My father, a grizzled railroader, called the obituary section of the Portsmouth Star daily newspaper “the old man’s sports page.” It was the page that people “of a certain age” turned to first.
“I always check it to see if I’m in there,” he told me. I realize now that he told me that about 60 years ago, when he was 44 and I was 13. And I remember too that my father had started working for his father at the age of 13, carrying water and kegs of railroad spikes to the men who were laying track on the old Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. When I was 13, I was a clueless doofus, reading Mad Comics and fantasizing about becoming the next Stan Musial.
Daddy had a grim sense of humor. He would tell me that Babe Ruth had died, and I would say, “What did he die of?” And he would say, “Same thing as everybody else – lack of breath.”
At any rate, after reading the box scores of the St. Louis Cardinals, and thoroughly soaking up the comics page, I got into the habit of checking the obits to see who had “kicked the bucket.” I haven’t been in there yet and neither have you.
But today I read about Jack Gilbert, who was my favorite living American poet until this week, when he passed at the age of 87. Now, I don’t have a favorite living American poet. But good poetry lives forever, and that is a blessing I count on. I loved Gilbert’s ability to be simultaneously cynical and romantic, a neat trick that takes rare experience to accomplish. You can’t fake it. He writes from his own truth and that honest realism creates an accessibility – a word now used to mean that the reader can actually grasp and relate to what the the poet is talking about. For some reason accessibility is a lost art, and it is a big reason that poetry itself is becoming a lost art.
Gilbert was also a man who shunned the crowd. He never appeared at writer’s conferences, and his public readings were rare. He won national acclaim in his early thirties and quickly became bored with all that came with it. And although he was a very private man, his poems reflect so much of his humanity that to read them is to know him well.
I like to think that Jack Gilbert would have loved Rappahannock, where it is really okay to just be who you are, a place where eccentricities and individualism seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Maybe he did live here, happily and anonymously. Often I have seen those strangers sitting alone in the corner of a crowded cafe, studying the other patrons like a scientist studying human behavior, with one eye in a microscope and the other in a telescope.
The other obituary I read today was that of Cleve Duncan, the lead singer of a 1950’s doo-wop group called the Penguins, a quartet that had one hit, and one hit only. But I’ll bet you heard it back in the day and you’ll probably hear it again, because the really good ones get even better with time. The song was “Earth Angel.” Remember? “Earth angel, earth angel, will you be mine?”
Mr. Duncan said he never got tired of singing that song. I’m glad he didn’t.