Thom Gunn Poetry: British Analysis

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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...

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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 Merisi). Here Paul becomes “the solitary man,” “resisting, while embracing, nothingness.” Yet it is to Caravaggio that Gunn looks for this revelation, the artist being one of his “sad captains.”

Although Gunn did not do much more with syllabic verse after My Sad Captains, and Other Poems, it was, he said, a way of teaching himself about “unpatterned rhythms,” or free verse. From this point onward, he worked in both traditional and “open” forms.


Positives is written entirely in open forms. These poems were written to accompany his brother Ander’s photographs of life in London. Poems about other works of art are common, especially in modern poetry. W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1939) and John Ashbery’s “Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1964) are examples of poems that interpret paintings from a distant time and place, as is Gunn’s own “In Santa Maria del Popolo.” In Positives, however, the collaboration is very much contemporary. The poems are written with the photographs, which seem to have taught Gunn to pay attention to the details of street life, pubs, construction sites, abandoned houses, and bridges in a way he never had before. As a result, Gunn gives up the symbolism of Yeats for luminous realities: “It is not a symbolic/ bridge but a real bridge;/ nor is the bundle/ a symbol.” This quality makes Positives the least philosophical of his early works, even though the theme is large: the progress from birth and “doing things for the first time” to old age and “the terror of full repose.” Written to face the photographs, the poems are freed of the burden of description, so that they have a transparent quality, a light touch, and, on the whole, a positive tone.

The poems and photographs depict the “memoirs of the body” in the lines of a face or a stance or gesture. In most cases, “an ambiguous story” can be read there: either as “the ability to resist/ annihilation, or as the small/ but constant losses endured/ but between the lines/ life itself!” These moments of activity in the present—human beings absorbed in the space between past and future—are Gunn’s subjects: a child bathing, boys waiting to grow up, motorcyclists riding, a bride overwhelmed by the weight of lace, an old woman balancing a bundle on her head. Each has a history and a destiny, but these are components of their present hopes and fears.


Touch similarly reaches out to a real humanity. By making choices one may cut off other possibilities, but one also affirms a commitment to the individual experience. In “Confessions of the Life Artist,” the narrator is “buoyant with the sense of choice.” Having chosen, one finds that the death of possibilities unchosen only fortifies “one’s own identity.”

The opening poem addresses the “Goddess” of loneliness—Proserpine, the fruitful goddess confined away from human touch in the underworld. When she arises in a park, one of Gunn’s ever-present soldiers is waiting for “a woman, any woman/ her dress tight across her ass/ as bark in moonlight.” The final line seems to reject the idea that myth can enrich human lives; rather, it is persons, “vulnerable, quivering,” who lend to myth their own “abundance.”

The movement explored in previous volumes here becomes not linear motion through time but the spatial, encircling movement of the imagination wedded to emotion. In the “turbulence” of “The Kiss at Bayreuth,” there is a paradoxical moment in which two “may then/ be said to both move and be still.” The egotism of the “inhuman eye” of contemplation is overcome in the moment that two are able to “not think of themselves.”

Similarly, in the title poem, touch is what Gunn’s narrators seem to have been gravitating toward all along. As the narrator slips into the familiar space of a shared bed, he discovers an “enclosing cocoon . . . where we walk with everyone.” This personal communion implies a larger community of sleepers who partake in the “continuous creation” of humanity.

There is not room here for a full discussion of the long poem “Misanthropos,” but it is in this poem of seventeen sections that the theme of Touch is most fully explored. The protagonist is the last man on Earth after a great holocaust, or at least he seems to be. The problem of identity in the absence of others to validate one’s existence is explored as the man sheds old values, memories, and emotions as he sheds his former clothes. When he at last loses the distinctions of language, he encounters other survivors, and direct sensation, experienced anew, is shocking.


The background informing Moly is Gunn’s experience with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which, he said, “has been of the utmost importance to me, both as a man and as a poet.” Although he recognized the acid trip to be “essentially non-verbal,” it was important and “possible to write poetry about any subject that was of importance to you.” Unlike other drug-induced poetry, which tends to mimic the diffusion and chaos of the raw experience in free verse, the poems in Moly attempt to present “the infinite through the finite, the unstructured through the structured.” These poems are highly controlled by structure and meter, while dealing with strange transformations.

