Jack Gilbert

Are there essential ways in which you consider yourself an American poet?


When you consider your own "tradition," do you think primarily of American poets?


Do you believe there is anything specifically American about past and contemporary American poetry? Is there American poetry in the sense that there is said to be American painting or American film? Do you wish to distinguish American poetry from British or other English language poetry?


Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?

The obvious ones. Whitman and, in a special way, Dickinson.

What import does regional poetry occupy in your sense of American poetry?

Only incidental.

What about the American poets who lived primarily in Europe (Eliot, Pound, Stein)? What about the European poets who have recently lived or worked in America (Heaney, Walcott, Milosz)?

Not basically, importantly, able to do what the native Americans (not meaning the indigenous Native Americans) did. When W. H. Auden was talking to me about a survey like this back in the fifties, he said it was nonsense. That if you want to know something about the poet you should ask him whether he preferred beer or gin.

Eliot and Pound and Stein were profoundly American. Europe cross-pollinated with that as the source of why their poetry's greater complexity (compared to W. C. Williams) has a wider range of matter.

Are you interested in poetry written in America but not in English?

Not much.

Are you more likely to read a contemporary non-American poet who writes in English or a contemporary non-American poet translated into English?

Depends on which poets.

Do other aspects of your life (for instance, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity) figure more prominently than nationality in your self-identity as a poet?

Other aspects do, but none of these except, obviously, gender.

Do you believe you could readily distinguish a poem by an American poet from a poem by other poets writing in English?

Often, but not readily.

What do you see as the consequences of "political correctness" for American poetry?

Cowardly poetry.

What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?

A decline. Unless there is less money in ancillary profit for being a poet.

Additional Comments:

What is American about the best American poets cannot be answered quickly. If it is answered quickly, it seems overly familiar; size, and emptiness of that size because America has been outsized to Europeans. Admirably or not. (For a hundred years the painters living near the vast forests and jungles in America—especially Brazil—did not paint them!) . . . to say the frontier life, the (for a long time) undomesticated or regularized places Americans lived in as they moved away from the East Coast, the magnitude that seeped into spirit and heart of the poets—even those who thought they were writing about something else have changed the world—in the same way that loneliness was different in America than in Europe, and made the Romanticism in America to be, at its best, written with a lower case 'r.' The loneliness and "American" Romaniticism has had more and deeper roots. It's because living in the magnitude of the American landscape and the "innocence" of people in it caused their hearts to be ambition before anyone was there to tell them better. Etcetera.

(The wilderness went on in the best American poems until money came into it so overwhelmingly in the late Sixties.)




Continue browsing Q & A: American Poetry