Selected Poems 1950-1975
There are six full garbage bags at his feet, beside a burned-out barbecue and an empty case of Coca-Cola. Over a black T-shirt and jeans, a sleeveless leather jacket shows a panther tattooed on his right forearm. An incomplete growth of beard suggests he might be auditioning for the part of a debauched picaresque soldier on a Shakespearian battlefield, or a gay democratized Don Juan who virtuously cleans up his own trash. On a yard fence above his left shoulder, a black cat is making a scrutiny of the ambiguous pose. It’s a photograph of Thom Gunn in California, now in his fiftieth year, looking as if he were about to recite the last words of his long poem “Misanthropos”:
The dust yet to be shared.
Although he has lived in America for the last twenty-five years—half his life—Gunn is still regarded as an English poet who deviated to California. He came in 1954 to study under Yvor Winters at Stanford, the master who wisely taught that “a poem is a statement in language about a human experience”: and to join his lover, an American theater director. Since then, Gunn has been living in San Francisco, teaching at Berkeley, and reading on the poetry circuits. He has marched in Gay Pride parades freaked on acid in New York, and escorted by a leather-jacketed motorcycle cavalcade in San Francisco. His poetry seems located neither in Britain nor in America, but in ideas or literature: and though it explores the life of his mind, and the street life of cities, it tells little about his family, friends, or childhood.
On both sides Gunn’s family was Scottish: described by him as “solid Keir Hardie socialists from Aberdeen way—pacifists, anti-catholics, anti-royalists and Nonconformists.” He is “eternally grateful to have been brought up in no religion whatsoever.” His father was a popular journalist who became editor of the Daily Sketch: his mother read the whole of Gibbon while she was pregnant. He was born at Gravesend near London in 1929; his parents divorced when he was nine; and for five years of adolescence he endured the German bombing in London and Kent. He spent two years as a conscript in the British army after the war.
While he was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the early Fifties, he began to write poems in regular rhymed stanzas of plain forceful English, a puritan style, as tough and highly polished as army boots. Seven of these early poems, which are among his best, are included in the selection. With versatile literary allusions and metaphysical wit, they use the manners of the past to cope with modern situations. In this they remain true to the spirit of postwar Britain, open to new ideas while bound by archaic rituals. “The Wound” is about a trauma whose cure involves frequent changes of identity, and this contemporary subject is defiantly set on the Trojan battlefield of Troilus and Cressida. “The Beach Head” rehearses the play of love as a mock-heroic war game with Shakespearian (Marlowe Society) bravado:
Shall I be John a Gaunt and with my band
Of mad bloods pass in one spec- tacular dash,
Fighting before and after, through your land,
To issue out unharmed the farther side,
With little object other than panache
And showing what great odds may be defied?
Here are many of his themes: the cult of male energy, the self-destructive lure of danger, the lack of a positive sense of direction, the need to pose as another person, the separateness of lovers. There is also the delight in style for its own sake.
These themes seemed to be embodied in a student Gunn met at Cambridge. Tony White was an actor of potential genius, who soon gave up the theater to act in what he believed to be a truer sense: taking real parts in human situations without applause. One of his many roles was translator of French books into English. Gunn has described him as a model as well as a friend, who helped him shape his thoughts, got him to read Sartre’s plays and Camus’s novels, gave him practical criticism of his work. Tony, whose mother was French, sent him a card for 1954, defining the values he and Gunn revered:
all my best wishes for
panache, logigue, espagnolisme,
l’imprévu, singularité and
in the New Year
from one Etranger
Captain of an amateur soccer team in London, Tony died as a result of a football injury in 1976. He was one of Gunn’s “sad captains”
who, I thought, lived only to
renew the wasteful force they
spent with each hot convulsion
and who now
turn with disinterested
hard energy, like the stars.
It was Gunn’s style at this period to seem irresistibly tough, to play the foreigner, to become a Stranger. A friend at Cambridge described him in 1952 as “a lumberjack in dress and build, a left bank, ironside lumberjack.” He acquired much of his intellectual energy from French literature. Worship of Corneillean heroism throbs through the early poems in lines such as these from “The Wound”:
I was myself: subject to no man’s breath:
My own commander was my enemy.
or these from “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death”:
The firm heath stops, and marsh begins.
Now we’re at war: whichever wins
My human will cannot submit
To nature, though brought out of it.
In his chapter of a book called My Cambridge, Gunn tells that while hitchhiking up a narrow dusty road in France on his first long vacation, he “experienced a revelation of physical and spiritual freedom that…was like the elimination of some enormous but undefined problem that had been across my way and prevented me from moving forward.” He then found he “had the energy for almost anything,” and chose to apply this to poetry. It was an existentialist moment, inspired by his reading of Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Sartre.
