an expression of love: jack gilbert’s “the forgotten dialect of the heart”

“It is interesting to note that poetry, a literary device whose very construct involves the use of words, is itself the word of choice by persons grasping to describe something so beautiful it is marvelously ineffable.” ~ Vanna Bonta

Detail from a reproduction of the Fresco of the Procession, Palace of Knossos, Crete.


We sometimes hear people say, “words fail me.” Have you ever been stymied trying to write about something you care deeply about, frustrated that everything you come up with falls short?

Whether grief, elation, bafflement, or love — we often fall victim to clichΓ© or manage a fair approximation at best.

In this poem, Jack Gilbert suggests that love — the most intense and wide ranging emotion human beings are capable of experiencing — might be the most challenging to describe in words. It’s ironic how Gilbert acknowledges the imperfection of language with a poem that is perfection in itself. πŸ™‚


Phaistos Disc, Side A (it’s just under 6″ in diameter).


by Jack Gilbert

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient tongue
has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.

~ from Jack Gilbert: Collected Poems (Knopf, 2014)

Phaistos Disc, Side B


Pittsburgh native Jack Gilbert once described himself as a “serious romantic.” Born four days after Valentine’s Day in 1925, he flunked out of high school but was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh due to a clerical error (yes, really!).

After his first book of poetry, Views of Jeopardy (1962), won the Yale Young Poets Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer, he became quite the literary and media darling. He did not embrace this role, however, and for most of his life went into self-imposed exile, eschewing fame and traveling around Europe where he sometimes taught American Literature for the U.S. State Department. He would not publish another collection of poetry for twenty years.

Many of his poems are about love and his relationships with specific women. The “Michiko” in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” is the sculptor Michiko Nogami, a former student 21 years his junior, with whom he lived in Japan until she died from cancer at age 36.

The cultural references in the poem, especially the “spiral Minoan script,” reflects Gilbert’s time living in Greece and brought back fond memories of my visits there. The Phaistos Disc in the photos is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all time. At least 4,000 years old, it was discovered by an Italian archaeologist in 1908, and people have been trying to decipher its mysterious code ever since.

Recently, after working together for six years, Dr. Gareth Owen (linguist researcher with the Technological Educational Institute of Crete) and John Coleman (phonetics professor at Oxford), figured out what the mysterious language sounded like and what some of it means. Reading in a spiral direction from the outside to the inside, they’ve concluded it’s a prayer to a Minoan goddess.


Minoan White Goddess


Because the inscriptions were made by pressing hieroglyphic “seals” into soft clay, producing a text with reusable characters, the Phaistos Disc is considered by some to be a very early example of “movable type printing.” Fascinating!

Jack Gilbert, who published five volumes of poetry, died at age 87 in 2012 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. I love the idea of dreaming about “lost vocabularies that might express some of what we no longer can.” And I am grateful to poets for inventing their own “lost vocabularies,” giving voice to our deepest yearnings.


Enjoy this reading of the poem by Tom O’Bedlam:



“Cupid in a Landscape by Il Sodoma (1510)


How will you express your love this Valentine’s Day?



Thanks to everyone who left comments last week. We are pleased to announce that the lucky person receiving a copy of CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? by Irene Latham and Charles Waters is:

🌺 GAYLE!! 🌸

Congratulations!! Please send along your snail mail address to receive your book.

Next giveaway: Anne of Green Gables Cookbook on Tuesday, February 13!


The talented and clever Sally Murphy is hosting the Roundup this week. Take a trip down under to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared in the blogosphere. Have a good weekend. πŸ™‚

Copyright Β© 2018 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

43 thoughts on “an expression of love: jack gilbert’s “the forgotten dialect of the heart”

  1. Having had to tackle a different problem lately, I think “pain” is actually harder to describe than love! Especially when doctors ask you to rate it on a scale from 1 to 10. Thank goodness there isn’t a ranking scale for love! Or maybe phrases like “My love is a hundred pitchers of honey” is a sort of ranking. My love is 1-10 hot fudge sundaes?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Pain is difficult to describe too. Ranking it can be tricky because it’s usually relative. How painful compared to: a thousand bee stings? or yet another rejection on a manuscript you’ve worked on for ten years? or childbirth?


