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The Genius of Thom Gunn

Ander Gunn
Thom Gunn, Cornwall, June 1974; photograph by his brother, Ander Gunn

More than his cheek, I loved Gunn’s insistence on the body itself as the source of energy that equaled that of the will—a word he used with unusual frequency; he allowed the possibility that instinct and appetite could measure up to intelligence. He seemed interested in movement, violence, and the lure of flesh. Even now, I love how an early poem such as “Tamer and Hawk” is filled with a mixture of sexual desire and lovely, ambiguous menace. Its opening stanzas read:

I thought I was so tough,
But gentled at your hands,
Cannot be quick enough
To fly for you and show
That when I go I go
At your commands.

Even in flight above
I am no longer free:
You seeled me with your love,
I am blind to other birds—
The habit of your words
Has hooded me.

Like the hawk in his poem, Gunn as a poet is notoriously difficult to pin down. He was, as August Kleinzahler says, “an Elizabethan poet in modern dress.” He was an Englishman in California, but an Englishman replete with sexual glamour who, despite a thrilling honesty in some of the poems, did not deal in self-deprecation. He was rather proud of being alone among poets in dedicating poems to both Yvor Winters and Robert Duncan.

Thus in these decades when artists do not seem complete unless they have a double identity, Gunn seems ready to be interpreted for his doubleness and his reputation is likely to grow accordingly. He was a gay poet who wrote first in code and then openly. But his openness also comes doubled: he had a capacity, in a confessional age, to leave the self out of his work. Indeed, the avoidance of self is one of the hallmarks of his work and seems to have nourished his work. There was something tough and self-contained in his poetic personality but open too in certain ways and tender and generous. He could be easygoing and tolerant as a critic, but also fierce at times and almost bad-tempered.

This doubleness made its way into the very body of his work. He was interested as a poet in what was particular, exact, and clearly seen, but also in what was numinous, mysterious, and shimmering. He loved, for example, the liminal space between waking and sleeping or between nightmares and sweet, often drug-induced, dreams, and between sharp edges and flickering lines. He managed a hushed, baffled tone that made its way into poems of pure, almost sure statement and definition, but there were other poems where he seemed less certain and allowed for endings that, even if accompanied by clanging and direct rhymes, seemed open-ended and mysterious, but in a way that was hard-won and seldom vague.

Thus he could be read in Ireland and Britain in the 1960s and 1970s and seem shocking, thrilling; and then later, in the United States, he could be read again and his work could satisfy certain, and maybe easy, critical expectations, which arose from his very doubleness, or from the predatory sexual energy in some poems, or the view that he was a scholar in a leather jacket. As some of the essays in At the Barriers make clear, however, there are a number of single poems by Gunn that manage to soar above all of this, that have about them a slippery beauty, a level of poetic intelligence, which sets them beyond the initial shock of reading them, and beyond any debate about the author’s sexuality or his nationality or his doubleness. These poems include “The Wound” from his first book, Fighting Terms ; “In Santa Maria del Popolo” and “Considering the Snail” from his third book, My Sad Captains ; “Touch,” the title poem of his fourth collection; and “At the Centre” from his fifth collection, Moly, which was published in 1971.

These five poems are not written in a single style, or indeed in a single tone. Three of them use stanzas, strict meter, and rhyme, two a looser form. A note at the end of “At the Centre” says: LSD, FolsomStreet ; the poem is about an acid trip in San Francisco. Oddly enough, it is no worse for that, partly because of the tightness of its structure, but also because of its genuine sense of drugged experience, a puzzled and questing wonderment moving toward the possibility of knowledge beyond its reach:

What place is this
And what is it that broods
Barely beyond its own creation’s course,
And not abstracted from it, not the Word,
But overlapping like the wet low clouds
The rivering images—their unstopped source,
Its roar unheard from being always heard.

Gunn’s two collections of essays and reviews, The Occasions of Poetry and Shelf Life, display the range of his interests, his seriousness, his care as a reader, and his studiousness; they throw considerable light on his own practice as a poet. He also produced an edition of the selected poems of three poets who mattered enormously to him as a reader and as a poet: Fulke Greville (whose work Yvor Winters would also champion), Ben Jonson, and Ezra Pound. Greville, who was born in 1554, was a courtier during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I. He was a close friend of Sir Philip Sidney. In describing the tradition that Greville and Sidney inherited, Gunn could easily be writing about his own early work:

Characteristically it is based on statement…. At its best, it has a compactness…in which the movement is emphatic without becoming deadening; and the straightforwardness of language and device is the very medium through which energy of thought and feeling emerges.

