Thom Gunn Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Thom Gunn first achieved notoriety in England, as part of what was called the Movement, an unofficial tag applied to some poets of the 1950’s who were, in Gunn’s words, “eschewing Modernism, and turning back, though not very thoroughgoingly, to traditional resources in structure and method.” Poets of the Movement included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Donald Davie, among others. Gunn continued to achieve critical acclaim by approaching a diverse number of subjects previously excluded from poetry, with a similar regard for structure and meter.

Having moved to the United States in the late 1950’s, Gunn is somewhat of an amphibious poet. One might say that while his poetry has its formal roots in the English tradition, his subject matter has been taken largely from his American experience. He is known particularly for his exploration of certain counterculture movements from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. He is comfortable on the fringes of society, where popular culture thrives; rock music, motorcycle gangs, leather bars, and orgies have been his milieu. He is also considered one of the poets who deal most frankly with gay subject matter and themes. What distinguishes Gunn from other poets working with the same material is that he has refused to abandon structure and meter, preferring to impose form on chaotic subjects. Since the mid-1960’s, however, Gunn has been increasingly influenced by American poets, notably William Carlos Williams; he turned first to the flexible meters of syllabic verse and subsequently to free verse, without sacrificing his demanding sense of form.

A poet interested in the possibilities of identity, Gunn is best known for his explorations into the existential hero, who takes many guises in his poetry, including the soldier and the motorcyclist. The greatest influence on his thought in these matters has been the existentialism espoused by Jean-Paul Sartre in his philosophical treatise L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956). For Sartre, humanity is condemned to freedom to make its own meaning in an absurd universe. For Gunn, poetry has been the vehicle of this creation.

Fighting Terms

Gunn began his poetic career while still at Cambridge, with the publication of Fighting Terms. The image of the soldier is first of all, Gunn has written, “myself, the national serviceman, the ’clumsy brute in uniform,’ the soldier who never goes to war, whose role has no function, whose battledress is a joke,” but it is also the “attractive and repellant” real soldier, who kills but also quests, like Achilles and Odysseus. Above all, the soldier is the poet, “an existential conqueror, excited and aggressive,” trying to make sense of his absurd situation.

These poems show Gunn’s propensity to try, not always successfully, to make meaning of action in the intervals between action. “The Wound” is a good example. While recuperating, a soldier remembers the engagement of battle. As “the huge wound in my head began to heal,” he remembers the Trojan War, but it is unclear whether this was his actual experience or only a hallucination. It could be that he is a contemporary soldier reverting to myth in the damaged and “darkened” valleys of his mind. When he rises to act again, his wound “breaks open wide,” and he must again wait for “those storm-lit valleys to heal.” His identity is thus never resolved.

Similarly, in “Looking Glass,” the narrator is a kind of gardener who observes his life under glass. He compares it to a Garden of Eden in which “a fine callous fickleness” sent him in search of pleasure, “gratification being all.” Yet there is no God present in this world to give the world an a priori meaning: “I am the gardener now myself. . . . I am responsible for order here.” In the absence of God, “risks are authorized”—a theme that imbues Gunn’s later poems of experience. He is also alienated from society and does not “care if villagers suspect” that his life is going “to seed.” He takes a kind of pride in his status as outsider: “How well it goes to seed.” The act of observing the wild garden of his life is a pleasure in itself, even though he is an outcast, “damp-booted, unemployed.”

In “The Beach Head,” the narrator is a would-be conqueror planning a campaign into his own society: “I seek a pathway to the country’s heart.” Again the alienated outsider (“I, hare-brained stranger”) is heard making sense of his life, wondering whether to enter history through a fine gesture, “With little object other than panache/ And showing what great odds may be defied.” His alternative to action is to watch and “wait and calculate my chances/ Consolidating this my inch-square base.” This conflict is at the heart of Gunn’s poetry, early and late: whether to risk the heroic act or succumb to the passivity of contemplation. Yet the latter too has its risk—namely, that his failure to act may cause society’s “mild liking to turn to loathing.”

The Sense of Movement

The Sense of Movement continues Gunn’s exploration of the active versus the contemplative existential hero. Here the pose, poise, or panache of the hero is more important than the goal of the action, the movement constituting its own meaning. The volume introduces Gunn’s idealized “American myth of the motorcyclist, then in its infancy, of the wild man part free spirit and part hoodlum”; his motorcyclist series is based on Andrew Marvell’s mower poems. Gunn admits that the book is largely derivative (“a second work of apprenticeship”), partaking of Yvor Winters’s formalism, William Butler Yeats’s theory of the mask, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy of engaged action.

