Thom Gunn Essay - Gunn, Thom (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gunn, Thom (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gunn, Thom 1929–

A British poet now living in California, Gunn, who began by writing about Teddy boys, now writes about LSD. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

In this first book Gunn revealed himself above all as a love poet, an astute worrier of his own tough sensibility; sharply aware of the poses and stratagems of lust. Vigour and clarity had at last begun to be more fashionable at that time, but Gunn was sinewy and literary too (literary in a traditional and even, for then, an antique manner, not with the post-war Oxford irony of Amis or Wain) and the result was that oddly effective voice of his, a mixture of the Jacobean and the colloquial which took flatness in its stride without too often appearing typically fiftyish….

In A Sense of Movement the discrepancy is often such that one finds oneself demanding a more cogent or attractive "moral", a development no doubt encouraged by Gunn's subject matter. It became more contemporary, more characteristic, just as his attitude became less sympathetic…. Here the point is (and it is perhaps the main criticism of Gunn's development) that the poet does not seem to be plainly enough saying what he wants to say. One would not even mind a body of verse which went beyond this rather conscious imagery of brutality or promiscuity into some plainly immoral creed. "Morality" would become irrelevant with more integrity. With individual exceptions, of course, it came to appear that Gunn was losing some central power of blending matter and manner. His Donnean candour and involvement became dissipated by evasiveness, irrelevancies and a frequently pedantic tone….

[Landscapes] and grotesqueries in the latest American manner fill the second part of My Sad Captains. The best of them ("Blackie, the Electric Rembrandt" and "A Trucker") are, say, as good as good Corso, but one is slightly discomfited, as though Gunn has dyed his hair. Altogether, one feels he is moving fast away from the native English vigour of Fighting Terms, and not writing as well as he can.

John Fuller, "Thom Gunn," in Review, No. 1, April/May, 1962, pp. 29-33.

From Fighting Terms onward, Thom Gunn's poetry has been concerned with discovering a kind of poise—a knack, mask or posture—which would preserve the self's intactness from the invasion of a gloomy Sartrean néant….

Gunn's earlier oscillation between tortuously rigorous iambics and probing, tentative syllabics expressed the moral dilemma as simple dichotomy: either the poet as sharply separate perceiver, processing and controlling his starkly defined object to the point where the poem stood up as an arthritically joined, cerebrally reverberating structure from which most of the felt life had been squeezed out; or a more relaxed, syllabic submission to the rhythms of an experience which, even in a poem as fine as "Considering the Snail", tended to limit the kinds of complex moral statement which Gunn at his best is capable of making.

Gunn's latest two volumes, however, reveal an interesting development. In Touch, the impulse towards an edgy, defensive hardening of the self underwent some sardonic questioning, as images of melting, dissolution, and momentary merging began to creep in. In Moly, that tendency has become considerably more affirmative: and one reason for this is that Gunn's sense of what sustaining "poise" involves seems to have been significantly modified….

The sharp disjunctions between controlling mind and chaotic matter of the early volumes are here [in Moly] superseded: it is by rooting himself responsively in the flow of natural forces, not by fending them off, that man can master them. And so, whereas Gunn's previous use of such images as the werewolf suggested a clumsy, potentially tragic discontinuity between man and Nature, the imagery of man-beast metamorphosis in Moly seems, while preserving something of this attitude, to express a more generous sense of some organic, ecological rapport between man and the forces among which he moves. On the one hand, the Circe myth to which the volume's title refers underscores the need for a vigilant self-awareness which allows man to master and transcend the bestial; but a series of "centaur" poems in the book seem to view the frontier between man and beast as being in any case blurred and indefinite, a merging rather than a dividing….

This emergent trend in Gunn's development is not, however, merely thematic. The perceptual relation between knower and known, mind and Nature, has always been an ambivalently moral and aesthetic issue for Gunn, defining a way of writing as well as an ethic….

At both moral and aesthetic levels … Gunn seems in this new volume to have broken beyond his former implication that the only alternative to a blank, existential alienation was a dangerously undermining empathy. Vigilant separateness and outgoing responsiveness can now be embraced within a single outline; and this is true at the technical, as well as the thematic, level….

The language here imitates the fusion of separateness and harmony which it describes: a spare, precise verbal economy is maintained, but a complex sensuousness is allowed to emerge through it, so that the objects are at once separately "placed" and experienced as an emotional unity. Moly lacks much of the metaphysical drama of the earlier Gunn; but it represents a mature distillation of some of the major issues which he has pursued so ambitiously throughout his work.

"Separate but the Same," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), April 16, 1971, p. 439.

Gunn's early poems mostly play 'the tragic game' which is a game of surfaces: 'the calculating Cupid feigning impartial-blind' is the referee. The poems are concerned with the creation of intellectual patterns, which they often do meticulously, and there is little point in searching for Real Life in them….

Though an interest in abstraction remains a feature of Gunn's poetry, the abstract joy, the careful manipulation of ideas and patterns, has gone. As one reconsiders his early work, one may wish for its return.

Neil Powell, "The Abstract Joy: Thom Gunn's Early Poetry," in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1971, pp. 219-27.

Moly … is only a qualified success…. Moving away from his earlier Audenesque, third-person, impersonal, ironic manner, Gunn is now writing visionary lyrics….

At least two poems in Moly—"At the Center" and "The Fair in the Woods"—deal with LSD visions…. [These] poems are so controlled, so carefully organized and sequentially structured that the very opposite of drug-induced hallucination seems to take place. Certain nature poems like "Flooded Meadows" and "Sunlight" are more successful, but even here one feels that Gunn is writing against the grain….

["Sunlight"] is very accomplished verse, written by a poet who has obviously mastered the variations of which iambic pentameter is capable, and whose metaphors (e.g., sun = seedbed) are carefully worked out. Yet there seems to be nothing behind the elegant verbal structure of "Sunlight." One is not convinced that Gunn believes in the sun's power to change us, whether for better or worse. The ecstatic Lawrentian sun-worship, the Roethkean ability to enter the life of the other, are absent.

Marjorie G. Perloff, "Roots and Blossoms," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 16, 1973, pp. 6-7.

Gunn doesn't exactly have a vision; he has a determination, which is a very different matter. What he believes in is the will in himself and, wherever he finds evidence of it, in heroes. The idea of the will is not, I repeat, a vision. It is like worshipping a stone.

Vision is vouchsafed, will is determined, and Thom Gunn's poetry, itself intensely voulu, expresses and realizes the desire to find examples of heroism in the strangest places. What others might well think were examples of moral collapse he finds to be determination, concentration, precision, self-creation. What distinguishes his poetry is the contradiction between its conventional form and its often Californian "with it" subject matter of Hell's Angels, the psychedelic culture, "pot" and "acid," etc. It is as though A. E. Housman were dealing with the subject matter of Howl, or Tennyson were on the side of the Lotus Eaters. This is poetry of the will written by the will to celebrate the will even in its perversity and negation….

His poetry is at its best—and most justifies the externality—when it is pure observation and draws no morals….

As an English poet Thom Gunn seems to have brought to California a "corrective" much needed—though one wonders who is corrected by it.

Stephen Spender, "Can Poetry Be Reviewed?," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), September 20, 1973, pp. 8-14.