Failing and Flying by Jack Gilbert
By Norah Christianson
Failing and Flying
By Jack Gilbert
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
Jack Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh in 1925. After he dropped out of high school, he worked as a door-to-door salesman, a pest exterminator, and a steelworker. Later he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh where he developed a serious interest in poetry and writing. He then earned an M.A. from San Francisco State University.
Gilbert wrote and taught and traveled and loved. His first love, the poet Linda Gregg, said of him, “All Jack ever wanted to know was that he was awake—that the trees in bloom were almond trees—and to walk down the road to get breakfast. He never cared if he was poor or had to sleep on a park bench.”
Jack Gilbert died in 2012 in Berkeley, California. The New York Times article about his death stated, “Jack Gilbert was a peculiar figure in the contemporary poetry world in the sense that he wasn’t exactly in it. A restless man who traveled a great deal, lived frugally and occasionally lectured or taught to support himself, he spoke and wrote with enthusiasm about life in the world, without failing to acknowledge its terrors and miseries.”
I’ve always secretly bridled when someone calls a person who was once known for having achieved something a “has-been.” I want to shout: The person had been! He/she played the zither, or invented the donut, or swam across the Housatonic, or experienced great love. In “Failing and Flying”, Jack Gilbert is telling us, so what if it all comes to an end? That is not a failure. Everything comes to an end, including our loves, our very bodies. Make your life your achievement. BE!
Winston Churchill said, “It is better to do something than to do nothing while waiting to do everything.” Don’t wait until you can do it, all of it, perfectly. Love and live and fly. And when it all comes to an end, as Icarus’s life did when his wax wings melted in the sun, you’d at least have lived. You’d have loved. You’d have flown. You’d have been someone. You will have just come to the end of your triumph.