Poet, friend and vagabond Jack Gilbert dies in Berkeley

Jack Gilbert with his friend Bill Mayer in Napa in 1993.
Bill Mayer/Courtesy
Jack Gilbert with his friend Bill Mayer in Napa in 1993.

Jack Gilbert lived a life as fierce and unconventional as his poetry. The poet died Tuesday in a Berkeley nursing home after a prolonged battle with dementia. He was 87.

Gilbert didn’t condone small talk. He was as serious in his personal life as he was in his poetry — pursuing deep meaning with his friends and in his writing.

“He would say things like ‘So how many times have you been loved? How did you know you were in love? What do you want to do with your life?’” said friend and fellow Bay Area poet Larry Felson. “You were immediately kind of lifted into a different sphere by Jack.”

The poet, born in Pittsburgh in 1925, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree from San Francisco State University. Known for his focus on classic themes and unabashed prose, Gilbert found fame early in his career after his first book of poems, Views of Jeopardy, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the Yale Younger Poets award in 1962.

But Gilbert valued his art much more than the fame that came with it, and spent much of his career running from notoriety. He wasn’t an academic, and though he lived in San Francisco in the 1950s, he was not a member of the growing Beat Generation either. Instead, he worked within his own poetic framework and was admired both by fellow artists and everyday readers.

He published five collections of poetry in his literary career of over half a century.

“He was in love with poetry and was very very serious about it — poetry was his life,” said lifelong friend and poet Bill Mayer. “He was concerned about creating what is today considered not exactly in fashion. He wanted to create masterpieces.”

Gilbert was a literary vagabond, having worked in places such as San Francisco, Greece and Massachusetts during his career. But in 2009, he moved for the final time to California, where he eventually settled at the Chaparral House — a non-profit intermediate care facility in Berkeley — about a year and a half ago, according to Mayer.

Though Gilbert was not close to any of his family, a community of Bay Area poets and friends supported him in the final years of his life. Gilbert’s former romantic partner and longtime friend, poet Linda Gregg, and other close friends came together in May to honor his poetry at Pegasus Books in downtown Berkeley, the last poetry event he attended before his passing. By this time, Gilbert’s speech and motor functions were failing him.

“It was a really beautiful, beautiful evening. His poetry is so good, and all the different voices reading it was just a miracle,” said Pegasus Books owner Amy Thomas, who came to know Gilbert in his final years. “I think he was really revived by it.”

Gilbert is survived by his nephew, Bruce Gilbert, and his poetry, which was published in its entirety in March.

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia limited Gilbert’s ability to write in his final years but his passion for poetry continued until the end of his life.

“I asked him point blank, ‘Are you still trying to write poems? Are you writing lines in (your) head,’” Felson said. “And he nodded yes.”

Contact Libby Rainey at lrainey@[email protected]

Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comment policy