G. S. Fraser (essay date 1961)

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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...

(This entire section contains 3878 words.)

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his volumeThe 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 Springtime to which I felt I had to add notes.

The third poem I chose, "Carnal Knowledge", stated a third recurring theme, the idea that sexual love can rarely, whether or not this is a good thing, break down, or merge, the essential separateness of two people. The stanzas had an excessively clever Empsonian refrain,

You know I know you know I know you know, alternating as,

I know you know I know you know I know,

but in the last stanza this was truncated:

Abandon me to stammering, and go;
If you have tears, prepare to cry elsewhere—
I know of no emotion we can share.
Your intellectual protests are a bore
And even now I pose, so now go, for
I know you know.

This was a more awkward, a more undergraduate poem than the others, and I feel that even today Gunn is never quite at his best when he writes of personal relationships. But implicit in the poem, though not brought cleanly through, was a theme which he was soon to use more powerfully, not a half regret at the great difficulty of breaking down separateness, but a horror at the idea that such a breaking down, such a merging, should ever be possible at all.

I included in another anthology, Poetry Now, a poem which expressed perhaps less humanly but certainly more powerfully than "Carnal Knowledge" this horror of merging. Two men have been sharing a bed (or the two men may be different aspects of the poet's one personality) and one of them gets up in the small hours, looks out at the moon, and declaims:

'Inside the moon I see a hell of love.
There love is all, and no one is alone.
The song of passion deafens, as no choice
Of individual word can hold its own
Against the rule of that anonymous noise.
And wait, I see more clearly; craters, canals,

Are smothered by two giant forms of mist
So that no features of the land remain.
Two humming clouds of moisture intertwist
Agreed so well, they cannot change to rain
And serve to clean the common ground beneath.

Singing there fell, locked in each other's arms,
Cursed with content, pair by successive pair,
Committed centuries to lie in calms
They stayed to rot into that used-up air
No wind can shift, it is so thick, so thick!'

The ringing voice stopped, but as if one must
Finish in moral, stumbled on and said:
'In that still fog all energy is lost.'
The moonlight slunk on, darkness touched his head.
He fell back, then he turned upon the pillow.

It will be noted that in this passage, as in the earlier passage about Helen, the word "content" which generally carries a strong pro-feeling in English poetry ("sweet content"), carries a strong anti-feeling; similarly the word "calms" instead of suggesting "calm after storm" recalls the rotting, glistering sea on which the ship lay becalmed in "The Ancient Mariner". Literary reminiscence and counterpoint is one of Gunn's main instruments. The giant lovers transformed into clouds might remind us of Ixion attempting to embrace Juno, but the line,

Singing there fell, locked in each other's arms,

gains extra force if one recalls Paolo and Francesca. The line that gives the moral, "In that still fog all energy is lost" recalls an urgent line of Spender's: "Drink here of energy, and only energy". The attack, however, as in Spender's case, is not so much on the stuff of which romantic love is made as on its self-centredness and stupefying effect. The clouds could dissolve into rain and "clean the solid earth beneath", or the self-centredness of love, perhaps, could be translated into a socially useful emotion or at least a psychologically useful one; the "solid earth beneath" may be the permanent personality and the twisted cloud figures projections of an attempted romantic escape from that. When the speaker turns on his pillow at the end, he may perhaps be turning not towards the sleep of exhaustion but to make love; in which case, perhaps, he has not found his own eloquence practically persuasive. But the love, as between two men, would be, by definition, sterile. This seems to me one of the most powerful of Gunn's earlier poems, with an almost Dantesque quality of visionary horror.

I know, however, few people who share this admiration. And I know of many admirers of another early poem from Fighting Terms, which strikes me as comical, but unconsciously so (Gunn, as I have said, has plenty of wit of the severer kind, but almost no humour). We have seen that separateness, self-sufficiency, energy even as something that inspires to restless movement with no clear purpose, are positive values for Gunn; so, sometimes, and it seems to me less attractively, are domination and ruthlessness. The early poem which strikes me as unconsciously selfparodic is called "A Village Edmund". Edmund is Edmund in King Lear and we are to think also of Gray's "village Hampden" in the Elegy. Edmund is admittedly the most humanly sympathetic of all Shakespeare's villains, but Gunn's "rough and lecherous" village counter-part of him seems to me, as it were, a Tony Hancock part:

One girl he fancied as much as she fancied him.
'For a moment,' she thought, 'Our bodies can bestride
A heaven whose memories must support my life.'
He took her to the deserted countryside,
And she lay down and obeyed his every whim.

When it was over he pulled his trousers on.
'Demon lovers must go,' he coldly said.
And walked away from the rocks to the lighted town.
'Why should heaven,' she asked, 'be for the dead?'
And she stared at the pale intolerable moon.

What spoils this as serious poetry is not, however, so much the callowness of the attitude as the weakness of the writing; the melodramatic novelettish language of the girl; the stiltedness of phrases like "obeyed his every whim": the conscious manly toughness of the line about pulling his trousers on, and the at once coy and trite narcissism (for I take it the poet is emotionally identifying himself with Edmund) of "he coldly said". The pale intolerable moon of the last line, for that matter, is very much out of some old romantic property-box. Gunn's failures of tone and feeling do not come from an excessive chumminess or prosiness (as, say, Amis's or Larkin's failures of that sort might come) but from an occasional self-admiring melodrama or sentimentality. They are more like the failures of Stephen Spender (who seems to me a better poet at his best than he is generally made out to be, and who seems to me also temperamentally in some ways not unlike Gunn, who has gone out of his way in one poem to attack him); in many ways, in fact, Gunn is more like a nineteen-thirties' than a nineteen-fifties' poet. His are poems without a Muse, or the Muse rather is a male Muse, village Edmunds, warriors in byrnies, black-jacketed James Dean characters roaring through small American towns on motor-cycles. But a fine intellectual discipline can make something universal out of this, as it might seem in itself, somewhat dubious material.

Let me take as an example of what seems to me a very notable success on Gunn's part, the first poem in his 1957 volume, The Sense of Movement. This is called "On the Move" and these young men on motor-cycles are vividly the topic but savingly in the end not the theme of the poem. The theme, rather, is Sartrean existential humanism. I want to examine in turn the last three lines of each of the five eight line stanzas. In these last three lines, in each stanza, Gunn presses from particulars towards a persuasive generality, which becomes progressively more firmly defined; he presses towards the stating of a moral. In the first stanza, the poet vividly observes birds on the edge of a dusty American road, birds which "follow some hidden purpose", while the poet himself is vainly "seeking their instinct, or their poise, or both". He sums it up:

One moves with an uncertain violence
Under the dust thrown by a baffled sense
Or the dull thunder of approximate words.

"Baffled sense" is not there, or only partly, what it might be in Keats, sensuous apprehension baffled by trying to reach beyond itself, but baffled intellectual apprehension; the baffled sense of what it is all about.

In the second stanza, the boys on motor-cycles, anticipated already in the first stanza in the dust and the scariness of the birds, roar by. And we are told of them in the last three lines:

In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt—by hiding it, robust—
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.

The baffling dust here becomes a trophy, a prize, of pointless speed; and the noise of the motor-cycles (in communication theory noise is contrasted with sound, and means any interference with the transmission of the message) becomes paradoxically for them a kind of communication. Very often in Gunn apparently simple and ordinary words like "meaning" and "noise" can, in their juxtaposition, carry in this way a lucid paradox.

In the third stanza, Gunn points out that the motor-cyclists are not riding towards any known goal but as fast as possible away from a known and frustrating background. It is they who scare the birds across the fields but it is inevitable that even a right natural order should yield to even a subrational human will. And there is this to be said for the motor-cyclists, that they are emblems of a larger human condition:

Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.

The idea behind these admirably compact lines is Sartre's that man creates himself, creates his "soul", by arbitrary but important choices. His choices cannot be made in complete foreknowledge of their consequences ("use what they imperfectly control"). But what is even more worrying is that the general consequences of all possible choices might be thought to be boringly worked out already. This abstract philosophical idea is beautifully translated into properly poetic language. The "taken" routes are at once the routes daringly taken, or undertaken, by the young motor-cyclists to create a future and they are also the routes, the roads there on the map, which would not be there at all if they had not been "taken" dully by generations of men already. Again, very plain, apparently obvious words produce a paradox.

The fourth stanza justifies the choice of the motor-cyclists as at least a partial solution of the human problem. Man is not necessarily at odds with the world because he is not purely an animal. Nor is he damned because, half but only half an animal, he has to rely not on "direct instinct" but on movements-say, movements of history or politics—which carry him on part of the way, even though in the end movement "divides and breaks":

One joins the movement in a valueless world,
Choosing it, till, both hurler and the hurled,
One moves as well, always toward, toward.

What one moves "toward" is not to be abstractly defined, but one is moving away from that which one has found valueless (but there is also the Sartrean idea that value is imposed by choice, not there in the world to compel choice). One may be moving towards value.

In the fifth and last stanza, the cyclists vanished, the "self-defined, astride the created will". (Again notice how a philosophical concept is beautifully translated into a poetical conceit, the "manufactured" soul finding its emblem, or symbol, in the "manufactured" motor-cycle.) The cyclists are right, for Gunn, to burst through and away from towns which are no homes either for the naturalness of birds or the stillness of saints who, like birds, "complete their purposes". The justification of these "rebels without a cause" is that our civilized world, the world, say, which Larkin sadly accepts, has in its frustrating complication no home for either naturalness or holiness. And when one is, however restlessly and violently, "on the move",

At worst one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

Gunn is not in any ordinary sense of the word a religious poet, but he is (both in the ordinary and to some degree in the literary sense of the word) a metaphysical poet. The kinds of metaphysics that interest him are very different from those that interest Eliot, say, yet there are obvious broad affinities between the pattern of argument in this poem and some of the patterns of argument in Four Quartets. I have thought it better in this article to examine what one might call the broad human interest of Gunn's poetry, taking three or four sample poems as pegs to drape my exposition round, rather than to review, or re-review his volumes in detail, or to go in detail into the verbal texture of his work. Swiftness, directness, lucidity, beautifully exact dramatic or logical construction in a poem, mark his work much more than richness of imagery or any sort of lyrical cry; the kind of technical-appreciative words one would use about his verse are supple, muscular, "on the move". But his deep authenticity comes from range of curiosity, an undefeatedness of spirit, and a swift readiness to make choices, without any hesitant bother about how the choices will be socially taken. If Larkin is a fine poet born, in a sense, middle-aged, Gunn is a poet who should have a peculiarly direct appeal not for angry, but for fierce, young men.


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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.

M. L. Rosenthal (essay date 1967)

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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 flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.

In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt—by hiding it, robust—
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.

Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, direction where the tires press."…

Where [the British poet Charles Tomlinson] is concerned with the precise ambience and impact of a given scene or personality, and with its proper idiom (rhythmically as well as in phrasing), and relates these concerns to his passion for the integrity of cultural heritage and of natural materials, Gunn turns his similar talents in other directions. He is attracted to the life of action, as a theme and as a way of meeting the world. And beyond that, as in the poem 'On the Move' just quoted, whose epigraph is 'Man, you gotta Go,' he is something of a 'metaphysical' poet. 'On the Move' begins by observing that there is 'hidden purpose' in the sudden movements of birds—'the blue jay scuffling in the bushes,' a 'gust of birds' that 'spurts across the field,' 'the wheeling swallows.' We can discover their meaning, but to gain 'their instinct, or their poise, or both' in human affairs is to move 'with an uncertain violence,' under 'dust thrown by a baffled sense,' amid 'the dull thunder of approximate words.' Then come the motorcyclists of the quoted passage, as if to embody the abstract thought behind these images. After the closeup of 'The Boys,' Gunn devotes the second half of his poem to contemplation of the human significance of their kind of concentrated action:

It is a part solution, after all.
One is not necessarily discord
On earth; or damned because, half animal,
One lacks direct instinct, because one wakes
Afloat on movement that divides and breaks.
One joins the movement in a valueless world,
Choosing it, till, both hurler and the hurled,
One moves as well, always toward, toward."…

'On the Move' is the opening poem of The Sense of Movement. It is followed by an allegorical poem, 'The Nature of an Action,' which turns the issue of 'movement' inward much as Herbert does with the issue of free will in 'The Collar.' The speaker describes his passage from the habits of passivity and introspection under the domination of the overwhelming power of tradition to a more active state, 'directed by the compass of my heart.' Painfully he moves through a short, narrow corridor, from the room of the past to the room of the future. The passage takes twenty years, full of doubt about his existence or the existence of anything else, until he finds the proper 'handle in the mind'—his will—to open the second door. The furnishings inside are the same as in the first; the only difference lies in the changed character of his presence among the room's

… heavy-footed chairs,
A glass bell loaded with wax grapes and pears,

A polished table, holding down the look
Of bracket, mantelpiece, and marbled book."…

A youthful preciosity and intellectual self-consciousness marks the greater number of Gunn's poems in this early book. The two opening poems break into the clear, however, as do a few others. 'Human Condition' is another metaphysical contemplation, this time on the imprisoned state of that 'pinpoint of consciousness,' the individual self. 'The Unsettled Motorcyclist's Vision of His Death' is a vivid 'vision' indeed, of the risk of 'being what I please.' It is an assertion, as well, that even the very concretely imagined death of the symbolic motorcyclists (sinking into marshland out of a stubborn refusal to yield to circumstances) is merely a confrontation of volitionless nature by man's invincible will. 'Lines for a Book' is written in Audenesque, half-ironic praise of the 'toughs' of history as opposed to the men of mere sensibility ('I praise the overdogs from Alexander / To those who would not play with Stephen Spender'). 'Market at Turk,' a sympathetic close-up of a hoodlumish San Franciscan, celebrates the young ruffian's poised readiness—purposeless yet oriented toward some undefined and dangerous violence. 'In Praise of Cities' is a 'love song' on the changeableness, the surprises, the tantalizing promise and hardness of the great cities in the image of an infinitely varied woman. Amid the echoes of Yeats, Auden, Crane, and other masters, these poems show signs of a power of concentration and of an ability brutally to suppress self-indulgence and sentimentality, in the interest of testing forbidden sympathies and of pursuing realities outside the over-protected and over-civilized private self.

To a certain degree the promise was fulfilled in Gunn's second book, My Sad Captains (1961), but really in only two poems, 'In Santa Maria del Popolo' and the title poem. The former is Gunn's most successful poem, in combined sublety, power, and intricate yet subdued patterning. The poem contemplates a painting by Caravaggio 'on one wall of this recess.' It is a painting of Saul fallen from his horse and 'becoming Paul,' and one must wait until evening when the sun becomes 'conveniently oblique' to see it fully. At first, while waiting,

I see how shadow in the painting brims
With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out
But a dim horse's haunch and various limbs,
Until the very subject is in doubt.

Then the whole scene emerges—'the act, beneath the horse,' of transformation, with an 'indifferent groom' present and Saul sprawling, 'foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,' among a 'cacophony of dusty forms' and making a mysterious 'wide gesture of the lifting arms' during his convulsive fit. Content with the external details, the possibly symbolic gesture, the sense of 'candor and secrecy inside the skin' that he was able to convey, the painter leaves the scene a mystery. Gunn remembers other paintings of Caravaggio's—the hard city types in them—and the artist's murder ('for money, by one such picked off the streets'). Turning, 'hardly enlightened,' from the chapel to the church's dim interior, he sees the people praying:

Mostly old women: each head closeted
In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.
Their poor arms are too tired for more than this
—For the large gesture of solitary man,
Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.

So Gunn in this poem closes in on a multiple and sympathetic view of the human condition. He discovers his driving motif in the movement from the darkness within the painting to the darkness of meanings revealed by the painting itself when it comes into full view, and then to the vulnerability of the worshipers in their dark setting and in the poor comfort of their prayers and their phys ical attitudes; and so the final pair of lines, abstract as they are, becomes the largest statement of what the human gesture in the face of 'nothingness' creates or means. The poem 'My Sad Captains' reaches through to a comparable insight, but in quite different terms. The 'sad captains' are a few friends and a few historical figures who have come to be spiritual models to the poet:

… They were men
who, thought, lived only to
renew the wasteful force they
spent with each hot convulsion."…

But now

they withdraw to an orbit
and turn with disinterested
hard energy, like the stars.

Gunn's preoccupation with existential emptiness on the one hand, and with the assertion of meaning through sheer will or willful action on the other, brings him in 'My Sad Captains' to the same essential confrontation as does 'In Santa Maria del Popolo,' but without the merciful buffer of anything like the Caravaggio painting. The 'message,' in the spirit perhaps of Williams's Έ1 Hombre,' is a desolate courage that stakes everything on pure energy. As in the earlier volume, the poems that stand out—in particular, these two—are so sharply differentiated from the rest that the latter for the most part seem mere exercises by comparison. At any rate, the lesser pieces are on 'set' themes—the difficulty of reaching past lust to love, the 'compact innocence, child-like and clear,' that made the Nazi stormtrooper the peculiarly unshakable monster he was, the fate of a middle-aged rake, and so on. Derivative notes, especially from Auden but also at times from Edwin Muir and others, constantly interfere with Gunn's own voice in poems like 'The Byrnies' and 'Modes of Pleasure' that are otherwise imaginative and psychologically stirring.

Principal Works

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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

Merle E. Brown (essay date 1973)

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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 presence of an audience, as R. G. Collingwood argues, if the reader of poems must accept these claims, nonetheless he will modify them because of his recognition that the poet is always his own first audience.1

The echoing quality of all poetic language depends on the presence of this primary audience, on the felt presence of the poet as his own first listener, and this essential echo is drowned out and rendered inaudible by the assumption that the life of poetry depends on its metropolitan audiences which are reached through our great publishing firms and on those crowds who are gathered together by the business of organizing poetry reading circuits. Unless misled by the prospect of a cash reward, no poet would think he was reciting his poems in order that they might be heard. For he could not even compose a poem unless it were heard in the very act of composition. The experience of reading poems to oneself and especially reading them silently must reveal that the listening presence of the poet has to be attended to just as much as his speaking presence. One cannot, in fact, even hear the words of poetry unless he also attends to the echoing into silence which is, at a conceptual level, the poet's act of shaping the poem. A poet works with his words in order to articulate that innermost feeling which determines the quality of his self, his world, and his experience. His words work poetically only in so far as they are the echo of that upsurge of feeling. A reader of those words can respond to them as echoingly resonant only to the extent that he also attends to the echo of that echo, to the over-arching action which is the poet's own attending to his words as echoing the deepest impulsion of his experience.

Words working poetically are neither transitive nor intransitive. They do not, like words used practically or intellectually, have the reason for their being in the conventional patterns and structures and frameworks to which they refer, even though they may include such transitive references. Nor are they self-subsistent, only internally referential, elements of an autonomous artifact, a fiction, a sort of entertaining make-believe. They are rather, in their essential nature, the echo of being as an upsurge of feeling and are in turn echoed by the becoming which is the poet's act of shaping that feeling into an articulated vision.

Quite apart, then, from being read and attended to critically by another person, a poem is itself an active community constituted by the poet as speaker and the poet as listener, by the poet expressing his deepest sense of himself and his world and the poet listening to and criticizing that expression. The poem circles in widening waves, out from its elemental feeling, as the poet speaks listening and, having listened, speaks further until he has exhausted his capacity for composition.

For at least the past twenty-five years, as part of the macadamization of literary studies, critics have been busy crushing out the communal life of the poem by reducing its being and its becoming, its feeling and its thinking, to what I should call its non-being, its status as a self-subsistent object. Once objectified in this way, the poem may then be said to have, in René Wellek's terms, a single structure of determination, the grasp of which leads us to its proper meaning.2 Once reduced to an artifact, the poem calls for an interpretation in the manner of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a delimitation of its intrinsic and extrinsic genres, accomplished by reference to the linguistic ambience of the poem, now treated as an object among objects. With the poem rendered lifeless and the process of interpretation itself doing nothing to revive it, critics have been led unavoidably, in order to retain some sense of themselves as alive, into widening circles of entrapment. Hirsch himself will locate Wordsworth's Intimations Ode within the vast framework of Schelling's philosophy. Raymond Williams, like many another neo-historicist, will view each objectified literary work in the light of a massive social and political movement, his version of which he calls The Long Revolution. Northrop Frye, radical structuralist that he is, will back away from the painting fixed on the wall until it blurs with more and more of its neighbors, "all reduced to one form and one size," to a single structure, a repetition, only, with variations, capped by his favorite myth. With the poem's echoing in widening waves blocked out, the critic must undertake his own spiralling out, with the consequence that the warmth and light of the poem diminishes to the point where it averages out with all other poems in grains of dust. There are, of course, secondary values accruing from such critical strategies. But all rest upon a deep-seated error, the conception of the poem as a corpus, the direct touch of which is death. The pain of that touch, or a horror at its numbness, when it should have been so vital, is what set them off on their long slow trips, on which they passed no humans, until each arrived, a final man upon a final hill, in a state of ataraxia, of apatheia, unperturbed by the touch of the dead poem or by any recollection of the joyful pain of touching the living poem.

