or elephants or love

LISH: There’s that figure whales. Whales and elephants and Alcibiades. What precisely do you mean by whales?

GILBERT: You know without my telling you that no poet means precisely anything. It’s not a one-to-one relation. That’s allegory. It means a lot of things. For one, it’s the impossibly literal world. And it’s what you can’t reduce to the human scale. For me, trying to think about a whale, that endlessness down in that infinity of depth, in darkness, moving around—with a mind inside it…

LISH: Doing things.

GILBERT: Yes, and silent. I can’t make any adjustment to it. Like Lawrence said: “I said to my heart, who are these? / And my heart couldn’t own them.” He was talking about fish. And he says someplace else in the poem: “There are limits / To you my heart; / And to the one God / Fish are beyond me.” Whales in this sense, the sudden sense of the alien nature of the universe not translatable into human terms. But what particularly interests me is the sense of magnitude. It’s out of scale, and not just physically. It threatens my life, the formulations on which I operate. I have to redo my mind. There’s a poem by Rilke where he goes along describing a statue. All of a sudden, for no reason, he breaks off and says: You must change your life. When I think about whales, it’s the same in a way. Or elephants or love.

—Jack Gilbert, interview by Gordon Lish, Genesis West, #1, 1962.

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