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.

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.

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.



Fun Things I Read Nov. 18.

Hi everyone!

As I continue to catch y’all up on what I’ve been reading, here’s a post from a few days ago, the last time I did my morning reading. Any morning reading posts after this will happen the day of, so you who’ve been following via WordPress will be caught up with those on Facebook. 🙂

Here’s an excerpt I particularly loved from my reading this morning. It comes from my second collection of Jack Gilbert poems, which I picked up Monday.

“Goodness is a triumph. And so it is with love. Love is not the part we are born with that flowers a little and then wanes as we grow up. We cobble love together from this and those of our machinery until there is suddenly an apparition that never existed before. There it is, unaccountable.”

— From “Painting On Plato’s Wall” in the collection titled “The Dance Most of All” by Jack Gilbert.

Just as a heads up, I should tell y’all I haven’t done my reading today, and I may not get to it since my morning is packed with social funness, but if I do, you’ll see another post later tonight. Otherwise, expect something either tomorrow or the next day :).

Have a great day everyone. 🙂 Don’t forget to play :).

Something New To Watch For

About a week ago, I started reading every day. Keep in mind that at Kansas State University, I am an English major, meaning I often have a serious amount of reading to do just for classes. Add in that I’m a senior, and you could rightfully presume my workload of for-class readings is at least significant enough to make leisurely reading difficult to schedule.

Still, as I sat down with a cup of green tea, a book of Jack Gilbert poems, and “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall, I was excited. That took place Nov. 16.

Since then, I’ve been posting the occasional excerpt or two from my morning reading. I don’t always read as many poems from day to day, or as many chapters from day to today, the balance in how much I read of each is determined both by how I’m feeling and what I’m in the mood for, and I think it unwise to become married to one “minimum” guideline in either, because then reading just becomes a chore.

With all due respect to the amazing writers I read as part of homework for my two English classes this semester: That’s what homework’s for.

Yesterday, I began adding scripture, which I see as part of my ongoing efforts to become closer to God (which, as a Christian, is a really big deal in my life, even though I’m subtle about it). Now, I’m developing a routine. Every day before classes or rehearsal or anything else, I’m reading. I’ve always loved my mornings, and I’ve always loved getting up early as I relished all that was to come in the day. Recreational reading, however, has added new energy to that desire, energy I didn’t know was missing. It’s fun to go to bed every night now, not because I’m tired, but because I’m eager to wake up the next day and observe what life teaches me. That’s what this reading habit has started to do for me just eight days into the process of being established.

So today, I’m making this public. From now on, I’ll share with you the occasional excerpt from my daily reading. I won’t do too much with scripture in these posts, but otherwise if I find something interesting or thought provoking or inspirational, I’ll share it with you.

Let me know what you think in the comments below, or feel free to comment on any of my posts as I submit them. Tomorrow I’ll start with a post I shared on Facebook last week, and I’ll post one a day for the next week until I’ve got you caught up with Facebook.

Check back tomorrow :).

-Shelton 🙂