If we do leave the green slopes of our isolation and vacate the empty centers of our structuralistic, historicistic, phenomenological webs, and approach a genuine poem with some sense of its vital activeness, we will find in its smallness an illumined largeness realizing, as few other experiences can, the full being of human community. The experience must surely be a painful one, partly because of our own bad habits, but also becarse of the painful element in all genuine community. We may even have to learn to memorize poetry again, so that we can truly join our breath with the poet's, giving the poem time to germinate in the dust of our own natures until we feel its deep surge and over-arching action. The closer we get to a poem, the more fully we experience the world as it is in the articulation of the poet, the more painful our sense of his otherness from ourselves is almost sure to become. At some point in our attention not just to what the poet says, but also to the way in which he attends to what he says, we will be forced to recognize that neither his mouth nor his ears are ours and, even while at one with the poem, we will move out of it into our own sense of experience in the effort to hear and feel its resonances as distinct from and at times at odds with those of the poem. At this stage, in this concordia discors, at one with the poem and distinct from it, opening up to ourselves our own natures as part of our experience of opening up the innermost nature of the poet and his world, with the poem qualifying and judging us as we qualify and judge it, in this vital interplay we will experience the living pulse of human community as it is and as it might be, but ah, as it is, as it is. And then, at last, we will be ready to perform the poem critically.

It is not possible to work out the critical performance of a poem by means of direct encounter, by what children call a "stare-down," and thus it is that I have moved with indirection toward Thorn Gunn's "Misanthropos," in spite of the lines with which Gunn concludes the poem:

Each of the seventeen poems of which "Misanthropos" is composed echoes the others, and all of them interinanimate each other. But if one would sense the surge of feeling that gives life and unity to the whole, he must attend to the interlinking action of Gunn's mind. Just as the final man of the poem, who has become its first man, can affirm that you must "Turn out toward others, meeting their look at full, / Until you have completely stared / On all there is to see," only if you have the capacity to pause, so we can stare into these final lines of the poem with understanding only if we can pause to hear the deepest echoes of the whole as they roll up and break into this final affirmation.

The skeletal pattern of "Misanthropos" is not hard to discern nor is discerning it important, when compared to the question, "do these bones live?" But noting it has mnemonic value and is a first step in coming as close to the poem as possible. The pattern is derived ultimately from Vico's eternal course and recourse of nations. The decadence of any nation or civilization is a state of disintegration. In the final stage of Rome, the citizens retreat to the hills, each one a final man upon his final hill. The accepted hierarchy of value collapses, each man carries off his own fragmentary version of it to his own hill, no one sees anyone else, and it is only the wind that utters ambiguous orders from the plain. Chaucer's pilgrims may stand as representative of another such recourse of decadence. But such decadence is virtually indistinguishable from the innocence with which a new recourse of nations begins. Thus, as Toynbee has shown, the Holy Roman Empire springs out of the isolated monasteries and mountain citadels and Germanic tribes which represent the final stage of the fall of the Roman Empire. And Chaucer's pilgrims are full of innocent exuberance and self-confidence. Now Gunn, in "Misanthropos," is working with just this moment of transition in the eternal course and recourse of nations, the moment of decadence as it turns into the moment of innocence.

But Gunn responds to this pattern in an extremely personal way. He feels, and I think he is right to feel so, that all his poetry written prior to the volume Touch (The University of Chicago Press, 1967), in which "Misanthropos" is the central poem, was fundamentally decadent. His first volume, Fighting Terms (1954), was written while he was still an undergraduate, and Charles Tomlinson found it to be clever and precious, an adolescent forcing of talent, much as F. R. Leavis had found Auden's early verse to be.3 His first poem of that volume, "Carnal Knowledge," begins with the clause, "Even in bed I pose," and includes the line, "You know I know you know I know you know," which should sum up adequately the cleverness and preciosity of the early Gunn.4 In the third poem of "Misanthropos," Gunn as listener recognizes the similarity between the early Gunn and the final man in these lines:

But the curled darling who survives the war
Has merely lost the admirers of those curls
That always lavished most warmth on his neck;
Though no one sees him, though it is the wind
Utters ambiguous orders from the plain,
Though nodding foxgloves are his only girls,
His poverty is a sort of uniform.

Even in isolation he adopts a role and poses. He remains the same as the one who "Curled my hair, / Wore gloves in my cap." By wearing dark glasses, he was able to stand, "an armed angel among men." He fussed affectedly over the question of whether he was spy or spied on, "master, / or the world's abject servant." I do not intend, by noting these echoes in "Misanthropos" from earlier poems, to suggest that the poem is basically a conversation with those poems. Contrary to the position of Thomas Whitaker, I am convinced that no genuine poem is such a conversation.5 A poem is essentially a dialectical dialogue between the poet speaking and the poet listening, the poet expressing and the poet criticizing; any conversational echoes with other poems which it may include are strictly subordinate to that primary dialogue. Thus the man referred to in "Misanthropos" as "the curled darling who survives the war," though he resembles a Gunn who could say "Even in bed I pose," is transformed by a feeling of loathing and disgust which is absent from the earlier poem. If it were insisted that the poem is a conversation with another poem outside it, then one would be forced to say that in the poem itself the conversation is fraudulently partisan, and whatever genuine conversation one claimed to exist would be the concoction of the critic rather than the creation of the poet.

When Gunn came to America in 1954 he avoided that deepening of affectation to which Auden succumbed, by going to Stanford and coming under the severe tutelage of Yvor Winters. Once there Gunn peeled off that delicate fastidiousness which would cause Philip Larken to be terrified of riding a motorcycle for fear he might tear his pants. Gunn heard the call, "Man, you gotta Go," and joined the Boys, "In goggles, donned impersonality." It is clear that, in The Sense of Movement (1957), Gunn does not "strap in doubt," as the Boys do, but the last lines of "On the Move,"

At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

indicate that, for all his doubt, for all his knowledge that the Boys are "Small, black, as flies hanging in heat," he can come up with no alternative to riding in the "direction where the tires press," and thus accepts their way even though with a despairing cynicism. The passage echoing "On the Move" in the fifth poem of "Misanthropos" is dominated by a quite different feeling:

Here Gunn places the despairing cynicism of his decadence with a fine, discriminating disgust. The Boys were really just going around in circles. And their act was craven. Like our master structuralists, concocting patterns as remote as possible from the thickets of genuine poetry, they treaded out their discovering systems, returning upon themselves, merely to avoid the fearful things moving at the edges of their minds. Nor is there, in "Misanthropos," any of that sentimental indulgence with which "Lines from a Book" closes:

I think of all the toughs through history
And thank heaven they lived, continually.

Gunn has achieved that moral discrimination of which Leavis despaired in Auden and which Tomlinson feared Gunn would not attain.

He has even surpassed the hard heroizing of the title poem of his next volume, My Sad Captains (1961):

As early as the fourth poem of "Misanthropos," Gunn recognizes that such heroes are modelled on the movement of the moon ("And steady in the orbit it must go.") and the Milky Way ("A luminous field that swings across the sky,") and that they represent an "envy for the inanimate." In the fourteenth poem, the first man's desire to be "Inhuman as a star, as cold, as white, / Freed from all dust" is placed as a form of cowardice, an unwillingness to accept the dust of life itself. Yvor Winters complained that the Gunn of A Sense of Movement and My Sad Captains usually had a "dead ear."6 If his own sense of experience had not been so close to that of Gunn's, Winters might have realized, as Gunn does in "Misanthropos," that the deadness went much deeper than the ear.

It was not, however, the Viconian pattern or Gunn's personalization of that pattern which sprung him free of his deadness, but rather, I think, his discovery that his decadence was "wholly representative." Gunn makes that recognition throughout "Misanthropos." His withdrawal first into affectation and then into isolated hardness ran parallel to a mass reaction to the Second World War. When the relief of the end of the war had exhausted itself, men turned away from each other in disgust. The humanized air which held the nation together in its united war effort suddenly became dry and empty. Even hitch-hikers were abandoned to themselves. "Each colourless hard grain" was "now distinct, / In no way to its neighbour linked." College students writing essays about what sort of man they would like to have survive a nuclear holocaust were in truth working out the desire to be "The final man upon a final hill." It was not their fear of the future but their disgust for the past which made them open this "disused channel / to the onset of hatred." Nor was the hysterical construction of fall-out shelters, an act usually accompanied by an image of oneself gunning down his improvident neighbors who implored him for a breath of unpoisoned air, really a sign of providence so much as it was an expression of misanthropy, a dream in which one was at last free of the smudge of other men. Some such realization resounds throughout "Misanthropos": we had all withdrawn into an isolated state of ataraxia where we could live imperturbably, untouched by pain, "evil's external mark," unaware that if pain is the mark of evil, it is also the mark of goodness, the mark of "A man who burnt from sympathy alone."

That Gunn could find a way out of such a state, in which he had "grown / As stony as a lizard poised on stone," is not so remarkable as it might at first appear, especially to Americans. For, unlike us, he had behind him an experience in England following upon the First World War much like what happened to us only after the Second. Think, for example, of Yeats' ataraxic "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" or of his desire to be taken up in the stone mosaics of Byzantium. Think too of Ezra Pound's major English poem, "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," a poem written out of a state of paralysis from which there seemed to be no exit, whether into a Pre-Raphaelite dreamworld or into an impossibly depraved society run by the Mr. Nixons. Or consider whether the most influential English poem of the century, Eliot's Four Quartets, is not in truth written out of a deep state of ataraxia, being the sustained and repeatedly realized withdrawal from earthly, engaged experience, even a withdrawal from the crumbling language of the poem itself. Once Eliot had abandoned personal, sexual love in the poem "La figlia che piange," mustn't he be viewed as the exemplary final man upon the final hill, for whom every personal face is but a mask beyond which one moves into "the still point of the turning world"?

Even more important to the change that takes place for Gunn in "Misanthropos" is the criticism of F. R. Leavis and of the journal Scrutiny, which was a focus of literary intelligence in England from 1932 to 1952. Nothing in American criticism is comparable to Leavis' battle against the disintegration of his society and the impersonalization of both its social experience and its art. Leavis fought these heavy driftings not from the outside, rebelliously and violently, but from within, burning with good will and sympathy. He has never, for example, reneged on his claim that Eliot is one of the greatest of English poets. Compare his cautious and tentative and delicate criticism of Eliot with the blasts of Yvor Winters or with Quentin Anderson's recent claim, bordering as it does on hysteria: "The notion of the impersonality of art became the refuge of the infantile demand to rule the whole world."7 Anderson's immediate targets are Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Henry James, and the hundreds of thousands who gathered at Woodstock. But he is being exacerbated by the hidden foe of foes, T. S. Eliot. At least when set beside Leavis, Anderson seems to have no capacity to pause, and, having paused, to turn out toward others. In spite of himself, he appears as one more imperial self raging against imperial selves. Whereas for over thirty years Leavis did what Matthew Arnold tried to do but could not: by the free play of his mind, with his ideas of great poetry as both personal and impersonal and his conception of an English tradition as embodying such excellence, he made possible the recent resurgence of English poetry, among the finest representatives of which, in addition to Gunn, are Donald Davie, Jon Silkin, and Charles Tomlinson. Not, of course, that Gunn has found the way out of his stony isolation simply by following Leavis' precepts. He is an original poet, and, for all the resemblances between his recent poetry and the ideals Leavis advocates and certain poems by Davie, Silkin, and Tomlinson, the beating impulsion and the curve of action of "Misanthropos" are distinctly Gunn's own.

Even so, if Gunn had not had in his background Leavis' opposition to the impersonality and self-abnegation of Eliot, it seems likely that he would have fallen under the spell of that peculiarly imperialistic form of misanthropy to be found in so much of the very finest of contemporary American poetry. He could easily have turned into the path of Robert Bly, as James Wright did, temporarily, and tried to abandon his keen intellect and self-awareness. Bly would have us abandon ourselves utterly in order to move to the deepest point of our brain, where it dissolves into oneness with the God in Nature. He would have us move back to that still point at the heart of the wilderness and live and write poetry out of that impersonal center. Or Gunn might have followed Gary Snyder beyond the high point of his mountain retreats into an oriental form of ataraxia. At the very least he would have fallen in with Allen Ginsberg's feeling that "All separate identities are bankrupt." Without Leavis' constant warnings he would have missed the odd likeness between the violence at the center of the vision of those poets who reject our society and the destructive acts committed in the name of that society. He would have missed the similarity between the perspective those poets take on the society they reject and the perspective of that society on the basis of which its leaders make it move.

With all his misanthropy and with all the sympathy he shows for this American form of misanthropy, Gunn is able to resist this deepest revulsion for men with a disgust more intense than the sympathy he feels for it. Gunn articulates this complex mixture of sympathy and disgust in the twelfth poem, "Elegy on the Dust," which is the high point of "Misanthropos," the point at which the last man turns into the first man. The poem is a stunning articulation of the vision of men in society as a bowl of dust, "vexed with constant loss and gain," "a vaguely heaving sea," a graveyard which is a sea of dust. At the beginning of "Misanthropos," the final man was being a contemporary Englishman in his refusal to build a watch tower. But here he has moved to America and looks outward from his retreat, taking into his view the hill, the wooded slope, and the vast expanse of dust beyond it. He has made the transfer which Lawrence's Lou Witt makes at the end of "St. Mawr."8

"Elegy on the Dust" ends with this visionary judgment on man in a modern mass nation state:

The poem might seem to be merely a vision of man's ultimate form of decadence, that last stage in a Platonic cycle of degeneration at which a mobocracy turns into tyranny. Men are seen in the poem at their very lowest, averaged out in indistinguishable "grains of dust / Too light to act, too small to harm, too fine / To simper or betray or whine." In such a mobocracy, where even those who sought distinction hard are levelled with the rabble, in absolute uniformity, men are ready for a savior, a tyrant, who will windily hurl them "In endless hurry round the world." But instead of sharing this vision of Marcuse of the complete bankruptcy of our civilization, Gunn attends to its articulation with his keen, critical ear and turns the poem into a condemnation of that vision for which he has so much sympathy. The ultimate form of decadence turns out to be not what is seen, but the vision itself. As Raymond Williams has argued so persuasively, men exist as a mass only in the eye of the beholder. It is the beholding of men as a bowl of dust, as a mobocracy turning into a tyranny, not the men beheld in such a way, which is decadent.

One senses the special judgmental turn which Gunn is giving the vision in the way he works certain allusions into the poem. For example, in this part of the second stanza:

Gunn is clearly echoing Wordsworth, and especially in the "acres calm and deep" the line "Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!" from the sonnet "Composed upon Westminster Bridge." But he is doing more than simply alluding to the line; he is also judging Wordsworth's vision of London as organically beautiful only when all its citizens are asleep as an expression of imperialistic misanthropy. With Wordsworth so deeply studied and felt, Gunn could not fail to recognize the way in which the viewer personally determines the nature of the view. That the line "And vexed with constant loss and gain" in the next stanza echoes Wordsworth's sonnet "The world is too much with us" simply confirms how Gunn has learned from but then gone beyond the poet whom Galway Kinnell is now echoing somewhat uncritically. Of course, Marvell is present too, especially in the allusions to his most misanthropic and misogynous poem, "The Garden," as the lines "Interdependent in that shade" and "Are all reduced to one form and one size" echo the lines "Annihilating all that's made / To a green thought in a green shade." But the dominant allusion of the second of Gunn's lines just quoted is to Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley."

echo these lines from Pound's "Envoi":

I would bid them [the woman's graces] live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Braving time.

Gunn senses that Pound's advocacy of the eternal beauty of art over the transiency of ordinary experience, summed up as it is as "Siftings on siftings in oblivion," is just a step short of going off to Italy and becoming an advocate of the Duce. It is Gunn's disgust for this disgust for men in society that turns the "Elegy on the Dust" away from being just one more imperial vision and into an extremely personal expression of Gunn's revulsion for such imperialism. It is the vision of men as a smudge of dust, this way of seeing men, which must be buried, the reducing of men to such a state, not men thus reduced, which must be abandoned. Gunn knows too much about Pound, he knows what Leavis recognized in him and what Donald Davie, following Leavis' lead, demonstrated in his book Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor, to be willing to follow after Ginsberg, Snyder, and Bly.

My reading of the "Elegy" as an expression of disgust for the vision of men as a bowl of dust instead of as a direct expression of that vision is reinforced by echoes in the "Elegy" from the poem just before it, the Epitaph for Anton Schmidt, and by the echoes of the "Elegy" itself in the poem which follows it, "The First Man." There is no irony in Gunn's admiration for Anton Schmidt, whose greatness depends on his not having mistaken "the men he saw, / As others did, for gods or vermin." The vision of the "Elegy" clearly mistakes the men viewed for vermin and the viewer for a god. Furthermore, the first man of the 13th poem is presented as Gunn's vision of the man who has had the vision of the "Elegy," "An unreflecting organ of perception." That man can perceive men as a disgusting smudge because he does not reflect on what such a vision implies about himself. What it implies for Gunn is that, just as the men viewed in the "Elegy" disappear into the dust of a society blown "In endless hurry round the world" by a windy tyrant, so the visionary of the "Elegy," that imperial self, that "transcendental eyeball," is finally to be seen "darkening in the heavy shade / Of trunks that thicken in the ivy's grip." And this image of the first man, of this American innocent, this barbarian who may be what must follow after the decadence of Europe, this appalls Gunn as much as it did the poet here being echoed, Wallace Stevens. The 11th poem of Stevens' "The Man With The Blue Guitar" is the rejection of its vision of men dissolving into a thicket of time, where they are caught as flies, "Wingless and withered, but living alive." At this point Gunn must make his final choice: to accept the disappearance of man as an individual into the dust of society or the heavy shade of nature or to reaffirm the value of that man as distinctive. His choice, as is obvious from the 14th poem, is the second: he must stare upon men as a smudge until they come so close to him that the outlines of the smudge break away from it and the men turn into individuals.

Only as a result of doing this does he realize in direct experience that as he gazes upon a man, he is himself gazed upon, as he touches another, he is himself touched, and that his own self and his whole world are enlarged and enlivened by this interaction. Gunn does not simply assert this but works it out experientially by means of echoes. The first man's affirming in the 17th poem that you must pause, if you can, echoes and is even learned from the scratched man's pausing in the 16th poem. The first man's revulsion from the stale stench, the hang-dog eyes and the pursed mouth of the scratched man in the 16th poem echoes the scratched man's response to the first man when he first sees him in the 15th poem:

The creature sees him, jumps back, staggers, calls,
Then, losing balance on the pebbles, falls.

The effect of Gunn's restraint in this passage—we aren't quite sure what the lines imply and may even feel them to be empty—is that our sense of the repulsiveness of the first man and Gunn's sense of his own repulsiveness coincide with the first man's momentary revulsion from the scratched man even as he grips his arm. Although Gunn's movement out of isolation at the end of "Misanthropos" includes such moments of felt insight, it is harsh and painful. There is no moment of explosive joy as there is at the end of Stevens' "Esthétique du Mal," when Stevens realizes that human life is made up of

So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.

Gunn's use of the word "stared" to express the way in which we must connect with others suggests harshness. And his last words, "Immeasurable / The dust yet to be shared" come out with a grudging sigh. But Gunn has made his recognition and affirmation. And the poems which follow "Misanthropes" in Touch, especially the last one, "Back to Life," and many poems in his most recent volume, Moly, show that he mean it.

The innermost sense of experience which forces Gunn to pull himself out of his isolation still remains to be explained. What forces him to affirm the value of human community is, I believe, his sense that his own nature as an individual is communal, even when he is most isolated. Observing the first man, in the 13th poem, "darkening in the heavy shade / Of trunks that thicken in the ivy's grip," he sees that his very existence as an individual, composed of himself as self-aware observer and himself as a rudimentary man, is about to be annihilated. It is his commitment to himself as a community, as both spy and spied on, which forces him finally to turn out toward others. The final choice is between dissolving into nature and rejoining men. Gunn chooses the second because of his growing awareness that the very essence of himself as an individual is communal and that he will not survive in any form at all if he becomes one with nature.

As early as the second poem of "Misanthropos," Gunn reveals the doubleness of his individuality as poet and the last man quite emphatically. In contrast to the first poem of the sequence, in which Gunn as poet talks out his sense of himself as the last man, presented in the third person, in the second poem Gunn speaks as the last man in the first person to his echo, which of course is Gunn as poet. This conversation concludes thus:

The form of the whole of "Misanthropos" is implicit in these lines. The experience of the last man is based upon disgust, upon misanthropy. But the nature of this disgust is articulated in marvellously varied discussions carried on between the last man and his echo or, to reverse the coin, between Gunn as poet and himself as last man. Gunn's shifting from poem to poem between the last man as objectively third person and as subjectively first person can be explained in no other way. It is in passing through "what we have discussed" that Gunn is enabled to move from disgust to trust and thus begin the last poem with:

The trust of this last poem never breaks free from a need that it be discussed or even, for that matter, from an element of disgust. Thus, the poet, in expressing the lastman-become-first-man's willingness to trust the scratched man, also implies his grave doubts as to whether the man is worthy of such trust. Even the internal community of the second poem, moreover, is itself full of disgust. To get the tone of the poem right one needs to add to each echoing word the phrase "you poor fool." Thus, even though the basic movement of "Misanthropos" is from isolated disgust through discussion to communal trust, there is an internal community involved in the initial disgust just as there is an element of disgust in the trust of the final external community.

