Gunn, Thom(son William)
Thom(son William) Gunn 1929–
English poet, critic, editor, and essayist.
An English poet who has lived in the United States since 1955, Gunn has combined in his writing characteristics of both formal, traditionally structured poetry and relaxed, modern free verse. His subjects range from metaphysical conceits to motorcycle gangs and LSD, and at the center of his work there is a tension between constraint and energy that Gunn describes in Moly (1971) as "a debate between the passion for definition and the passion for flow." As a student and beginning poet at Cambridge in the early 1950s, Gunn shared many concerns with such writers as Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, and others who have been collectively referred to as The Movement. Like Movement poetry, Gunn's early work displays a predilection for tightly rhymed and metered verse and a rejection of the neoromanticism favored in England in the 1940s. The poems in his first collection, Fighting Terms (1954), were written at Cambridge and reveal his attempt at stylistic sophistication and hard realism. Gunn's admiration for the man of action, which recurs throughout his career, is evident here in the many images of soldiers and war. In 1954, Gunn moved to California and enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied under the poet and critic Yvor Winters.
Gunn's life in the United States has strongly influenced his work. Although such dominant concerns as the quest for personal identity and meaning in human existence have remained constant, his topics, imagery, and style have changed, as well as his philosophical approach. His second collection, The Sense of Movement (1958), like Fighting Terms, displays a formal construction and examines the existential premise of a valueless world in which the individual creates meaning through willed action. However, the influence of American culture begins to emerge and in Gunn's next collection, My Sad Captains and Other Poems (1961), this influence becomes explicit.
My Sad Captains is divided into two thematically and stylistically different sections and is considered a major transitional volume. The first half continues in the mode of Gunn's previous volumes, stressing violence, roughness, and action with tight, formal control. The second section marks the beginning of Gunn's movement from metrical verse to syllabics and eventually to even more relaxed free forms. The change in technique is mirrored in the emergence of new poetic concerns: Gunn's metaphysical contemplations are abandoned in order to record experiences in and perceptions of the physical world. Nature begins to figure prominantly and Gunn's combative stance toward the world is softened. The poems begin to express a recognition that emotional contact between humans is both possible and desirable. Gunn's next collection, Touch (1968), expands on this sense of hope and possibility. The poems are written mostly in free verse or a combination of free verse and syllabics, a style which is seen to reflect Gunn's developing optimism.
In the early 1960s Gunn taught at the University of California at Berkeley and became involved with the radical counter-culture in San Francisco. His experiences with LSD and his new insights provided the material for many of the poems in Moly and Jack Straw's Castle and Other Poems (1976). This was a period of almost ecstatic discovery for him, and these two volumes reflect his growth as he embraces the community of humankind while also acknowledging the pain and trauma of deeply sharing oneself.
The Passages of Joy (1982) contains what many critics consider his most revealing poems. They explore his English heritage, and in several poems Gunn speaks openly, for the first time, about his homosexuality. As Gunn's style continues to relax, some critics express regret over his departure from formal literary traditions, but his poems are frequently praised for their heightened clarity and directness and for the precision of Gunn's control. In 1982 Gunn also published his first collection of essays, The Occasions of Poetry. This volume contains critical analyses of the work of other poets as well as autobiographical pieces. Although Gunn continues to be better known in England than in the United States, he undoubtedly belongs to the Anglo-American tradition which includes such notable poets as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W.H. Auden.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27.)
P. R. King
[Thom Gunn] shared the belief of The Movement poets that poetry should be well made and craftsmanlike, utilizing traditional rhythms and rhyme schemes. Many of his early poems expressed fairly complex ideas within intricately extended metaphors, a style which helped earn him the label of 'a modern metaphysical poet', especially as these poems were often concerned with matters of love and passion, one of the traditional themes of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets.
Now that he has published six volumes of poetry this view seems somewhat limited and cannot provide a full account of his strongly individualistic voice…. Many of his poems, particularly his best ones, are linked closely to his life and experiences and especially to his exploration of his sense of himself and the possible attitudes and commitments he might embrace. There is a sense in which his poetry might be seen as a continuously developing attempt to understand the intellectual's condition in modern life and to explore the divisions, conflicts, tensions and problems that he faces. His poems explore aspects of the rift between thinking man and acting man, between body and mind, self and others, self and the natural world.
In Iris Murdoch's novel The Time of the Angels there is a character called Pattie, a black servant who suddenly finds that after years of loneliness, grinding work and poverty, after the experience of an aching lack of...
