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.
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