Once the reader recognizes the explicitly communal nature of the isolated individual as presented in the second poem, he can then see this community as implicitly present even in the first poem, which begins:

He avoids the momentous rhythm
of the sea, one hill suffices him
who has the entire world to choose from.

He melts through the brown and green silence
inspecting his traps, is lost in dense
thicket, or appears among great stones.

Although one probably begins the poem merely spying on the last man, who "lives like / the birds, self-contained they hop and peck," further readings are sure to convince him that the poem contains, along with the man we spy on, its own spy, the echoing, controlling presence of the poet. Unlike the last man, the last man's echo, the poet Thorn Gunn, proves himself capable of the momentous rhythm of the sea. The first clause of the poem, with its anapestic rhythm and with the first line running on into the second is a sea-like rhythm. But having set this rhythm in motion, the poet then drops it abruptly, with the second clause, "one hill suffices him," working iambically and in a syntax at odds with that of the first clause, so that there is no build-up by way of clauses rhythmically and syntactically parallel. Similarly, in the second stanza the first line is a return to the momentous rhythm of sea-like anapests, but here the expected run-on effect of the first stanza is frustrated; one must pause after "silence" and begin again with "inspecting his traps." The poet as spy does, in other words, have a watch tower. He is not self-contained as the spied-upon man is; he looks beyond that self-containment to glimpse the rhythm the last man avoids, introducing it only to break it down, so that we sense not just the isolation of the man, but also that from which he is isolated.

The communal nature of "Misanthropos" is shared, it seems to me, by all genuine poems, and is why John Crowe Ransom was wrong when he said: one cannot write a love poem while he is in love and that is why Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnets are loving but unpoetic. The truth is rather that one must be both in love and out of love to write a love poem. To write a poem on himself as a man who widens his salitude till it is absolute. Gunn had to be both in that solitude and in community. In other words, the very writing of the poem forces him into internal communal relations which work against his desire for absolute solitude. "Misanthropos" is distinctive because it is a genuine poem based upon the realization of the communal doubleness inherent in all poetic sincerity. The very form of the poem, the way its parts echo each other, grows out of Gunn's sense that the poet's individuality, in the act of composing the poem, is communal. And it is this sense of the communal nature of the poet as individual, even when pushed to an extreme isolation by disgust, which leads Gunn to reject the American desire for dissolving into nature and to turn out toward other human beings.

Gunn's "Misanthropos" has a cinematic counterpart in Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. Like Gunn, Antonion explored with fascination our desire to be "on the move" and to throw ourselves into simple, bodily love affairs, and he found them to be expressive of the deeper desire to end up in "this universal knacker's yard," at point zero, all levelled in dissolute couplation on the desert. Though Antonioni draws back from this lure to dissolution, the vision he moves back to is very much like the imperially decadent vision of Gunn's "Elegy on the Dust." This explains, think, why Zabriskie Point disgusted its American audiences but was extremely popular in Europe. Gunn, in contrast, rejects not just the "vaguely heaving sea" of dust which is America seen from a final hill, but also the vision itself, as a deeper form of decadence than that which it contains and repudiates. Even so, Gunn's final position is not so very stirring. "Misanthropos" is pitched at a thin high extreme of self-consciousness. It is clear that the man who wrote this poem is the same man who wrote "The Corridor," in which the "I" spies through a keyhole at two people making love and then realizes that he the spy is himself being spied upon by a figure in a mirror at the end of the hall. But though the poem is resolutely self-conscious, it does move with the force of necessity beyond itself and into communion with others, whose otherness is more painful and also more vital than the otherness contained within the poet's individuality. The community achieved is minimal, but it is also essential.

One cannot leave the poem without a glancing reminder of what it implies about the critical maneuvers that have been so popular during the past twenty-five years. Once the poem is taken into the blood stream, wouldn't a critic be too ashamed to wear dark glasses and, "Between the dart of colours" to wear a darkening and perceive "an exact structure, / a chart of the world"? Too many things are moving "at the edges of the mind" to leave him content to be treading out a path "like / a discovering system, / or process made visible." Nor, once he has watched with Gunn's disgust the paradisal

is he likely to be satisfied with Utopian and visionary criticism or, like Harold Bloom, to condemn Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" on the grounds that it fails to achieve oneness with the visionary company.9 He would recognize that Yeats' poem comes alive just because the visionary company, the "great clear globes," and the ladies of Byzantium are violated by "the intruder with blurred outline" who touches and holds "in an act of / enfolding, possessing, merging love." The intruder may cause pain like a devil, but, without such a spark of fire, even sympathy cannot burn.

Criticism that moves to touch and hold a poem will be not only interpretive, but also appreciative. Interpretation alone is more like memorizing notes than performing them. A musician does not try simply to get the notes right. He must play in such a way as to articulate the living value of the notes, to realize, far beyond the score itself, the vital act of sound in movement which is the composer's creation. It is true, of course, that a critical performance lacks the immediacy of a musical performance. For the critic and his audience must always return to the text of the poem itself and work out the values in it which the critic can at best only hint at and point toward. Even so, I agree with Roger Sessions that, in their purpose and value, literary criticism and musical performance are fundamentally the same.10 What the critic may learn from the musician is that he can expose and evoke a poem with any fullness only if he is willing to evoke and expose himself at the very same time. The critic who fashions for himself a frock from the skins of mole and rabbit, who writes in hiding, with sovereign impersonality, who tries to interpret and appreciate a poem in such a way that the poem is not permitted in turn to interpret and judge him, will touch neither the poem nor himself. He must listen long and carefully not just to the poem but also to himself until he too speaks with a voice of his own, if he would ever hope to converse with the intimate dialogue that every genuine poem is. He can learn from the musician that he himself must venture creatively if he would hope to touch the creativity of the poems of his concern. I am not suggesting that schools of criticism should model themselves on the great conservatories. But to the extent that those conservatories are committed not to technical perfection, but to a form of performance in which one realizes himself in the very act of evoking the living composition in all its otherness, it does seem to me that they provide a vital and meaningful model worthy of our emulation.11


1 See chap. 14 of Collingwood's The Principles of Art (Oxford, 1938) and Poirier's The Performing Self (Oxford, 1971).

2 Wellek, "Kenneth Burke and Literary Criticism," The Sewanee Review (Spring, 1971), 187-188.

3 Tomlinson, "Poetry Today," The Modern Age, vol. 7 of The Pelican Guide to English Literature (Penguin, 1963), p. 473.

4 In the three editions of Fighting Terms (1954, 1959, 1962) "Carnal Knowledge" has been much revised.

5 Whitaker, "Voices in the Open: Wordsworth, Eliot, & Stevens," The Iowa Review (Summer, 1971), 96-112.

6 Winters, Forms of Discovery (Swallow, 1967), p. 345.

7 Quentin Anderson, The Imperial Self (Knopf, 1971), p. 203.

8 See Poirier's superb analysis of "St. Mawr" in A World Elsewhere (Oxford, 1966). pp. 40-49.

9 Harold Bloom, Yeats (Oxford, 1970), pp. 344-349.

10 See chap. 3 of Roger Sessions, Questions About Music (Harvard, 1970).

11 The antagonism of Hindemith against performers, expressed in chap. 7 of his Autiobiography.

Clive Wilmer (essay date 1980)

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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 metrical poems are different in kind from poems in 'open' forms. D.H. Lawrence, in the Preface to the American edition of his New Poems (an essay whose influence Gunn has acknowledged), arguing the case for such a distinction, wrote of free verse as pre-eminently the medium of presenttense meditation, of perception in the process of taking form. By contrast—so he argued—the great stanzaic poems deal with ends and beginnings, past and future:

It is in the realm of all that is perfect. It is of the nature of all that is complete and consummate. This completeness, this consummateness, the finality and the perfection are conveyed in exquisite form: the perfect symmetry, the rhythm which returns upon itself like a dance where the hands link and loosen and link for the supreme moment of the end."… But there is another kind of poetry: the poetry of that which is at hand: the immediate present. In the immediate present there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished. The strands are all flying, quivering, intermingling into the web, the waters are shaking the moon. There is no round consummate moon on the face of running water, nor on the face of the unfinished tide.

Though Gunn's poetry is hardly dance-like, it certainly used to be remarkable for rhythms returning upon themselves, for the finality of its meditations; yet at the same time what did it celebrate but flux, risk, the unpredictable future, the unfinished artefact? Although much of its interest lay in the tension between form and content, one is hardly surprised to learn that Gunn has come increasingly to admire a poetry which possesses the very qualities that move him in life. All that the poetry of Whitman and Lawrence, Williams and Snyder must have lacked to so skilled and deliberate an artificer was a sense of the necessary and inevitable artificiality of poetry, the supreme fiction.

When Gunn finally discarded the somewhat arbitrary discipline of syllabic verse in the mid-sixties, it was mainly to William Carlos Williams that he turned for a model of free-verse prosody: the right choice, surely, for few modern poets have combined Williams's level of craftsmanship with such apparent informality. Now, ten years later, in Jack Straw's Castle (1976), the relationship between Gunn's two modes is becoming clearer. In the metrical poems the rhythms are looser, the language more conversational, the structures based more on sequences of perception than on patterns of logical thought. The free verse gains in authenticity from Gunn's sense of how a poem is made and how its making must relate to what already exists in the world. A sense of the limits of both flux and artifice is built into the poetry. Lawrence was original in his insistence that the two kinds of prosody fulfil different functions and must therefore continue to co-exist. Metre will still be called upon to embody the products of concentrated thought, to give the semblance of immutable form to (relatively) immutable verities. For this it depends on an element of predictability in its movement. Free verse, however—if it is wholly distinct from metre, as Lawrence's is and Williams's—depends on the opposite, on our inability to predict the rhythmic outcome. Gunn, like Williams, plays on this, tantalizing the reader with weak line-endings and long sinuous sentences broken into short lines. This procedure emphasises the overall rhythm (as against the line-as-unit) and suggests the hesitancy of the human voice as it shapes its utterances. The poem seems to discover its meanings as it proceeds, as if it were a sequence of thought enacted before us, affected by the moment: we seem to acquire a new awareness of thought (and poem) as process. This method—exemplified by a poem as early as 'Touch', published in 1967—enables Gunn not only to describe the world, but at the same time to dramatize the ways in which we come to know it, in terms which point ultimately to his own beliefs about its nature.

But there is nothing especially new about such discoveries. On the contrary, they are based on ideas associated with the adolescence of the modern movement. Their importance for us lies in the fact that Gunn, as a poet once associated with quite different attitudes to the function of poetry, has rediscovered them for himself. When he wrote My Sad Captains, Gunn was virtually a disciple of that implacable anti-Modernist, Yvor Winters, whose continuing influence on him has been considerable. Yet Gunn today can write of Ezra Pound as 'probably the greatest poet we have had in this century'; and any poet who turns to Williams as a model must ultimately come to terms with a Poundian view of literature.

Winters, a classicist and neo-humanist in the Jonsonian mould, held that a good poem was a rational structure composed of connected propositions, to which form was the objective equivalent. As such, he rejected the irrationalist assumptions of Modernist poetics as firmly as the Right-wing politics associated with its founders. For politically Winters was the most redoubtable of liberals. He held that political and literary irrationalism make men the victims of their history and experience. Poetry was only of value if its end was understanding; the poem was not a kind of secondary organism that partakes of life, but a skilfully contrived artefact set apart from the flux it seeks to evaluate. But Winters's view of understanding itself often seems excessively restricted; he always considers it in terms of completed perceptions and achieved ideas. For Gunn, ideas and understanding are more closely entwined in the process of language. He has written of Gary Snyder that 'like most serious poets he is mainly concerned at finding himself on a barely known planet in an almost unknown universe, where he must attempt to create and discover meanings. Discovery of a meaning is always also the creation of it, and creation is an act of discovery.' Then, of one specific poem, 'it is. … a series of pictorial perceptions made by a man embedded in time, who advances into the sensory world opened by his waking'. This conception of poetry and the terms Gunn uses are largely dependent on Winters's example. What he adds is a greater respect for the force of sensuous and instinctual awareness.

Gunn would now probably agree with Donald Davie who, in a recent study of Pound, takes issue with Winters's view of the Cantos but finds his objections to them illuminating. Winters, he writes,

conceiving of an idea as that which could be stated in the form of a proposition, recorded his experience of reading the Cantos by saying, 'we have no way of knowing whether we have had any ideas or not'."… if we take account of what he understood 'idea' to be, Winters' remark is one of the few valuably exact formulations that we have of what reading the Cantos amounts to, and feels like.

For Pound an idea was not a proposition but 'The forma, the immortal concetto' which Allen Upward had described in these words: 'The idea is not the appearance of a thing already there, but rather the imagination of a thing not yet there. It is not the look of a thing, it is a looking forward to a thing'.

Gunn rejects Wintersian 'propositions' in favour of something rather like Pound's forma in a poem called 'The Outdoor Concert'. The title is a play on words: the 'concert' is both a musical performance and an experience of unity. The poem describes a 'secret' at the heart of a shared experience, a kind of synthesis. The act of discovery is not a lonely quest but the participation of one man in a group.

The secret
is still the secret

is not a proposition:
it's in finding
what connects the man
with the music, with
the listeners, with the fog
in the top of the eucalyptus,
with dust discovered on the lip.

A proposition will not embrace the multiplicity of experience—nor indeed will any formulation—but to perceive connections is also a form of understanding. The poem constructs a web—an organic image which, since the poem is in free verse, may remind us of Lawrence. In more mechanical terms we might call it a diagram. Jack Straw's Castle does in fact contain a poem called 'Diagrams', which is written in strict heroic couplets and, with fourteen lines, recalls that most elaborately artificial of forms, the sonnet. We can now perceive how Gunn's preoccupation with reason and volitional form has developed. He is now concerned with 'models' of thought—as Poundian an interest as it is Wintersian, for what are Pound's ideograms but models, the matrices on which ideas are formed?

The ideogram in Pound's theory, though related to rhythm, is primarily a matter of content, of images and ideas. It was of no interest to Winters. And I doubt that Winters's scrupulous distinctions between metre ('the arithmetical norm, the purely theoretic structure of the line') and rhythm ('controlled departure from that norm') would have appealed to Pound. But both conceptions are of relevance to Gunn (and to many more of us). His own conception of metre remains as mathematical as Winters's; metre is, he has written, 'an unbodied abstraction', then goes on, like Winters, to emphasize that the life of a poem depends on it. For Gunn and Winters, all structures, whether of language or society, are frameworks which sustain a life, though—of their very nature—quite separate from it.

When we read Pound, however, we experience an attempt to push the artefact as close to the given world as it will go. The rhythms of speech are attuned to those of nature. The very structure of the Cantos is fragmentary, as if they had been worn down by the wind and water whose acts of erosion they so insistently and delectably evoke. Yet no reader could ever pretend that the hand and mind of the artificer seemed absent from the enterprise, whatever its aspirations or shortcomings. Moreover, though the overall structure of the work may appear loose, the individual details are remarkable for their hardness and definition. It must have been tensions of this sort that first made Pound's poetry available to Gunn.

Of the book that preceded Jack Straw's Castle Gunn has written—in language that might have been used to register his admiration for Pound—that 'It could be seen as a debate between the passion for definition and the passion for flow."… Yet that book, Moly (1971), seemed to mark a retreat from the open forms he had developed in Touch (1967). The passion for definition is most in evidence in the elegant formality of the rhymed stanzas; that for flow in the varieties of energy they contemplate. But 'the sense of movement', of energy, has changed. Gone are the uniformed heroes for whom the will 'cannot submit/To nature, though brought out of it.' In their place are the surfers of 'From the Wave'. Though, like the tearaways of 'On the Move', they become what they are through movement, they do so by adapting themselves to nature. Their skill and balance enable them to act in concord with the waves—and these are qualities which require a harmony between knowledge and instinct, consciousness and action.

The debate to which Gunn referred is continued in the group of metrical poems that make up the first section of Jack Straw's Castle. The free verse poems in the other two sections approach similar problems from a different angle; there definition is arrived at, not imposed. 'The Plunge' tries in its language to enact the process of acquiring knowledge by total immersion. A diver plunges into a pool and stays under till he can take no more, till he reaches the limits of the self. This discovery of limits is a discovery of definition, of essential form. 'How much more can the body / take?' he asks, driving himself to the point where process must stop and formulation begin. For 'Thomas Bewick', immersion in the detail of the natural world is like a return to the womb. The umbilical cord that binds him to the rest of the material universe not yet cut, he is conscious but not yet individual.

Immersion in process reaches its limit in a new kind of permanence—the book for which Bewick's name is remembered, capitalized and visually set apart from the rest of the poem. The rhythm enacts the flow of experience into record.

If such poems are necessarily composed in open form, how do they differ from those written in traditional prosody? What Gunn has discovered through free verse has inevitably affected his standard metre, sometimes to its detriment. His attempts at the conversational can be banal: 'More meteors than I've ever set eyes on' for example. Or rhythmically confusing: the line, 'It doesn't matter tomorrow. Sleep well. Heaven knows', is only theoretically a pentameter; it is impossible to hear five feet, iambic or otherwise. But just at the edge of clumsiness, there are some felicitous variations, as in a mimetic view of a watersnake: 'I see a little snake alert in its skin/Striped head and neck from water, unmoving, reared'. The precariousness of such failures and successes is part of the whole debate between flux and definition, the intrusion of 'natural' rhythms into the fixities of traditional prosody.

The debate is initiated by the first three poems in Jack Straw's Castle. One of these, 'Diagrams', explores the illusion of permanence and the containment of flux. A skyscraper is being built. In its unfinished state it resembles a mesa, as if it were not an artefact at all but a permanent feature of the landscape. To the European reader, both mesa and skyscraper evoke the American landscape; this is important, for Gunn, though English by birth, is now deeply concerned with the United States as a political and geographical entity. Significantly, the men at work on the steel mesa are aboriginal Americans:

On girders round them, Indians pad like cats,
With wrenches in their pockets and hard hats.

Their agility expresses their closeness to the environment, mesa or skyscraper. The human embodiment of American 'nature', they are engaged in creating the human contribution to that landscape. They are the presiding deities of Jack Straw's Castle, moving like animals among provisional human artefacts, yet equally at home in the given world. Gunn shows them poised between permanence and flux, rather as a Renaissance poet might show man poised between earth and air:

They wear their yellow boots like moccasins,
Balanced where air ends and where steel begins,
Sky men."…

Their boots—products of industrial society, used for work among that society's structures—are worn like the shoes they would wear on a real mesa. The building they are erecting, though intended as a fixed and stable thing, appears as it grows to absorb and transform the energies that surround it. It becomes a 'giant' that 'grunts and sways', rising into the air: 'And giving to the air is sign of strength.' As in 'From the Wave', to bend to the power of the elements is to derive strength from them. But the ordinary meaning of 'give' is also present: the building appears to seep energy into the air. The contrast with the solitary heroes to whom Gunn bade farewell in 'My Sad Captains' could not be greater:

The consumption of their energy was magnificent but, ultimately, waste. For Gunn today, the transformation of energy is 'sign of strength', the adaptation of self to environment.

The diagrams of the title are cranes and exposed girders, but I take it that Gunn is also thinking of other structures that bear upon the poem's meaning—notably, the grid of its own metre. And most of these recent metrical poems are concerned with moments in which fluidity takes on permanent form. Such permanence is illusory but necessary. American permanence, in a political sense, is embodied in its constitution, which itself has its origin in revolutionary change. Gunn is not a political poet in the sense of being 'committed'—he is primarily concerned with identities and relations we think of as pre-political, with 'finding himself on a barely known planet in an almost unknown universe'. But as Camus (one of his most honoured heroes) discovered, freedom and choice do not exist in abstract purity; once a man is oppressed, he discovers his political nature whether he will or no. It was under Camus's influence, in My Sad Captains, that Gunn first tried to show how the individual's choices may operate in society. Like Camus, he was thinking of an extreme kind of society, though, unlike him, he had not lived in one. The political positions adopted are therefore limited in application, though quite clear: specifically anti-fascist, broadly anti-totalitarian. The rational individualism of 'Claus von Stauffenberg, 1944' might be called liberal. It is strange to recall that Gunn's early poems were often accused of fascism—especially in the light of his recent testimony that as an undergraduate (when he wrote Fighting Terms) he was a pacifist and a Fabian socialist. The violence of those poems is examined outside a social context and not proposed as a good. The dissolution of self in the group and the adoption of various 'uniforms' are choices made voluntarily by individuals. The heroic stance is precisely that: a stance, a posture by which a man defines his identity: it is frozen action, the fluid given the appearance of permanence. If Gunn seemed obsessed with Nazism—its history, postures and regalia—this has something to do with growing up in time of war and reaching manhood when the struggle was over. Not having fought in that war is the context a recent poem like 'The Corporal' requires. So, in My Sad Captains and Touch, Gunn criticizes his earlier stances in such a way as to acquit himself of this accusation. Since Touch, his politics have become decidedly American. It is possible to read the Arcadian world of Moly as a new version of the American dream—the New World as the second Eden. But such an Arcadia must become mere escapism in the years of the Vietnam war and Nixon's presidency, if actual political issues are not faced. Jack Straw's Castle is the only book of Gunn's which shows the need to deal with contemporary history. 'Nixon's era', with its corruption and rigidity, is regarded as a betrayal of the system of institutionalized change on which the United States was founded. 'Iron Landscapes', the one poem to deal directly with these issues, is brilliantly written, but flawed and problematic.

