Readers of Thom Gunn’s previous volume, The Man with Night Sweats, may remember the opening poem, “The Hug.” It is written in iambic lines of varying lengths, each ending with a (usually) monosyllabic rhyme word, irregularly patterned: it is what you might call an irregular ode. Here are the opening lines:
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.
Here comes a break, but there is a rhyme word—“snug”—which hasn’t yet been answered, and which leaves us with a subliminal desire for a resolution—the resolution which will be offered in the first line of the poem’s second half:
I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we still were twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
This is beautifully composed, often in monosyllables, with the simplest of rhymes and only the easiest and most familiar variations in meter. As with much of Thom Gunn’s poetry, one feels the influence of sixteenth- or seventeenth-century form, although there is no hint of archaism. “The Hug,” the title, sounds like Donne or Herbert. But the hug in question is a sign between two men who have lived together since their early twenties, successfully, first as passionate sexual lovers, later on terms covered by the word “familial”—whatever that might mean precisely. “The Hug” was placed at the start of the collection, which culminated in several notable poems occasioned by the AIDS epidemic. Seen in this context, the poem expressed a sense of personal security in a time of mourning and loss.
We return to what I take to be the same relationship in the latest volume, in two fine poems, “Rapallo” and “In Trust.” The latter is written in a regular stanza composed of lines of two, three, four, and five iambic feet. It begins in a tone that sounds not unlike reproach:
You go from me
In June for months on end
To study equanimity
Among high trees alone;
I go out with a new boyfriend
And stay all summer in the city where
Home mostly on my own
I watch the sunflowers flare.
You travel East
To help your relatives.
The rainy season’s start, at least,
Brings you from banishment:
And from the hall a doorway gives
A glimpse of you, writing I don’t know what,
Through winter, with head bent
In the lamp’s yellow spot.
Perhaps I am not being entirely candid with the reader in saying that there is no hint of archaism in this kind of formal verse. Certainly one feels the tug of the past. I was wondering why I took such pleasure in the last two lines of each of these stanzas, which bring an end to the varying line lengths of the stanza pattern, being of three feet each. At once there came into my head the lines
With Brede ethereal wove,
O’erhang his wavy Bed.
The passage is from William Collins’s “Ode to Evening,” a poem of great abstract beauty, which alternates between two lines of five and two lines of three feet. Sometimes it is printed divided into stanzas, sometimes (as in the 1747 text I am quoting) it is set out in one continuous text:
If ought of Oaten Stop, or Pastoral Song,
May hope, O pensive Eve, to sooth thine Ear,
Like thy own brawling Springs,
Thy Springs, and dying Gales,
O Nymph reserv’d, while now the bright-hair’d Sun
Sits in yon western Tent, whose cloudy Skirts,
With Brede ethereal wove,
O’erhang his wavy Bed:
Now Air is hush’d, save where the weak-ey’d Bat,
With short shrill Shriek flits by on leathern Wing,
Or where the Beetle winds
His small but sullen horn…
Looking this up,1 I see that Collins copied his form from Milton’s translation of Horace’s Fifth Ode, Book One, which Milton himself described as “rendered almost word for word without rhyme according to the Latin measure, as near as the language will permit.” I am not saying that Gunn was copying Collins, or Milton, or indeed Horace2 ; only that, when one starts to examine a very simple effect in formal verse—in this case nothing more than the decision to follow a line of three iambic feet with another the same—one can find oneself shooting off into antiquity. The effect would be quite different if Gunn’s stanza had ended on a couplet—that is, if the lines of equal length had rhymed. A stanza like this keeps the rhymes a little apart, so that they fall easily on the ear.
We return to Gunn, at home in the rainy season, glimpsing his friend from the hall, writing something by lamplight:
To some fresh task
Some improvising skill
Your face is turned, of which I ask
Nothing, except the presence:
Beneath white hair your clear eyes still
Are candid as the cat’s fixed narrowing gaze
—Its pale-blue incandescence
In your room nowadays.
Without much noise or fuss
We left the kitchen where he sat,
And suddenly we find
He happens still to be with us,
In this room now, though firmly faced away,
Not to be left behind
Though all the night he’ll stray.
As you began
You’ll end the year with me.
We’ll hug each other while we can,
Work or stray while we must.
Nothing is, or will ever be,
Mine, I suppose. No one can hold a heart,
But what we hold in trust
We do hold, even apart.
The picture is both sad and admirable. The author certainly seems to have reached this modus vivendi with some regret, however much he values the terms under which he and his friend now live together. The companion poem, “Rapallo,” repeats the point:
That summer I was twenty-three,
You about twenty-one,
We hoped to live together as we
(Not to be smug) have done.
If in four decades matter-of-factly
Coming to be resigned
To separate beds was not exactly
What we then had in mind,
Something of our first impetus,
Something of what we planned
Remains of what was given us
On the Rapallo sand.
