Thom Gunn World Literature Analysis
Thom Gunn once described himself as a “derivative poet. I learn what I can from whom I can.” He tried out a number of poetic styles and was influenced by a number of poetic traditions. As a result, his poetry encompassed a very wide range of subjects, and the poems reflected the influence of many important figures in modern poetry. The influence of Yvor Winters led Gunn to read, write about, and to some extent imitate such Renaissance poets as Ben Jonson and Fulke Greville. By the middle of his career, however, he began to read and be influenced by such different poets as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gary Snyder. The essays he wrote on these poets and the changes in his style clearly show his change in affiliation.
Gunn’s poetic style is unusual in its clarity of diction. His use of classical models and references, especially in the early poems, is clearly a reason for his exactness in choosing words. The influence of Winters may be another factor in Gunn’s unusually clear poems. Winters stressed the poetry of statement, and Gunn seems to have adopted that mode in his poetry.
Nearly all of Gunn’s early poetry was written in traditional meters and very often in traditional stanzaic forms. The meter of most of his early poems is the most traditional of all meters in English, iambic pentameter. A few poems are written in iambic tetrameter and even fewer in iambic trimeter, but Gunn tended to stick to pentameter, which he polished and refined. Gunn also consistently used rhyme in his poems, especially alternating rhyme, and occasionally, as in “Moly,” he used the heroic couplet.
Gunn was impressed by T. S. Eliot’s dictum that a poet does not express his personality but escapes from it. As a result, many of his poems have invented speakers, such as the warrior from the Trojan War in “The Wound” or the motorcycle riders in The Sense of Movement. It is only in The Man with Night Sweats that he speaks in his own voice.
The themes of Gunn’s poems are various, but in the early poems the major focus is on the will. This theme can be seen in the warrior of “The Wound” and the soldier of “Incident upon a Journey,” who has “no regrets” about his violent actions. The exercise of the will can be seen as a mode of life in “On the Move” and “Innocence.” In “On the Move” the motorcyclists “dare a future” by their movement. Whether there is any meaning in their actions is not dealt with; it is the keeping in motion, a metaphor for the will, that matters. In “Innocence” the soldier has made himself or been made into an “instrument.” Military allusions and metaphors are common in Gunn’s poetry, even in a love poem, such as “The Beach Head,” where the stages of seduction are described as an invasion. Another love poem, “Carnal Knowledge,” portrays the act of love as one of shared deception rather than union. It is interesting that Gunn wrote few poems on the two eternal subjects of English poetry, nature and love. He was a traditional poet, but he avoided nearly all the traditional subjects of poetry.
Along with will and its accompanying violence, Gunn focused on choice. He read the works of Jean-Paul Sartre while he was a student, and many of the French philosopher’s ideas can be found in Gunn’s poetry. “Vox Humana” is a good example of his writing on the theme of choice. The speaker in this poem feels urged on by some force within him to choose what will become the pattern of his life. Without choice, life and existence remain a “blur,” but with choice comes a fixed design that is often destructive.
The focus on will and action led Gunn to write poems about such unlikely figures as Elvis Presley and Claus von Stauffenberg. Presley turns “revolt into style.” Whether he merely adopts a pose or not does not matter; he becomes an icon who leads others to liberation. Presley is similar to one of the motorcycle riders of The Sense of Movement, but von Stauffenberg is a more conventional heroic personage. He was the leader of the plot to kill Hitler and died in great pain for that act. He is “honor personified,” although he exists in a time when “honor cannot grow.”
Another interesting theme in Gunn’s poetry is the city. He celebrated the city with sexual metaphors and wrote few poems dealing with nature. The city solicits the speakers in his poems and holds them in an embrace. In “The Map of the City,” he describes the city above all as a place of “chances” and “endless potentiality”; it is a place where liberation is possible.
In Moly, Gunn stresses the liberating elements of the LSD experience, since it can take one beyond the agony of choice and the will. “Rites of Passage” shows something of the change LSD brings to the speaker. He has become an animal, specifically a horse, and that transformation brings “completion” rather than regret. Now he can challenge the father who has dominated him. He has become the Oedipal son who is ready to displace the father with his “horns” and send a message to his mother. The change is a liberating one; the speaker is freed from moral inhibition and can come into his own.
In The Man with Night Sweats, Gunn displays a sympathy and feeling for others that had not been prominent in his earlier poetry. He describes the heroism and grace of a group of people who have endured great suffering. Gunn becomes the bard who will record these moments of suffering and courage.
When near your death a friendAsked you what he could do,’Remember me,’ you said.We will remember you.
Gunn has distilled his poetry into naked clarity and feeling.
“On the Move”
First published: 1955 (collected in The Sense of Movement, 1957)
Type of work: Poem
“On the Move” describes and celebrates the “created...
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