Jack Gilbert

(1925 - 2012)

Jack Gilbert was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the Great Depression. An indifferent student, he failed out of high school. He then worked as an exterminator, a steelworker, and a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman before being admitted to the University of Pittsburgh via a clerical error. In school, he befriended Gerald Stern, who wrote poetry, inspiring Gilbert to begin the practice as well. He moved to Paris after graduating, where he worked as a journalist, then to Italy. After the breakup of a relationship, Gilbert came to San Francisco during its poetry renaissance. There, he mingled with Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, attended workshops by Jack Spicer, and received his master’s degree from San Francisco State University.

Gilbert’s first book, Views of Jeopardy, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1962. The surrounding publicity, including a photoshoot for Vogue, made him a household name in the United States. However, Gilbert was not interested in fame at all: as he told the Paris Review years later, “Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting…After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live.” Although he continued to write poetry, he would not publish again for 20 years, nor would he spend much time in his country of birth. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, Gilbert moved back to Europe, living in England, Denmark, and, for much of the 1960s, in Greece with his longtime partner Linda Gregg. Later, he lived in Japan with his wife, the sculptor Michiko Nogami. He lived frugally, sustained by occasional work teaching. In 1975, he toured fifteen countries for a lecture series on American literature for the U.S. State Department. He moved back to the U.S. after Nogami’s death in 1982.

Though Gilbert published infrequently for a major poet, each of his few books continued to resonate with new generations of readers, expressing universal mysteries with an engaging, honest voice. His second collection, Monolithos (1982), won both the Stanley Kunitz Prize and the American Poetry Review Prize, and his fourth, Refusing Heaven (2005), won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His Collected Poems was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He was also the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In his final years, Gilbert taught in American schools including Smith College, where he was the Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence, and the University of Tennessee. He died in Berkeley, California, in 2012.


More Jack Gilbert

Audio: Listen to a 2006 interview with Gilbert for All Things Considered

Text/Audio: Read and listen to poems by Gilbert at the Academy of American Poets


Photo by Robert Toby.