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Gunn is quite consciously a writer of contrasts, who has drawn on a wide range of influences and modes. But his work none the less impresses the careful reader with its underlying consistency. He made his name, after all, as a master of rigorously traditional verse forms, and he continues to excel in them, but he has since become hardly less accomplished in a variety of 'open' forms and the verse is no less shapely. His approach is at root impersonal: his first person, like Ralegh's or Jonson's or Hardy's, is unquestionably that of a particular man, but a man who expects his individuality to be of interest in so far as it is a quality the reader shares with him…. His work, which has done much to dispel the critical orthodoxy that abstract language is inimical to poetry, has become over the years increasingly sensuous in detail, reflecting preoccupations that were there from the beginning, though not at first as qualities of the language. For this most chaste of modern poets is a philosophical hedonist—rather like Camus, of all modern moralists the one he appears to value most.
The most interesting contrast of all, perhaps, is connected with his sense of the past. What strikes us most immediately in Gunn's poems—what made him famous in fact—is their contained energy. Yet he is also, without fallng into academicism, a highly literary poet, and his literariness, far from being a limitation, may well be the main source of his...
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[Rule and Energy, two] potentially counterdestructive principles, exist everywhere in [Thom Gunn's] work, not sapping the poems of their strength but creating a tense climate of balanced opposition. Any poet worth thinking twice about possesses at least an energetic mind; but it is the harnessing of this energy which makes for excellence. In Gunn's work an apparently unlimited energy of vision finds, variously, the natural boundaries which make expression—and clarity—possible. (p. 134)
[Gunn's early poems] reflect his British heritage and the interest in "formalist" poetry characteristic of poets identified with the so-called Movement. "What poets like Larkin, Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and I had in common at that time was that we were deliberately eschewing Modernism, and turning back, though not very thoroughly, to traditional resources in structure and method," says Gunn. (pp. 134-35)
The traditionalist bent of Gunn's first book, Fighting Terms (1954), tugs in opposition to his rebellious themes. The poet most often invokes a soldier persona, an existential warrior in the act of self-definition. (p. 135)
Among the accomplished poems from this early phase of Gunn's career is "Tamer and Hawk," which treats of the Rule/Energy conflict in tightly rhymed trimeter stanzas…. The poem is a swift, bold stroke; its central conceit is a subtly worked-out metaphor—the hawk is possessed...
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In the past, I have been persuaded by those like Colin Falck who have thought Thom Gunn's distinctive and great achievement was to have re-established creative connections with at least one aspect of Shakespeare, and with some of Shakespeare's great contemporaries, notably Marlowe and Donne. Gunn, I believe, liked this notion, and Clive Wilmer endorses it in his excellent and too brief Introduction to The Occasions of Poetry [see excerpt above]. It is disconcerting to have to acknowledge that in Gunn's very fine collection of poems [The Passages of Joy] this dimension of his writing is no longer evident. In none of these 37 poems, as I read them, is there any longer evidence that their author has been attending to the songs from Shakespeare's plays, to Donne's Songs and Sonnets, or Marlowe's translations and imitations of Ovid: they are 'contemporary' in an altogether less complicated and more obvious way. Although the title of the collection and an epigraph to one poem come (surprisingly) from Johnson's 'Vanity of Human Wishes', in all other respects these poems seem to remember not much before Whitman, and certainly nothing before Stendhal or Keats. Clearly, if Gunn has indeed been one modern poet with a sympathy for the English Renaissance, that was far from being as central to his achievement as some of us thought. For the achievement is still there: The Passages of Joy is as fine a collection as he has ever published, and if it...
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'I can try / At least to get my snapshots accurate,' Thom Gunn remarks in one of the poems in his new collection, The Passages of Joy. The critical essays assembled in The Occasions of Poetry pay tribute to other poets who have done so. Crisp bits of verbal photography are frequently held up for admiration. Keats is praised for his 'sharp-eyed exactness'; Hardy, congratulated on the 'clarity of … [his] images'. William Carlos Williams—in some ways the key exhibit—is enthused over as though he were a flawless camera lens: 'clear delineation … perfect accuracy'.
Gunn aims at achieving similar results. Cloudiness caused by out-of-focus rhetoric or 'confessional' over-exposure is deplored in the essays. The poems brilliantly snap up a collection of high-definition images. But there's more to them than mere Nikon precision…. [Gunn] invests his own sharp images with depths of significance: 'every detail brightened with meaning'. Sometimes this is accomplished by the angle from which things are viewed. More usually—it is Gunn's favourite technique—two pictures are creatively juxtaposed.
Juxtaposition increasingly characterises Gunn's writing. Bringing together techniques learned from both English and American poets, he also shows a taste for coupling the literary and the louche…. His latest writings show an imagination amiably hospitable to hustlers and Hardy, Keats and Castro Street, S/M...
