Gunn’s poetry was first associated with the “Movement,” a direction in English verse in the 1950’s noted for its conservative prosody, unrhapsodic style, and skepticism. The present collection shows these features; the poems in it are all carefully tooled, even when some of the more recent do without meter and rhyme, and they depend for the most part on the academic habit of irony and paradox and often focus on the nature of process in the mind, the senses, and being itself. The changes evident in Gunn’s work seem to parallel his move from England to California: from the Larkinesque “Wind in the Street,” which features the frustrating tentativeness of an urban setting of small shops, his poetry goes on to a setting of motorcycles, beaches, and wilderness and acquires a forthright sympathy for the instinctual and bungling element in human behavior.
The themes which all of Gunn’s subjects and mental and artistic habits serve are isolation, the mysterious forces which control all acts, and connection.
His treatment of isolation is exhaustive. The lighthouse keeper in “Round and Round” lives alone in a private world where everything turns inward. The prisoner is cut off from the surroundings to which he is physically connected (“In the Tank”), and not only is the man about to be hanged isolated from his executioners, but they are also cut off from him, since they forget the reason for his execution (“No Speech from the Scaffold”). The seducer in “The Beach Head” catalogs the blunt and underhanded tactics available to him, but he never makes it to “the heart” of the person he wants, and so stays isolated and unfulfilled. The voyeur is isolated by not participating in the act of pleasure; since the act of observing itself is a distortion, it becomes even more a form of isolation. The gardener in “Looking Glass” is the poet, isolated by the fact that he does not follow the “manuals” but his own maverick schedule and ways. In “Confessions of the Life Artist” oppression isolates its victim, and art (the photograph of the victim) creates a further distance between him and any observer subsequent to his experience.
“Misanthropos,” which takes up more than half of Section IV, is full of examples of isolation. The human world seems to have done itself in, and “The Last Man” realizes he is alone not only as a physical form bereft of its kind, but also because he is alive and can think about his condition. He remembers his isolation as a soldier among his fellow humans, and he considers how the servant—because he pretends that only the master’s hunger matters—is cut off from him, as is the parasite from the organism it invades and leaves, the moral hero from the barbaric army he is part of, and any particle from any mass it is refined from.
If isolation is a major aspect of human nature, another is the mysterious force which controls it and, it seems, all things. Humans invent rituals to suggest a meaningful direction to this force, but they do not work and are, as “The Silver Age” points out, themselves controlled by change. The famous “On the Move” presents a motorcycle gang decked out in its icons and moving along with a sense of purpose, but actually going nowhere in particular, being impelled merely by the instinct to move. The same is true of the motorcyclist in “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death,” whose will must yield finally to the unwilled process of nature itself. About the best we can do, Gunn says in “To Yvor Winters, 1955,” is to discipline ourselves to see and dramatize the forces that drive us and pull us down.
Gunn is aware of something sinister in the transience and illusiveness which help signify these forces. Looking at a painting, he says, “the very subject is in doubt,” and says that the painter saw “an alternate/Candor and secrecy inside the skin” (“In San Maria del Popolo”). In fact, one thing upon which art is based is...
(The entire section is 1,267 words.)