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A book — especially one unasked for, chosen as a surprise — is one of the most personal gifts I can think of: How well do I know the person I'm giving the book to, and can I accurately match their tastes and moods and needs? It's a difficult task, but one way to start is perhaps to choose a book that has moved me first, that continues to move me as tastes change and moods shift and new needs arise.
For the past few years — too short a span, because I came to his work so late — there have been few writers who have thrilled and lifted and sustained me like Jack Gilbert, and the release of his Collected Poems last year was in and of itself a gift. In one of my favorite poems, "A Brief for the Defense," Gilbert writes that "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... We must admit there will be music despite everything." I return to this poem often, each time thankful for the way it buttresses me against the world, and sends me back to it renewed.
Delight: What an amazingly rare and wonderful thing. What a gift to give someone else — and for me there's no doubt that anyone reading Gilbert's Collected Poems will feel it over and over, from the impeccable language, from the depth of emotion in every poem, from the accumulation of a lifetime of unbounded feeling and careful craft. In an interview five decades ago, Gilbert said that he was "always deeply concerned with the poem as a made thing": "Like something chopped out of stone that won't weaken. But not as a decoration. Not a recreation. There are two kinds of poetry finally. The kind that gives delight, and the kind that does something else. Delight is fine... [but] there is something else. It's a delight, too, but of a kind so different that it is misleading to use the same word. The first is recreation; the second changes man."
The Collected Poems are full of such poems, of such made things: Beautiful pages of both kinds of delight, of lines that will not just thrill the reader but change his or her heart. It's a lucky and necessary thing that such books exist. Whenever we find such a book, it should be our pleasure to put it into the hands of our friends and loved ones who might need it the most.
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Matt Bell is the author of the novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods and the story collection How They Were Found. In 2012, Cataclysm Baby, a novella, was published by Mud Luscious Press. Bell's fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2010, Best American Fantasy 2, and 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers, and shortlisted in Best American Short Stories 2010 and the Pushcart Prize anthology. He serves as senior editor at Dzanc Books and teaches writing at Northern Michigan University.
Books mentioned in this post
Matt Bell is the author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods