Jack Gilbert, a poet who eschewed conventions of career and writing style to develop a singular voice that combined intellectual heft with a spare specificity of language that made him among the major figures of American poetry over the last half-century, has died. He was 87.
Gilbert, who was in the advanced stages of dementia, died Tuesday at a nursing home in Berkeley, Calif., after developing pneumonia, said Bill Mayer, a poet and longtime friend.
Calling Gilbert “America’s greatest living poet," Mayer said his friend “was unique in that he was not a part of any (literary) school or group. He went his own way, and he lived pretty much entirely for his life and his art."
A writer who knew fame and obscurity, Gilbert produced five collections of poetry, relatively few given a career that spanned more than five decades. But the poems that he produced were starkly original, an uncommon combination of intellect, craft, clarity and emotionality that often appeal to general readers of serious literature far beyond the close-knit world of poetry.
Born in Pittsburgh, Gilbert worked as a steelworker and exterminator before launching his literary career. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh in 1954 and a master’s from San Francisco State in 1963.
Gilbert arrived in the Bay Area in the 1950s and attended Jack Spicer’s Magic Poetry Workshop, a seminal experience in his writing life. The poetry of the Beat Generation was in full flower all around him, but Gilbert and his work were no fit. He rebelled, not only against the Beats, but against the avant-garde language experiments and other endeavors in verse in vogue at the time — chiefly, he stood against any poetry that he considered to be ephemeral or inconsequential.