The title poem, “Moly,” is a dramatic monologue in the voice of one of Odysseus’s men who has been turned into a pig by the witch Circe. Its rhymed couplets underscore the dual nature of man, part human and part beast, in search of the essential and magical “root” that will restore his humanity: “From this fat dungeon I could rise to skin/ And human title, putting pig within.” The herb he is seeking is moly (“From milk flower to the black forked root”), which rhymes with “holy.” The influence of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” (1924) is evident, yet the swine-man of Gunn’s poem is a typically contemporary twist on the mythological theme of the beast-god of Yeats’s modernist poem.

Gunn’s 1973 essay “Writing a Poem” discusses the conception and composition of “Three,” but it is illuminating as a more general discussion of how a poem comes to be. Gunn says that he encountered a naked family on the beach and wanted to preserve them on paper as a kind of “supersnapshot,” to find “an embodiment for my haunting cluster of concepts” about them. He calls his desire to perserve this feeling a sense of “decorum”—that is, a description that would be true to his direct experience of them, not the “pat” theme of “innocence and repossession.”

Jack Straw’s Castle, and Other Poems

This idea of decorum seems to dominate the poems in Jack Straw’s Castle, and Other Poems. Here there is a kind of easy humor and simplicity of emotion only glimpsed in the earlier poems. In “Autobiography,” perhaps influenced by Robert Creeley, the speaker desires (and achieves) “the sniff of the real.” “Last Days at Teddington” tells of a return to a house that “smelt of hot dust through the day,” and all sensation is clear and complete, like the garden that “fell back on itself.”

The title poem, however, is a nightmarish version of a fairy tale, in which Gunn confronts his own worst enemy, himself: “I am the man on the rack/ I am the man who puts the man on the rack/ I am the man who watches the man who puts the man on the rack.” Yet by confronting the demons of the imagination in this way, he seems to clear the air for a renewed apprehension of experience, to recognize that the “beauty’s in what is, not what may seem.” In this way, “Jack’s ready for the world.”

The Passages of Joy

The Passages of Joy is the world the poet of “Jack Straw’s Castle” has readied himself for. In “The Menace,” the speaker discovers “the stifling passages” of the mind, where “the opposition lurks” not outside himself, but within: “I am, am I,/ the one-who-wants-to-get-me.” The joys seem less simple, more problematic after the decades of easy sex and drugs. This volume, in fact, contains Gunn’s frankest expression of gay concerns in the era of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), although its focus shifts away from leather bars and orgies to long-standing relationships of shared domesticity.

The title is taken from Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), a satire on the tragic and comic elements of human hopes and errors. One of the poems (“Transients and Residents”) bears an epigraph from Johnson’s poem:

Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy,And shuts up all the Passages of Joy.

The very personal poems of this volume show Gunn, now past fifty, dealing with the effects of age—in a person, in a generation, and perhaps in the race.

The three parts of the book show Gunn in a range of moods, from what might be called the meditative poems of the first and third parts to the hip pop-culture poems of part 2. Part 2 begins with a poem for Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer of the more dangerous elements of the gay scene. Another poem features a “dead punk lady,” the murdered girlfriend of Sid Vicious of Sex Pistols fame.

The poet of “A Map of the City” still “would not have the risk diminished,” for in the risks are to be found certain “passages of joy.” In addition to the literal underground passages of “Another All Night Party,” in which orgies occur, there are also the symbolic rites of passage of “Adultery” and “Talbot Road.”

“Talbot Road” is a poetic treatment of Gunn’s “year of great happiness” in London during the Beatles era, when, according to his almost-identical prose account in “My Life up to Now” (1977), “barriers seemed to be coming down all over.” One of these barriers had to do with Gunn’s own sexuality. The centerpiece of the five-part poem is a return to Hampstead Heath, where he meets “my past self” in the form of a nineteen-year-old. “This was the year,” he says, “the year of reconciliation,” but it is unclear whether he means his own nineteenth year of 1964-1965; the ambiguity is intentional, for he means both. Hampstead Heath had been for him the scene of childish play and vague adolescent longings, where by day he “had played hide and seek/ with neighbor children”; in 1964, however, he could see the dark side that had always been there, since by night the Heath had long been a notorious venue for promiscuous sexual encounters, and there he now “played as an adult/ with troops of men whose rounds intersected/ at the Orgy Tree.”

The central poem of the volume, however, is “Transients and Residents,” in which these literal and figurative passages give way to the real passage of time. The four poems that make up this sequence stand in their own right as powerful and timely meditations on the passage of joy in the age of AIDS. Subtitled “An Interrupted Sequence,” these four portraits of gay men in different roles explore the passing of a time of carefree sexual awakening and put the reader in the midst of sickness and death. The last portrait is of the poet himself at his desk, catching a glimpse of himself writing—which interrupts the sequence. This interruption perhaps provides a clue into the poet’s view of the other portraits he has been drawing, for like the drug dealer in “Crystal,” “he puts his soul/ Into each role in turn, where he survives/ Till it is incarnation more than role.”

