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The Genius of Thom Gunn

Selected Poems

by Thom Gunn, edited by August Kleinzahler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 102 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Selected Poems of Fulke Greville

edited and with an introduction by Thom Gunn, and an afterword by Bradin Cormack
University of Chicago Press, 181 pp., $20.00 (paper)
toibin_1-011410.jpg
Dominique Nabokov
Thom Gunn, New York City, 1995

Although Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, is less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco, it sits alone in the landscape. The sense of ordered opulence on the campus is light-years away from the untidy, chaotic openness of the city on the bay. Of all the ghosts who wander Stanford’s halls, one of the most stern and powerful is that of the poet and critic Yvor Winters, an advocate of order and, indeed, of standing alone in the landscape. Winters was involved with the life of Stanford for almost forty years.

In 1954, soon after Thom Gunn’s first book, Fighting Terms, appeared, Winters wrote a wonderful letter to him. Aged twenty-six, Gunn was coming from England to study with him. Winters began by inviting the young poet to his house for supper as soon as he had located his lodgings in Palo Alto. “My most intimate friends are Airedales,” he wrote, “but I enjoy my poets, and during the school year I have not the time to see as much of them off the campus as I would like.”

Winters was disappointed that Gunn would see the Atlantic seaboard of the United States before he would see the West. “It is a dismal province,” he wrote,

and you will like the west the better, I suppose, for having seen the worst the first…. In California the earth is red on the western slope of the Sierras, and when you get down into the great valley, the grass will be dead and the air will be yellow. I find that I cannot endure to be far from the yellow air for very long. It is like gold to airy thinness beat, but it smells better.

Winters was right. Gunn would like the West; despite a few short absences, he was to remain in the Bay Area for the next fifty years until his death in 2004. Most of his half-century in the paradise that Winters described would be spent, however, not at Stanford where the air was yellow, but in San Francisco where the air was electric. The city’s street life and changing culture would become one of Gunn’s great subjects.

At first, however, Gunn had to be careful. In an interview he did with James Campbell, he explained that, while he had indeed come to California to study with Yvor Winters, he had left England “primarily to be in the same country as Mike [Kitay],” an American whom he had met in Cambridge, England, and with whom he spent the rest of his life. In his interview with Campbell, Gunn explained why, in his early love poems to Mike Kitay, he used “you” rather than “he” to disguise the gender of the loved one:

This was what Auden had always done. People say, “Why didn’t you come out of the closet, publicly, sooner than you did?” I would never have got to America, for one thing. I would never have got a teaching job, for another thing. And I would probably not have had openly homosexual poems published in magazines or books at that time, in 1954.

In his poem “To Yvor Winters, 1955,” Gunn not only made clear his gratitude to his first American mentor, but also displayed his own command of formal eloquence and precise statement:

You keep both Rule and Energy in view,
Much power in each, most in the balanced two:
Ferocity existing in the fence
Built by an exercised intelligence.
Though night is always close, complete negation
Ready to drop on wisdom and emotion,
Night from the air or the carnivorous breath,
Still it is right to know the force of death,
And, as you do, persistent, tough in will,
Raise from the excellent the better still.

It is easy to imagine how certain poets living not very far away would have greeted this poem in 1955, the same year as the famous Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco, introduced by Kenneth Rexroth; at this reading Allen Ginsberg first presented his poem “Howl”; Gary Snyder also took part; Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in the audience. These poets were not notable for their interest in the balance between rule and energy, or indeed their support for contemporary poems written in rhyming couplets. At the beginning Gunn’s “outraged sense of decorum” prevented him from making contact with these local poets, but when he did, it made a considerable difference to him, as did his reading of other poets such as William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan.

Indeed, in the early 1960s Duncan came to replace Winters as Gunn’s closest mentor. Gunn wrote three essays about Duncan and dedicated a number of poems to him. The first essay opened with an account of a pioneering article by Duncan, published by Dwight Macdonald in the journal Politics in 1944, called “The Homosexual in Society,” in which Duncan had identified himself as homosexual. As a result of the article, John Crowe Ransom, who had enthusiastically accepted a long poem by Duncan for publication in The Kenyon Review, now refused to publish it. In an essay in At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn, Brian Teare quotes from Ransom’s letter to Duncan:

I cannot agree with you that we should publish it nevertheless under the name of freedom of speech; because I cannot agree with your position that homosexuality is not abnormal. It is biologically abnormal in the most obvious sense. I am not sure whether or not state or federal law regard it so, but I think they do…. There are certainly laws prohibiting incest and polygamy, with which I concur, though they are only abnormal conventionally and are not so damaging to society biologically.