It is a meditation on an antiquated iron pier and a girdered ferry-building beside the Hudson River. Gunn's newly-acquired modernism is in evidence, not least in the rhythmic flexibility.

A girdered ferry-building opposite,
Displaying the name LACKAWANNA, seems to ride

The turbulent brown-grey waters that intervene:
Cool seething incompletion that I love.

In these lines, the iambic pentameter is the norm from which the rhythm departs. The first and fourth lines are regular. The other two depart from that pattern, much as the non-verbal facts they attempt to encompass elude verbal formulation. In the first of these, the capitalized name (does this too have Indian associations?) fits so awkwardly into the line that the hard physical intractability of the other artefact comes alive to us. (Gunn's admiration for similar rhythmic and verbal angularities in Thomas Hardy comes to mind: 'They present things with immediate authority.') Variation in the third line achieves a different effect: we feel the elusive fluidity of the perception by contrast with the formulaic precision of the regular line that follows. Regularity, of course, is appropriate to commentary, to formulations necessarily of the mind.

It is not just a matter of rhythm. Free verse enacts a different kind of thought and thinking. If we look at some of Gunn's best early poems—at 'Innocence' or 'The Annihilation of Nothing'—we are struck not only by the exactness of the metre (in contrast with the awkwardness of 'Iron Landscapes') but, more, by the perfection of the argument. Too perfect, you might think, too coherent to allow for the fluidities, the innate contradictions of the subject. Life is almost imprisoned by the subject, not enlarged. But in this poem we are able to follow the poet's train of thought as the different elements that compose the argument are brought together. It is not, as in the free verse, a poetry of process. The different elements have been prefabricated, as it were, into blocks. Our attention is drawn less to thought-as-process than to the way experience is shaped into form and formula, to become idea, concept, belief, opinion.

The poem begins with the 'bare black Z' of the pier and the poet beneath it, looking across the river to the ferry-building. The zigzags of the iron structures 'come and go' in the water, become fluid in the water's reflection of them. Separate perceptions are brought together, not by volition but by contingency. This provokes the central paradox, the conflict between Gunn's passions for definition and for flow. Then a third perception comes into play. Glimpsed downstream, the Statue of Liberty provokes reflections on the present state of the nation. Gunn has just declared his 'passion for definition', having earlier declared his love for its opposite, 'Cool seething incompletion'.

But I'm at peace with the iron landscape too,
Hard because buildings must be hard to last
—Block, cylinder, cube, built with their angles true,
A dream of righteous permanence, from the past.

In Nixon's era, decades after the ferry,
The copper embodiment of the pieties
Seems hard, but hard like a revolutionary
With indignation, constant as she is.

From here you can glimpse her downstream, her far charm,
Liberty, tiny woman in the mist
—You cannot see the torch—raising her arm
Lorn, bold, as if saluting with her fist.

Thus from stability and flux, iron and water, the poem moves on to an historical plane: the rigidity of reactionary government is now set against the principle of change on which the Constitution is founded. First, the identification of buildings with institutions is made; the dream from the past is, among other things, the dream of the original revolutionaries whose Utopia is embodied in another metal artefact, the statue. The difficulty is that they created their liberal revolution in the image of the old order: they tried to institutionalize change. Today's revolutionaries aspire to base new societies on change, but their weakness (implicit here or not?) is their failure to recognize the human need for fixities. The poem ends with an image of the old revolution (the statue) transformed into the new (the clenched-fist salute), and 'Liberty' is neither permanent nor fluctuating but constant, a principle existing in time with changing manifestations, itself unchanging.

Inevitably writing of this sort raises questions. After all, these are matters we argue vehemently about, yet the poem—though it appears to take sides—is an unresolved embodiment of the issues. This is a case where we need Wintersian propositions but are left with a web of gestures, even of prejudices. For example, the poem depends on the assumption (which I happen to share) that the Nixon era was a bad time; but this is something we need to be persuaded of. A similar doubt infects the poem's technique. Is Gunn being relaxed and flexible, or merely clumsy? Does the rhyme 'ferry'/'revolutionary' work? Yet the rhythmical counterpoint in the last stanza is as beautiful and assured as anything in Gunn's work. His gaucheries sometimes seem Hardyesque authentications of his honesty; here he is most fluent where difficulties need to be raised, where the thought should meet with most resistance from the verse. It is a convincing conclusion to a line of thought but, finally, no more than a gesture—and it is a good many years now since Gunn first questioned the validity of 'the large gesture of solitary man'. In his earlier work, stance, pose and gesture were important as moments of stasis through which people established their identities, breaking temporarily free from 'movement'. Moreover, these stances, though they involved commitment to action, did not involve action in terms of the stance. The fetishistic dandy with the swastika-draped bed in 'The Beaters' is in no sense a Nazi. But in 'Iron Landscapes', the emotion compels us to identify with a pose which is intended to issue in specific actions with public implications and, however much one may sympathize with such a response to the Nixon era, one must ask what essential difference there is between the clenched fist and a Naz I salute. True, one is a gesture of resistance, the other of oppression. But both are salutes; both call for public violence; both deny the validity of rational discussion. Of course, it is not Gunn's purpose to declare a commitment or to invoke the detail of political argument. It is a fine poem, and not the least of its virtues is that it is able to provoke such questions and to show historical patterns growing from the matrices of feeling the landscape represents. It shows American society as necessarily based on the dialectic of permanence and change, the very dialectic which determines the creative tensions of Gunn's poetry.

We have reached a stalemate: one though, as it seems to me, that is at the root of modern poetry. 'Iron Landscapes' attempts a reconciliation between the fluidity of the modern (free verse and all that goes with it) and the monumental qualities of the classical (the metred stanza). Whatever one makes of the metric, it should be clear that the internal structure is Modernist, almost Poundian; for it is concerned not with ideas but with the raw material of thought. It is significant that the internal structure resolves itself in a gesture: which is precisely the weakness of much of Pound's poetry. But what Gunn brings to this new Modernism is respect for the classical as a living concern. Whatever we make of the clenched fist, there is no mistaking the fundamentally liberal position of 'Iron Landscapes', a position reinforced by, for example, his version of colonization in the sequence called 'The Geysers'. The Indian workers of 'Diagrams' belong to a race displaced and humbled by colonialism, yet—as 'The Geysers' shows—all human habitations are colonies. The perpetual challenge faced by the liberal is how to make such colonies humane, how to establish a fruitful harmony between man the artificer and man the creature. Gunn is a highly civilized artist—hence his continuing loyalty to the old forms. Despite his enthusiasm for the new, he does not welcome—as some writers whose names have been misleadingly linked with his appear to do—the collapse of our civilization. Rather he sees change and the capacity for change as the essential qualities of a living civilization, and so celebrates its continuity.

Further Reading

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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. 36 (1992): 289-99, 300-09.

Gunn discusses stylistic concerns, expatriation, and his role within the gay community.

Giles, Paul. "From Myth into History: The Later Poetry of Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes." In Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism, edited by James Acheson and Romana Huk. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 143-73.

Compares the later verse of Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn.

Martin, Robert K. "Fetishizing America: David Hockney and Thom Gunn." In The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life after the Life, edited by Robert K. Martin. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992, pp. 114-26.

Contends that both artists "make use of a constructed vision of America as part of an implicit critique of their European and British heritage and as a model for a socially sexuality."

Sinfield, Alan. "Thom Gunn in San Francisco: An Interview." Critical Survey 2, No. 2 (1990): 223-30.

Gunn discusses his sexuality and its consequences on his work.

Additional coverage of Gunn's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Contemporary Authors Vols. 17-20; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series Vols. 9, 33; Contemporary Dictionary of British Literary Biography 1960-Present; Contemporary Literary Criticism Vols. 3, 6, 18, 32, 81; Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 27; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; International Contemporary Authors New Revisions Vol. 33; and Major Twentieth Century Writers Vol 1.

Jay Parin (essay date 1982)

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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 principles exist everywhere in his work, not sapping the poems of their strength but creating a tense climate of balanced opposition. Any poet worth thinking twice about possesses at least an energetic mind; but it is the harnessing of this energy which makes for excellence. In Gunn's work an apparently unlimited energy of vision finds, variously, the natural boundaries which make expression—and clarity—possible.

The exact balance of Rule and Energy occurs rarely enough in even the greatest poets. For the most part, a superabun-dance of either principle damages the final product, so that one is left wishing that, say, Ginsberg had Rule equal to his Energy or, conversely, that Wilbur had less control over more content. This is not meant to disparage either poet, both of whom have on many occasions achieved the precarious balance of great art. My purpose here is to suggest how Gunn, over roughly a quarter century, has effected a balance of Rule and Energy all his own, creating in the process a body of poems able to withstand the closest scrutiny.

Gunn has lived in the U.S., mostly in San Francisco, since his graduation from Cambridge in 1953. But his early poems, especially, reflect his British heritage and the interest in "formalist" poetry characteristic of poets identified with the so-called Movement. "What poets like Larkin, Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and I had in common at that time was that we were deliberately eschewing Modernism, and turning back, though not very thoroughly, to traditional resources in structure and method," says Gunn. This return to traditional resources was common to the period of the early fifties in general, not only in England, as the work of Ransom, Roethke, Wilbur and Lowell shows.

The traditionalist bent of Gunn's first book, Fighting Terms (1954), tugs in opposition to his rebellious themes. The poet most often invokes a soldier persona, an existential warrior in the act of self-definition. "The Wound" is among the best poems here, the first in the book; its speaker is variously Achilles or "the self who dreamt he was Achilles" (Gunn's description):

The huge wound in my head began to heal
About the beginning of the seventh week.
Its valleys darkened, its villages became still:
For joy I did not move and dared not speak;
Not doctors would cure it, but time, its patient skill.

The slightly "sprung" pentameter, the emblem of the wound that runs through the poem, and the hallucinatory progress of the narrator/persona together produce the wonderful tautness found in Gunn's earliest verse. Achilles's "real" wound is the death of his friend, his lover, Patroclus:

I called for armour, rose, and did not reel.
But, when I thought, rage at his noble pain
Flew to my head, and turning I could feel
My wound break open wide. Over again
I had to let those storm-lit valleys heal.

The poem represents a young man's effort, via the form of dramatic monologue, to distance himself from his subject; this stage is crucial in any poet's development. The beginning writer rarely has sufficient space between himself and his material. The use of a persona helps, for it allows the poet to search for a sympathetic alter-ego, to study himself indirectly, safely. The poem acts as a grid through which the light of self-expression passes; with luck, something of the poet's true nature remains.

The warrior-lover figure in these poems is self-consciously aggressive at times, but Gunn succeeds by sheer force of will in a poem like "Carnal Knowledge," his most striking early poem:

Even in bed I pose: desire may grow
More circumstantial and less circumspect
Each night, but an acute girl would suspect
My thoughts might not be, like my body, bare.
I wonder if you know, or, knowing, care?
You know I know you know I know you know.

The speaker knows himself to be a poseur, and self-contempt gathers through the poem, leading ultimately to feelings of inadequacy: "I know of no emotions we can share." He asks her, then, to abandon him to his ineffectual stammering. Gunn affects a simplicity of diction reminiscent of the Elizabethan "plain style," but it is also the casual diction of an adolescent, full of a young lover's painful self-consciousness and disposition to emotional complexity. "Carnal Knowledge," owing to its sheer verbal dexterity, stays in the mind where many of the poems in Fighting Terms fade.

Among the accomplished poems from this early phase of Gunn's career is "Tamer and Hawk," which treats of the Rule/Energy conflict in tightly rhymed trimeter stanzas (though the last line in each has two instead of three feet):

I thought I was so tough,
But gentled at your hands
Cannot be quick enough
To fly for you and show
That when I go I go
At your commands.

The poem is a swift, bold stroke; its central conceit is a subtly worked-out metaphor—the hawk is possessed by but in turn possesses the tamer: "You but half-civilize, / Taming me in this way." The theme of possession and control, of the positive and negative aspects of any intense relationship (whether between man and woman or poet and his language), has rarely found more distinct expression. "Tamer and Hawk" is equal to anything in Gunn's later volumes, and it points the way to the direction of his next book.

The Sense of Movement (1957) fulfills the promise of Gunn's first book, displaying a new range of assimilated (or half-assimilated) voices and refining, somewhat, the central metaphor of his work—the conflict of intellect and emotion. Having left Cambridge, Gunn passed nearly a year in Rome and went to California, where he has remained. More importantly for his work, he began reading Yeats, whom he later refers to as "the second most disastrous influence after Milton." Yeats is disastrous because unassimilable; the Yeatsian cadences can only be parodied, not imitated; Yeatsian mannerisms possess a fatal attraction for young poets because they are too easily mimickable. But this overstates the case (as does Gunn).

The Yeatsian manner lent a new richness to Gunn's verse. His most widely anthologized poem, "On the Move," derives explicitly from the master:

The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows
Some hidden purpose, and the gust of birds
That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows
Have nested in the trees and undergrowth.
Seeking their instinct, or their poise, or both,
One moves with an uncertain violence
Under the dust thrown by a baffled sense
Or the dull thunder of approximate words.

The attribution of "some hidden purpose" to the animal world, the seeking of "signs," the epithet "wheeling," the intense feelings controlled by a blank verse that is heavily enjambed: these traits recall Yeats, specifically, though the influence is not overbearing. On the contrary, Gunn adds something of his own to a great modern tradition (as do Roethke and Larkin in their own ways).

"On the Move" opens for examination throughout the volume one of Gunn's central ideas: that action is crucial to existential self-definition and that individual freedom depends, necessarily, upon the freedom of others. Poets are rarely philosophers; they "lift" ideas which seem compatible, which affect their sensibility and set their own language in motion. Gunn's arguments come, explicitly, from Sartre's lecture L'Existentialisme est un humanisme:

When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind—in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But one affirms that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it.

So Gunn's heroes race up the highway "as flies hanging in heat." Their uniforms—leather jackets and goggles—lend an impersonality which is terrifying to spectators. "They strap in doubt—by hiding it, robust—/And almost hear a meaning in their noise." Yet Gunn admires them: "Men manufacture both machine and soul," he asserts. This supreme existential notion, that soul as well as machine has its ontological basis in the creative will, lifts "On the Move" out of the realm of commonplace observation or glorification of the motorcyclists. "It is a part solution, after all," the poet says. The Boys are, at least, self-defined; they have chosen their form of life. Gunn concludes the poem:

At worst, one is in motion, and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

A Zen master would no doubt object; nevertheless, Gunn isolates an important "belief" of our times: that motion is itself a positive quality, a denial of death, an assertion of will over inert matter.

Much of The Sense of Movement was written while Gunn studied at Stanford under Yvor Winters, and these poems reflect his teacher's aesthetic to some extent. To Winters, says Gunn, poetry "was an instrument for exploring the truth of things, as far as human beings can explore it, and it can do so with greater verbal exactitude than prose can manage." Yet Gunn's notion of poetry goes well beyond the narrow strictures of Winters, admitting a wider range of feeling. Indeed, his belief that reality inheres in the particulars of experience almost works against Winters's dedication to abstract reason. Gunn's poetry is not intellectual, finally; rather, it explores concrete reality in a sensuous manner. The worst poems in this book, in fact, could be called "arguments." They make assertions about the human condition (as in "Vox Humana") such as the following: "Much is unknowable." The best work here embodies the texture of Gunn's own life, as in "At the Back of the North Wind":

All summer's warmth was stored there in the hay;
Below, the troughs of water froze: the boy
Climbed nightly up the rungs behind the stalls
And planted deep between the clothes he heard
The kind wind bluster, but the last he knew
Was sharp and filled his head, the smell of hay.

His sense-receptors come alive here, pricked by experience, registered in tough, clear language. These traits carry over into his next, and better, book.

My Sad Captains (1961) can, without strain, be called a "watershed" in Gunn's career. Its two parts neatly separate the early style (formal poetry about the creative will and self-determination) and the later, freer style (largely concerned with the interplay of man and nature and the necessity of love). Gunn never abandons metrical verse, but the echoes of Yeats and others disappear. Captains is possibly Gunn's strongest book to date.

Part I bears an epigraph from Shakespeare's Troilus relevant to my overall theme: "The will is infinite and the execution confined, the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit." Again, Gunn's preoccupation with Rule and Energy surfaces. The book opens with one of his finest poems, "In Santa Maria del Popolo," a meditation on Caravaggio's famous "Conversion of St. Paul." In the painting Paul makes a crucial existential choice, and this appealed to the younger Gunn; Paul sprawls before his horse, arms uplifted:

Gunn's conception of an existential moment widens with this poem; where previously his self-defining heroes asserted themselves willfully, even recklessly (as in "The Beaters," a poem about sadists), here the poet focuses on the act of contrition as an heroic gesture. Saul limits himself in becoming Paul, much in the way Caravaggio limits his scene to "the one convulsion" or the way Gunn himself concentrates on one image. These acts of limitation, in effect, gather the energies which might otherwise disperse.

The Gunn who celebrated soldiers and motorcyclists is not quite finished, however; most of the remaining poems in Part I resurrect earlier personae. "Innocence" treats of a young soldier's schooling in indifference, "A compact innocence, child-like and clear, / No doubt could penetrate, no act could harm." The irony here can, indeed, be called an advance from the early celebration of the soldier hero. "Black Jackets" represents a critique of the heroic mode of The Sense of Movement; the red-haired boy who drove a van on weekdays is metamorphosed on Sundays—becoming not an individual hero but a parody of the rebel he affects, no longer possessing even the simple virtue of movement which implies a physical if not metaphysical inclination toward the future:

Part I is the culmination of Gunn's early style, participating in the same mode it criticizes.

The last stanza of "Waking in a Newly-Built House" could serve as an epigraph to Gunn's mature style:

Calmly, perception rests on the things,
and is aware of them only in
their precise definition, their fine
lack of even potential meanings.

From here on, Gunn will aim more to describe than to prescribe experience. The poems in Part II, written in syllabics, move beyond the rigid expectations of formal verse; syllabics force on the poem a nerve-wrackingly regular irregularity: the reader feels the arbitrary restraint of a given number of syllables per line. When syllables work, the effect is stunning, unsettling: the lines seem cut off like fingers, raw, unbandaged.

"Flying Above California" takes up the theme of perception, extending it:

"That limiting candour" is a new restraint, a new Rule to harness Gunn's Energy of vision. The poet longs to see beyond what is there; he wants description to give way to revelation. But seeing things "exactly as they are" (in Wallace Stevens's phrase) places a necessary formal restraint upon the poet; he must learn to keep his eye on the object. "La poète," says André Gide, "est celui gui regarde." The hard light of sustained attention will yield, for Gunn, a batch of his finest lyrics.

"Considering the Snail" seems to me the best poem in this book. The poet's vision here filters through a wide-angle lens: "The snail pushes through a green / night." A deep image unifies the poem, this magnified view of a creature moving "in a wood of desire, / pale antlers barely stirring / as he hunts." Gunn's old interest in will emerges for reconsideration. There is no will here, perhaps: "I cannot tell," he admits, "what power is at work, drenched there / with purpose." Gunn examines the life-force at its most elemental level, and this snail's low fury is not finally of a different substance from that of the gang-boys gunning their motorcycles in "On the Move," merely of a different order. The poet draws no profound or abstract conclusions from his close-up of the snail; he allows meaning to assert itself subliminally. Surely the snail is not really "self-defining"? It cannot be blamed for this fact. Indeed, Gunn moves quietly here toward a poetry of celebration. His early preoccupation with the heroic ideal is subtly undermined by the snail's deliberate progress across a heap of litter.

The thirteen poems in Part II are a cluster of Gunn's best work, marked by a passionate eye for detail and sustained by a new exactness of diction; his imagery has a new sharpness, the poems glitter like cut glass. "My Sad Captains," the title poem, completes the sequence; it is Gunn's farewell to the past, to his obsession with heroism. It constitutes a deeply felt elegy to his old self, taking its title from Mark Antony's moving speech in Act II of Antony and Cleopatra:

For Gunn, "One by one they appear in / the darkness," his friends, a few historical persons whom he felt close to at one point. Now, "before they fade they stand / perfectly embodied, all / the past lapping them like a cloak of chaos." Gunn's elegy is a tender yet fiercely self-critical piece, a farewell to what has been, a resolution to approach life and art from now on with greater flexibility and humaneness.

This new direction finds direct expression in Positives (1966), a unique event in Gunn's career, a collaborative sequence of poems and photographs done with his brother, Ander Gunn. "I had always wanted to work with pictures," says the poet; he was looking for a "form of fragmentary inclusiveness which could embody the detail and history of that good year," a year spent home again in England. He also borrowed consciously from William Carlos Williams, whose openness of form proved useful on this specific project and suggested a way into Gunn's later verse.

