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Genesis West and Jack Gilbert: Some Incomplete Notes

This short-lived literary journal was published between 1962-1964, a total of 8 issues.  For an independent literary journal at the time, it was remarkably well-made, with professional typography, artwork, perfect-bound, average length of 100 pages. At the time, most small press magazines, if not sponsored by a university, were mimeographed, composed on typewriters, poorly reproduced, and held together by staples.  Even by today’s standards, Genesis West would be considered a professionally produced journal, so it is no surprise than many folks in the literary world sat up and took notice in the early 1960s.  Each issue contained an interview by Lish some one luminary or another (Herbert Gold, Ken Kesey, and in the final issue, a self-interview), an assortment of fiction (Tillie Olsen, Donald Barthleme), poetry, letters to the editor, and a guest-edited section by Jack Gilbert where Gilbert was allowed to include whatever he wanted, such as drawings by John Lennon.

See Mike Young’s HMTLGiant blog post about finding the first issue of GW for $8 (a rather remarkable find, since copies tend to go for $20-200 on the collector market).

The journal was a place many writers, known and unknown, strived to be featured, hence Tom Wolfe’s contention (in the intro to The Secret Life of Our Times [Doubleday, 1973]) that Lish inflamed many literary egos by turning work down, or as Jack Gilbert stated in a letter to Lish, recalling when they would “write suicidal rejection letters” in Lish’s backyard California home.  Did Gilbert mean “career suicide” by rejecting the so-called “Big Names” of the Beat Generation and publishing scene?  This would seem to follow suit for Lish, when he told D.T. Max he gained many enemies in the publishing industry by “saying no to those you do not say no to” (e.g., E.L. Doctorow). Gilbert apparently found very little worth publishing in the many submissions that arrived in the mail, and soon quit editing his section of the journal. He remained a significant factor in Lish’s publishing endeavors.

Gilbert is one of Lish’s great “finds,” up there with Carver, Hannah, and Hempel. Gilbert is not a prolific poet—in a career that has spanned over six decades, he has published only four volumes. Each book has been a literary event, garnering top nominations and awards; the books have been successful as far as poetry collections go.

Lish had published a spread of Gilbert’s poems in an issue of Esquire, and that issue went on to be one of the magazine’s best sellers with street sales, people picking up multiple copies to give to friends. That’s how popular a poet Gilbert was in the 1970s, and before that.

Gilbert’s first, Views of Jeopardy (1962), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award.  Uncomfortable with the scrutiny that accompanies literary “fame,” Gilbert became an ex-patriot, traveling the world on a Guggenheim fellowship and playing the role of “house guest” to wealthy admirers of the the American literary elite. He slowly composed his clear and succinct verse, sending them off to poetry journals and Lish. Gilbert is another example of a writer who owes much of his career to Lish, who applied gentle pressure on Gilbert to compile subsequent volumes. 

Monolithos (1979) collected new work and revised poems from the first collection (like Carver, Gilbert was always revising previously published works).

The Great Fires (1994) was a highly anticipated volume in the poetry community and nominated for the National Book Award. Refusing Heaven (2005), published by Knopf but not under Lish’s editorial guidance, won the National Critics Book Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

In 2009, Gilbert’s fifth collection, The Dance Most of All, was released.  His work often concerns relationships, from his marriage to the poet Linda Gregg to the death of his second wife, Michiko Nogami, from cancer, that a number of the poems in The Great Fires and Refusing Heaven address. His work is deeply personal, something that readers (much like readers do with Carver) easily identity with.

From Refusing Heaven:


The Mistake

There is always the harrowing by mortality,
the strafing by age, he thinks. Always defeats.
Sorrows come like epidemics. But we are alive
in the difficult way adults want to be alive.
It is worth having the heart broken,
a blessing to hurt for eighteen years\
because a woman is dead. He thinks of long
before that, the summer he was with Gianna
and her sister in Apulia. Having outwitted
the General, their father, and driven south
to the estate of the Contessa. Like an opera.
The fiefdom stretching away to the horizon.
Houses of the peasants burrowed into the walls
of the compound. A butler with white gloves
serving chicken in aspic. The pretty maid
in her uniform bringing his breakfast each
morning on a silver tray: toast both light
and dark, hot chocolate and tea both. A world
like Tosca. A feudal world crushed under
the weight of passion without feeling.
Gianna’s virgin body helplessly in love.
The young man wild with romance and appetite.
Wondering whether he would ruin her by mistake.


We will discuss, in more detail, the collections in another post (or a post-post to this post).

It is useful to note that Gilbert co-wrote, as Tor Kung, two erotic novels for Olympia Press (Forever Ecstasy and My Mother Taught Me, set in Gilbert’s hometown of Pittsburgh) that were among the press’ better sellers, and still sell quite well today in ebook and POD format. Original copies fetch a high price on the market. And it is no surprise that the Tor Kung novels are remarkable reads of erotic literature.




3 responses »

  1. I saw Jack’s poem the other day in the New Yorker (Nov 28) that seemed to have his illness passing among the waves of other stuff in it. Nowhere on this damned Internet can I find what is going on with him. Wish I could tell him how much I treasure our two summers teaching together at that small college back in the hills of Kentucky.

    John Herrmann
    Libby, Montana

  2. A lot ask me who my favorite poets are. Jack Gilbert gets the most “who?’s” and that’s a pity. A great article. Lish had a great eye.

  3. Sue Lawrence Anderson

    Hi John,

    Jack is in a skilled nursing facility and is very frail. You can contact Linda Gregg in New York at (202) 673-7732 to convey your thoughts about Jack. I know Linda will appreciate hearing how much Jack meant to you.

    Thank you,

    Sue Anderson


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