Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Lauren Camp reads “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert.
What was your first ‘Jack Gilbert’ experience? And can you tell us a little about him?
Lauren Camp: I remember reading a Jack Gilbert poem, “By Small and Small: Midnight to 4 A.M.,” in The New Yorker more than a decade ago. I doubt that was my first experience of him, but it was the most potent. I was on an elliptical machine at the gym and nearly fell off, it was that good. He wrote about love so well, so potently. That poem, all heartbreaking nine lines about his wife Michiko, ended up in the book Refusing Heaven.
After a late start in writing and publishing poetry, Jack Gilbert won a lot of acclaim quickly, nabbing a Yale Younger Poets Prize, and within two years of that, a Guggenheim Fellowship. He wasn’t up for such fame and attention, though, and pulled back from the public eye. He lived in Europe for a time. He loved deeply, and from all I’ve read of him, he lived each day and experience fully. He wrote of the women he loved and the relationships with great honesty. Ultimately, he only published a handful of collections.
Sundress: What most struck you about this particular Gilbert poem?
Lauren Camp: “Failing and Flying” wows me. I am drawn in from its start in ancient Greek mythology, which I’ve loved since I was a girl. In that first line, it offers a position of ability, success rather than failure. Gilbert twists from legend to human in the second line…and to many humans. “The marriage fails,” he writes, and that marriage is any number of marriages we know of or have lived within. “Love comes to an end.” We know this too. This is human.
I love those throwaway words “like” and “that” — as in “Like being there by that summer ocean…” — which we writers might otherwise remove. Used in this way, those words become strong. They allow Gilbert to jump to the middle; they unbalance us just enough.
The poem moves from grand and ancient to familiar and communal to individual. After this narrowing, the poet returns again to a human perspective on the legend of Icarus: “…not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end…” That statement is attentive, generous, reasonable. It allows for all our failures.
Sundress: The ending to me seems both deeply personal and to express a particular truth—that Icarus is the fall each of us risks when in love, and that the flight should be celebrated even if it ends in heartache. Or, less eloquently, it is better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all. What a cliché. Icharus, even, is a cliché. And yet it works.
Lauren Camp: I agree that the ending could well express a particular and important truth. I think this is especially so for Gilbert. Perhaps, too, “everyone” in line one is mostly him. How many times did he live that last line in his relationships? Of course that line, and all it holds, could be accurate for all of us, but poets seem to most fully take on subjects they know intimately.
Sundress: In fact, most of the lines and language is simple and straight-forward. I think my favorite lines is “the gentleness in her/like antelope standing in the dawn mist,” itself with a ‘throwaway word’. Perhaps the magic of Gilbert’s poem is in how he makes much out of the ordinary.
If you had to pick one line, which would you say is most inspiring?
Lauren Camp: I’ve been torn about which line is most inspiring, and finally have come around to the first. The arrangement of it wows me. It is not an easy entrance. Who is the everyone? Is he talking to me? Is there an implied judgment of us? (Yes, of course.) And that “also” … so powerful. It means there is something else he did, something we know or will be led to know. Six words and we’re hooked.
Sundress: It’s a great hook. Gilbert actually had me at the title of the poem. “Failing and Flying” is such a strong title, especially as the poem opens up and you realize it’s about a failed relationship. The words are completely reversed from what I’d expect of an Icarus poem, or a poem about divorce. In the first part of the poem, he seems to be playing with the expectations of several off-hand comments that are often said when a marriage fails, before beginning to rewrite his narrative; “but anything worth doing is worth doing badly”—I think that’s my favorite part, where he begins to celebrate the journey of love.
There’s an amazing amount to unpack from this poem, so maybe that was unfair, asking just for one line. Go ahead an pick a second one.
Lauren Camp: I don’t think I can pick more favorites. To my mind, the poem has 25 critical lines. Take any one out, and the poem lacks a center and confirmation of its purpose.
Gilbert is deft in bringing ancient Greece and contemporary society together in this poem. He reminds us that what happens now has occurred before. Jack Gilbert believed in delving into life, and this poem shows that. Does the sorrow of failing sting? Not as much as it would have if Icarus (or the narrator) hadn’t also soared. Icarus (and the narrator) saw the heaven of the experience before they smashed to the ground.
Lately, I’ve been contemplating the adverb “just.” The editor in me wants to take it out of my work, but Gilbert proves, as I’ve been re-discovering, that sometimes seemingly inconsequential words hold power. “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.” Including that adverb softens the fall. In this instance, “just” means “simply, only, no more than.” It is not full failure, but the result of taking the journey.
Sundress: How has Gilbert’s work influenced you as a writer?
Lauren Camp: Gilbert’s language seems pure and direct. Look at this line: “Like the people who / came back from Provence (when it was Provence) / and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.” It expresses a) a certain sort of privilege, b) a statement on a changing society and c) an awareness of how judgmental people are, or maybe better put, how little people truly experience what’s around them.
Gilbert is smart and clear. The reader doesn’t have to disassemble the meaning. He gives it to us, poem after poem, in easy morsels. He’s put each bite in front of us. By delivering his poems with such brevity and clarity, we have no choice but to taste it all, exactly. We swallow.
Lauren Camp is the author of two collections. Her third book, One Hundred Hungers, won the Dorset Prize and will be published by Tupelo Press in 2016. Her poems appear in Poetry International, Slice, The Seattle Review, World Literature Today, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Other literary honors include the National Federation of Press Women Poetry Prize, the Margaret Randall Poetry Prize, an Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award, and a Black Earth Institute Fellowship. She produces and hosts “Audio Saucepan”—a global music program interwoven with contemporary poetry—on Santa Fe Public Radio. Find her at LaurenCamp.com.