Thom Gunn Gunn, Thom (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Thom Gunn 1929–

(Full name Thomson William Gunn) 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. 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.

Biographical Information

Gunn was born in 1929 in Gravesend, Kent, England. He began writing sketches and fiction at an early age. As a student and 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. In 1954 Gunn moved to California and enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied under the poet and critic Yvor Winters. 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. He continues to live in California.

Major Works

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, were written at Cambridge and reveal his attempt at stylistic sophistication and hard realism. 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. The poems comprising My Sad Captains exhibit this shift and the book is considered a major transitional point in Gunn's career. Passages of Joy, his 1982 collection, contain what many critics consider his most revealing poems up to the 1992 publication of The Man with Night Sweats. Written between 1982 and 1988, the poems in the collection range widely in style and inccorporate

both free and traditional verse grouped into four sections. The volume was awarded the Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize in 1992.

Critical Reception

Many critics fault Gunn's early verse as affected and cerebral. As his style developed, some commentators expressed regret over his move away from formal literary traditions, though his poems are frequently praised for their heightened clarity, directness and precision of control. It has been noted that his verse has become progressively more personal and revealing; in the critically praised collection, The Man with Night Sweats, reviewers laud its unsentimental examination of the personal and social effects of AIDS, the deaths of friends and lovers, and neglected members of modern American society. He is considered an insightful and deft chronicler of contemporary culture, and his later verse is often praised for its energy and topicality as well as its exploration of such diverse themes as existentialism, identity, sexuality, the debilitating effects of AIDS on the homosexual community, and the relationship between humans and nature.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Fighting Terms 1954

The Sense of Movement 1957

My Sad Captains, and Other Poems 1961

Selected Poems [with Ted Hughes] 1962

Positives [with Ander Gunn] (photography and verse) 1966

Touch 1967

Poems, 1950-1966 1969

Moly 1971

Jack Straw's Castle 1976

Selected Poems 1950-1975 1979

The Passages of Joy 1982

The Man with Night Sweats 1992

Collected Poems 1994

Other Major Works

Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (essays) 1982

Shelf Life: Essays, Memoirs, and an Interview 1993

G. S. Fraser (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Thom Gunn," in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 3, Winter, 1961, pp. 359-67.

[In the following essay, Fraser contrasts Gunn's poetry to that of Philip Larkin.]

Thom Gunn is often classed as a Movement poet but though he first became known about the same time as the other poets of that group, around 1953, he belongs to a younger generation. He is seven years younger than Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, four years younger than John Wain, three years younger than Elizabeth Jennings. Born at Gravesend in 1929, the son of a successful Fleet Street journalist, Herbert Gunn, Thom Gunn was educated at University College School in London and at Trinity College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he had the sort of career which often precedes literary distinction, editing an anthology of undergraduate verse, being president of the University English Club, and taking a first in both parts of the English tripos. The Fantasy Press published his first pamphlet of verse when he was still an undergraduate, in 1953, and his first volume, Fighting Terms, in 1954, shortly after he had taken his degree.

His second volume, The Sense of Movement, came out in 1957, published by Faber's, and won him a Somerset Maugham Award. Between 1954 and 1957, he had been teaching and studying at Stanford University in California, being much influenced by Professor Yvor Winters. He used his Somerset Maugham award to spend some time in Rome. His most recent volume, My Sad Captains, came out this year. He now teaches English at Berkeley in San Francisco. He visits England reasonably frequently, but nobody could call his poems insularly English. Italian painting, Californian scenes and characters, Greek mythology, French literature and philosophy frequently give him the pegs to hang his poems on. In his work there is nothing of the insularity or the distrust of cultural or philosophic themes that, in different ways, marks Amis and Larkin. He resembles these two only in his admirable care for lucidity of poetic thought and language. He is not weakly jocular as these two sometimes are, nor on the other hand has he the humour which is one of their strengths. He is often a witty poet, in the sense of being concise and epigrammatic, but he is never heartily familiar in tone. He keeps at a certain cool distance from the reader. His poetry also is less a poetry either of acceptance of society, as Larkin's is, or of sharp social criticism, like that of D. J. Enright, than a poetry of firm assertion of the romantic will.

With Larkin, he seems to me the best poet of the group that became known around 1953, and a contrast with Larkin may help to bring out some of his central qualities. What Larkin seems to me to be repeatedly saying in many of his best poems is that a sensible man settles for second-bests. One of Larkin's best poems, for instance, is about being tempted to give up a safe, dull job for the sake of wild adventure and firmly, and the reader is meant to feel rightly, resisting the temptation; several other good poems, on the other hand, are about being tempted by love or by the spectacle of happy domesticity into some permanent kind of emotional relationship, but retreating, since Larkin as a poet needs a kind of freedom which is not wild, but which does depend on a firm cutting down of the number of one's personal relationships and emotional commitments. Larkin, one might say, is the poet of emotional economy. The title poem of his volume The Less Deceived (a poem about a girl being kidnapped and raped in the mid-Victorian age) is both about how we should not waste our sympathy where it cannot help and also about how the young man in the story may have felt an even sharper grief than the girl's when he had done his wild, fierce, wicked thing and burst into "fulfilment's desolate attic".

Larkin's tender poem about old horses at grass seems fundamentally to be about the idea that such real freedom as most of us can hope to enjoy in life will be the freedom of pensioned retirement, with no continuing social function, with enough to eat, and with some pleasant memories. His poem about looking at a girl friend's snapshot album is fundamentally about how cherished images are in some ways better than difficult continuing relationships; and the poem about the flavourless town where he grew up is, on the other hand, about how we should not fake up pleasant memory images where there are none. The total effect is that of a certain bleakness. When I think of Larkin I always think of Henry James's great short story, "The Beast in the Jungle": about a man who is so over-shadowed by the sense of some nameless horror or terror that may jump on him if he takes risks with life, that he never takes any risks. When the beast does jump, it jumps, not as actual terror, but as the sudden awareness that a long life crippled by fear and caution has been wasted. The hero has never dared the high dive, never swum at the deep end. And it is too late now. There is a splendid relevant sentence of Elizabeth Bowen's: "One is empowered to live fully: occasion does not offer". Larkin's poetry is about not affronting the unoffered occasion. Gunn's is about snatching at occasion, whatever the risks, and whether it offers or not.

Outer order and personal stability, for Larkin, depend on our swallowing our gall. Gunn refuses to do this. I am proud to remember that, in 1953, when he was still an undergraduate, I included three early poems of his in an anthology called Springtime. The three poems I chose happened to illustrate, luckily, certain themes and attitudes that were to be recurrent. The first, about the world of the Elizabethan poet, began

It was a violent time. Wheels, racks and fires
In every poet's mouth, and not mere rant"…

Gunn insisted in this poem that the heroic attitude, which he sees as behind all notable poetry, should be stimulated, not quenched, by a threatening age. It is the poet's business to make tragic sense of it all:

In street, in tavern, happening would cry
" I am myself, but part of something greater,
Find poets what that is, do not pass by
For feel my fingers in your pia mater:
I am a cruelly insistent friend;
You cannot smile at me and make an end."

The second poem I chose was called "Helen's Rape" and what it expressed might be called a nostalgia, though tinged a little with irony, for the kind of primitive violence that sees itself as moved by a divine force. This poem began:

Hers was the last authentic rape:
From forced content of common breeder
Bringing the violent dreamed escape"…

The "forced content" (meaning constrained contentment but carrying an overtone of enforced containment) is that which Helen enjoyed as an ordinary hausfrau, a "common breeder" or junior matron, with Menelaus. The "violent dreamed escape" is Helen's rape, or abduction, by Paris, but she had dreamt of a more genuinely divine abduction, or rape, like that of her mother Leda or of Europa. The real age of the gods is already past, and though Paris was inspired by Aphrodite, or moved by a divine madness, he had to soothe common-sense critics, and to pretend that he abducted Helen for political reasons, in retaliation for a similar abduction by the Greeks of a Trojan princess, his aunt. At the end of the poem, Gunn brings in the idea that only a simulacrum of Helen was taken to Troy and that the real Helen was wafted to Egypt. And yet even a distant Helen would know the harrowing griefs which even her image had brought on Troy.

