“A Brief for the Defense”: Jack Gilbert’s Great Theodicy Poem

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

From REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005)


The above poem has haunted me for quite awhile. I first read it either in the Atlantic or the New Yorker several years back. It recalls for me Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts“. I find some balance to my own Charlie Brown pessimism in these lines: “To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the Devil”.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to “A Brief for the Defense”: Jack Gilbert’s Great Theodicy Poem

  1. Dan Dewald says:

    It’s got to be sarcastic, it still works as a poem if it is.

  2. T owens says:

    There is nothing sarcastic about this poem. The lines are all hard straight declarative sentences. If Jack Gilbert wanted to do sarcastic we would know, a device would be used, a question, rhetorical or something along those lines, would be asked.

  3. santitafarella says:

    T owens:

    I detect perhaps a tad of sarcasm in lines 4-7, but I agree with you overall that the poem is not sarcastic. It makes me, in turns, very sad and troubled, as well as elated and consoled. It’s a brilliant poem, and each time I return to it I feel its power all over again. Sometimes, however, I cannot bear to look at it. The light it emits is almost too bright.


    • David Leslie says:

      I think lines 21 an 22 also a bit hard on God. But any defense that did not give some indications of how troublesome the defense is would not be a very good one. Overall I agree the poem is not sarcastic and is a great poem. I also sometimes have trouble getting through a reading especially if I am trying to read it aloud.

  4. Pingback: Nothing Spaces » Synchronicity & Transcience.

  5. I just now stumbled upon your blog post and swoon at this poem!
    Oh thank you so much for this.
    I offer 30 carefully chosen (and annotated) poems every April through my poetry website.
    See “April Gifts” archives at: littlepocketpoetry.org/april_gifts_archives
    So happy to have “found” you!
    Susan in Cincinnati

  6. I honestly hadn’t considered sarcasm, but can see how the ending might suggest that. I don’t think so, though. Given the poem’s premise as a legal argument and the stunning earlier insistence for laughter and delight, I think the conclusion is perfectly serious: Even witnessing a seemingly uninformed moment – the sound of oars in the water in a dark harbor (death) – is worth all our suffering.

  7. Pingback: “A Brief for the Defense”: Jack Gilbert’s Great Theodicy Poem | Marking Time

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s