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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On Reading “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” by Jack Gilbert

I am overwhelmed.
I have seen through the half-blind verse of another
writer’s eyes. I have become
involuntarily mesmerized
as if watching an owl fly
illuminated only by the light of the stars beyond,
little more than a mere memory of a shadow.
 
I have been overwhelmed,
have looked into her
eyes before “Anything Goes” in 2014. Seen
Taylor Swift at the Sprint Center a year earlier heard
13,000 fans sing in blissful ignorance about love.
I have been overwhelmed by the poem
the way I felt walking
home after my very first dance class.
The way I felt after seeing Carolyn dance
to win “Dancing with the K-State Stars.”
 
I am, at the hands of verse
Emancipated.
Enthralled.
Left wordless.
Freed.
Voluntarily recaptured.

Poetry: Awaiting Your Music

Awaiting Your Music
 
 
I want to listen to you memories
like the lines of a Jack Gilbert poem.
I want to feel
your heart shine through the lines,
where it becomes irrelevant how they sound
because the language is irrelevant,
though, coming from you, even that’s serene.
 
I want to sit and just listen;
On a rooftop with you, sharing
a sunrise, with the music of your voice
and the music of your heart
serenading me. I want to hear
about the lives you’ve lived,
and the dreams you’ve dreamt.
 
I want to listen to your past,
to hear you tell me of your adventures
barbecuing at the lake with your family every fourth of July,
roughhousing with your older brothers
growing up, dancing with your dad
in your living room, at 13, dreaming of your wedding.
 
There’s a fear within you that I can’t listen,
that all I’ll do is
interrupt. But every day I listen
to a thousand futile voices:
peoples’, life’s, love’s, my own.
Secretly though, the only sound I wish to hear
is yours.

Morning Reading 12/30/15 :)

Lol here are a couple of quotes from my reading to start your day. If you’re bored or interested in commenting, books are always fun to discuss, so please join in. Otherwise though, just enjoy 🙂

“It may perhaps be pleasant,” replied Charlotte, “to be able to impose on the public in such a case; but it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all BEGIN freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten a women had better show MORE affection than she feels.”

—from “Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

*Editor’s Note: This one just made me go “aww dang!” The affection of this poem, and this ending, made me think of some people I know :). Have fun.*

 

“… . No longer
will you waltz under the chandeliers in Paris salons
drunk with champagne and the Greek girl as the others
stand along the mirrored walls. The men watching
with fury, the eyes of the women inscrutable. No one
remembers you as the Baron. The streetcars have
finished the last run, and I am walking home. Thinking
love is not refuted because it comes to an end.”

—from “Elegy for Bob (Jean McLean)” by Jack Gilbert.

Morning Musings 12/29/2015 :)

Here are some notable quotes from my reading this morning. The first exchange between two of the characters was one I thought to be purely amusing. The second, from the book of poetry I’m reading, was just straight up deep. Enjoy :). I know they’re long, but this novel lends itself to those, if you’ve read it I’m sure you’re well aware. 😛

 
“‘…Well, he certainly is very agreeable, and I give you leave to like him. You have liked many a stupider person.’

‘Dear Lizzy!’

‘Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes. I never heard you speak ill of a human being in your life.’

‘I would not wish to be hasty in censuring anyone; but I always speak what I think.’

‘I know you do; and it is that which makes the wonder.'”

—from “Pride and Prejudice”

 

“The body keeps so little of the life after
being with her eleven years,
and the mouth not even that much. But the heart
is different. It never forgets
the pine trees with the moon rising behind them
every night.”

—From “Kunstkammer” by Jack Gilbert
Have a great day everyone. Let me know if you need anything. 🙂

Morning Musings (I.E. Reading) 12/28/2015

Here are some quotes from my morning reading that I found deep or amusing:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

— from “Pride and Prejudice.”

Well, good thing I’m in possession of no such fortune lol :P. Good to know nobody’s conspiring for me in that regard :P.

Anyway, here’s the other one.

“… I am haunted
by the feeling that she is saying
melting lords of death, avalanches,
rivers and moments of passing through.
And I am replying, ‘Yes, yes.
Shoes and pudding.'”

— from “Say You Love Me” by Jack Gilbert.

Been there sir, been there. Glad to see I’m not the only one :).

A Letter to My Readers :)

Dearest Readers,

 

It’s been a crazy few weeks. I took a little time off from my writing here because I needed to focus on what I was doing, namely: production week, then the host of projects that were due during dead week, and finally…well, finals week lol.

I have been reading, albeit slowly, and now I’ve actually completed both the collection of poetry and the book Born To Run that I was reading last time I wrote here.

So today, I’ll start something new. I’m still picking the prose, but as for the poetry, I’m excited to have learned that all this time I was reading Jack Gilbert’s later work. I was reading his work from his later years, the years after he had learned love. Now, I go back a little further with my favorite poet and pick up his first collection: Refusing Heaven. 

I’m eager to see if Mr. Gilbert was ever as hopeful as I am, if he ever longed for what he eventually found the way I do.

These next two collections will likely reveal that. I’m excited, and can’t wait to share it with you.

 

-Shelton