Going Wrong by Jack Gilbert is a narrative poem that explores a man’s retreat into the wild. Having rejected society, Gilbert follows a man who lives off nature. The man catches and eats fish, preparing dinner with scrambled eggs. While cooking and eating, the man internally argues with an omnipresent ‘God’ figure. This figure scorns him for rejecting the rest of humanity. Gilbert presents the man as having gone slightly insane, arguing with this internal voice.
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Summary of Going Wrong
This man is going insane, having retreated from society to live by himself. Instead of doing this out of being ‘stubborn’, he believes it is due to ‘greed’, wanting to live his life among nature. The poem could be understood as a debate between the rejection and acceptance of nature, the man ignoring humanity in order to be closer to nature.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
Jack Gilbert writes Going Wrong as one continuous stanza. The 24 line poem spans the time it takes for the man to gut, prepare, and cook a fish. Gilbert writes in free verse, not aligning with any specific forms of poetry. This lyrical freedom allows Gilbert to instill a sense of madness within the character. He actively discusses with himself, his words cutting through the poem. Going Wrong is stilted by these imposing moments of speech, the observant ‘Lord’ scorning the wild man.
The single stanza form could also be understood as a reflection of the ‘greed’ of the wild man. The whole poem is designated to his own experience, the singularity of structure reflecting this complete focus on one character.
Key Theme in Going Wrong
The central theme that Gilbert explores in Going Wrong is nature. The harmony of nature is everywhere. At every moment of the poem, there is an element of wildlife imposing onto the scene. The poem begins with this, ‘The Fish’, and ends with the ‘shadows of swallows’ on the scene. At every moment, the wild man has immersed himself in nature, preferring this to human ‘cities’. The ‘Lord’ in his head hates the man’s rejection of human life, calling him ’stubborn’ and ‘vain’ for not living with other humans. Yet, the man is happiest in the wild, nature providing great comfort.
One technique that Gilbert in Going Wild is direct speech. Although (probably) not present, Gilbert presents a direct conversation between two characters. It seems that one of these characters is the internal monologue of the man, his fears and regrets manifesting in the disapproving ‘Lord’. The speech between these two characters allows Gilbert to display the fears of the man while keeping a psychological distance.
Another technique that is employed throughout the poem is the semantics of nature. These are one of the foundations of the poems, occurring in almost every line. The whole poem exudes a sense of being in the wild, the man having chosen nature for his home. These semantics are not all beautiful, instead of giving a sense of realism to the poem. This contrasts directly with the human dialogue, the internal argument being strangely dreamlike in contrast to the flowing semantics of nature.
Going Wild Analysis
The fish are dreadful. They are brought up(…)demands the Lord. Sure, the man says quietly
Gilbert begins ‘Going Wrong’ with a short sentence, the man relating his opinion of the fish. To him, they are ‘dreadful’, the use of caesura reaffirming his opinion with a slight pause. Perhaps his later consumption of the fish is slight violence against them, wanting to hurt the things he despises.
The use of polysyndeton across ‘beautiful and alien and cold’ displays the complexity of nature. While the wild man is repelled by the grotesque image of fish, he also acknowledges their ‘beauty’, the backdrop of ‘dawn’ furthering the sense of peace generated. This spans all the way to ‘night’, a full day reflecting the harmonic balance of nature.
Yet, there is something that unsettles the wild man about nature, the use of fricatives implying discomfort. Indeed, Gilbert writes ‘fading from their flat’, the cold eyes of the fish seeming ‘alien’ to the man. The continual /f/ sound emphasizes this strange discomfort, the sound standing out against the line.
The man begins his conversation with the ‘Lord’, debating with himself. The man deems nature ‘Soft machinery of the dark’, while the Lord berates him for claiming to know of ‘my machinery!’. The lord’s tone is ‘demand[ing] and pointed, questioning the wild man. This conversation could be a reflection of the descent into insanity, losing his grip on reality.
and cuts into them, laying back the dozen struts,(…)the blood and arranges the fish on a big plate.
Again, the Lord is angry with the land, ‘insist[ing]’ he is doing wrong by living in the wild. Gilbert presents the lord as annoyed as he has ‘built cities where things are human’, yet he will not join society. Instead, the man lives in nature ‘with rock and silence’, the Lord not understanding his rejection of humankind.
The use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ signals that the Lord’s anger is based on personal scorn. He is offended that the man will not follow his direction, the repetition of ‘I’ reflecting a sense of personal betrayal.
The man is silent in response to this, simply preparing ‘the fish on a big plate’, continuing with his work.
Starts the onions in the hot olive oil and puts(…)on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.
In these lines of ‘Going Wrong’, the man begins to cook, ‘starts the onion in the hot olive oil’, unbothered by the Lord’s ramblings. While the nagging voice chimes in, ‘You have lived all year without women’, he simply ‘takes out everything and puts in the fish’. The man rejects the Lord like he has rejected society, not bothered by their opinions.
The Lord’s sentences are harsh, the use of caesura making them seem blunt. This bluntness, ‘where you are. People forget you. You are vain and stubborn.’ begins to change into a monotonous drone. The complex form of argument that the Lord starts with has now faded into listening. It seems that the man is subconsciously going through a discussion with himself, consolidating his desire to stay in the wild.
The only thing that draws a response out of the man is the word ‘stubborn’, which he rejects. The use of italics demonstrates the man’s internal thoughts, ‘I am not stubborn’. He lays out his cooked meal, ready to eat.
Above him, further signaling the presence of nature, ’swallows flying’ leave a ‘shadow’ over his table. The final line reaffirms the man’s own desires, ‘Not stubborn, just greedy’. For him, being in nature and enjoying solitude is something that only happens infrequently in human life. He, having left society, can engage with nature to the fullest extent. Due to this, he sees himself as ‘greedy’, putting his desire for nature before his place in society.
Carol Ann Duffy’s White Writing similarly explores a group of people excluded from society. While Gilbert focuses on one man’s rejection of society, Duffy focuses on women (particularly lesbian women) who are rejected from society. Both poets show the excluded person(s) enjoying their solitude, not caring for the masses of society.
For the Execution or Gay Writers by Dan Vera takes an opposing tone to that of Gilbert’ Going Wrong. Indeed, Dan Vera instead rallies against this rejection, angrily condemning those who prosecuted gay identities throughout history.