The problem of free verse, of course, was with the attendant loss of energy; metrical verse forces a poet to control his language energies, as Gunn says very neatly: "it is the nature of the control being exercised that becomes part of the life being spoken about." If the control dominates the poet's energy too thoroughly, bombast occurs. But, with free verse, the danger lies "in being too relaxed, too lacking in controlling energy."I find the poems in Positives tense and unconstrained at the same time; their language adheres firmly to the images evoked, images which move from birth to death, from childhood to old age, always with compassion and wit. Although Gunn's sympathies lodge clearly with the downcast of the world, those on the fringe, there is an acute worldliness about these poems, an ironic bite that redeems them from sentimentality, as in the following lines which gloss a photograph of a woman eating a slice of cake through a painful grimace:

You have no idea what a
hard life a rich person leads.

What with servants and jewels,
and having to go to Harrods
every day so as to
purchase a big article
and help use up the imports.

It's quite a relief sometimes
to sit down for a while with
an expresso and a tiny slice
of expensive cake.

You have no idea, either,
how hard it is
seeming to lead such a life.

The following year Gunn published Touch (1967), establishing what I take to be his "mature" style—a mixture of free verse, syllabics, and metrical verse in poems largely concerned with what Wallace Stevens called a poet's "sense of the world." Gunn writes, movingly, of personal love, of sunlight, of his pity for mankind, of himself among others. Touch begins with an invocation of the life-force itself, the goddess Proserpina, whose implacable energies must assist "vulnerable, quivering" mankind. The forces of darkness cannot contain her, "she will allow / no hindrance, none, and bursts up / through potholes and narrow flues / seeking an outlet." These energies are necessary for the man who would sustain his own—"without love, without hope, but / without renunciation."

The poems in Touch present a sustained analysis of man's fallen condition. In "No Speech from the Scaffold," for instance, the reader watches a condemned man ("What he did is, now, / immaterial") move through dewy grass, nodding to friends the last goodbyes, putting his head on the block for chopping: nothing now matters, "rather, it is his conduct / as he rests there, while / he is still a human." Gunn's message is important and fresh. The efforts at self-definition which obsess his early personae reach outward here in the greater effort simply to be human, which involves (as Bertrand Russell said beautifully) "the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind."

The title poem itself, "Touch," is among Gunn's permanent achievements. He addresses his sleeping lover as he lowers himself into bed, "next to / you, my skin slightly / numb with the restraint / of habits" … the black frost / of outsideness." Eventually, warmth overcomes this frosty separateness:

It is touch that loosens a whelm of human feeling which "seeps / from our touch in / continuous creation." Two individuals touching, instinctively, in the darkness opens a conduit to that "dark / wide realm where we / walk with everyone." Gunn writes here with magisterial control of great emotion, and "Touch" is the best poem in this volume.

"Misanthropes," a series of linked poems about a man who survives a global war and imagines himself alone in the world, occupies much of the book. It is an ambitious and partially successful poem, central to Touch as a whole, and worth treating at some length. The first part is "The Last Man," a five-poem sequence in which the scene is established. The narrator wants to survive, and he does so by stripping away those layers of disguise which were previously of some use in a "civilized world." He confines himself to one hill, avoiding "the momentous rhythm / of the sea." He is not heroic; indeed, "If he preserves himself in nature, / it is as a lived caricature / of the race he happens to survive." The only feeling he can trust, he learns, is disgust. His poverty becomes, finally, "a sort of uniform." And he takes pleasure merely in perception of, say, the starlight, realizing himself to be condemned "in consciousness that plots its own end." He retreats to a remembrance of the sun, with its attendant hopes, "The clearest light in the whole universe." This light has a curious abstractness, a Platonic radiance, but it is unredemptive. The central character is reduced here to a level of instinct where identification with the landscape is complete: "Nothing moves / at the edge of the mind."

Six poems follow in "Memoirs of the World," in which the hero recalls the world he has lost, his various disguises, poses ("Who was it in dark glasses?"). He clings to perception: "I must keep to the world's bare surface," stripped of everything in the end but pure consciousness. At this nadir, an upward turning begins, embodied in "Epitaph for Anton Schmidt," which celebrates a man who "helped the Jews to get away" from the Nazis and was executed. This example, somehow, redeems the whole section; it is enough for our narrator-hero that one good man existed. What follows, "Elegy on the Dust," pictures a world wherein everything human is erased: "They have all come who sought distinction hard / to the universal knacker's yard." This elegant poem ends by recalling Eliot's "Gerontion," each grain of sand "hurled / In endless hurry round the world."

"The First Man" completes "Misanthropes" as its hero now creeps "mole-like"… over mounds of dirt." His human qualities have diminished: "If he is man, he is the first man lurking / In a thicket of time." It is as if time has turned backward on itself, biting its tail like the mythical world serpent. The last man has become the first man, "An unreflecting organ of perception." His humanity has no chance to reassert itself until, amazingly, in the fourteenth poem, he looks from his hill and sees a smudge of humanity, a group of men approaching, and his "Mouth struggles with the words that mind forgot." In the next poem, forty men and women appear. The hero hides behind a rock—until he is moved by human compassion to help one poor soul to his feet. The others, bewildered, pass him: "They turn and look at me full, / and as they pass they name me." This is truly "a bare world, and lacks / history." Nonetheless, the hero asserts, speaking in the first person:

By an act of memory,
I make the recognition:
I stretch out the word to him
from which conversations start,
naming him, also, by name.

In this act of naming Gunn discovers the origins of humanity; the word becomes the vital link between one man and another, and a way of contact that the individual and inanimate sands hurled about the world had no means for. The sequence concludes with a meditation on the Biblical "dust to dust" theme: "The touched arm feels of dust, mixing with dust / On the hand that touches it." But Gunn draws his own conclusion, suggesting that mutability is not the point; survival is what matters, plus "all there is to see." Percipi est percipere.

While "Misanthropes" is Gunn's centerpiece in Touch, I prefer many of the other poems, such as "Snowfall," "In the Tank," and "The Produce District," poems of exact observation, marked by a deep sense of controlling intelligence. They point the way toward Moly (1971), Gunn's most personal book to date.

Most of these poems evoke Gunn's Californian experience in the late sixties, "the time, after all, not only of fthe Beatles but of LSD as well," he writes. His fascination with LSD is apparent from the title; Moly was, of course, the magical herb given to Odysseus by Hermes to protect him when he entered Circe's house. The poet's drug experiences opened to him new veins of reality; his concern with perception takes on a stunningly new dimension; for LSD presented Gunn with intensely fresh visions of both the physical world and his own nature. The old problem of Rule and Energy became all the more acute as well; Gunn writes: "The acid trip is unstructured, it opens you up to countless possibilities, you hanker after the infinite. The only way I could give myself control over the presentation of these experiences, and so could be true to them, was by trying to render the infinite through the finite, the unstructured through the structured."

Gunn uses formal meters and rhyme to restrain, precariously, the strange new feelings which attend this widening of consciousness. In a brief statement prepared for the Poetry Book Society (Bulletin 68, London, 1971) the author writes of Moly. "It could be seen as a debate between the passion for definition and the passion for flow." These terms, of course, recollect Rule and Energy: the poet's feelings are intense and threaten to overwhelm him, but his intellect (and the imagination) modify and restrain this passion with equal force; always, the balance of opposites is sought after. There is constantly in this new work that sense of "continuous creation" mentioned in "Touch," a rare and irrepressible life-force beyond constraint but trapped, temporarily, by the artist in his poem.

Gunn catches the sense of impending transformation in the opening poems, such as "Rites of Passage," where he says that "Something is taking place." Now "Horns bud bright in my hair. / My feet are turning hoof." The transformation even into a pig is complete in "Moly," the title poem. Having failed to discover that miraculous and saving flower, the narrator has become, literally, a pig, transmogrified by Circe: "I push my big grey wet snout through green, / Dreaming the flower I have never seen."

"For Signs" follows, a remarkable poem written with that luminous clarity which always attends Gunn at his best:

In front of me, the palings of a fence
Throw shadows hard as board across the weeds;
The cracked enamel of a chicken bowl
Gleams like another moon; each clump of reeds
Is split with darkness and yet bristles whole.
The field survives, but with a difference.

The poet's eye is passive here, the eye of an Impressionist painter, wide, open to fluctuations of atmosphere and light. But the imagination, as Coleridge observed, takes what is given and transforms it, dissolves and recombines that object; "the real is shattered and combined," says Gunn. Outward vision gives way, rapidly, to inward: "I recognize the pale long inward stare." The process of continuous creation cannot be checked, but it has its own laws, seen here as analogous to zodiacal fluctuations, this "Cycle that I in part am governed by." The poem ends cleanly and with force:

I lean upon the fence and watch the sky,
How light fills blinded socket and chafed mark.
It soars, hard, full, and edged, it coldly burns.

"From the Wave" is a central poem in Moly, though a modest one. Its theme is controlled innocence, balance; though ostensibly a poem about surfing, its theme again is Rule and Energy, this time with a new metaphor. One could easily substitute poets for surfers in the following passage:

A line from Theodore Roethke comes to mind: "This shaking keeps me steady." Herein lies the paradox of art, that true art is eternal but created out of the temporal; the finer the balance of antinomies, the finer the poem. "Balance is triumph in this place, / Triumph possession," Gunn concludes. Capturing the innocence of the surfers, men wedded temporarily to nature, "Half wave, half men," the poet himself rides easily on the waves of his emotion, tracking the waves steadily with artful poise. He affects a model of linguistic control.

The antinomies of motion and stillness give way, in "Tom-Dobbin," to the parallel opposition of mind and instinct; Gunn creates a centaur-like figure: half man, half horse. Only in the moment of orgasm does fusion take place:

In coming Tom and Dobbin join to one—
Only a moment, just as it is done:
A shock of whiteness, shooting like a star,
In which all colours of the spectrum are.

Gunn explores this paradoxical union in a five-part sequence, in effect a meditation on the possibility of union between lovers, "Selves floating in the one flesh we are of."

Many of the later poems in Moly re-create the mood of the late sixties: drugs, hard rock music, ecstatic experiences—all are evoked, beautifully. Gunn has written movingly of this period in his prose as well:

And now that the great sweep of the acid years is over, I cannot unlearn the things that I learned during them, I cannot deny the vision of what the world might be like. Everything that we glimpsed—the trust, the brotherhood, the repossession of innocence, the nakedness of spirit—is still a possibility and will continue to be so.

Moly culminates in "Sunlight," a poem of lyric grace and verbal control. "What captures light belongs to what it captures" sums up Gunn's meaning; he captures sunlight, his metaphor for that luminous concentration of experience in language which is called poetry; the poem demonstrates Gunn's miraculous poise, his balance of conflicting powers. The sun's "concentrated fires / Are slowly dying," but this matters only a little. "The system of which the sun and we are part / Is both imperfect and deteriorating." And yet, the sun "outlasts us at the heart." He ends by hymning the sunflower, the "yellow centre of the flower" which inherits the light, transforms color and shape, "Still re-creating in defining them." Of the flower, he asks:

Enable us, altering like you, to enter
Your passionless love, impartial but intense,
And kindle in acceptance round your centre,
Petals of light lost in your innocence.

In a sense, Jack Straw's Castle (1976) is an extension of Moly. The poems spring from the same source, that quasi-mystical sense of "continuous creation." These latest poems examine, especially in the eleven-part title sequence, the consequence of heightened self-consciousness and the necessity of human community and communication. Gunn ranges widely here, from his English past to his Californian present, but a strange new continuity obtains, as if the poet's life had ceased from previous linearity. Past and present now inform each other—exist simultaneously in the Bergsonian durée of the poem.

"The Geysers," a four-part sequence, is the heart of Jack Straw's Castle, and its language is richly descriptive, physical, imagistic:

This is our bedroom, where we learn the air,
Our sleeping bags laid out in the valley's crotch.

I lie an arm-length from the stream and watch
Arcs fading between stars.

The poet loosens, gradually, his grip on self-consciousness, and the poetry itself loosens; meters break down as barriers break; the poet enters that liminal border between himself and others in the bathhouse:

An attitude of benevolence and communal love emerges as a solution to self-confinement.

Yet its obverse, self-entrapment, obsesses the poet in the title poem, "Jack Straw's Castle." Whereas self-containment was, in his earlier books, seen as a positive move in the direction of existential self-definition, now only anxiety attends this limitation:

Within the metaphorical castle, hero Jack examines each room in turn, especially the cellars. One cannot be sure whether these are real rooms or the rooms of each dream; "dream sponsors" occur, such as Charles Manson and the Medusa, adding to the nightmarish quality of the poem. In fact, the poem may be thought of as a descent into the infernal regions of the unconscious mind. Jack drops into levels of subliminal mentality, digging away roots, delving into the foundations of selfhood, entering into a pure world of necessity where "They, the needs, seek ritual and ceremony / To appease themselves." The hero gets trapped here, temporarily, where there is "nothing outside the bone / nothing accessible." He says,

I sit
trapped in bone
I am back again
where I never left, I sit
in my first instant and where
I never left
petrified at my centre.

Led by the demonic killer, Manson, who appears a second time, Jack assumes that something other than himself exists, even as the mere existence of evil implies a moral context. A strange staircase appears, the symbolic exit to another realm; but there is another temporary setback when this staircase ends at a sheer drop-off, with "bone-chips which must / at one time have been castle" heaped below it.

It is finally the urge to contact a reality beyond the castle's boundaries which brings the sequence to its tensely beautiful and haunting conclusion. Jack wakens to realize that someone is in bed with him; he is no longer alone: "So humid, we lie sheetless—bare and close, / Facing apart, but leaning ass to ass." This merest contact, ass to ass, is a hinge between Jack and something other, a bridge, a way out. Is it a dream or not? He shrugs: "The beauty's in what is, not what may seem." And in any case, "With dreams like this, Jack's ready for the world." So the poem ends, not conclusively, but with some optimism.

In essence, the sequence re-creates in miniature the entire journey Gunn has undertaken from Fighting Terms to the present, from self-consciousness to an outward turning; he recognizes the possibilities for love, for attachment to the beautiful and terrible flux of "continuous creation" in which all that matters is what Dorothy Parker, referring to Hemingway, called "grace under pressure," what I call a delicate balance of Energy and Rule.

The final section of Jack Straw's Castle exhibits some of Gunn's finest work to date, including "Autobiography," which recollects the poet's adolescence in Hampstead:

"The Cherry Tree" moves from literal memoir to mythic time; Gunn takes the tree for his metaphor of selftransformation, the organic metaphor of inclusion; for as the tree grows, it appropriates its surroundings, it participates in the flux:

From metrical to free verse, Gunn shows himself capable of mastering his experience, of translating chronos into mythos, of creating a language at once energetic and supremely under control.

Already Gunn is a poet of considerable status in contemporary British poetry. He has added to the language a handful of lyrics which may well survive the terrible winnowing process of time. And surely his struggle for existential self-affirmation, his reaching beyond self-confinement into the realm of community and love are central to our time if we do not wish to become barbarians. His effort to rule by intelligence the natural energies which lead, too often, to self-mutilation and, worse, the destruction of others, is exemplary. Thom Gunn is, in short, an essential poet, one for whom we should be grateful.

Michael Hulse (essay date 1983)

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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, surviving his changes with an air of wear and tear that is elderly and authoritative. And Silkin with his mythic vision, and Ted Hughes with his: Hughes, most pleasing of them all to the Academy, famously fabricating his unrelenting myths at almost the same pace as Peter Redgrave.

Hughes alone can keep entire university industries alive. And then there is the man whose name was at one time inseparably linked to that of Hughes: Thomson William Gunn, of Gravesend and Hampstead and Cambridge, in 1956 labelled "a tough thinker writing for intellectual toughs like himself, today looking quite the opposite of tough or intellectual, and looking if anything rather adrift in his San Franscisco life.

At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

Certainly Gunn has not kept still; but the perception of movement that gave subtlety to 'On the Move', in The Sense of Movement (1957), no longer informs his recent work, in which "boys and girls / whoosh by on skate boards", and it is far from clear what it might be that Gunn is nearer to.

The qualities that distinguished Thom Gunn's poetry at its best have been widely glossed and described, not least by the poet himself, who said of Moly in 1971 that the collection might be seen as "a debate between the passion for definition and the passion for flow." This polarity was used by Gunn's advocate, Clive Wilmer, for the title of a widely-read essay, in which Wilmer, commenting on the poem 'Iron Landscapes' (in Jack Straw's Castle, 1976), added that "the dialectic of permanence and change" is "the very dialectic which determines the creative tensions of Gunn's poetry." Thom Gunn himself has done much to confirm this view of his work, particularly in the following sentences from his essay 'My Life up to Now', where the fundamental polarity is shown to be intimately related to a wider vision:

But my life insists on continuities—between America and England, between free verse and metre, between vision and everyday consciousness. So, in the 'sixties, at the height of my belief in the possibilities of change, I knew that we all continue to carry the same baggage: in my world, Christian does not shed his burden, only his attitude to it alters. And now that the great sweep of the acid years is over, I cannot unlearn the things that I learned during them, I cannot deny the vision of what the world might be like. Everything that we glimpsed—the trust, the brotherhood, the repossession of innocence, the nakedness of spirit—is still a possibility and will continue to be so.

There have been various critics who agree with Alan Bold that Gunn "can, in fact, be staggeringly naive", and Donald Davie, writing recently in the London Review of Books, expressed concern at finding Gunn "still starry-eyed about the acid dropping sixties"; but I think we are helped further toward an understanding of what makes Gunn's poetry work when it is successful and fail when it is bad if we consider how much in his basic "dialectic" is an attempt at "the repossession of innocence".

Innocence is the touchstone even in the earliest of Gunn. In Fighting Terms (1954) the nostalgia for "an undeniable good" in 'A Kind of Ethics', for "right meanings" in 'For a Birthday', reads like an annotation of the second poem in the book, 'Here Come the Saints':

That is the whole poem. It is slight and was rightly dropped from the Selected Poems 1950—1975, but it is worth noticing because, behind the Audenesque ending, behind the emblematic design of darkness and snow and cock crow, behind the rather arthritic theatricals ("gravely cross", "gape humbly", the abruptness and violence of those motions), there is a clear sense that the impulse of the poem was one of concern. The otherness of innocence is enacted here as it is in 'Looking Glass', where the poet writes: "I still hold Eden in my garden wall." Less persuasively, no doubt: but the root concern is recognisably the same.

And it is recognisably the same in that first book's first and major poem, 'The Wound', which Gunn has referred to as "my first real poem". The poem has been widely reprinted, so here I quote only the last of its five stanzas:

I called for armour, rose, and did not reel.
But, when thought, rage at his noble pain

Flew to my head, and turning I could feel
My wound break open wide. Over again
I had to let those storm-lit valleys heal.

With its Trojan War background and its foregrounding of the figure of Achilles, and especially in its strong reminiscence throughout of Shakespear'e Patroclus—"Those wounds heal ill that men do give themselves"—this poem enigmatically invites (and rebuffs) speculation as to what is meant by the wound. I think exploration must be guided by Patroclus, in so far as considering the wounds that men do to themselves in connection with what that final stanza appears to posit as a form of mental anguish brings us very quickly to the nature of knowledge. The fourth stanza of the poem gives us this: "I was myself: subject to no man's breath." This is clear enough, militarily, as far as it goes; it also suggests very strongly the absence of the reported knowledge conveyed by cackling Thersites a line or so later. Such absence is repose, is peace: "my belt hung up, sword in the sheath." The sword, in such conditions, knows no purpose; and we remember briefly that loaded word "intent" in 'Here Come the Saints'. The wound that heals worst is knowledge, with all the hurtful intent that knowledge brings with it. The absence of knowledge is a pure purposeless peace.

This does not explain away the highly unsatisfactory riddle of 'The Wound', but I think it at least suggests that the core of the poem is the question of innocence and knowledge, Eden and exile. I say this without any wish to reduce the extremely pleasing suggestiveness which Gunn's ambiguity produces. But, if we see this, Gunn's development through his next volumes at once becomes more meaningful. The Sense of Movement is no longer leather fetishism and Sartrian talk of the will, My Sad Captains (1961) is no longer syllabic fascinations alone. If we go along with Gunn's statement, in his essay on Hardy, that all good writing is the product of obsession (and of course we should be aware of the limitations of this view), then we can see his own obsession as being with the nature of innocence and everything in those two volumes as a discourse, from one angle or another, on innocence. The famous motorcycle poems—'On the Move' and 'The Unsettled Motorcyclist's Vision of His Death'—imply a context for "the created will" as well as an envy for the "ignorance" of plants. Gunn has assured us that he is glad to have grown up without a religion; nonetheless, the myth of the Fall is present in his early poetry as an implicit texture, from the pun of 'Carnal Knowledge' through to the paradox of 'Innocence', in which the will, fully directed by a sense of purpose, becomes insensitive even to evil, and innocence, which "No doubt could penetrate, no act could harm", becomes the very opposite of innocence, looking upon a Nazi crime with subhuman unconcern.

