,
told my collegaue who called to make travel arrangements
that he had never heard of our university.
Today the woman I love rejected my artificial soul.
What is it we want from poetry? When Jack Gilbert
and I have been put into the earth forever,
what will it mean if someone reads “Tear It Down” or
“Years and Years and Years Later”? Is there still time
to insist? Let my heart be feral, too wild for every
woman I love. This poem, Jack, is as helpless
as crushed birds, and still I say with you, nevertheless.
- Dan Albergott, “Years and Years and Years Later”