On the streets of “Night Taxi,” a cabdriver takes his“fares like affairs/ — no, more like tricks to turn:/ quick, lively, ending up/ with a cash payment.” As in the earlier motorcycle poems, Gunn remains obsessed with movement. The cabdriver is intent on maneuvering his way gracefully through the maze of the city, one with his machine. There is still a sense of independence, yet there is also a sense of community; the driver’s movement depends on others, even is subservient to the wishes of others: “It’s all on my terms but/ I let them think it’s on theirs.” It is an appropriate poem to end this book that focuses mostly on the importance of other people.


Gunn’s later poems, such as those in Undesirables, return to the gritty side of city life in the 1980’s, observing characters and situations with an edge of black humor, like scenes reflected in a switchblade. He has not given up his preoccupation with Yeats—“Old Meg” is an incarnation of Yeats’s Crazy Jane—but all sense of imitation is gone. Gunn has renounced the Yeatsian pronouncement for the rabbit punch and the belly laugh. “Punch Rubicundus,” for example, is a ribald poem about an aging gay man, in which the satire is all self-directed. The host, Mr. Punch, enters one of his “vaudeville of the sexual itch” parties, riding on a donkey, and says, “But this can’t be Byzantium. (Though/ they do say Uncle Willie’s ghost got an invite).” The irreverent reference to Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927) and “Byzantium” (1932) is clear: Uncle Willie is William Butler Yeats, whose spirits were supposed to ride “astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood” to “the holy city of Byzantium.”

The poetry of Gunn continued to develop as an up-to-the-minute report on the contemporary scene. Yet his roots in the tradition of poetry were deep, and his dialogue with the poets and forms of the past was as much a part of his evolution as a poet as was his keen eye for the realities of his time.

The Man with Night Sweats

Gunn received critical acclaim for The Man with Night Sweats, recognized for its unsentimental examination of AIDS, death, and neglected members of contemporary American society. He wrote the poems during 1982 to 1988, a period when the AIDS epidemic was devastating the gay community and the global community shared widespread homophobia and concerns over its transmission. Here the topic of AIDS seemed a theme to which Gunn could attach a particular passion and poetic craft, a place to offer heartbreaking poems of young men struggling with a disease that consumes them with fear and its cruelty. The skepticism of his past poetry here gives way to elegy and lament, lyrical meditation, and a form of rage that is finely tooled with his poetic balance.

In this collection, Gunn acts as both a witness to the devastation of AIDS as well as one deeply involved with it. He writes in “The Renaissance,” “You came back in a dream./ I’m all right now you said.” His witnessing of the suffering also takes on a ferocity, a compulsion to attest to the wreckage of AIDS, almost as a way to provide a kind of defense:

I shall not soon forget. . . . . . . .The angle of his head,Arrested and reared backOn the crisp field of bed, . . .

One of the strongest poems of the collection is “Lament,” an elegy of more than one hundred lines in which the speaker describes in great detail the slow dying of a close friend in a hospital ward. Rather than elevate the dying friend with praise and abstraction as does traditional elegy, this piece repeats that death is a “difficult enterprise” and chronicles the tedium and pain experienced by his friend—the “clumsy stealth” that has “distanced” him “from the habits of health.” “Lament” is a perfect example of Gunn’s tightly channeled, yet deeply felt elegies that form this collection.

Boss Cupid

Boss Cupid echoes the elegiac style of The Man with Night Sweats, its three sections examining the loss of friends, lovers, and even, in one case, a lifestyle. Rather than focusing entirely on loss, however, the collection also explores the sexual allure of youth, and renewal and recovery. Frank references to “the sexual New Jerusalem” of Gunn’s younger years are here, and in “Saturday Night,” he writes a genuinely affecting lament for the sex and drugs scene of the mid-1970’s. It moves beyond the endpoints referenced in The Man with Night Sweats and his subsequent Collected Poems by pushing the boundaries of his poetry to include, in one loose whole, the makings of legend, myth, phantasmagoria, and autobiography. Historic, mythic figures such as Arachne and King David make appearances here, as well as the homeless, college students, and social deviants (as in his five “songs for Jeffrey Dahmer” grouped under the title “Troubadour”). His edgy wit, lyric versatility, and adept caricatures of personas help make this collection a powerful reminder that every life is “dense/ with fine compacted difference.”


Thom Gunn World Literature Analysis