Jack Gilbert’s “A Description of Happiness in Kobenhavn”


Jack Gilbert is an American poet born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. Gilbert worked as a door-to-door salesman, an exterminator, and a steelworker before attending college at San Francisco State University where he met Allen Ginsberg and participated in Jack Spicer’s Poetry As Magic workshop. Gilbert’s first collection of poems, Views of Jeopardy, won the prestigious Yale Open Poetry Competition and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1962, catapulting him into early fame, something unusual for any American poet, of any time. Gilbert, however, avoided the limelight and moved to Europe shortly afterwards. He would not publish a second book of poetry for another twenty years. He spent most of that time living in England, Denmark, and Greece. Gilbert won the National Book Award for his fourth book of poems, Refusing Heaven. His last book, The Dance Most of All, was published in 2010. Gilbert died on November 13, 2012, at the age of 87.

What I master by day
still lapses in the night…

Gilbert’s short poem, “A Description of Happiness in Kobenhavn”, is an unusual poem in how directly it speaks of a commitment to poetry itself. It is part reflection, part stand, part apology, part stubbornness. It is the kind of poem that moves people – I know people who have literally changed the course of their life after hearing Gilbert read this poem – with its brutal honesty and criticism of the world where “people wrestle their hearts in order to feel anything.”

A Description of Happiness in Kobenhavn

All this windless day snow fell
into the King’s Garden
where I walked, perfecting and growing old,
abandoning one by one everybody:
randomly in love with the paradise
furnace of my mind. Now I sit in the dark,
dreaming of a marble sun
and its strictness. This
is to tell you I am not coming back.
To tell you instead of my private life
among people who must wrestle their hearts
in order to feel anything, as though it were
unnatural. What I master by day
still lapses in the night. But I go on
with the cargo cult, blindly feeling the snow
come down, learning to flower by tightening.

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