In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem "Getting It All" by Jack Gilbert.

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Poetry to the Brim - Episode 9: “Getting It All” by Jack Gilbert
In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem “Getting It All” by Jack Gilbert. --- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/poetrytothebrim/support

Transcript

Hello everyone. You're listening to Poetry to the Brim.

Today I'll be reading the poem "Getting It All" by Jack Gilbert. This one is from The Great Fires, a book of his collected poems from 1982-1992.

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"Getting It All" by Jack Gilbert

The air this morning is pleasant and praises nothing.
It lies easily on each thing. The light has no agency.
In this kind of world, we are on our own: the plain
black shoes of a man sitting in the doorway,
pleats of the tall woman's blue skirt as she hurries
to an office farther on. We will notice maybe
the gold-leaf edges of a book carried by the student
glinting intermittently as she crosses into the bright
sunlight on our side of the street. But usually
we depend on meditation and having things augmented.
We see the trees in their early-spring greenness,
but not again until just before winter. The common
is mostly beyond us. Love after the fervor, the wife
after three thousand nights. It is easy to realize
the horses suddenly running through an empty alley.
But marriage is clear. Like the faint sound of a cello
very late at night somewhere below in the stillness
of an old building on a street named Gernesgade.

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So in the first two lines of the poem, we see the speaker contemplating the pleasant air in the morning: an air that so totally itself in its lack of praise, so apparently distant, and yet somehow close to and somehow lying "easily on each thing." In the remaining sixteen lines of the poem, we see a speaker who's aware of the limitations of human perception, and we find out the ways in which humans are different from the air in the first two lines.

Humans typically rely on two things for perception. First, the mind uses concepts to label and make sense of things; in some cases even, concepts may be used to attribute significance to or to consecrate things, as with a concept such as marriage. The speaker says, "We will notice maybe the gold-leaf edges of a book carried by the student / glinting intermittently as she crosses into the bright / sunlight on our side of the street." We require so many concepts and words just to describe an experience like this that might have taken all of ten seconds, yet still it does not fully describe the experience, only what seems to be salient. But still, "marriage is clear": concepts are easy to hold on to in minds so used to them.

The second thing humans rely on for perception, in addition to concepts, is some sort of difference, specifically difference in the phenomena we perceive. A difference against a backdrop of sameness is what is stark to minds that helplessly compare and recognize patterns. In the poem, the speaker says, "We see the trees in their early-spring greenness, / but not again until just before winter. / The common is mostly beyond us." We do not see ordinary, everyday things as they are. We do not know what love is "after the fervor" or our wife "after three thousand nights": these things are all too common. But seeing "the horses suddenly running through an empty alley" is easy since it's such a significant difference: we need the ordinarily empty alley to be stunned into the real by horses running through it.

These two aspects of perception, that of concepts that seem to represent the things of the world and that of difference in phenomena, give us the sense that we are close to our experience. We think we "know" something if we can call it something, when in fact concepts distance us from the unspeakable reality of things. The "map is not the territory" [2]. And in fact, our perceptual bias to tend to only notice phenomena if they are different also alienates and distances us from reality, chiefly the common things all around us, the ground of our reality. And this reality is that which Gilbert describes wherein in some sense "we are on our own" as a seemingly localized consciousness left to make sense of and perceive the world. I doubt Gilbert means that we are individual egos separate from the world: we are not alone in that sense. But we are, as many say, alone together as humans, together in the sense of being left to realize the true source of experience and not to be deluded by the limits of our perceptual biases.

To me this poem contemplates the most essential divide in human experience: that of distance and closeness—or put differently, separation and non-separation or multiplicity and unity, if you prefer. The human mind is like a prism [3] that refracts the source of experience from its original unity into multiplicity. We only perceive the forms that we try to make sense of through concepts such as space, time, and marriage; and we are inclined to pay more attention to differences, like those horses running through an empty alley. This is the condition we humans find ourselves in.

However, if we notice thoughts and concepts as they arise, as we do in meditation, there's nothing really to praise, there's nothing inherently good or bad. Everything is as it is. Everything eludes description.

And if you are still conceptually inclined: if we must praise something, we must praise more than we can see, more than the differences we notice. We must praise everything, but to praise everything is to praise nothing, because the concept of praise requires something specific to approve of, which requires that you helplessly alienate that which is not praised. So in this sense, everything should be beyond praise, like Gilbert's air which seems to "get it all," as in the poem's title: the air that lies "easily on each thing"—both close to and distant from everything, or neither close to nor distant from anything.

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"Getting It All" by Jack Gilbert

The air this morning is pleasant and praises nothing.
It lies easily on each thing. The light has no agency.
In this kind of world, we are on our own: the plain
black shoes of a man sitting in the doorway,
pleats of the tall woman's blue skirt as she hurries
to an office farther on. We will notice maybe
the gold-leaf edges of a book carried by the student
glinting intermittently as she crosses into the bright
sunlight on our side of the street. But usually
we depend on meditation and having things augmented.
We see the trees in their early-spring greenness,
but not again until just before winter. The common
is mostly beyond us. Love after the fervor, the wife
after three thousand nights. It is easy to realize
the horses suddenly running through an empty alley.
But marriage is clear. Like the faint sound of a cello
very late at night somewhere below in the stillness
of an old building on a street named Gernesgade.

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Thanks for listening to Poetry to the Brim. If you enjoyed the show, please share it with a friend or two who might also enjoy it. If you read the poem differently and would like to share your thoughts with me or just have general suggestions about the show, I'd love to hear. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@acyanlight) or Instagram (@acyanlight), or email the show at poetrytothebrim@gmail.com.

Also, you can find a full transcript of the episode on the website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. There, you can also subscribe to stay up to date by email for when I release a new episode, as well as find ways to support the show.

Alright. Thanks again! Until next time.

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Citations

  1. Gilbert, Jack. “Getting It All.” The Great Fires: Poems, 1982-1992, A. A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
  2. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, p. 58.
  3. A metaphor used by my dear friend Sashank Aryal in Open Secret Podcast, Episode 3.