“We Must Risk Delight”: Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense”

It may seem odd that after poring through my poetry shelves this past week looking for works of joy and gratitude to befit this holiday season, I would land on and offer you a poem whose first two words are, “Sorrow everywhere.” The next two words are more dismal yet: “Slaughter everywhere,” followed by an image of starving babies…“With flies in their nostrils.”

I am imagining you on the verge of clicking your mouse and tapping away, away, just not feeling up to “everywhere” including whatever hallowed corner of your world you’ve been able to set aside this holiday season as a sorrow-free zone.

Can’t say I blame you.

So I will have to ask you to trust me in stating that this deeply philosophical, 30-line poem is as fine and freeing a meditation on joy as I have ever come across precisely because it stares so unflinchingly at what its author Jack Gilbert refers to as “the ruthless furnace of this world.”

Gilbert’s cleverly-wrought title, “A Brief for the Defense” sounds a distinctly legal note, conjuring an attorney hunched over law books late at night, preparing a defendant’s case she will present to a court come morning.

What is the accused’s offense?

It’s the usual, relentlessly expressed human behaviors of smiling and laughing, enjoying the dawn, sitting in cafes, making music.

How dare they?

How dare anyone, Gilbert writes, “while somebody in the village is very sick?”

It’s a question that bedevils every person with a shred of conscience and empathy for the radical sufferings, misbegotten genes, class inequality and oppression that continue to dog such a large percentage of the people—real flesh-and-blood people, not abstractions on a spreadsheet—in our world.

It is also reflected in the strange, limbo-like quality we find ourselves wandering in when a beloved of ours dies. What’s with this world I am inhabiting now? What are all these people doing sitting in bars and restaurants eating and drinking and flirting and laughing WHEN MY MOTHER JUST DIED HOURS AGO?

And even more piercingly: How dare I eat and drink and laugh?

But we do. We must. And fear not: Jack Gilbert has our back.



Born in Pittsburg in 1925, GIlbert lived more the vagabond’s life than not, passionate about poetry but largely unconcerned with career advancement or material wealth. He wrote only five volumes of poetry over his 50-year career, in a life that took him for varying periods to New York, San Francisco, France, Italy, Greece, England, and Denmark. He died in 2012.

His poetry vocation began in earnest after moving to San Francisco in 1954, where he lived for the next seven years “like a hippy without drugs,” according to his obituary in “The Guardian.”

Though he consorted with various Beat Movement figures (Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth Jack Spicer) who were lighting up the San Francisco poetry scene at the time, he considered himself “too romantic” to identify with the movement.

“A Brief for the Defense” takes up that romantic, laden-with-feeling sensibility by tackling among the thorniest conundrums impinging on the emotional armor of human beings: What am I to do in the face of the egregious suffering of others?

Our human impulse is to help, of course, when that suffering is in our home or at our doorstep. But the scale of suffering in the wider world quickly overwhelms us, rendering us either mute, in denial, or probably most unhelpful of all, paralyzed with guilt. It is mostly this latter response that Gilbert’s poem addresses as he seizes hold of romanticism’s profound appreciation for the world’s abiding beauty.

Why would “God” (creation, posterity, ultimate reality) put beauty and all its corollaries and prerequisites (our senses, our capacity for intelligence, appreciation, ardor) in front of us unless they are meant to be apprehended and enjoyed?

No, we cannot save all others from suffering, but does that mean turning way from beauty and solace, mirth, love and fulfillment? If “God” meant for us to be perpetually downcast from the world’s gaping unfairness, “the mornings before summer dawn would not/be made so fine,” Gilbert implores. And “The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well.”

And then, these key lines (no worries, I will let the poem speak for itself here in just another moment!) that put a wholly different and provocative spin on the matter of wearing our happiness freely while remaining vigilant about the suffering of others. (And our own sufferings, too.) “If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,/we lessen the importance of their deprivation.”

Some may suspect Gilbert of employing some crafty sleight-of-hand there, trying to have his cake while eating it, too. But it strikes me much more as a compact, passionate defense of the joy and contentment all creatures seek as an abiding state of being, a birthright as natural as the smiling mother cleaving her baby to her breast and getting a gurgle of contentment in return.

Not accepting happiness because of guilt or some solidarity with those denied it makes for an even sadder and more downtrodden world, the “deprivation” of happiness becoming even more the norm, less subject to challenge. And this is as true for those in dire circumstances as it is for those living in the lap of splendor—it was not for nothing that music, art, jokes, and acts of profound generosity (the latter being a thing of beauty itself) continued amidst the horrors of concentration camps.

“We must risk delight,” Gilbert writes. “To make injustice the only/measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

For truly, that delight is the only way to keep the ever-warming and expansive flame of joy alive.


                    A BRIEF FOR THE DEFENSE

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Sure, I’d risk this delight—if I could sing some convincing reggae. Oh well, the viewing and listening is plenty delightful enough…


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Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.


Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Bursting flower by Thomas Hawk, San Francisco, California https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/

Diners by Bob Reid, Williamstown, New Jersey https://www.flickr.com/photos/paladinsf/

Royal Bengal tiger by P.L. Landon, Bengaluru, India https://www.flickr.com/photos/13070711@N03/

6 comments to “We Must Risk Delight”: Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense”

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Wonderful poem and beautifully framed in your post my dear friend. Another poet I’ve never heard of (not being a regular reader of poetry) reminds me of the vastness of my unknowing! Gilbert jumps right into one of the most profound conundrums of our existence, how can we sing and be enraptured by the joys of life when so much suffering, so much evil abounds, and life is egregiously unfair? It was pure luck that I was raised by a loving couple dedicated to ensuring their kids were provided the love, support, and opportunities that they were largely deprived of… it wasn’t until college years, thanks to stumbling into a delightful peer group, lots of reading/reflecting/BSing (oh, and a few mind-altering substances) that I began to realize how insanely lucky I was (and am) and chose to follow a path that included some forms of giving back to others less fortunate (in my case via working w/special needs kids & families).

    I love Gilbert’s notion: “We must risk delight,” Gilbert writes. “To make injustice the only/measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” Sounds like Gilbert has some Buddhism in his philosophical toolkit! I’ve spent the last hour poking around the net learning more about Gilbert and enjoying his various quips and comments such as:
    “Everyone forgets Icarus also flew” and “How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, and frightening that it does not quite.”

    Thanks for the gift of hanging out with Jack Gilbert and here’s to “Risking delight” in 2024 and hopefully beyond!

    P.S. Loved the Reggae video too, another artist I’d never heard of but graced this ” boxing day morning” on my playlist!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Ahhhh yes, Kevin: “The vastness of our unknowing.” Just about as deep & fathomless as outer space, seems to me. It strikes me every time I walk into a library of whatever size: all that knowledge, all those passions, all that toil, all the people involved in making each of those volumes happen, all the hands that have touched those volumes, the eyes that have landed on each page, the seeming magic of the eyes working with the brain to inspire all manner of passionate reactions, strong emotions (even sometimes of boredom and criticism!), identifications, inspirations. I also find myself in that setting toying with this question: How many lifetimes would I need to read every volume in this building? And what kind of person would I become were I to do so?

      And then I come back to earth, walk into my home library, and ask, “I wonder how many lifetimes I would need to read every volume in this building?” :-)

      Anyway, I enjoy few things more than to inspire some good digging around and enjoyment by readers of artists that come up for discussion here. Very glad you found your Gilbert tour fruitful, and most appreciative of that absolutely golden nugget you uncovered, “Everyone forgets Icarus also flew.” That has to be the ultimate glass-half-full statement on a way of being and doing in the world that I would like to keep top-of-mind on the cusp of a new year, for which I would bid you a robust “Cheers!”

  • Jay Helman  says:

    I’ve been thinking much lately about resilience and grit as I recover from an untimely and quite painful “face plant” on concrete resulting from a misstep while jogging. A minor fracture in each arm, along with bruises and abrasions and some very sore ribs resulted in several sleepless nights. Amid the frustration reflecting upon that one very impactful misstep came the realization of just how quickly life circumstances and direction can change. While knowing that “this too shall pass” and that “time heals,” it occurred to me that a mindset or certain ways of being are necessary to move forward through the tough and depressing stretches of time necessary for healing and rebounding from the outrageous fortunes that sometimes befall us. Gilbert, I believe, captures it well writing; “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world.” My personal mishap, of course, hardly captures the depth of suffering and injustice that lie at the heart of Gilbert’s defense brief. But, no matter the scale or direction of the hardship and whom it affects, our appreciation of life and the beautiful moments and representations around us require that, as Gilbert writes, “we must admit there will be music despite everything.” Most fittingly for your wonderful post and Gilbert’s reference to music, the Rasta Reggae Music from Lutan Fyah brings it home with lilting carefree reggae rhythm accompanied by images of people and places clearly not living privileged lives of comfort. Suffering, injustice, inequality, and setbacks appear to be givens. Yet, as Gilbert reminds us, so are sunrises and majestic bengal tigers. May we have the stubbornness not to succumb to seeing only the darkness and not the light and the hope. Here’s to resilience and blessings in ’24.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yep, Jay: Behold those music makers! Probably not a more “stubborn,” tenacious lot on earth than them. No matter the situation or constraints, they somehow manage to make some merry, even if it’s in the form of the blues or old spirituals bewailing one’s lot to the heavens. Such need and earnest purpose in all that joy!

      Thanks, also, for citing Gilbert’s line about stubbornness; I have come to think that’s a core requirement for people to live long and productive lives, of the “I’ll go when I’m damn well ready, and not a moment before” school of life (and death). No, it’s not enough to forestall dread disease or accident, and age does finally have its way, but I suspect it does pretty well against various lesser torpedos life sends our way.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Stubbornness often carries a negative connotation– “you’re so damn stubborn, you won’t listen to me” (read: agree with me). Yet one can, in fact , be stubbornly optimistic, allowing one, in Gilbert’s view, to “dare to delight.” Those with a disposition toward optimism are sometimes viewed as naive, or just not quite fully understanding the complexities or seriousness of a situation. People who dismiss optimists and visionaries are often bound by narrow vision, understanding, and the burdens of fear and fatalism. It appears to me that this group is easily captured by messages of fear and doom and rather than turn to leaders/influencers who promote hope and light, are somehow comforted by messengers who broadcast danger, fear, and all things dark. Put millions of those folks into a political coalition, and the armies who “dare to delight” have a formidable task to preserve all things noble and hopeful.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Well stated, Jay, and on-point for the many challenges that are looming large for us all on the cusp of a fateful year…

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