      1. When I had radiation for breast cancer, and had a sort of radiation sunburn, the doctor said to me, “It looks like your left breast vacationed in Florida and your right breast stayed home.” Considering this particular doctor didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, I thought that was a rather insensitive thing to say. But, being as I do have a sense of humor I’ve found it often comes in handy for a “my-doctor’s-bedside-manner-sucks” type of discussion!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’d be quite surprised if a doctor said that to me, Diane. His attempt at making you feel better about things? I guess depending on my mood, this would be funny. You’re right — it does make a good story after the fact, in any case. πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  2. There are ways and then other ways of expressing love, seems easy until reading this poem, Jama. For some reason, the line that touched me was “Maybe the Etruscan texts would/finally explain why the couples on their tombs/are smiling. And maybe not.” And then that cliche that appears often in our days, “love is in the air”, even giraffes! So much has been written about it, perhaps the human smiles have a kinship rarely imagined? I enjoyed hearing the poem, too. You always manage to offer new ways to look. Thanks for a “sweet” post, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The line about Etruscan texts got me thinking too — that’s what I found so wonderful about this poem. It does make you wonder about lost or different ways of expressing love, but ultimately you realize what human beings have in common. The smiling couples made me think of the Mona Lisa — another enigmatic smile.


  3. Dear Jama’s Alphabet Soup, I am hoping that I am the winner of the book, Can I Touch Your Hair?, giveaway.

    Thanks so much, Gayle

    On Fri, Feb 9, 2018 at 5:01 AM, Jama’s Alphabet Soup wrote:

    > jama posted: “”It is interesting to note that poetry, a literary device > whose very construct involves the use of words, is itself the word of > choice by persons grasping to describe something so beautiful it is > marvelously ineffable.” ~ Vanna Bonta We s” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you’re the winner. Congratulations, Gayle! (I recorded your address but removed it from your comment to preserve your privacy.) I will forward your info to the publisher, who’ll send your book to you soon! Thanks for entering the giveaway!


  4. Jack sounds like an interesting man. Wonderful poem! And thought-provoking, too.
    Rhapsody in Books’ comment about the difficulty of describing pain is true — I tried getting my husband to describe a pain in his knee the other day and he was like “??”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Usually for pain, there’s “sharp,” “dull,” “stabbing,” “achy,” etc., but it can be baffling to make others understand just how you feel. Hope your husband’s knee is better today.


  5. My joy is the same as twelve
    Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.

    I love this line. It is so evocative. The whole poem is filled with images we can almost touch and helps us appreciate the search for just the right words to convey meaning. Thank you for highlighting Jack Gilbert and for including the reading of the poem. I have seen those frescoes and the Phaestos Disc!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ahh, that ending, “What we feel most has/ no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.” What wonderful words. Valentine’s Day, I plan to go to a critique group meeting. πŸ™‚ I hope they are kind. And I’m putting up a found poem from my Poetry Is project.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a beautiful post….and poem. I first heard of Jack Gilbert in Liz Glibert’s book, Magic. Her relationship with Jack Gilbert is the introductory story and it’s beautiful. I haven’t read any more of his work, so thank you for introducing me to a first.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jama, your posts are as dangerous as social media–I enter thinking I’ll just a spend a few minutes there and emerge who-knows-how-long-later dazzled. (Of course, I also emerge feeling enriched from your site as opposed to often feeling like I wasted hours in social media. A critical difference!) There is so much to love and explore here. This poem is wonderful and the translation from business records to love letters is inspired. There are so many lines I lingered with –“as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor” is a favorite. Thanks for introducing me to Jack Gilbert and for starting my Saturday off in such a lovely way.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a rich feast of introspection. Thanks for sharing this amazing poem and your thoughts, as well, Jama. I loved the goat line. It was surprising, enlightening, and uncommonly refreshing. Maybe what I took away most, however, was the irony of the lost vocabularies, which he sought to find in his life and in his decline with Alzheimers too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a good observation, Michelle. Hadn’t thought of lost vocabularies in the context of Alzheimer’s, but it definitely enriches my appreciation of the poem. And you, too, with the goats? πŸ˜€


  10. Jack Gilbert’s poem is beautiful, and listening to the reading gave it a deeper meaning to me! I loved the image of the goats in this line, “My joy is the same as twelve
    Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.” The last line conjures images to me with the last words, “amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.” Seems to sum up all before it. Moving title too, “THE FORGOTTEN DIALECT OF THE HEART,” if our heart could speak what would it say … I too as Michelle above me thought about this almost ironic connection between lost vocabularies and his Alzheimers. Agatha Christie they think was suffering from Alzheimers too, as she began to loose words and vocabulary in her last book. Thanks for a very rich and moving blog post Jama, and Happiest of Valentines Day to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know that about Agatha Christie. Part of what poetry does is express the ineffable, and I do think the desire to do this gave birth to figurative language, especially the metaphor. Happy Valentine’s Day to you too!


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