Thom Gunn Essay - Gunn, Thom(son) (Vol. 6)

Gunn, Thom(son) (Vol. 6)

Gunn, Thom(son) 1929–

An English poet now living in the United States, Gunn has said that he was influenced by seventeenth-century metaphysical poets and by his experience with LSD. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Much of Gunn's strength comes from his preparedness to try and make honest poetry out of his reflections on interpersonal experience. The results of this are often coarse and unprofound, and Gunn's evident embarrassment at some of the more basic kinds of sexual discovery sometimes suggests a real limitation of sensibility. But this in turn seems to be reinforced by Gunn's crude poetic diction and clumsy reliance on traditional metres which deny natural speech-rhythms and encourage the side-step into declamation and poetic clowning. With his recent switch to syllabic forms (itself only a surface tactic, of course, and no real solution) Gunn has evaded this particular problem, and in at least one of these later poems ("The Feel of Hands") allows a poetry to emerge which, in feeling at least, is refreshing and genuine. (p. 14)

Colin Falck, in The Modern Poet: Essays from 'The Review,' edited by Ian Hamilton (© Ian Hamilton), MacDonald, 1968.

In a fairly loose sense of the term, Gunn has been equipped with a myth from the outset—that of Sartrian existentialism. Its advantage, as in Sartre's early philosophical work, has been its ability to bring the contingencies of personal and social history into some kind of relation with an underlying ontology. That relation has rarely been an easy one in Gunn's actual poetry: the specific action of a poem too often merely stiffly bodied out (a recurrent Gunn verb) an a priori metaphysic. But the Sartrian myth did allow a limited kind of transaction to take place between the variable texture of experience and a framing vision. At the same time, however, that transaction was often of a negative sort: the poetry centred on a nameless néant which intervened between a watchful consciousness aware of its large general meanings, and the swarming bits of specific reality within which it moved. In the earlier volumes, the tactic of a particular poem was then either to dramatise that sickening sense of disparity, or, as in a poem like "Waking in a Newly-Built House", to rest satisfied with the alien self-possession of things, strictly curbing the turbulent, subversive questions which consciousness addressed to them.

In one or two of the final poems of My Sad Captains, however, another sort of myth began to emerge—one almost antithetical in tendency to the existentialist dilemma. It is there, for instance, in the closing lines of Loot…. It is the fusion, not the disparity, between man, nature, and history which is central here: a sub-Lawrentian myth of the individual as passive transmitter of primordial forces which fill and possess him with their own richness. If Gunn is, notably, the poet of emptiness and lack, it is also true that he is the poet of fullness: cramming, blooding, bodying are recurrent images. Consciousness either stands impotently apart from its object, fending off the invasions of chaos, or allows its vigilance to be sensually dissolved into a moment of mindless surrender to an impersonal natural force. This can only be risked, of course, if the force is somehow friendly…. If the Sartrian myth stresses alienation, this primitivistic vision emphasises man's rootedness in the cosmos: it offers—in my view, in a mystifying and merely assertive way—a natural solution to social breakdown.

This second mythology seems to have grown stronger in Gunn's recent poetry—grown, indeed, to the point where, in a discussion of Moly, he can talk gravely and explicitly of certain "powers" friendly to man, in whom trust can be placed. 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; and that tendency becomes even more affirmative in Moly. One reason for this is that Gunn's sense of what sustaining "poise" involves seems to have been modified…. The sharp disjunctions between controlling mind and chaotic matter of the earlier books seem superseded …: it's 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 werewolf imagery sometimes suggested a potentially tragic discontinuity between man and nature, the imagery of man-beast metamorphosis in Moly seems to express a sense of some organic, ecological rapport between man and the forces he moves among. The Circe myth to which the book's title refers still underlines the need for an alert self-awareness which allows man to master the bestial; but a number of "centaur" poems in the volume view the frontier between man and beast as blurred and indefinite, a merging rather than sharp dividing…. (pp. 235-37)

[A] tentative trust, reached through [the use] of myth, [e-merges:] man can be at home in the universe. Man can be at home because entwined with the present in which he lives are threads or forces from elsewhere, buoying him up, binding him to Nature or geography, history or space. And because this is so, the individual can, once again, become representative…. Myth strips the individual of his social specificity, but also, therefore, of his contingency, his social nullity. The individual—… Gunn's primitive survivor—is invested with a freshly representative significance, as the node in which natural forces, historical strands, metaphysical preoccupations converge. Myth allows for that centripetal unity centred in a single figure, but also (and this is surely its true attraction) for a free-ranging liberty, spanning diverse dimensions of time and space. The trampoline formed by knotting the frayed threads of reality into a single structure tosses you free of temporal constrictions into an upper air from whence you can effect a leisurely reentry into time on your own terms. From this crow's-eye-view the whole of history, suitably spatialised by the force of myth, becomes your kingdom.

The transcendental freedom to which the [myth] of … Gunn … [lays] claim is clearly a considerably more ambitious affair than the orthodox freedoms of social democracy and its accompanying poetics. It represents, indeed, one reaction to the crisis of that liberal bourgeois tradition, to the increasing non-availability of its limited freedoms as the social democratic centreground continues to crumble…. (pp. 237-38)

The compensatory aspect of myth seems to me of major importance…. Myth provides a measure of freedom, transcendence, representativeness, a sense of totality; and it seems no accident that it is serving these purposes in a society where those qualities are largely lacking. The values which social democratic pragmatism attempts to banish from history re-appear, sometimes in assertive and exaggerated form, in myth. Comedy or cosmic forces provide the experiences of balance and security which society fails to supply; if man is rootless and estranged in the realm of culture, he can discover symbolic resolutions to real alienations in the realms of nature and art. (p. 239)

Terry Eagleton, "Myth and History in Recent Poetry" (discussion of several poets; copyright © Terry Eagleton, 1972), in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1972, pp. 236-39.

[Thom Gunn's] motorcycle poems are not really characteristic of the Gunn who has so carefully crafted Moly. Here, we find a poet of great technique, a master of rhyming and poetic pace, showing us one totally finshed poem after another. And … the emotion and meaning are never subjected to flashy effects. Moly is a volume which must be read terribly slowly, as we make ourselves open to Gunn's painstaking welding of language and message.

The poems, many showing that the sources of their inspiration came from experiences with LSD, seem to have been hard won, brought back from an incredible distance and set down, letter by letter, on the page. They are like weights holding us down from being blown or scattered into a universe of incredible beauty, where all is connected, where man is merged with beast, or Nature, or light, or boundary. (p. 114)

The poetry in Moly does not at all excite, and is not intended to do so. What it does is that which is so much more difficult, so indicative of the work of a mature poet: it satisfies deeply. Gunn will not win a larger audience with these … poems, but he continues to confirm the expectations of his already appreciative one. (pp. 115-16)

Gunn's work presents a strong argument against the overt message-carrying possibility of contemporary poetry. The poems, compared with the work freighting the messages I so admire in Hugo, Berry and Carruth, do not seem immediately to matter. But as Gunn shows us a possibility of seeing into ourselves, into the beauty and majesty of the Self, he too seems to answer the outer world by another type of withdrawal—not one into place, but into Being. (p. 116)

Dick Allen, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1974.