Gunn’s friendship with poets such as Duncan in San Francisco and his adaptation to life on the west coast of America changed his style as a poet, allowed him to combine a poetic style that had taken its bearing from an intense study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century forms with a looser system that could experiment in syllabics, free verse, and improvised structures. He was reading new and experimental American poetry with real seriousness and enthusiasm, a poetry that has still, to this day, not been easily embraced in England.

In his writing about the work of Duncan, Snyder, Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley, Gunn used phrases and terms such as “embodies the one really influential new theory of poetry advanced in our lifetime” (Duncan), “moral discipline…cleanness, exactness” (Snyder), “a career I find more exemplary with each succeeding year” (Ginsberg), and “command” (Creeley). It is easy to imagine the response not only of Yvor Winters, who had a low opinion of these poets when he did not view them with horror, as he indeed took a dim view of developments in Gunn’s own poems written after about 1960, but also easy to imagine the response of figures in England such as Philip Larkin whose view of the baleful influence of abroad was not likely to have been tempered by Gunn’s essays or by the changes apparent in his practice as a poet as early as 1961 when his third volume, My Sad Captains, appeared.1

In At the Barriers, there are two essays by Irish poets that evoke the excitement of finding Gunn’s poems for the first time. Eavan Boland describes hearing the poems read out loud by the poet Derek Mahon in 1964 when she was a student at Trinity College Dublin:

Gunn I had never heard of—neither his name nor his poems. I listened and listened. It all sounded strange to me—those blunt and thumping stanzas about cold roads and dance halls. And yet something about it was also familiar, startling, and thrilling. I was surprised, engaged and lost.

The poetry in these first books, Boland goes on,

metrically…makes a continuum with British poetry and looks to the past. But tonally it looks to a wide, improvised horizon, a future where irony and sexual dissidence would become a lens into a new poetic persona and a different configuration of modernism…. The music—metered and insistent—is definitely heavy metal.

Paul Muldoon describes reading Gunn’s poem “Considering the Snail” for the first time in 1967 when “much of [its] impact…would have been construable even to the sixteen-year-old boy I then was.” The poem appeared first in the second half of Gunn’s My Sad Captains and, instead of an iambic line, used a syllabic system, with seven syllables per line, letting the stress fall or not fall where it might:

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
train of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

Muldoon manages in At the Barriers an ingenious reading of the poem’s intricacies and sources, its echoes and resonances, both clear and subtle, with other poems such as Milton’s “On His Blindness,” Earle Birney’s “Slug in Woods,” and Geoffrey Hill’s “Merlin,” and, indeed, with other poems by Gunn himself.

These accounts of reading Gunn for the first time in the 1960s and 1970s will have echoes and resonances for many of us. While the poems seemed steeped in the beauty of the cadences of Shakespeare and Marlowe, it was not that Gunn had merely mastered their style, stanza forms, and rhyme schemes. There was something else going on in his poetic diction. There was a deep sense of sexuality, sensuousness, and risk about the content of some of the poems; Gunn seemed also, in the very way he made his phrases and determined the beats and the rhymes, to be fondling language, playing with it as a lover might play. His poem “High Fidelity” began:

I play your furies back to me at night,
The needle dances in the grooves they made,
For fury is passion like love, and fury’s bite,
These grooves, no sooner than a love mark fade….

Also, there was something cheeky about him, a refusal to be dull or platitudinous about love. A stanza in “Modes of Pleasure (#2),” for example, read:

Yet when I’ve had you once or twice
I may not want you any more:
A single night is plenty for
Every magnanimous device.

He also had no respect for his elders. His poem “Lines for a Book” riffed on two poems by Stephen Spender (“I think continually of those who were truly great” and “My parents kept me from children who were rough”):

I think of all the toughs through history
And thank heaven they lived, continually.
I praise the overdogs from Alexander
To those who would not play with Stephen Spender.

  1. 1

    In England Gunn was associated with Larkin in a group known as the Movement, which also included Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, and Elizabeth Jennings. Movement poets, in response perhaps to the general postwar dullness, avoided the experiments of Modernism and the overblown rhetoric of Dylan Thomas, and wrote, in Donald Davie’s phrase about Philip Larkin, a “poetry of lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations.” In a new book, The Movement Reconsidered, edited by Zachary Leader (Oxford University Press, 2009), Alan Jenkins writes: “Denying the existence of the Movement, or denying that, if it existed, one had any part in it, seems to have started at the same time as the Movement itself.” Gunn was not only one of the most prominent of the Movement poets, but among the most vehement of the Movement deniers.

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