The writing of formal verse of this kind (it is only one of the modes available to Gunn) brings its own occasions for serendipity. You will notice in the first stanza quoted that, once the decision was made to give the friend’s age as twenty-one, the important rhyme word suggests itself as “done”: the important idea is—this is what we have done, what we have achieved. But the important rhyme word was in danger of coming too soon. Gunn had four syllables to play around with. The decision to put “not to be smug” in parentheses is characteristic of this poet: I hardly think he would have been accused of smugness, but he thought the accusation worth fending off, it being no small achievement for a man born in 1929 to have lived most of his adult life with the same man.
The terms of their living together changed, as these three poems tell us. And the poems themselves have to be set alongside those numerous other poems in which Gunn evokes the world of the gay bars, the bathhouse, casual sex, orgiastic free love. A poem called “Saturday Night,” describing a notorious bathhouse called the Barracks in 1975, refers to a “Dionysian experiment/To build a city never dared before” and “the complete, grasped, paradisal state,” the “community of the carnal heart,” and elsewhere there is a reference to the “sexual New Jerusalem.” Gunn seems to have taken free love seriously in the Seventies, just as he took the LSD culture seriously in the Sixties. In “Saturday Night” he watches the ideal going into decline, as the bathhouse itself declines:
Some lose conviction in mid-arc of play,
Their skin turns numb, they dress and will depart:
The perfect body, lingering on goodbyes,
Cannot find strength now for another start.
Dealers move in, and murmuring advertise
Drugs from each doorway with a business frown.
Mattresses lose their springs. Beds crack, capsize,
And spill their occupants on the floor to drown.
Walls darken with the mold, or is it rash?
At length the baths catch fire and then burn down,
And blackened beams dam up the bays of ash.
We have seen this poem before in the 1993 prose volume Shelf Life. There Gunn also prints a previous version, as it was composed in 1975, when the author had been studying Dante. The poem is in terza rima, an unpleasant form to handle in English, which leads the poet into some uncharacteristic awkwardnesses. (Terza rima is unpleasant to handle at length because it obliges you to find three of every rhyme—something the English language makes difficult.) In the original version, we are shown around the Dantesque underworld of the bathhouse at night, with its various sexual and druggy activity. At the end, the narrator has his doubts, until he is approached:
Then one whose very eyes brightly conspire
Moves from the mob and touches me. Clear lust—
I suddenly flare up—fire in the mine, all fire!
It burns down to the self, the baths, the night,
Which grant me thus a great and good desire.
I think, at least for now, it’s all all right.
Gunn didn’t publish this version, since it struck him as boastful and complacent. The author was saying, “Look, I scored!” Gunn had written precisely the kind of poem he professed to hate. Much later, in 1990, it occurred to him to revive the attempt to describe (but now as a piece of history) the experience of the bathhouse. Visionaries, he tells us,
are much the same, whether they are political or religious or sexual. As hippies were the indirect heirs of the communists between World Wars, so we were the direct heirs of the hippies, drug-visionaries also. At the baths, or in less organized activity, there was a shared sense of adventure, thrilling, hilarious, experimental. In our deliberately distorted vision, we crossed gulfs as dramatic and enormous as those in John Martin’s landscapes, on the huge pinions of our sexual momentum. We tried to make the ecstatic commonplace, each night of it a building block for an apocalyptic Holy City—a City of Eros.
This is an elevated way of characterizing the activities described in the original version of the poem.
Not all the poems are erotic. There is a tribute (one of several he has published) to the poet Robert Duncan, and another to Donald Davie. There is an elegant evocation of the pagan elements found in medieval Christian architecture. Gunn wondered aloud several years ago whether he would ever be able to write anything about his mother. “My Mother’s Pride” is made uncomfortable for me by one daring, but rocky, rhyme. And then there is “The Gas-poker,” which is memorable:
Forty-eight years ago
—Can it be forty-eight
Since then?—they forced the door
Which she had barricaded
With the full bureau’s weight
Lest anyone find, as they did,
What she had blocked it for.
She had blocked the doorway so,
To keep the children out.
In her red dressing-gown
She wrote notes, all night busy
Pushing things about,
Thinking till she was dizzy,
Before she had lain down.
The children went to and fro
On the harsh winter lawn
Repeating their lament,
A burden, to each other
In the December dawn,
Elder and younger brother,
Till they knew what it meant.
Knew all there was to know.
Coming back off the grass
To the room of her release,
They who had been her treasures
Knew to turn off the gas,
Take the appropriate measures,
Telephone the police.
One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.
In Poetry of the Landscape and the Night, Two Eighteenth-Century Traditions, edited by Charles Peake (London: Edward Arnold, 1967). An admirable anthology.↩
He is very keen on Horace, however. See Shelf Life (University of Michigan Press, 1993) p. 224.↩