The opening poem of the volume, “On the Move,” explores the conflict between “instinct” and “poise.” This is a key dichotomy in Gunn’s work. The natural world of instinct is largely unavailable to thinking human beings, who, unlike birds, must create a kind of surrogate impetus for the meaningful movement. The motorcyclists become the focus for this conflict because of their assumed pose of wildness; yet it is a pose, a posture that is only “a part solution, after all,” to the problem. Riding “astride the created will,” they appear “robust” only because they “strap in doubt . . . hiding it.” The doubt has to do with their destination, as they “dare a future from the taken routes.” The absurdity of action (a notion central to existential thought) is emphasized in that the person can appeal neither to natural instinct nor to metaphysics for the meaning he must himself create: “Men manufacture both machine and soul.” Unlike “birds and saints,” the motorcyclists do not “complete their purposes” by reaching a destination. The movement is its own excuse: “Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,/ One is always nearer by not keeping still.”

“In Praise of Cities” affirms the disorderly evolution of human attempts to create meaning in the cityscape, which is personified as a woman, “indifferent to the indifference which conceived her.” She withholds and offers herself to the one who wants to discover her secrets. “She wanders lewdly, whispering her given name,/ Charing Cross Road, or Forty-Second Street.” Yet the city is really a mirror in which the narrator sees his “own designs, peeling and unachieved” on her walls, for she is, finally, “extreme, material, and the work of man.” As in “On the Move,” however, the narrator does not so much comprehend as simply embrace the city, with “a passion without understanding.” His movement is its own excuse, but the communion with humankind, through his created cityscape, is real.

My Sad Captains, and Other Poems

My Sad Captains, and Other Poems marks a turning point in Gunn’s career, a border crossing that is evident in the book’s two-part structure. The first half is concerned with the conflict between the “infinite” will and the “confined” execution, and the meter is suitably traditional. The epigraph from William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (pr. c. 1601-1602) suggests that while “desire is boundless,” “the act is a slave to limit.” Limit is represented by the formalist quality of the poems in this first part of the book.

The second half of the book is much less theoretical, more concerned with direct experience, as its epigraph from F. Scott Fitzgerald suggests: “It’s startling to you sometimes—just air, unobstructed, uncomplicated air.” This thematic quality is reflected in the breathy technique of syllabic verse, in which the line is determined by the number of syllables rather than accents; the rhymes are random or, when regular, slant. The syllabic form is well suited to the direct apprehension of experience in such poems as “Light Among Redwoods,” where “we stand/ and stare—mindless, diminished—/ at their rosy immanence.”

Thematically, the volume continues to develop Gunn’s “existential conqueror” motif in poems such as “The Book of the Dead” and “The Byrnies,” while expanding his poetic repertoire to include snails and trucks as well as some more exotic familiars: tattoo parlors in “Blackie, the Electric Rembrandt” and gay and leather bars in “Modes of Pleasure” (two poems, one title) and “Black Jackets.”

“A Map of the City” is perhaps even more successful than “In Praise of Cities” in affirming the human chaos of the city by its treatment of the theme within a traditional form. The speaker stands on a hill at night, looking at the “luminous” city like a map below. Like William Blake’s “London,” Gunn’s city is a maze of drunks, transients, and sailors. From this vantage point, he can “watch a malady’s advance,” while recognizing his “love of chance.” He sees the city’s concrete boredom and suffering but also its abstract “potential” for both satisfaction and danger. From this perspective, he can, if only for a moment, get his bearings in relation to the city as a whole, as a map, so that when he descends into the maze again, he will be able to navigate his way through its dangers and flaws. He embraces the “crowded, broken, and unfinished” as the natural concomitants to the riches of city life, as he concludes: “I would not have the risk diminished.”

The title poem, “My Sad Captains,” is a tribute to all those friends who have inspired the poet, “a few with historical/ names.” These men who were immersed in experience once seemed to him to have lived only to “renew the wasteful force they/ spent with each hot convulsion”; yet now they exist “apart” from life, “winnowed from failures,” and indeed above life, “and turn with disinterested/ hard energy, like the stars.”

Though this poem closes the volume, it can be profitably read together with any number of poems from the book, but especially the opening poem, “In Santa Maria del Popolo,” which describes a painting of the “one convulsion” of “Saul becoming Paul” by the sixteenth century artist Caravaggio (Michelangelo...

(The entire section is 4613 words.)