So, at least, I interpret the very difficult last stanza:

Helen herself could not through flesh
Abandon flesh; she felt surround
Her absent body, never fresh
The mortal context, and the mesh
Of the continual battle's sound.

The reference might just be, however, not to the legend of Helen in Egypt but simply to the idea that because Paris was only a hero, not a god, his carnal love could not transform her carnality into the divine. I think Gunn possibly ought to have put a comma after "fresh". If the reference is to Egypt, the meaning will be: "Though bodily transported to Egypt Helen could not remain aware of the havoc which Paris's love of her body had wrought: even absent in Egypt she felt herself surrounded and sullied ('never fresh') by the lust and violence of the Trojan war". Or it may be that a comma should not be added after "fresh" but omitted after "body" and that what she felt surrounding her Egyptian body was the "mortal context", the circumstances of death, which are never fresh, not so much in the sense that they are not refreshed or refreshing, but in the sense that they have been there from the beginning, they never started.

The puzzles of such a stanza suggest that though Gunn is learnedly lucid he is never likely to be a popular writer. The reader of this short poem is expected to have a very detailed knowledge of Greek mythology, as the reader of the one about Elizabethan poetry needs a detailed knowledge of Elizabethan literature and history. They were the only two poems in...

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M. L. Rosenthal (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Contemporary British Poetry," in The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 251-56.

[In the following excerpt, Rosenthal surveys the themes of Gunn 's early verse.]

[Thom Gunn is an American-involved British poet] who has for a number of years taught at the University of California in Berkeley. In his first book, The Sense of Movement (1957), Gunn showed a fascinated interest in the world of the tough, leather-jacketed young motorcyclists and their slightly sinister, apparently pointless activity:

On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as...

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Merle E. Brown (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Critical Performance of Thorn Gunn's 'Misanthropos'," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 73-87.

[In the following essay, Brown asserts that the repetitive and interconnected structure of "Misanthropos" reflects Gunn 's poetic philosophy.]

If one attends to his own experience of reading poems rather than to that of hearing a poet read poems in a crowded hall, he will, believe, agree that the performance to which a poem summons him is not so much a public recitation as it is a form of criticism analogous to the performing arts. If the poet is a performing self, as Richard Poirier claims, if no work of art comes alive except in the...

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Clive Wilmer (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Definition and Flow: Thorn Gunn in the 1970s," in British Poetry Since 1970: A Critical Survey, edited by Peter Jones and Michael Schmidt, Persea Books, 1980, pp. 64-74.

[In the following essay, Wilmer discusses the influences on Gunn's work, in particular such poets as Yvor Winters, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound.]

Thom Gunn's My Sad Captains, first published in 1961, has two sections quite distinct in character, the first consisting of poems in traditional metres, the second of apparently lighter pieces in syllabic verse. Gunn has since renounced syllabics in favour of free verse, but his publications still require the reader to accept that...

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Jay Parin (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rule and Energy: The Poetry of Thorn Gunn," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 23, Spring, 1982, pp. 134-51.

[In the following essay, Parini maintains that Gunn is able to balance his energetic approach to language and theme with traditional forms to create "a tense climate of balanced opposition."]

In an early poem addressed to his mentor, Yvor Winters, Thorn Gunn writes:

You keep both Rule and Energy in view,
Much power in each, most in the balanced two:
Ferocity existing in the fence
Built by an exercised intelligence.

These potentially counterdestructive...

