Fierce Games

Selected Poems 1950-1975

by Thom Gunn
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 131 pp., $10.95

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…

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