Greville’s reputation is based on “Caelica,” a sequence of more than a hundred poems begun around 1577 and finished by 1600. It may seem, especially from some poems at the end of the sequence, that the poems are exercises in Calvinist religious certainty, and thus it is surprising that Gunn took such an interest in them. But it is not merely their plain statement, their technical skill, and their use of convention that pulled Gunn toward them. It is also a sort of sensuality in Greville’s way of thinking, a sense of carefully worked-out truth in his tone, and at times a pure brilliance in how he manipulated rhythm or individual phrases.

In his introduction, Gunn emerges as a talented and rigorous close reader. He quotes in full what is one of Greville’s finest single poems, placed toward the end of the “Caelica” sequence:

In night when colours all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses plac’d,
Not seeing, yet still having power of sight,

Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirr’d up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offence,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:

Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflection of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;
And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.

Gunn insists on allowing the full weight of Greville’s religious feeling to outweigh a more modern, psychological, simple way of reading the poem. “Superficially,” he writes,

it seems a thoroughly rationalist poem explaining delusion in an almost Freudian way as the result of “hurt imagination” and “inward evils,” as repression emerging in dream or hallucination, but the whole emphasis of the poem…is on the real Hell, of which the night is simply image, and on the authority, that of God, of which one is deprived.

There are moments throughout Gunn’s essays when he, with full knowledge perhaps, describes a poet in terms that might equally be used to describe his own poetry. “And one of the marks of Greville’s love poems,” he writes, “is the penetration and accuracy with which they describe the perversity of human emotions.”2 His quote from Greville’s “Life of Sidney” displays something of the choices he himself faced as a poet in San Francisco in the early 1960s:

I found my creeping genius more fixed upon the images of life, than the images of wit, and therefore chose not to write to them on whose foot the black ox had not already trod, as the proverb is, but to those only, that are weatherbeaten in the sea of this world, such as having lost the sight of their gardens and groves, study to sail on a right course among rocks and quicksands.

In this introduction, Gunn also explains something about poetry in the age of Sidney and Greville that must make any reader of Gunn’s own work who notices the dulled, impersonal tone of many of the poems, the lack of an individualized, quirky, confessional voice, realize that Gunn is writing about a phenomenon that he both recognizes and approves of. “Nowadays,” he writes,

the journalistic critical cliché about a young poet is to say that “he has found his own voice,” the emphasis being on his differentness, on the uniqueness of his voice, on the fact that he sounds like nobody else. But the Elizabethans at their best as well as at their worst are always sounding like each other. They did not search much after uniqueness of voice…. It would hardly have struck them that a style could be used for display of personality.

Sometimes, as with any decent essayist, Gunn’s critical essays provide us with the apologias or explanations for his life or his work that he did not see fit to display more explicitly. In his introduction to his selection of the work of Ben Jonson he offers a startling, almost comic, example of this:

It is interesting that most of those who have succeeded best in writing…within restraints both technical and passional, have been people most tempted toward personal anarchy. For them, there is some purpose in the close limits, and there is something to restrain.3

In a commentary on another of Greville’s late poems, “Sion lies waste,” Gunn writes about how

the simplicity of language, the directness of tone, and the lively variations in the verse movement, all serve to insist on the personal grief behind the public utterance. It is still a grief, however, that can sharply analyze: Greville never allows his feeling to eliminate his mind.

In an essay written in 1991, the year before his book The Man with Night Sweats appeared, Gunn wrote about a number of poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt dealing with the executions of Anne Boleyn and other friends of Wyatt’s, poems that had not been published until 1961. These poems by Wyatt have a tone of stark, shocked grief, often using lines without ornament or metaphor, in which he described actually seeing the executions from the Tower: “The bell tower showed me such sight/That in my head sticks day and night” or “And thus, farewell, each one in hearty wise./The axe be home, your heads be in the street./The trickling tears doth fall so from my eyes,/I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.”

In the sequence of poems at the end of The Man with Night Sweats, laments for friends who had died from AIDS, Gunn managed what David Gewanter in At the Barriers calls “the greatest elegiac sequence since Thomas Hardy’s Poems of 1912–13.” In these poems, most of which use an iambic meter and clear rhyming schemes, Gunn found a voice both formal and relaxed, a tone both impersonal and filled with detailed feeling; the poems have the same quiet, unshowy, hurt eloquence as Wyatt’s poems on the deaths of his friends. Just as Wyatt in his poem “In mourning wise” listed his friends who had been executed, Gunn in these poems went through each of his friends’ deaths as individual deaths, but in doing so, created what he praised in Wyatt’s poems: “Autobiographical detail, however discreet and allusive, is given a sudden symbolic force as in Yeats—though the symbol is more proportionate to reality than it ever was for Yeats.”