The years from My Sad Captains to Touch (1967) mark Gunn's most important widening of scope, not only in the addition of syllabic and free verse forms to the metrical precision of the 'fifties, but also in the colouring of the idea of innocence in shades of compassion and trust. Compassion of a kind was already in 'Considering the Snail' in 1961:

And trust becomes the thematic centre of poems like 'Touch' or 'The Discovery of the Pacific' (in Moly) just as the abuse of it links 'Confessions of the Life Artist' (in Touch) with 'The Idea of Trust' (in Jack Straw's Castle).

One particularly revealing poem from this period of San Francisco openness, of confidence, LSD and aimlessness, is 'Three', published in 1971 in Moly.

The key, as so often with Gunn, who has been reluctant to abandon his early love of the concluding apophtheg-matic note, is in the ending. In the word "learn" we are again being invited to consider the nature of knowledge, to consider the wound that takes so long to heal. The wound is knowledge; knowledge is the loss of innocence; and the impulse of the poem is its wish to repossess that lost innocence. The boy scampers to and fro in instinctual acceptance, while his parents, though naked too, are differentiated by their poses of grinning, of watching, and by the stripes on their bodies. There is indeed a sadness in their nakedness, since a lost innocence can never be relearnt: the mere world tells us so, for how can innocence be repossessed through knowing? If the poem has a certain clumsiness, it still succeeds in its central image of parents and child as emblems of paradise lost. The ideas, Gunn has said, came first; he was, he says, "preoccupied by certain related concepts", which he defines as "trust, openness, acceptance, innocence". The chance meeting on the beach gave him the embodiment. "In what sense might you say that innocence can be repossessed," he had wondered; and the chance meeting suggested Edenic nakedness as an apt emblem of repossession, or at least the attempt to repossess.

Jack Straw's Castle showed Gunn in the mid 'seventies not much further than this: nakedness in 'The Geysers' is still a key emblem, and in fact it is possible to see this volume as the turning point at which the quest for innocence becomes little more than a naive acceptance of unthinking. The obsession that gave power to 'The Wound' and 'On the Move' and 'Considering the Snail' and 'The Discovery of the Pacific', even to 'Three', has been transformed into a disturbing passivity in the face of experience. 'The Outdoor Concert' makes much of "the secret", 'Autobiography' speaks of "The sniff of the real" as if such a phrase were unproblematic, and in this absence of the pressure of thought upon his own perceptions Gunn betrays a lack of fidelity to his own most productive obsession. In The Passages of Joy, the poet's first collection for six years, this trend is regrettably confirmed.

1982 has seen the publication of a new book of poetry by Thom Gunn and a collection of prose pieces, both critical and autobiographical, written over a period of nearly two decades and now published as The Occasions of Poetry.

The Thom Gunn who emerges from these two books is not a major figure, either as poet or as critic, and the reader who meets Gunn for the first time in this work may well be puzzled to discover that a reputation of some weight is behind this writer's words.

That Gunn the critic is lacking in authority is the lesser surprise, I expect, since no one has ever supposed him to be remarkable for insight. The Occasions of Poetry collects short reviews of Gary Synder, Rod Taylor, Dick Davis and James Merrill, reprints essays on William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan, and anthology introductions to Fulke Greville and Ben Jonson, and a lecture on Hardy's use of ballad forms"… and then passes on to forty pages of autobiographical fragments. There is little point in demonstrating the lack of scholarly discipline in Gunn's essays: his manner is too naive, and smacks rather too much of impatience, for his achievement ever to be anything but literary journalism, at times perhaps of a sophisticated kind. Possibly we are surprised if we remember that Gunn joined the English department at Berkeley, California, in 1959, and left in 1966, a year after being given tenure: what, we wonder, had he published in those years, that a university of high standing should wish him to teach on its staff full-time? The Occasions of Poetry, however, knows nothing of the academic career-maker: only unambitious journalistic work is reprinted.

This said, certain stray remarks remain in the mind after one puts down this book. I am not thinking only of silly assertions, such as "Robert Hunter's words for the Grateful Dead or Robbie Robertson's for the Band are good ballads and good poems by any standard." The excessive trust that we all agree on what is "good", and that the phrase "by any standard" is uncontroversial, need no comment. But there are other statements which, because they are superficially less contentious, need careful consideration all the more. One such is Gunn's view, in the piece on Hardy, that ballad poetry and the reflective lyric share a tonality, defined as "economy and impersonality", and proceed from a common root. This view can be supported, but only with carefully chosen examples, for the majority of poems that can be described as reflective lyric—such as Gray's 'Elegy'—are as different as anything can be from ballads such as 'Edward' or 'Sir Patrick Spens'. Gunn suppresses the inconvenient evidence. Or again: in his introduction to Jonson's poetry, Gunn writes:

… all poetry is occasional: whether the occasion is an external event like a birthday or a declaration of war, whether it is an occasion of the imagination, or whether it is in some sort of combination of the two"… The occasion in all cases—literal or imaginary—is the starting point, only, of a poem, but it should be a starting point to which the poet must in some sense stay true.

This looks attractive at first glance: but in fact it very soon proves to be an insight of considerable limitation, one devoid of the liberating effect of critical wisdom. What, after all, do we gain by generalising the term "occasional" in this way? The term traditionally has a fairly precise meaning, so that it can be used as a tool in analysis; in Gunn's usage that exactness is lost and the tool becomes useless. The attraction of the idea is only brief, for its implications are counterproductive.

Clive Wilmer suggests in his introduction to The Occasions of Poetry that Gunn has written "criticism of lasting interest" (which I do not think is the case) and that Gunn, by virtue of his practice as a poet, is a particularly good reader of other poets' work. This second observation works better in reverse, for it seems to me that it is from the responses to other poetry toward his own poetry that we see the most interesting patterns emerging. In the 1965 Williams essay, for example, Gunn praises "a habitual sympathy" and sees Williams' "stylistic qualities" as governed by "a tenderness and generosity of feeling which make them fully humane". This was when Gunn was writing Positives (1966) and Touch (1967), collections in which a naively generous sympathy begins to move to the forefront of Gunn's poetry. Again: in 'My Life up to Now' Gunn writes of metre and free verse:

Rhythmic form and subject-matter are locked in a permanent embrace: that should be an axiom nowadays. So, in metrical verse, it is the nature of the control being exercised that becomes part of the life being spoken about. It is poetry making great use of the conscious intelligence, but its danger is bombast—the controlling music drowning out everything else. Free verse invites a different style of experience, improvisation. Its danger lies in being too relaxed, too lacking in controlling energy.

This reminds us of Gunn's concern, writing of Snyder, that looseness may lead to dullness, that "the accidental world itself might take over the poem". This concern reflects the troubles in which Gunn as technician has found himself, to an ever greater degree, since the midsixties.

What then of Gunn the poet in 1982? The Passages of Joy is a bad, boring book, the least endearing Gunn has written. It is bad because the pursuit of innocence has been filtered through that "habitual sympathy" to become a big sentimental gesture which announces that it wishes to love and understand the world, but which loses power by its very inclusiveness. It is bad because this sentimentality is confused with a scale of humane values, and therefore produces poems that are at one of two extremes: either they merely record series of impressions, or they attempt heavy-handed didactic lessons. As to the first, Peter Porter recently wrote in The Observer: "He does not strike me as having the right ear to make a success of poems which are essentially vignettes of casual urban life." And as to the second, I think Gunn's didacticism could best be described as a kind of Frisco Vernon Scannell: 'Sweet Things' and 'As Expected' are good examples of what I mean.

And this badness becomes boring because that tension of definition and flow, the dialectic of permanence and change, has been complacently removed. The implication of this is upsetting: it suggests that Gunn has settled into a selfsatisfaction that poet of 'On the Move' could never have countenanced. And in practice it means that the long loose poems are less under control than ever: the accidental world takes over, and that dullness results that is the concomitant of any uninspired improvisation.

Lest this seem unfair, here is the second half of a poem called 'New York':

I promise that this poem is among the better half of the collection. What is bad here is present not only in the wholly disproportionate title nor even in the pretence of the final line, where we merely want to ask what Gunn was really thinking. The badness is the absence of any pressure whatsoever on the part of a shaping spirit. That absence can be defended, certainly, if we say it remains true to the random, unstructured character of actual experience: but a defence of this kind has always seemed to me extremely weak, since it admits that nothing has been done, nothing made by the poet, beyond the elements of notation. To suppose that this elementary notation will then interest a reader, who presumably encounters similar experience and, if called upon to do so, can verbalise that experience in precisely the same manner—this, I think, is arrogant. It is an arrogance that is dismally self-satisfied: and the line that ends with "and", a line so utterly unconcerned about the demands a reader may feel impelled to make, only reinforces this impression.

I should not care to be misunderstood on this. I am not complaining about free verse, like a stuffy Edwardian; I am regretting that complacent, undisciplined misuse of it, a misuse which Gunn himself acknowledges to be the commonest flaw in open forms. My own opinion is that Gunn has an ear that belongs between the extremes: metre tempts him toward glibness of an Empsonian Fifties kind, and free forms bring out his self-indulgent worst. But the syllabics that gave many poems in My Sad Captains, Touch and Moly their air of moving uncramped within generous confines (and yet confined): these, I think, favoured Gunn's strengths most systematically. Innocence cannot be repossessed, of course, but the gesture of making the attempt to repossess it is an important and central one in Gunn, and its wistful halftruthfulness is distorted by clearcut forms as well as by looseness.

I began by saying that it is difficult to see those poets who emerged in the 'fifties at all clearly, and Gunn perhaps poses some of the trickiest problems. Still, one thing is clear: Gunn has moved, and his movement has been all in one direction, so that in 1982, when—as Donald Davie has said—Gunn seems to have forgotten all he had ever learnt from the Elizabethans and Metaphysicals, I feel he has followed too far his principle of the 'sixties: "better, always, to accept too much than too little." Such acceptance, true, can be a kind of innocence. But it is an innocence that puts an end to poetry.

Paul Giles (essay date 1987)

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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 indeed, if eyebrows were raised when Hughes delivered his pagan drench for the christening of Prince Harry, those brows might well have changed colour entirely had Gunn been called upon to consider the royal ceremony in terms of the dishevelled American urban landscapes which have characterised his latest work. Such cultural estrangement is, in many ways, not surprising bearing in mind Gunn has lived continuously in the United States (mostly in California) since graduating from Cambridge in 1953; nor is it surprising that the poetry Gunn has produced in the 1980s has been more in keeping with an American rather than an English literary idiom. Nevertheless, Gunn's American persona has been by no means universally welcomed in England: reviewing his 1982 collection The Passages of Joy in the Times Literary Supplement, for instance, Ian Hamilton accused Gunn of 'awkwardness' and 'narcissim' and said that most of these poems seemed to lack a 'genuine' quality.2 But on closer inspection we find it is just this creative exploitation of narcissism which is currently engaging Gunn's poetic energies: he has spurned the 'genuine' landscapes of Ted Hughes for the elaborate artifices, the self-portraits in convex mirrors, more typical of John Ashbery. The purpose of this essay will be to focus upon Gunn's more recent poetry, some of it as yet uncollected, and, by identifying how this playfully narcissistic or self-parodic strain operates, to demonstrate how Gunn is now writing within a sophisticated postmodernist framework.


Parody depends upon a willing admission of dualism, an acknowledgement of the comic discrepancy between a primary ideal and a secondary reflection; and this kind of comedy was on the whole not evident in Gunn's first two books, Fighting Terms (1954) and The Sense of Movement (1957), which are probably still his most famous collections. Here dualism was an interloper, an obstruction to the poet's dream of re-attaining a state both passionate and Innocent, prelapsarian and pre-Saussurian:

I have reached a time when words no longer help…
Description and analysis degrade,
Limit, delay, slipped land from what has been…
All my agnostic irony I renounce
So I may climb to regions where I rest
In springs of speech, the dark before of truth
('For a birthday')

Necessarily expelled from this 'dark before of truth', however, Gunn found himself in the pincer grip of every kind of dualism: between reason and instinct, between the object signified and the verbal signifier, between self and the mirrored or posed self. The heroes of this early poetry—Elvis Presley, Lofty in the Palais de Danse, the motorcyclist riding into the walls of rain—are (supposedly) 'toughs' who refuse to truckle to the intrusions of effeminate human sensibility: the unsettled motorcyclist suppresses rumination in favour of violent, existential action. Nevertheless, the mise en abime of 'Carnal knowledge'—'You know I know you know I know you know'—is typical of that uneasy fragmentation which pervades Fighting Terms and The Sense of Movement: indeed, the energy of this poetry derives largely from its internal tension, the way it feeds upon its own contradictions and is forever chasing its own tail, forever trying to accomplish the impossible task of renouncing its own agnostic irony by transcending its own linguistic system. But in Gunn's next collection, My Sad Captains (1961), a change of emphasis is apparent: 'Considering the Snail' is a witting self-parody of the poet's earlier self-projection, the motorcyclist defining himself by belligerently joining 'the movement in a valueless world'. In contemplating the snail, Gunn is in fact reflecting upon himself:

This comic bathos represents the snail as an objectified alternative self. Whereas in 'Carnal Knowledge' the dislocating irony is tortuously wrapped inside a poem attempting to surmount that irony, in 'Considering the Snail' Gunn willingly embraces a conception of parody along with the dualisms inherent within parodic form. Dualism implies doubling and division, and so the desire of Fighting Terms to erase contradictions and re-attain some form of primal unity has now been superseded by Gunn's recognition of the obdurate nature of fragmentation, ambiguity and open-endedness within the terrestrial world.

Throughout his later collections, Gunn has continued to meditate upon his own yearning for the security of absolute meaning: 'Baby song', in the 1976 collection Jack Straw's Castle, caustically celebrates 'the private ease of Mother's womb' ('Why don't they simply put me back / Where it is warm and wet and black?'); but the significant fact here is the poem's title, 'Baby song'—for by signalling how infantile this desire is, the poet once again trains an ironic light upon his own performance. Jack Straw's Castle contains another self-parodic poem, 'Behind the Mirror', which might have been seized upon eagerly by the late Jacques Lacan:

I and the reflected self seemed identical twins,
alike yet separate, two flowers from the same plant…
Narcissus glares into the pool: someone glares back…

He escapes, he does not escape, he is the same, he is other.
If he drowned himself he would be one with himself…one flower,
one waxy star, giving perfume, unreflecting.

The 'mirror stage', for Lacan, occurs when a child, recognising his own image in the mirror, emerges from the 'imaginary' order of plenitude and wholeness into the 'symbolic' order necessarily imbued with otherness and absence. Thus in 'Behind the Mirror' Gunn/Narcissus recounts a nostalgic wish to become 'one with himself, to obliterate difference; but again the poem operates parodically, to distance the pull of regression, because Gunn knows that in the end Narcissus can never be 'unreflecting'. There is a pun here on unreflecting: Narcissus wants to avoid seeing his own image 'reflected' in the pool; but he also hopes to be 'unreflecting' in a mental sense, endowed with the same preference for instinct over reflection that characterised Gunn's heroes in his poems of the 1950s. So 'unreflecting' is just what this poem's final word is not: on the contrary, the word punningly reflects upon itself, splits itself into two; and this neatly encapsulates the sense of irony in this poem, whereby the longing to retreat into an unreflecting situation 'Behind the Mirror' is itself subjected to parodic linguistic reflection.

There are many other examples of this self-parodic tendency in Gunn's recent work. He himself has commented upon how in 'Sweet Things' (from the 1982 collection The Passages of Joy) the mongoloid street urchin sitting outside a laundromat comes to mirror the poet's own desire for sweetness:3

'Gimme a quarter!?' I
don't give it, never have, not to him,
I wonder why not, and as I
walk on alone I realize
it's because his seven-year-old mind
never recognizes me, me
for myself, he only says hi
for what he can get, quarters to
buy sweet things, one after another….

This mentally-defective child disturbs Gunn because he is a dark reflection of the author of Fighting Terms: someone never content to allow objects an autonomous existence, but always determined to manipulate them forcibly so as to extract (in the mongoloid's case) sweet things, or (in Gunn's case) the moral equivalent of sweet things: that is, aphorisms and meanings designed to protect his own troubled ego.


We find in 'Sweet things', then, Gunn parodying his own manic need to hammer out meanings from the world around him. In a 1986 interview with Graham Fawcett, Gunn voiced his awareness of the inevitable shadow between worldly event and literary meaning by declaring he had never quite found in poetry 'the correct incantation of a past feeling'. The saccharine signifier can never do justice to the rough-hewed signified: 'it gets a little too smooth', said Gunn, 'even when I'm talking about difficulties'.4 So it is one of the functions of the self-parody in Gunn's work to constitute a radical challenge to traditional notions of poetic meaning. This was an idea first broached in his aptly-named 'Waking in a newly-built house', the poem which began the second part of My Sad Captains:

Calmly, perception rests on the things,
and is aware of them only in
their precise definition, their fine
lack of even potential meanings.

Such lack of even potential meanings is characteristic of the shift in emphasis within Gunn's poetry which My Sad Captains heralded. The first part of the collection consists of poems in classical and regular forms revolving upon Gunn's established axis of romantic freedom compromised by the circumscriptions of language and civilisation, and prefaced by an epigraph from Troilus and Cressida ('The will is infinite and the execution confined, the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit'); the second part, however, took as its epigraph two sentences from Fitzgerald's Last Tycoon:'I looked back as we crossed the crest of the foothills—with the air so clear you could see the leaves on Sunset Mountains two miles away. It's starting to you sometimes—just air, unobstructed, uncomplicated air.' Gunn's choice of Fitzgerald's description of what is unobstructed and uncomplicated suggests his new-found concern with how 'the things themselves are adequate', to quote again from 'Waking in a newly-built house.' The influences at work here imply that American poetic heritage which Gunn has increasingly affiliated himself with: the journey away from ideas towards the specificity of concrete objects is reminiscent of Pound and William Carlos Williams, while the looser, more amorphous forms in which these poems of the 1960s are cast brings to mind the 'free verse' of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. But Gunn's free verse differs from that of Olson and Duncan in so far as it invariably contains a latent dialectic whereby the new, freer idiom is implicitly arguing with the old standards of formal restraint. The 1967 Touch collection offers many examples of this: throughout the book there is a play around the idea of edge and edgelessness:

As I support her, so, with
my magnificent control,
I suddenly ask: 'What if
she has the edge over me?'

Thus 'Confessions of the life artist.' Gunn's artificer wonders whether the natural life enjoyed by his model might not be superior to the 'magnificent control' asserted by his own artistry. The artist creates hard edges; but the model 'has the edge' in a metaphorical sense. In Touch, there is a conceptual progression away from fabricated edges towards a raw edgelessness: 'Berlin in ruins' starts by asserting the city 'has an edge, or many edges', but it then goes on to discuss how the fanatical order associated with Berlin's Nazi era has now crumbled away. And this redundant social order becomes associated here with the 'stiff laurel' of Gunn's earlier verse forms, which tended forcibly to be contorted into a classical order, so that this passage into free verse is equated with the poet's psychological abandonment of the paraphernalia of violence. Gunn now prefers to 'touch' natural objects, as in 'Snowfall':

The final poem in Touch is appropriately entitled 'Back to life.' But here we encounter a paradox: for the idea of returning 'Back to life' through the medium of art is as much of a contradiction in terms as Gunn's proposed flight 'Behind the mirror.' 'Back to life' suggests a yearning after the kind of innocence sought for in Fighting Terms, a time when words no longer help and the duplicities of language can be cast aside. The difference is that in Fighting Terms this paradox disturbed Gunn and he attempted to cancel it, whereas in Touch he accepts the inexorable paradox and begins indeed to welcome it and to explore its poetic possibilities. In Touch, this manifests itself through a series of oxymorons, as Gunn openly flaunts the paradoxical nature of his art: he declares his intention to create a poetry of 'live marble' (in 'The girl of live marble'); and in 'The kiss at Bayreuth' we find another example of the kind of self-contradictory play mentioned earlier, where the resisting edges of art come up against the unresisting, swaying edgelessness of life:

Colours drain, shapes blur, resisting,
details swim together, the mass
of the external wobbles, sways,

We can say, then, that Gunn's poetry in Touch is engaged in a deliberate process of self-contradiction or self-parody in order to draw the reader's attention to the equivocal status allotted by the author to the whole idea of aesthetic artifice. We can say furthermore that the implicit dialectic in Touch between Gunn's earlier and later work—the way 'Berlin in ruins' re-examines the imagery of The Sense of Movement, for example—is another instance of Gunn exploiting a parodic dualism to focus upon how poetic meanings become disintegrated and deconstructed: by reflecting upon his own earlier work, Gunn reveals its provisional and illusory condition. The critic Paul Fussell once wrote that the mistake of William Carlos Williams and other writers of 'free verse' was a naive inability to apprehend how their literary constructions are as much of a linguistic convention as the classical pentameters of Pope and Dryden; but Gunn rejects such naivety because he manipulates his free verse (and his sense of paradox) not in the hope of approaching some imaginary Innocence but rather parodically to destabilise and undermine meanings which have been conventionally pre-established.5 'Words', in Gunn's 1971 collection Moly, ends with a clean oxymoron signalling how the text distances itself from the claustrophobic confines of logical linguistic meaning:

We are close here to the radical ambiguity and openendedness advocated by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text: for Barthes, the conception of paradox operates to circumvent a punitive rationality and finality, that obsession with closure he associated with inquisitors of order such as Sade, Fourier and Loyola. By contrast, said Barthes, 'in the text of pleasure, the opposing forces are no longer repressed but in a state of becoming: nothing is really antagonistic, everything is plural'.6 Gunn's 1982 collection The Passages of Joy includes a poem entitled 'Interruption' where the author inspects his own reflection in the glass as he meditates upon his latest creative enterprise:

Gunn's parodic rupturing of his own text is commensurate with the abrasive open-endedness of The Passages of Joy, which presents the reader with snapshots of American life—the amusement arcade, the San Francisco streets—and carefully refuses to annotate, finalise or affix moral significance. Another poem in this collection, 'Song of a camera', makes explicit Gunn's rejection of the confections of poetic meaning:

I cut the sentence
out of a life
out of the story
with my little knife…

so that another
seeing the bits
and seeing how
none of them fits

wants to add
adverbs to verbs
A bit on its own
simply disturbs

Note the lack of punctuation here: we find no logical sequence, merely free-floating fragments. And Ά bit on its own / simply disturbs' could be the keynote of The Passages of Joy itself, with its random urban landscapes and disturbing sense of contingency.