In Gunn’s poetry a metaphysical game of ideas and feelings is played with words. Arbitrary rules govern the play of violent or self-destructive forces on a limited field of action. Soldier, motorcyclist, hustler, panhandler, or thief perform their butch parts in smoothly rhymed stanzas or free verse of transparent liquidity. The structure of the poems often has the duality of a male contest. Women appear only as goddesses or mothers or cherry trees. Energy toils to overcome inertia; love wrestles man to man with alienation; mechanized goggled youth explodes across the dirt of nature; knowledge refines ignorance which consumes knowledge. The need to find value in life confronts the awareness that life has no value that can satisfy the need. The castle of identity resists the assault of its owner’s gothic freak out. Nothing annihilates nothing, and leaves “a huge contagious absence.”
These word games, for which Wittgenstein and Empson had prepared the ground before 1950, originated in Gunn’s theory of the “pose,” which he says in My Cambridge that he “based partly on the dramatics of John Donne, somewhat perhaps on Yeats’s theory of masks, and most strongly on the behavior of Stendhal’s heroes…. The theory of pose was this: everyone plays a part, whether he knows it or not, so he might as well deliberately design a part, or a series of parts, for himself…. Viewing myself as an actor trying to play a part provided rich material for poetry.” The parts he preferred were strangely impersonal or literary; and perhaps this is why he has never written plays. His poems give us ideas about a person, rather than the sense of a person’s life. His art is riddling, abstract and gnomic, disbelieving and unmagical. It cannot tell a story, or create a character, but it can make promiscuous shadows resound with the clash of ideas.
In an excellent poem, “The Byrnies,” he has imagined how conceptual thought must have originated as a defense, like armor, against the unknown terrors of the primeval forest. Every abstract word in it is given the weight of an object. The idea is transformed into a brazen thing.
Thus for each blunt-faced ig- norant one
The great gray rigid uniform com- bined Safety with virtue of the sun.
Thus concepts linked like chain mail in the mind.
With English and French literature at his fingertrips, as well as some German and Italian, Gunn can use strange voices and styles for the purpose of his pose. In diction he can make foreign words brush past one another unfamiliarly: for example, words of Greek, Nordic, and Latin origin hover into a strange English proximity in the second of these lines about Caravaggio:
O wily painter, limiting the scene
From a cacophony of dusty forms
To the one convulsion, what is it you mean
In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?
Another real power of Gunn’s poetry is to define a split second of decision in the turmoil of an action or a moral conflict. He can almost photograph the human mind, and capture in a poem the instant timing of photography. Pictures have helped to inspire his poems: Brando in The Wild One was a source for “On the Move,” which glimpses a gang of directionless motorcyclists bursting through a town, and ends with a defiantly aphoristic line:
One is always nearer by not keeping still.
In “Epitaph for Anton Schmidt,” a section of “Misanthropos,” Gunn imagines the situation of an ordinary German soldier who during the war “helped the Jews to get away.” The conclusion is a moving passage of moral photography, in which he democratizes the hero and gives him a noble anonymity.
He never did mistake for bondage
The military job, the chances,
The limits; he did not submit
To the blackmail of his circum- stances.
I see him in the Polish snow,
His muddy wrappings small protec- tion,
Breathing the cold air of his free- dom
And treading a distinct direction.
“To fight abstraction,” Camus said in The Plague, “you must have something of it in your own make-up.” While staying in Berlin in 1960, Gunn wrote “Innocence,” a poem about what he believed the force celebrated in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, with its exaltation of the Germanic energy which he admired, could finally achieve: the extinction of sympathy for another person’s pain and death. Gunn’s poem is a complex moral drama or movie of the mind. The cool tone of its voice, the British uniform of the style, insulate our feelings: meter and rhyme control the temperature, putting ice on the forehead for the fever of the last lines.
He ran the course and as he ran he grew,
And smelt his fragrance in the field. Already,
Running he knew the most he ever knew,
The egotism of a healthy body.
Ran into manhood, ignorant of the past:
Culture of guilt and guilt’s vague heritage,
Self-pity and the soul; what he possessed
Was rich, potential, like the bud’s tipped rage.
The Corps developed, it was plain to see,
Courage, endurance, loyalty, and skill
To a morale firm as morality,
Hardening him to an instrument, until
The finitude of virtues that were there
Bodied within the swarthy uniform
A compact innocence, childlike and clear,
No doubt could penetrate, no act could harm.