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I am sorry to say that The Passages of Joy seems to me an utterly cliché-ridden collection. There are clichés of phrase: the poet speaks of being 'buried' in his work, he remembers a friend's 'boisterous sense of fun', he 'tingles' with knowledge. There are clichés of thought, of which the poem to Elvis Presley is a particularly unfortunate example…. But above all, it is the cliché of manner that hurts this volume. There are two such manners. One is the laid-back, free-form, West Coast style of the majority of the poems, which is so slack as to be almost enervate, and which therefore works only when it mimes its subject matter as in 'Slow Walker.'… The other is that tight, formal style with which Gunn began and which now has about it a kind of metallic heaviness, a lack of rhythmic grace which Yvor Winters sanctioned … but which is in fact fatally dull. The trouble with The Passages of Joy is that the voice we are required to listen to finds it very difficult to say anything that is new, plausible or engaging. (p. 21)
John Lucas, "Pleading for the Authenticity of the Spirit," in New Statesman, Vol. 104, No. 2682, August 13, 1982, pp. 20-1.∗
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Thom Gunn's new book of poems [The Passages of Joy] comes clean with a companion volume of essays [The Occasion of Poetry], as if someone were trying to package him as an august poet and critic—the gay Matthew Arnold of his time. Even their titles have parallel ambiguities. What's an Occasion? What's a Passage?
As an essayist, Gunn is modest and generous, belying the hype. Some of his essays—like those of Rod Taylor, Dick Davis, and James Merrill—are "occasional" in that they're short, casual, slight, even fugitive, floating away into thin air on their own gracefulness. Yet the longer pieces on Fulke Greville and Thomas Hardy are "occasional" in a more satisfying sense: here Gunn unassumingly puts his intelligence wholly at the service of the occasioning subject, which is never a mere pretext for self-analysis or sermonizing. He's well worth reading when he explains how Greville, a late Elizabethan and Jacobean courtier and poet, appropriated and transformed the different kinds of poetry made available to him by the cultural ferment of the 1590s. Or the way Hardy adapted the taciturnity of English folk ballads, cutting away connective tissue and explanation to let events speak starkly for themselves.
Note that stress on "experience," not meddled with by the writer's ego, as the stuff of the good poem…. Gunn wants to avoid the self-involvement of confession, to make the act of writing a testimony...
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Gunn is a very versatile writer both technically and thematically. Games of Chance allows the reader to study one side of him in isolation. These eleven new poems, all written in free verse, show Gunn in a reflective mood. Like an operatic tenor whose voice has darkened with age, Gunn is moving into new roles in his recent work, and though he may move among the same scenery as before, he now sees it from a different perspective. He shows the same curiosity as ever, but it is now tinged with cynicism, as in "Expression," where Gunn turns his attention to the work of young poets…. (p. 491)
Elsewhere Gunn strikes a more tender note. In "Elegy" the memory of an acquaintance who shot himself becomes a general lament for all of his dead…. But ultimately Gunn undermines whatever tenderness he shows with the bitter reminders of reality. In "As Expected" the slow gains a young man makes with a ward of retarded adults are destroyed by his successors. Or in "Adultery," a variation on the Elizabethan echo poems that have always fascinated Gunn, a wife's carefully orchestrated lie is rendered pointless when Gunn suddenly reverses the points of view and reveals how little her husband cares for her. Games of Chance is a powerful book. (pp. 491-92)
Dana Gioia, "Poetry and the Fine Presses," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 483-98.∗
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The play of intelligence has always been a distinguishing mark of Thom Gunn's poetry, and his critical essays [collected in The Occasions of Poetry] show that it is what he values most in the poetry of others. Writing on the early work of Gary Snyder—a significant signpost en route to his own Americanisation—he singles out a poem which is "about feeling the cleanness of the senses" and goes on to observe that "cleanness, exactness, adequacy are the first impressions we have of the language and the rhythms … rhythms at one with the perceptions, neither their servants nor their masters." It is this kind of firm grace, a lyrical pact between servant and master, the practice of an efficient sensibility, that Gunn has always seemed to go for. In his strongest poems he has achieved a balance of rule and energy where, with an increasing confidence in the handling of free verse and syllabics, the celebrated pose has gradually relaxed into a more mature poise.
The poems I like most in The Passages of Joy are, in the words of one of them, exercises "in stance, and / in the muscle of feeling." They are full of teasing questions of identity, and often turn on a moment of complex interplay experienced as a creative tension…. Gunn's continual alertness to the need to be "loose but in control" (or, as he reverses it in the sonnet "Keats at Highgate", "perhaps not well-dressed but oh no not loose") keeps the reader involved with...
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