This fragmentation or parody of textual meaning works in tandem with the way in which Gunn's poems parodically interrogate the idea of authorial identity. One example of Gunn's skill in ironising his own obsessions can be found in the title poem of the Jack Straw's Castle collection. Here we find the narrator brooding upon his imprisonment within the 'castle' of the ego:

why can't I leave my castle
he says, isn't there anyone
anyone here besides me

sometimes I find myself wondering
if the castle is castle at all
a place apart, or merely
the castle that every snail
must carry around till his death

The solipsism here recalls much of Gunn's earlier work, which despaired of matching internal fantasy with external fact; but in this poem Gunn deploys two tricks of language to undercut his castellated self. Firstly, the oxymoron of the title, 'Jack Straw's castle', reminds us that Jack Straw—the vagrant peasant leader of the Middle Ages—was the last person likely to possess a castle of his own, and so this oxymoron serves to burlesque the poet's implicit claims to isolation and autonomy. And secondly there is a pun on 'Jack Straw's castle' which contradicts the author's mental imprisonment, for (though the poem does not openly admit this) Jack Straw's Castle is the name of a roundabout and well-known public house on the edge of Hampstead Heath in London, where Gunn was brought up and where many of his autobiographical pieces are set. The actuality of the location has the effect of demonstrating how the poetic voice must necessarily be left incomplete: the punning revelation of the objective fact of Jack Straw's Castle provides a guarantee of the insufficiency of the author's solipsism within the framework of his poem; and so it exemplifies Gunn's adroitness in mirroring or ironising his own narcissism.

Gunn's reflexive energies have not been directed only against his own poetry. 'Taylor Street' (from Touch) deliberately mimics William Carlos Williams, for instance; while 'Considering the snail' imitates or mirrors the style of Marianne Moore, so that the idea of parody contained within that latter poem is matched by the parodic nature of its form. In his book The Survival of Poetry, Martin Dodsworth took exception to this 'derivativeness' on Gunn's part, seeing it as the kind of 'susceptibility or even submissiveness before other people, and indeed before the world of things' that was intimately connected with the poet's more general themes of domination and submission;7 and this charge of lacking a humanist centre of self has been levelled against Gunn by other critics, Colin Falck for instance:

The real growing-points for Gunn's poetry…"must almost certainly be the points where the human faith and sympathy he longs for are already faintly present"…he might at the same time be able to get himself clear of today's fashionably neo-primitive dissolution of the moral and social being into his constituent compulsions and energies and become a late and much-needed recruit to the battered ranks of humanism.8

Reviewing Jack Straw's Castle in the Times Literary Supplement, John Bayley raised similar questions about the dislocated aspects of Gunn's poetic identity by remarking: 'Gunn's poetry has often seemed to me to be not quite "real," to be, as it were, counterfeiting poetry with a highly accomplished and covertly malignant skill.' For Gunn, however, such a dichotomy between 'real' and 'counterfeiting' is invalid; 'what we must remember', he wrote in his essay on Ben Jonson, 'is that artifice is not necessarily the antithesis of sincerity'—the truest poetry can be the most feigning. 10 Thus the elaborately contrived, parodic element in Gunn's work should not be dismissed as merely a decadent linguistic game, because this lapse in the poet's status as originator of his textual world—the death of the author, in Barthes' celebrated phrase—is typical of much postmodernist writing in recent years. 'Taylor Street' and 'Considering the snail' are indeed 'counterfeiting poetry', as Bayley would say; but this note of counterfeiting is not the result of some defect in Gunn's character (as Dodsworth suggested) but is rather designed to call into question our old notions of human identity. It is an interesting variation on the critic Harold Bloom's doctrine of the 'strong poet': whereas for Bloom the Romantic poet seeks to make space for his own identity to flourish by the process of concealing his poetic ancestors, for Gunn in 'Taylor Street' and 'Considering the snail' (and other poems) the open admission of ancestors and hence the constant adjacency of parody undermines any possibility of the (illusory) withdrawal of poetry into a hermetically—sealed, self-sufficient world.11 Gunn's paradoxes and self-reflexive strategies prevent any possible retreat 'Behind the mirror': his poetry exposes itself to the variations of reflection in every sense.


In his 1979 autobiographical essay 'My life up to now', Gunn wrote how in his work 'it has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality', and he acknowledged that 'This lack in me has troubled some readers'. Gunn attributed this sense of impersonality to his neoclassical inclinations, his willingness to be as 'derivative' as Ben Jonson and to 'borrow' from all kinds of different sources: Ί rejoice in Eliot's lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.'12 An escape from humanist personality Gunn's work certainly is, but more than this, it embodies the kind of escape from the unified conception of a subjective self which is typical of postmodernist thinking. The dismantling of the ego in the critical writings of Barthes, Lacan and Foucault has become familiar to English-speaking audiences; less so, perhaps, is the work of Gilles Deleuze, whose 1972 book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia rejected the 'imperialism' of Freudian analysis, with its emphasis upon neurosis and lack, substituting instead the idea of the psyche as a schizo-system in which things do not connect: Deleuze, like Foucault, was intent upon abolishing the autonomy of the subject and replacing it with a more impersonal (and, according to Deleuze, liberating) notion of the flow of desire: 'every "object" presupposes the continuity of a flow; every flow, the fragmentation of the object'.13 In literary terms, these dislocations and discontinuities have manifested themselves in that interrogation of poetic meaning and identity we find most famously in postmodernist writers such as John Ashbery. As Charles Altieri has noted, Ashbery 'turns self-reflexiveness into a metaphysical poetry', deploying a self-parodic dualism to undermine 'rhetorics that claim naturalness':14

By refusing the vain poses of definite thoughts, the poem produces a self-consciousness capable of moving from perception to reflection, from immediacy to self-criticism to the opportunities for linguistic play that the multiple folds of consciousness allow…For Ashbery the mind stands toward its own knowing in the condition of infinite regressiveness that Derrida shows is the dilemma inherent in trying to know about the language we use in describing our knowledge.15

Gunn's poetry of the last twenty years is in a similar idiom, because it is grounded upon reflexive doubling and the transition between points of difference. Reflexive doubling is not an all-encompassing explanation of Gunn's work, and it can of course be seen in various conceptual contexts. For instance, in the second section of 'Misanthropos', the long poem at the centre of Touch, dualism was apprehended pessimistically: the narrator, a 'courier after identity', found himself frustrated by the jarring homonyms at the end of each stanza which fragmented his poetic quest into a series of hollow, echoing puns, linguistic emblems of division:

In Moly, by contrast, the transitions between points of difference contribute to a lucid transcendentalism which becomes a secularisation of Ralph Waldo Emerson's belief in the Oversoul:

Water, glass, metal, match light in their raptures,
Flashing their many answers to the one.

Moly describes a universe where objects which are apparently isolated and fragmented become redeemed by 'the unifying spirit of nature:'…each clump of reeds / Is split with darkness and yet bristles whole ('For signs'). The re-working here of Emerson's Neoplatonism displays Gunn's most obvious debt to a specifically American poetic tradition. 'We live', said Emerson, 'in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole.'16 This transposition of terrestrial objects into an Idealist harmony is also apparent in two of Gunn's most recent poems: in 'Outside the diner', first published in 1984, the shabby and apparently casual figure of a tramp drinking muscatel is endowed ultimately with a luminous splendour:

A poor weed,
unwanted scraggle tufted
with unlovely yellow,
persists between paving stones
marginal to the grid
bearded face turned toward light.17

And in the 1985 'Philemon and Baucis', with its epigraph from William Carlos Wiliams, 'love without shadows', the shadowy nature of division and separation has once more been transcended. Dualism is admitted, but overcome:

Two trunks like bodies, bodies like twined trunks
Supported by their wooden hug. Leaves shine
In tender habit at the extremities.
Truly each other's, they have embraced so long
Their barks have met and wedded in one flow
Blanketing both.18

If 'Misanthropos' represents Gunn's reflexive echochamber at its most hollow, 'Philemon and Baucis' portrays it at its most fulfilling, as each body chimes with the other. Many of Gunn's most recent poems, however, do not attempt to subsume these differences within some higher power but instead take a postmodernist delight in flaunting the difference, the shadow, which is always threatening to compromise the poet's conclusive meaning. A poem published in 1985 actually called 'The differences' broods retrospectively on a love-affair as the focus for a meditation upon ideas of unity and separation ('I have not crossed your mind for three weeks now').19 And Gunn's 1982 collection was not entitled The Passages of Joy for nothing: the phrase itself comes from Samuel Johnson's poem 'The vanity of human wishes'—'Time hovers o'er impatient to destroy / And shuts up all the Passages of Joy'—but in Gunn, one of its significations is the joyful delight the poet takes in the idea of passage, metamorphosis, transition. For Johnson, the flow of time tended destructively to annihilate joy; but for Gunn, the flow of time positively contributes to it. The poem 'Crosswords' in this collection epitomises this celebration of fluidity and open-endedness: starting from an image of crossword puzzles, the poem moves on to consider the 'cross words', the mutual disagreements and antagonism, expressed between two lovers. But this antagonism then comes to be welcomed, as it eventually provides the spark for their relationship:

How glad I am to be back at your school
Where it's through contradictions that I learn.
Obsessive and detached, ardent and cool,
You make me think of rock thrown free to turn
At the globe's side, both with and not with us,
Keeping yourself in a companionable
Chilled orbit by the simultaneous
Repulsion and attracton to it all.

The author's declaration that 'contradictions' furnish the basis of his education is supported by the oxymoronic construction of this stanza: Obsessive, detached; ardent, cool; Repulsion, attraction. These oxymorons provide another connotation for the title 'Crosswords': words that cross, that contradict each other's sense. In this way, oxymoron contributes to Gunn's programme of self-parody, for oxymoron mocks any attempt at final meaning: poetic closure is abandoned in favour of the radical multiplicity of self-reflexive poetry. In his 1976 poem 'Iron landscapes (and the Statue of Liberty)' Gunn specifically associated this open-endedness with the half-formed constructions of the American landscape—'Cool seething incompletion that I love'—and Christopher Ricks has similarly written of how this sense of what is evanescent and passing is a particular quality of American English:

The point is not that British English is insensitive to time (no language can ever be); rather that, because it gives a less important role than does American English to the ephemeral or transitory or obsolescent, there are certain effects occluded from it… [American English has] this particular poignancy, of a language acknowledging that much of it is not long for this world.20

One good example of Gunn's introduction of the ephemeral and transitory occurs in his 1984 poem 'To a friend in time of trouble', as yet uncollected. The end of the poem focusses upon the mind of the troubled friend being released from tension:

It finds that it has lost itself upon
The smooth red body of a young madrone,
From which it turns toward other varying shades
On the brown hillside where light grows and fades,
And feels the healing start, and still returns,
Riding its own repose, and learns, and learns.21

If still in that penultimate line is a noun, the friend has been calmed by returning to a state of still, serenity, lack of motion. But if still is an adverb, we find the healing returns continuously: the pun operates to disallow any hope of final quietude but sanctions instead the healing as a process of constant repetition: a movement which is supported by the doubling-up of the final phrase 'and learns' in the last line of the poem, and also by the pattern of the rhyme-scheme where each line is designed to chime with the next.

'To a friend in time of trouble' in fact demonstrates how Gunn's self-parodic idiom can function with a clear ethical intent. By inserting the disturbed friend into a landscape of repetition, a poetic hall of mirrors, the narrator implicitly liberates him from self-obsession by reminding him how these troubles are not a burden unique to himself. The passage away from solipsism towards a recognition of the multifarious nature of the world becomes equated with Gunn's progression into multiple meanings: it is the same kind of moral awareness as Altier located in Ashbery's convex mirrors, 'a lucidity that keeps one from narcissistic illusions and / cheap emotional indulgences'.22 We recall how in the recent interview with Graham Fawcett Gunn remarked once more that 'the correct incantation of a past feeling' is something he has never quite re-discovered in any poem; but whereas the Gunn of Fighting Terms felt himself under threat from this ineradicable difference, the Gunn of the 1980s thrives on such difference, sporting with the gap between signifier and signified, between artistic form and the random, formless areas of human experience. We can see from his critical essays that Gunn has always been attracted to dualistic writers: he praised Hardy's poetry for its 'reflective mode' and 'emotional reaction to ideas', while Ben Jonson was applauded for 'the extremes between which he moves so easily', blending 'wild anarchic vigour' with classical restraint;23 and Scott Fitzgerald also received Gunn's approbation for bringing 'romanticism' and 'intelligence' into conjunction:

[Fitzgerald] and I have something like the same strategies in common. He's a big old romantic, and you can tell from his first books just how awful and slushy that romanticism could be, but then he suddenly became more artistic and aware. Like Stendhal, as he gets older he gets more intelligent, but his intelligence doesn't destroy the romantic figures; it abets them"… Fitzgerald's terrific in describing these wonderful girls and they come to life in a way that you can't deny them, but he's retaining his irony and criticism. The irony, as with Stendhal, doesn't undercut the romanticism, it actually reinforces it, and I think this is what I've been doing throughout.24

To blend romanticism with irony is to reconcile self-parody with ethical intent, perhaps even to locate self-parody as being at the very heart of ethical intent. Moral purpose becomes intimately connected with an idiom of reflection, because the creative interrogation of egocentric identity and meaning liberates Gunn's poetry from the atmosphere of claustrophobic narcissism which hovered around his early work. It is interesting to note that the 1976 essay by Colin Falck (cited earlier) which accused Gunn of lacking an ethical sense was described by the poet himself as 'a wonderful piece"… very sympathetic and helpful';25 and yet there is little sign of Gunn turning away from that 'dissolution of the moral and social human being' which Falck lamented. Gunn has indeed assimilated Falck's caution against poetic hedonism, but instead of regressing into older forms of humanism or English moral seriousness he has advanced into a postmodern, Americanised sensibility where 'passion and compassion' (Altieri's phrase) are able to emerge as parody self-reflexively turns the language of romanticism back against itself in a recognition of the arbitrary and contingent condition of human life, the arena of difference, incompletion and loss.26 As Gunn said of Fitzgerald, this sense of irony paradoxically sets the author free to indulge to the full his extravagant romanticism, because he knows this romanticism will always be controlled by a sardonic intelligence: again, whereas in Gunn's early poetry the head and the heart tended to pull in opposite directions, now they complement each other perfectly. The image which recurs in Gunn's poetry to express this idea of conceptual equilibrium is physical balance: the narrator of 'From the wave' in Moly proclaims 'Balance is triumph in this place' as he watches surfers in the Pacific; while the 1984 poem 'Skateboard' celebrates the way a punk youth on a skateboard weaves his way through the urban jungle, preserving once more his essential balance:

Darts, doubles, twists.
You notice how nimbly
the body itself has learned
to assess the relation between
the board, pedestrians,
and immediate sidewalk.27

The image is again an implicit comment upon Gunn's own poetic practice: for by a similar process of doubling and twisting, Gunn's recent work has engaged in a creative exploitation of narcissism so as to fuse irony with romanticism, self-parody with ethical resolution.


1 See Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden (London: Faber, 1981), p. 54. This interview was first published in Quarto, No. 8 (July 1980), pp. 9-11.

2 Ian Hamilton, 'The call of the cool', Times Literary Supplement, 23 July 1982, p. 782.

3 Graham Fawcett, Thorn Gunn's Castle, BBC Radio 3, 4 March 1986.


5 See Paul Fussell, 'Some critical implications of metrical analysis' (1965), rpt. in William Carlos Williams: a Critical Anthology, ed. Charles Tomlinson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 315-17.

6 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (1975), trans. Richard Miller (London: Cape, 1976), p. 31.

7 Martin Dodsworth, 'Thorn Gunn: poetry as action and submission', in The Survival of Poetry: a Contemporary Survey, ed. Martin Dodsworth (London: Faber, 1970), p. 196.

8 Colin Falck, 'Uncertain violence', New Review, 3, No. 32 (Nov. 1976), pp. 40-1.

9 John Bayley, 'Castles and communes', Times Literary Supplement, 24 Sept. 1976, p. 1194.

10 Thorn Gunn, 'Ben Jonson' (1974), rpt. in The Occasions of Poetry (London: Faber, 1982), p. 111.

11 See Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

12 Thorn Gunn, 'My life up to now' (1979), rpt. in Occasions of Poetry, p. 186.

13 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane (London: Athlone Press, 1984), p. 6.

14 Charles Altieri, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 163; p. 132.

15Ibid., p. 136; p. 140.

16 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903), II, 269.

17 Thorn Gunn, 'Outside the diner', Critical Quarterly, 26, Nos. 1 and 2 (1984), p. 17.

18 Thorn Gunn, 'Philemon and Baucis', PN Review, 12, No. 1 (1985), p. 36.

19 Thorn Gunn, 'The differences', PN Review, 12, No. 1 (1985), pp. 35-6.

20 Christopher Ricks, 'American English', in The Force of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 427-8; p. 432.

21 Thorn Gunn, 'To a friend in time of trouble', PN Review, 11, No. 2 (1984), p. 14.

22 Altieri, p. 209.

23 Thorn Gunn, 'Hardy and the ballads' (1972), rpt. in Occasions of Poetry, p. 101; p. 78; 'Ben Jonson', p. 106; p. 110

24Viewpoints, p. 55.

25Viewpoints, p. 49.

26 Altieri, p. 134.

27 Thorn Gunn, 'Skateboard', Critical Quarterly, 26, Nos. 1 and 2 (1984), p. 18.

Martin Dodsworth (essay date 1989)

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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, but its second section is exclusively rhymed, and rhyme crops up elsewhere in its pages. The way Gunn uses rhyme is intimately related to his whole style and outlook, and is worth looking at for that reason.

Gunn likes to rhyme monosyllables with monosyllables. The preference is already manifest in Fighting Terms; checking through the first thirteen poems of that book (in its first edition, to be precise), I found that out of a total of 132 rhymes, 88 used monosyllables exclusively—said / bed / dead, for example. This is not generally regarded as a very exciting kind of rhyme. Of course, English is not a language with a plenitude of rhymes, and this fact may excuse a poet who relies heavily on monosyllables, even if it does suggest a mechanical exercise undertaken in order to maintain the rhyme-scheme: bat / brat / cat / drat / fat / flat, and so on. But can it excuse the poet's using rhyme at all when there are unrhymed forms available?

In using monosyllables so freely for his rhyming, Gunn seems to have been chiming with the poetic spirit of the time; another Cambridge poet, like Gunn associated with the Movement and like Gunn published by the Fantasy Press at Oxford, Donald Davie, in his first book of poems also uses them liberally. The first thirteen poems of his Brides of Reason rhyme exclusively on monosyllables 77 times out of the total 140. Even so Davie does not make so high a score as Gunn's. Practice elsewhere among New Lines poets seems to be more variable (they do not, of course, all use rhyme any way), though there is no doubt that a clipped and clearly audible rhyme was a part of the recall-to-order aesthetic of many, if not most, of them. Although Gunn did not meet Yvor Winters until after Fighting Terms was published in 1954, it seems not impossible that Gunn and Davie were already reflecting Winters's practice in this habit of monosyllabic rhyme—see, for example, the four poems which follow one another in Winters's Collected: 'On Rereading a Passage from John Muir', 'The Manzanita', 'Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight' and 'An October Nocturne'. Winters's criticism was certainly acceptable in Cambridge when Davie and Gunn were about, and Davie started to explore American literature quite early on—he ended up writing the introduction to the 1978 English edition of Winters's poems. In that introduction he associates Winters above all with "considered utterance", and the meaning of Gunn's rhymes in the early poems, like those of Davie, has something to do with a considered decisiveness admired for its own sake, as well as with the more general feeling in the Movement "against romanticism". Gunn uses monosyllabic rhymes not because he cannot find ones that are more complex but because monosyllables suit the ethos of his verse.