When he stood near the Russian partisan
Being burned alive, he therefore could behold
The ribs wear gently through the darkening skin
And sicken only at the Northern cold,
Could watch the fat burn with a violet flame
And feel disgusted only at the smell,
And judge that all pain finishes the same
As melting quietly by his boots it fell.
“Innocence” is a serious game about the ambiguous meaning of that word; a moral assault on the idea of goodness enshrined in its etymology; and an attack on the myth of the fall of man. Gunn’s strategy here is to encourage us to identify with the athletic, Nordic, energetic youth: he is our representative, who does his daily jogging. It’s a shock when we find where the argument leads us in the last two quatrains. An unpublished early version described the boy as growing up “in the slums on filth and chance,” as if he had stepped out of an Isherwood novel. We could have explained away this foreign hustler’s ultimate callousness as caused by poverty and the Depression; but Gunn’s finished poem is not that kind of social document. It makes us see how closely to our own ideals of “courage, endurance, loyalty, and skill” the boy was reared, and how, if we let ourselves be protected by uniformity and inspired by force, we could commit that kind of atrocity. The poem suggests that abstract evil in this case is the ambiguity of a word saturated in the blood of myth.
Subsumed within the image of the guardsman and the burning partisan is a sado-masochistic homosexual relationship between two strangers: Nazism visualized as a beating party that went too far. It suggests that not just totalitarian conscription of human beings into armies leads to abstraction and the extinction of love, but that this is a widespread disease, not confined to homosexuals, of our psyche and our culture, transmitted through words and myths. Camus diagnosed this in The Plague. “Innocence” is dedicated to Tony White because, I imagine, many of his friends caught in the abstract pestilence found that he acted like Doctor Rieux.
“In a completed life,” Sartre said in his autobiography, “the end is often taken as the truth of the beginning.” Gunn’s Selected Poems is an excellent work in progress, drawn from six volumes, with no sense of having been completed. He has never loved completedness: what he likes about cities, such as San Francisco, is their “cool seething incompletion,” in which he can discover “grotesqueries of the everyday,” and their
The crowded, broken, and unfin- ished:
I would not have the risk dimin- ished.
In his later work he has tried to create a surrealist art of incompletion without the guilt-proof armor of his earlier styles. He has become more open and vulnerable and loose. His poems have become games that nobody wins, in which the players are sometimes so laid back they forget which side they are on, and in the end what does it matter? Ironside has stepped out of his chain mail to beachcomb and bathe in geysers and freak out in the mythological garden of an acid trip.
Since about 1965 Gunn’s poetry has philandered with a modern Californian version of the Celtic myth of Tir na n-Og, where the beautiful young enjoy themselves everlastingly loafing in the west, free from oppressive northern deities, and of course ageless. Few of Gunn’s poems in his last three books have worked for me as well as many in the first three. They seem to have forsaken that concept. Take, for instance, “Autobiography,” which has a promising title, and begins with a good intention:
The sniff of the real, that’s what I’d want to get
But it gives me a smell of paper:
longing so hard to make
inclusions that the longing
has become in memory
In this kind of poem, he glancingly shows us a menu of what he has enjoyed or suffered, but gives us no taste of the meal.
His art was so keyed up to look forward, “always toward,” that it becomes toneless when he looks back. It seems to slump into the kind of dismal inertia he castigated in his early work. In a recent poem, “The Corporal,” set in wartime England during his boyhood, the old panache looks sadly plucked.
Half of my youth I watched the soldiers
And saw mechanic clerk and cook
Subsumed beneath a uniform.
Gray black and khaki was their look
Whose tool and instrument was death.
Poems such as “Bringing to Light,” in which he keeps opening doors of perception into dank cellars, to meet dream or drug mentors, delving into foundations, seem written in an enervated style that gets no nearer by not sitting still.
Fortunately, in some later poems he has attained an almost liquid permeability of style, using free verse, through which the meaning can shine as clearly as light through a glass of water. In one called “Yoko,” the poet assumes the identity of a Newfoundland dog, in order to express his love for a person who is the dog’s master. The form is free enough in the manner of Whitman to allow quick changes of rhythm and speed, yet strict enough to call the rambling of the dog’s mind back to a leash in the end. I like it because it has feeling for an animal and love for a human being, expressed in a plain style that is full of humor and delight in ordinary things. Here Gunn resurrects the dramatic pose, and plays his game of ideas and feelings with renewed skill and energy.
All today I lie in the bottom of the wardrobe
feeling low but sometimes getting up
to moodily lumber across rooms
and lap from the toilet bowl, it is so sultry
and then I hear the noise of firecrackers again
all New York is jaggedy with firecrackers today
and I go back to the wardrobe gloomy
trying to void my mind of them.
I am confused, I feel loose and un- fitted.