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Michael Hulse (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Repossession of Innocence," in Quadrant, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, April, 1983, pp. 65-9.

[In the following essay, Hulse explores the role of innocence in Gunn's verse.]

That generation of poets that emerged in Britain during the 'fifties, from start to finish of that long decade—how easy it has been for us to pretend we saw them clearly, and how little excuse they have given us for the pretence! There is Larkin, stiffening as he reaches sixty, but still interesting in the little he publishes. There is Enright, refining his ironic line with unfailing if inadequate urbanity. There is Elizabeth Jennings, bland, featureless, still writing poems. And Donald Davie,...

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Paul Giles (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Landscapes of Repetition: The Self-Parodic Nature of Thom Gunn's Later Poetry," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1987, pp. 85-99.

[In the following essay, Giles examines the function of self-parody in Gunn's more recent poetry.]

One of the side-effects of the recent appointment of Ted Hughes as British Poet Laureate was to emphasise how far his compatriot Thorn Gunn has diverged from the native English tradition. Although Hughes and Gunn were yoked together by the 1962 Faber Selected Poems and have become a pairing institutionalised by school syllabuses in England, Gunn now says he has 'almost nothing in common' with Hughes;1 and...

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Martin Dodsworth (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gunn's Rhymes," in PN Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1989, pp. 33-4.

[In the following essay, Dodsworth examines Gunn's use of rhyme, contending that it "is intimately related to his whole style and outlook, and is worth looking at for that reason."]

Thorn Gunn's development as a poet has been slow, and is clearly defined; he began with rhyme, then added a form of half-rhymed syllabic verse in his third book, My Sad Captains, and finally went on to develop his own, characteristic free verse. Although the syllabic form has disappeared from his work, he remains faithful to rhyme; his last full-length book, The Passages of Joy, is largely in free verse,...

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Neil Powell (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Loud Music, Bars, and Boisterous Men," in PN Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1989, pp. 39-41.

[In the following essay, Powell determines the role of sexuality in Gunn's poetry.]

Though he will probably cringe at the thought, Thorn Gunn is the most distinguished living English gay poet, and after Auden the most significant English gay poet of the century. That's the sort of statement to make any poet cringe, which is why I want to get rid of it at the outset. It could all too easily seem to imply that writers can be sorted by sexuality into separate compartments, or that homosexual writers address a limited constituency of homosexual readers, neither of which must be...

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Robert Pinsky (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thom Gunn," in PN Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1989, pp. 42-3.

[In the following essay, Pinsky explores the theme of home in Gunn's verse]

I am writing without any books at hand by Thom Gunn or anyone else, a few days before a complicated move—from the East Coast back to California, then back to Massachusetts—feeling distinctly not at home. Since Gunn, whom I admire immensely, has a special relation to the idea of being at home, I will take that as the theme for these paragraphs.

There is a poise in Gunn's poetry, a confidence without much swagger, that is like the bearing of a creature at home in its surroundings. Yet in the way that...

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Clive Wilmer with Thom Gunn (interview date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art of Poetry," in The Paris Review, Vol. 37, No. 135, Summer, 1995, pp. 142-89.

[In the following excerpted interview, Gunn discusses his writing process, the main influences on his poetry, and the major themes and stylistic concerns of his work.]

CLIVE WILMER: I wonder if we could begin with a brief description of how you live? I get the feeling, for instance, that you 're quite fond of routine.

THOM GUNN: Well, if you haven't got a routine in your life by the age of sixty-two, you're never going to get it. I spend half the year teaching and half the year on my own. I like the idea of scheduling my own life for half the year, but...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bartlett, Lee. "Thom Gunn." In Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987, pp. 88-101.

Gunn discusses the contemporary state of poetry, his interest in traditional poetic forms, and the influences on his work.

Bradley, Jerry. "Thom Gunn." In The Movement: British Poets of the 1950s. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 117-28.

Offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Gunn's verse.

Gewanter, David. "An Interview with Thom Gunn." Agni, No....

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