A Close Reading Of Gilbert’s “Trying To Have Something Left Over”

(Editor’s Note: I’ve been wanting to write this for a while. This post has been sitting in my “drafts” for literally months, largely because I’ve been trying to figure out how to start it. Any performer, artist, writer would readily tell you that starting is among the scariest, most difficult parts of any creative endeavor.

For me, that makes it also the most fun part. Enjoy, as I try and struggle my way into elegance.)

A Close Reading of Gilbert’s “Trying To Have Something Left Over”.

If you’re into poetry at all, or even if you’re not and you just like neat, beautiful ideas, one poem you need to read is “Trying to have something left over” by Jack Gilbert.

Plenty has been written about the final lines of this poem, which you can buy as part of Gilbert’s collection “The Great Fires” on Amazon. I’d encourage you to. I’ve read enough poetry at this point in my young life to know that this collection is something special. Not because of how it speaks to me, because Gilbert had a mind and life much different from mine. His life, his views on love all were more realistic, more honest, more complete than mine are.

Maybe that was because he wrote these poems starting when he was 57. Maybe he was just less stubborn than I was, a better steward of a tougher life’s lessons than myself.

But I digress. Whatever the many causes for the beauty of his work, especially this collection, and even more especially this poem, Gilbert wrote something in it I wish to analyze, and imagine with you for just a moment.

The last nine lines go like this, as he talks about playing with the baby of a woman he had an extramarital affair with:

“I would say Pittsburg softly each time before
throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburg with
my mouth against the tiny ear and throw
him higher. Pittsburg and happiness high up.
The only way to leave even the smallest trace.
So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.”

-from “Trying To Have Something Left Over” by Jack Gilbert.

These lines have been burned in my brain since I read them. I like other poems in the collection more, (or at least, so I’ve always thought). But what strikes me most in this poem is something marvelous that’s happening.

Gilbert, in the events above, is taking care of a child of a woman he can never have a relationship with (per the rest of the poem before these lines) and a child who is not, in my understanding, his. Yet he cares so much about that child and that city that he wants that child to feel happiness forever on the mention of its name.

That in itself is beautiful.

The idea he’d care so much about a place, and an idea behind it, to engrain that in the mind of a small child. Something mattered deeply to Gilbert about Pittsburg. Sure, it was his hometown, but the final lines of the poem suggest more than just nostalgia. They suggest a bigger idea. An idea Gilbert was desperate to pass on, desperate to keep alive in any way possible or necessary because whatever it was, it was something beautiful, good, important.

The boy will never know what it was. He’ll never know why the utterance of the word “Pittsburg” brings him joy, having never been able to remember his infant laughs as Gilbert threw him up each time when he was a baby. All he’ll know is that there’s something wonderful there. But he’ll never know what it was. And the most beautiful part of this concept?

Neither will we as readers.

That’s why I write you today. I read this poem and I see the marvelous, poetic beauty Gilbert has engineered with these lines.

We see Gilbert throwing up the small infant. We hear his laughter, see his smile, maybe we evenimagine his mother standing in the doorway looking with a sad smile at all of this, perhaps seeing Gilbert’s potential as a father and wishing they could have a future, even while knowing that they couldn’t.

But what we never hear Gilbert do is actually explain what he was trying to convey. We never learn what was so vital it needed to be etched in the memory of an infant. Gilbert never tells the baby, and also never tells us as readers.

That’s where the true beauty in these poems comes in: we as readers are the infant to this poet.

Gilbert can never have an individual relationship with any of us any more than he can with the young woman or her son. Gilbert the man has a wife whom he loves, precluding him from staying with her or the boy.

Gilbert the poet has a mortal life, unable to converse with most of those who will read his work. In each case, with the infant as the boy and the infant as the reader, Gilbert can only have a one-way relationship. All he can do is try to teach. Never ask, just tell.

So he does. He tells us about the beauty of trying to convey an idea through emotion because he lacks the ability of just explain it. Gilbert does not tell us why Pittsburg is so important to him. He does not tell us what idea he must pass through even just a partial memory. He does not tell us why he wants the baby, be it the child in the poem or the reader of the poetry, to feel joy every time they think of the “ruined city of steel in America.”

All any of us knows is that there’s some idea there that is worth celebrating, worth cherishing, worth holding a beer up to whenever we think of that place.

Too often, becoming an adult teaches us to ask “why” when invited to celebrate something. Adulthood teaches us not to celebrate unless we understand the whole reason for celebrating.

This poem asks us not to.

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