…It tears me still that he should die
As only an apprentice to his trade,
The ultimate engagements not yet made.
His gifts had been withdrawing one by one
Even before their usefulness was done:
This optic nerve would never be relit;
The other flickered, soon to be with it.
Unready, disappointed, unachieved,
He knew he would not write the much-conceived
Much-hoped-for work now, nor yet help create
A love he might in full reciprocate.

Between The Man with Night Sweats and his death, Gunn published a Collected Poems (1994) and one more volume of poetry, Boss Cupid (2000), which once more displayed his technical mastery of form and his insistence that form came in many guises, including looser ones. The range and the quality of Gunn’s work, and indeed its unevenness and his openness to change, has meant that making a selection from his work would require tact, intelligence, and some sympathy with his aims and systems. The clichéd version of Gunn’s career that August Kleinzahler outlines, with some distaste, in his perceptive introduction to what is a carefully chosen selection of Gunn’s poems goes as follows: “After going to hell in America, squandering his poetic gifts, Gunn was rehabilitated by the AIDS crisis and became an important poet once again because he became a feeling poet at last.”

In England, Gunn’s work, once he had abandoned ship and settled in California, received a mixed, often hostile response. Of his sixth collection, Jack Straw’s Castle (1976), Terry Eagleton wrote:

Gunn’s latest work, for all its newly-founded sensuous celebrations and delirious yieldings to blood-impulses, is merely the reverse side of the hard, thrusting, misanthropic egoism which motivated the formal leanness of his previous collections. The surf-riding rationalist hasn’t changed his spots; it’s merely that Californian sub-cultures offer an illusory escape from the pressing burdens of isolated selfhood.

Kleinzahler insists on finding con- nections and developments rather than fissures and gaps in Gunn’s development as a poet, reading the poems in Gunn’s first four collections as essentially brilliant early work. He argues that a transformation in Gunn’s tone, of which he approves, became noticeable as early as Part II of My Sad Captains (1961) but fully apparent in Moly, published a decade later. “A transformation had taken place,” Kleinzahler writes.

His poetry could accommodate a bit of relaxing. He will remain preeminently a poet of closure, intelligence, and will, as evidenced in the Moly poems. There was not an aleatory bone in Gunn’s body. He’s Handel, not John Cage…. His free-verse poems have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They develop rationally. The diction remains plain, the argument direct. His free verse is not at all prosey, and possesses its own kind of subdued music…. What has changed most demonstrably in the poetry in Moly and beyond is Gunn’s relationship with his environment. We are no longer dealing so much with allegories or notions of the city or character: the poems are now trained on actual people and places. If earlier on in the poetry it seemed as if there was no there there, now the there is very much in evidence.

Kleinzahler’s thesis suggests that what matters most in the poems of lament in The Man with Night Sweats, their very thereness, could not have been created without the years of experiment, the openness to both new forms and new experiences, which Gunn sedulously, indeed stubbornly, insisted on once he broke free of Yvor Winters. Gunn himself in an interview implied that his range of sympathies as a reader was something that came naturally to him as much as it was an act of will. “I’m not surprised,” he said, “that I have sympathies with such a broad range of poetry: I’m surprised that everybody doesn’t.” In his notebooks, some of which are quoted in At the Barriers, he wrote in 1964:

What do I want? Well, I want the new vision (I would use this word only to myself),—the new vision fastened in the material world by the style. The vision must be of the strength, variety, validity of life, implying the ethically good.

And four years later, he wrote: “I pass the romantic impulse through the classical scrutiny.” In his essay in At the Barriers Brian Teare manages to make interesting and credible connections between the seriousness of both Yvor Winters and Robert Duncan; he quotes from a notebook entry from Gunn in May 1980: “I do believe in poetry as an activity reflective of one’s life at its fullest—not only reflective, but it actually can be one’s life at its fullest.” It is likely that both of his old mentors who breathed in the air of California, an air both yellow and electric, which made such a difference to Gunn as both man and poet, would have approved.

  1. 2

    1In his last book, Gunn composed a sequence of almost tender poems about Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer and cannibal.

  2. 3

    In a coda to At the Barriers, Robert Pinsky writes: “Thom the drug-taking, club-cruising leather-boy kept, under that surface, his center of shrewd, conservative good judgment and fine, traditional good manners. But it is equally true that under the surface of an earnest, conscientious, and polite university instructor, or an astute literary man, Thom kept his center of wild recklessness.” In Who’s Who, Gunn named his recreations as “Cheap Thrills.”

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