His rhymes tell us that that ethos has not changed. In The Passages of Joy the proportion of monosyllabic rhymes is much the same as it was in Fighting Terms; 92 of its 158 rhymes are of this kind. By contrast, Davie's use of rhyme is now far different from what it was. He has, of course, been a consistent experimenter with verse-form; the point is that even when he does use rhyme nowadays, he uses it in unpredictable and extremely various ways. In 'The Battered Wife' section of his Collected Poems 1971-1983, for example, it is impossible to determine what is exactly intended as rhyme and what is not, because his play with poetic sound has, in the years since Brides of Reason, become so much more complex. To take one example, 'Fare Thee Well' is a poem of five eight-line stanzas in which the following words find themselves at the line-end in the course of the poem: tempest-whipped, shipped, tripped, wrapped, gripped, outstripped, slipped, accept, equipped. Obviously something is going on here with an affinity to the kind of word-play associated with rhyme, but equally obviously the affinity is not an identity, not just because half-rhyme is involved (elsewhere I have counted that as rhyme when there seemed to be an expectation that one should do so) but also because the positioning of these words in the poem is unpredictable and assymetrical, and to that extent at odds with the structure of the poem. "Accept", it seems to me, is offered as something that may or may not be a rhyme. Such a practice is far removed from that of Brides of Reason; it is indicative of a change in the poet's mode of feeling towards and within his medium. No such change is visible in Gunn.

This fidelity to past practice in Gunn is a sign of strength and weakness. It is akin to that other fidelity he shows, a fidelity to 'his' subject-matter: adolescence, existential isolation, the exercise of will, the creation of identity. He has saturated this subject-matter with Gunnian feeling, and the result is poetry of great power. At the same time, his oeuvre suffers from a lack of spaciousness. Movement, like development, is difficult. The ease with which Gunn's three styles can be identified suggests the effort involved for him in developing technically; Gunn is unlike Davie in that he likes to know where he is in a poem, likes to know whether he is offering a rhyme or not. The ambiguous status of "accept" in the Davie poem is inconceivable in Gunn; but it is integral to the imaginative spaciousness that Gunn's poetry is able to intimate (for example, in 'Touch') but hardly to achieve.

Rhyming on monosyllables is associated in Gunn with the Movement rejection of Romantic sloppiness and a more particular, perhaps Cambridge, cult of decisiveness, closely related to his interest in the will. It also stands for a keeping faith with the self that was responsible for his earliest poems. There is even more to it than this, however. The preference for monosyllabic rhyme seems also to connect with attention to the thing in itself in the modern manner. A free-verse poem in The Passages of Joy, 'Expression', is interesting in this regard. It describes the satisfaction taken by the poet in regarding an early Italian altar-piece after reading the "very poetic poetry" (which is also posturing and self-concerned) of his juniors:

Solidly there, mother and child
stare outward, two pairs of matching eyes
void of expression.

Alongside this, one might put the affirmation of Gunn's essay on Williams: "it is a humane action to attempt the rendering of a thing, person, or experience in the exact terms of its existence"—that is, I take it, without attempting the expressiveness of those younger poets who have nauseated Gunn in his own poem. Monosyllabic rhymes are a principle of order and decision; they are the audible equivalent of a defining line. But they imply the minimum "expressiveness" possible by being just about as unexciting as a rhyme can be. They point to what the line contains.

As usual, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Gunn's poetry may not show much in the way of development, but its attentiveness to things "in the exact terms" of their existence scarcely wavers:

Separate in the same weather
The parcelled buds crack pink and red,
And rise from different plants together
To shed their bud-sheaths on the bed…

In this respect there is a likeness in Gunn to the Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads. In 'The Thorn' monosyllabic rhyme is used extensively for the rendering of things as they are, without the poet's obtrusively investing them with his own personality:

There is a Thorn—it looks so old,
In truth, you'd find it hard to say
How it could ever have been young,
It looks so old and grey.
Not higher than a two years' child,
It stands erect, this aged Thorn;
No leaves it has, no prickly points;
It is a mass of knotted joints,
A wretched thing forlorn.
It stands erect, and like a stone
With lichens it is overgrown.

It is this likeness, which, as in Wordsworth, exposes the poet to charges of naivety and lapse of taste (see, for example, in The Passages of Joy, the remarkable poem 'The Miracle'). It remains, also, an abiding strength in Gunn's poetry.

Neil Powell (essay date 1989)

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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 the case. Gunn's sexuality matters to his readers partly because it has been, increasingly, a major theme in his work, and partly because his writing career spans and reflects a period of profoundly unsettling changes in the complex relationship between gay men and the rest of society.

Gunn is a poet who frequently revisits his past styles and refreshes himself with disparate influences, yet his work does roughly seem to divide into three phases or movements which I'll call containment, liberation, and openness. The first phase comprises the poems in Fighting Terms (1954), The Sense of Movement (1957), and part of My Sad Captains (1961). The superficial similarities between most of these poems are immediately apparent, and they concern characteristics which his early readers would readily have identified as Gunnish (thus, ironically, labelling and placing him in a way that the content of the poems is at pains to discourage): regular, iambic verse-forms; metaphysical abstraction overlaid with echoes of Yeats and Sartre; recklessly inspired combinations of historical and contemporary allusiveness.

Yet beneath these superficial characteristics run two obsessive, related themes: debates of the divided self, and the making of a personal iconography. Fighting Terms presents a procession of double consciousnesses or divided selves: Achilles and Lofty, ancient and modern soldiers wounded by memories which divide their actions from their thoughts; the brash exterior ("Even in bed I pose") and the hurt mind (" I saw that lack of love contaminates") in 'Carnal Knowledge'; the role-reversing tamer and hawk; the man in the snowy street looking up at his window and calling his own name in 'The Secret Sharer'; derelict present and edenic past in 'Looking Glass'; heroic action and introspective cunning in 'The Beach Head'; innocence instructed by experience in 'Incident on a Journey'; "submissive" Shelley and "masterful" Byron in 'Lerici'. And in two poems of this period, the homosexual dimension of this concept becomes explicit. One is 'Without a Counterpart', where the speaker wakes, frightened and apparently alone, to imagine a vast bleak landscape whose features—"Two reed-lined ponds", "a long volcano", "prickly turf"—gradually resolve into the eyes, mouth and stubble of a lover's face. In fact the poem does have a counterpart in 'Light Sleeping', which Gunn wrote in 1953 but excluded from Fighting Terms (it appears in The Missed Beat [1976]): two men are in bed; one wakes to a nightmare vision; but this time the other is awake and observes everything. Suddenly sitting bolt upright, he meditates on the moon and redefines the terms of Sidney's famous sonnet in Astrophil and Stella. He sees "a hell of love" as the cause of the moon's "sad steps", while Sidney's anguished question, "Do they above love to be loved, and yet / Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?" is answered by Gunn's vision of lovers "locked in each other's arms, / Cursed with content, pair by possessive pair": for Gunn, conventional love is by definition hellish because possessive, and the moon can only provide confirmation, not consolation.

'Light Sleeping' is in retrospect an important and revealing poem: Gunn was probably right to leave it out of Fighting Terms precisely because it appears to decode, and thus damagingly to limit, other poems in the book. The divided self is not, after all, an exclusively homosexual theme, but it is one of special significance for gay men, for whom the concepts of 'What I am' and 'What I want' are apt to blur and interchange. In his 'containment' phase, Gunn kept his sexuality fairly veiled to give the poems maximum universality—an entirely honourable stance, though probably not one which the gay poet in the late twentieth century can sustain for ever. The divided self poems offer one way of being truthful and evasive at the same time; the icon poems provide another.

Those in the know (to borrow Gunn's own phrase from his essay on Robert Duncan) would have had no difficulty in seeing what Gunn was up to in his second book, The Sense of Movement, but a sizeable number of readers must have assumed that, for example, the bikers in 'On the Move' were solely objects of identification rather than objects of desire, whereas much of the poem's energy derives from the fact that they are both. Similarly, in 'Elvis Presley', the rather implausible, wearily detached opening stance ("this one, in his gangling finery / And crawling sideburns") is soon complicated by hints of more subjective interest ("Our idiosyncrasy and our likeness", "posture for combat"). The Sense of Movement owes much of its effectiveness to the way in which Gunn's literary and philosophical ideas at this time were running exactly in parallel with his sexual metaphors: there are Yeats's masks, Sartre's 'will', and the profound influence of Yvor Winters, with whom Gunn was working and who, though hostile to much homosexual writing, provided ideas of rigour, discipline and impersonality which suited Gunn very well. The word 'will' recurs in the book, carrying Sartrian or Wintersian overtones but also (as in the erotic, and syllabic, 'Market at Turk', where the hustler's "bootstraps and Marine belt" are "reminders of the will") a more obviously sexual, Shakespearian resonance. Yet not all the icons are contemporary or fetishistic: from Achilles in Fighting Terms, through Julian, Jesus, St Martin, Alexander, Socrates and Brutus in The Sense of Movement, to St Paul and the "sad captains" themselves, there are also the "few with historical names". Often these figures serve to depersonalise and objectify Gunn's own ideas, but in the remarkable 'In Santa Maria del Popolo', which opens My Sad Captains, something more intimate and complex happens: it is about the conversion of St. Paul as perceived by Caravaggio as perceived by Gunn, and the 'I' who turns (punningly) "hardly enlightened" from the painting in the chapel to the congregation in the church is a vulnerable, implicated figure. The poem's final icon is not the divided self of Saul/Paul nor the immensely attractive existential-homosexual figure of Caravaggio but "the large gesture of solitary man, / Resisting, by embracing, nothingness".

My Sad Captains is a rewardingly transitional book. In a poem such as the second 'Modes of Pleasure' ("Why pretend / Love must accompany erection?"), sexual frankness is still straining after the epigrammatic, and the result is a winsome bravado, charming but not quite convincing. But in 'A Map of the City', Gunn stands back to take possession of San Francisco, fertile cruising-ground for "my love of chance", and to be possessed by it:

By the recurrent lights I see
Endless potentiality,
The crowded, broken, and unfinished!
I would not have the risk diminished.

The sense of liberation, of simple fresh air, which invigorates particularly some of the syllabic poems in My Sad Captains is overwhelming: and it perhaps needs to be said at this point, though not in a limiting sense, that a gay poet is still a gay poet when he's not writing about sex. The sexual liberation which Gunn found in California permeates poems like 'Lights among Redwood' and the most sensuous poem in the book, 'Flying above California', celebrating light, plants, mere names ("Such richness can make you drunk").

Gunn's next book, Positives, was the result of a year's return to England and a collaboration with his photographer brother, Ander. The finest creative result of this period is in fact a much later poem ('Talbot Road'), and the poem-captions in Positives are designedly and necessarily low-key: one, opposite a photograph of a boy in a cafe, restates with engaging directness a sub-text from 'Elvis Presley'. The boy is "a rough young animal" who knows that "Youth is power" and who "makes, now, / a fine gesture, inviting / experience to try him". The poem, and indeed Positives as a whole, anticipates two subsequent developments in Gunn's work: the gradual substitution of ordinary, often unnamed people for the earlier icons, and the movement towards a hesitant, exploratory free verse.

That is the mode Gunn adopts for 'Touch', the title-poem of his 1967 collection and one which has a double-edged significance. The striking point about it ought to be its novelty—a first-person love poem, addressed to a lover in bed, and not involving a narrator, a historical figure, or a dream (even so, the lover is addressed as a sexless "you", is already asleep, and the cat got there first). Still more striking, however, is the fact that Gunn had managed to produce four previous books without including such a poem: it was still, even in the late sixties, a difficult kind of poem for a writer of his stature to publish, and anyway Gunn's talent didn't easily adapt to intimate informality. The most unequivocally successful single poem in Touch, 'Pierce Street', is formal, descriptive and meditative in the light-and-shade manner of 'In Santa Maria del Popolo'; while his next book, Moly (1971), joyously liberated by sunlight and LSD, is the most formally iambic of all his later collections.

One can see why. For Gunn, liberation demands constraint almost as much as constraint demands liberation. In Moly, sexual freedom is transmuted—through drugs, flowers, music, places, people—into hectic, benign celebration: it takes all Gunn's iambic discipline to hold it in place, but he succeeds marvellously. In poems (among his very best) such as 'The Fair in the Woods', 'Flooded Meadows', 'Grasses', 'The Messenger' and 'Sunlight', the sexuality is implicit because genuinely liberated, carried on a wave of articulate optimism.

Given the political and social changes of the seventies and eighties, it couldn't last: the transition from Moly to Jack Straw's Castle (1976) is, precisely, the transition from dream to nightmare. Yet the fragmented, nightmare title-sequence (whose origins Gunn describes in the autobiographical essay, 'My Life up to Now') ends in a deliberate, iambic gesture of affirmation and also of defiance:

The beauty's in what is, not what may seem.
I turn. And even if he were a dream
—Thick sweating flesh against which I lie curled—
With dreams like this, Jack's ready for the world.

"Ten years ago," Gunn told W.I. Scobie in 1977, "it wouldn't have occurred to me to end the title poem in Jack Straw's Castle as I do." Partly because he couldn't, but also because he needn't have done so: it is the gestures of repression, like the Christopher Street raid and the closure of the Sonoma County Geysers (or in England the Gay News blasphemy trial and the more recent Section 28 of the Local Government Act) which urge the gay poet towards the dangerous but necessary stridencies of sexual propaganda. Gunn is aware of both danger and necessity, but these are easy matters to misjudge. In Jack Straw's Castle, for instance, Gunn tamed some stridencies in the poems, depriving 'Fever' of both general tanginess and specific detail (like "joints and amyl"), and losing altogether one section of 'The Geysers' with its rather charming digression on the variousness of male nipples and its beatific final vision of America as "One great brave luminous green-gold meeting place". On the other hand, he included in his most recent full-length book, The Passages of Joy (1982), one sexual poem, 'The Miracle', in which the failure of tone is as complete as it was in much earlier pieces like 'Lofty in the Palais de Danse' (Fighting Terms) and 'The Beaters' (The Sense of Movement): all three are weakened by an apparent inability to perceive, or to distance through irony, the potential absurdity of their subjects.

The successes among Gunn's recent sexually open poems are of two distinct kinds, though unified by the most consistent thread in his literary career—as always, his best writing occurs when physicality and the world of ideas, impulse and intellect, most closely reinforce each other. One kind of poem is the free verse anecdote which, lacking the more obvious shapings of metre and rhyme, especially needs the shaping discipline of the intellect. Thus, in 'The Idea of Trust', the anecdote about "pretty" Jim who stole from the people he lived with is given unexpected sharpness by the meditation on trust and freedom (expressed in suitably ruminative, hesitant verse) which it provokes. That effect, it has to be said, is rather less in evidence in The Passages of Joy, where the anecdotes are more often left to speak for themselves, though the observation in poems such as 'Bally Power Play' and 'Slow Waker' is affectionate and acute.

The main strength of The Passages of Joy is in the other kind of poem—extended, reflective, retrospective. 'Talbot Road', relaxed and almost prosy but in its accumulation of evocative detail absolutely compelling, recalls the magical mid-sixties year Gunn spent in London. 'Transients and Residents' remembers an assortment of friends until interrupted by a piece of elegant self-analysis which moves in from the garden and the study to a self-portrait of the author himself:

At last, you might think, the real Thom Gunn, until a couple of lines later he points out that these are things "That help me if not lose then leave behind, / What else, the self." He emerges from the self-portrait as an attractive, plausible ventriloquist, nothing how in letters he mimics the style of his correspondents and concluding, "I manage my mere voice on postcards best".

He emerges, too, as a continuously youthful poet, in a way which has sometimes disconcerted his readers. And here, I think, it is for once proper to insist on the distinctness of the homosexual view of life: it is, after all, a simple fact that most heterosexuals, as parents and then as grandparents, have their social roles and responsibilities quite clearly defined by age in a way that gay men don't. Socialising homosexuals, on the other hand, tend to inhabit a world of bars and boys and pop music which cuts across the changes of attitude which otherwise come with age: it would be self-deluding to view this as the secret of eternal youth, but at best it allows a risk-taking receptiveness, and Gunn has always liked to be (as he says in 'New York') "high / on risk". During the Reagan/Thatcher years, the complex politics of gay life have become still more fraught with paradox: for instance, shadowed by AIDS, populist sentiment appears to have grown more homophobic while popular culture (as in the Communards, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys and so on) has grown more conspicuously gay-influenced. Gunn's need to provide an increasingly direct chronicle of gay life springs in part from this sort of tension.

"But my life insists on continuities," he has said, and he is right. He has always been blessed with that intelligent desire to shock which springs from essential gentleness, and on re-reading The Sense of Movement seems now a far more outrageous book than The Passages of Joy, largely because its explosive contents are wrapped in such disarmingly well-mannered verse forms. I suspect he wanted to be a bad boy from the moment he returned to London from war-time evacuation and began "eyeing the wellfed and good-looking G.I.s who were on every street"; and with Gunn, as is so often the case, the bad boy is of course the brightest in the class.

Robert Pinsky (essay date 1989)

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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 Elizabeth Bishop cast herself as a traveler in the world—nearly anonymous, focused on sensation, a temporary presence—Gunn sometimes conveys the reserve and intimacy of a visitor, a mingled privacy and attention, focused on the space between souls, a provisional presence. Gunn's poems achieve a quality of being at home while on the move, but without the plodding caution of the turtle. The calm wildness of a cat, possibly, or of some imagined Zen master. (One might write "of a cat or a Zen master" if the tutelary Gunn spirit of honesty and accuracy were not hovering nearby, asking with a polite, not quite derisive smile what do I know about Zen masters.)

And to qualify "cat" a little, I think I mean the quality that made jazz musicians coin the term as alluding to a guy or bloke, with an emphasis on feral dignity, self-possession, readiness and possibly reckless skills. Also a keen sensitivity to atmosphere, the ability to make oneself at home.

Gunn's existential motorcycle toughs roaring through stanzas of jagged symmetry and keen meticulous sentences; the elegant iambic cable of his 'Tamer and Hawk', stretched over the Yeatsian short lines with a lilt I memorized from his first book, when I was in college; the free-verse equivalent governing the savage, telling enjambments of 'My Sad Captains' ("all / the past lapping them like a / cloak of chaos"); his poem about the dog, from inside her mind; poems from the inside of Old English; of LSD; his great essay on Hardy and the English ballad, his essays on Marianne Moore and Rod Taylor, on Yvor Winters and Basil Bunting, his celebrations of Robert Duncan and of J.V. Cunningham; the great elegies and meditations on San Francisco's AIDS epidemic, some of them in the grave, passionate diamond-perfect measures of Ben Jonson, some in street music—a range and size of work equaled by very few living poets.

The truly mysterious poise that runs through it could be described as the power to be at home with the alien or unlikely: with various metrical extremes and modes; with the manners of various kinds of people, like Odysseus; with many countries and cities and cultures; at home with a kind, unsentimental holding back of judgment; but also at home exercising his judgment, mentioning serenely that he thinks some much praised book is very badly written, or that (say) some lyrics by the Talking Heads are very good. Moly is a book about being at home even in transformation, in distortion.

Absurd to think of Thom Gunn as an expatriate: San Francisco is his home city as few people find homes. He lives in his house and garden in a way that combines the English gift for coziness with California's elegant openness to air. The atmosphere of his house, familial but with a sense of privacies and amiable distinctions within the familial, reminds me of the happy mixture of being alone while with others on the bus that he chooses to ride across the Bay, between work in Berkeley and home in San Francisco. The subdued community of the bus—where Gunn often works on poems—is different from the busy island of a car in a way somehow like the pace and closeness of Gunn's imagination: the non-driver who wrote "One is always nearer by not keeping still".

I think he rides the generational trolley car of fame with a kind of amused impersonality, too. (Cary Grant's image: he talks somewhere about actors getting on the trolley and, with a certain amount of savage fighting not to fall off, riding it.) Thom Gunn is a kind of model for how to take the ups and downs of that ride. Happy to live without courting the coteries, alliances and constituencies that sometimes buoy reputations synthetically, he also seems incapable of the kind of self promotion that allows some artists to explain their importance to others. He once fell into friendly conversation for half an hour with a woman in a bar, telling one another their occupations and so forth; when she left, her parting wish to him was "I hope you get published some day". Thom I think mistakes the point of this story: he seems to think it illustrates how very much most people assume that poetry is not published. But what is striking about it is that he didn't drop any phrases along the lines of "my publisher" and so forth.

How to explain this absence of self-promotion in one who has so very little to be unpretentious about? Maybe Thom Gunn's sense of the ridiculous is too strong for boasting. It is hard to imagine a pompous message written on the back of the post cards he ferrets out somewhere: fifties workers in white smocks preparing a health tonic called something like VitaGreen; a wig company's advertisement, the same woman three times modeling the same stiffly styled wig in colors called 'Autumn Haze', 'Sun Drip', 'Mink'.

But to say 'sense of proportion' would imply smallness. Only an extremely ambitious writer could have made as many unforgettable poems as Thom Gunn, reaching in new directions with each book. That is why the idea of being at home, which is to say at home with himself, seems germane to me. The word 'expatriate' evokes tremendously wrong images of self-conscious exile or making a point or of being in, while not of, the dwelling place. Thom Gunn seems to live inside the rhythms and meanings and structures of our English language with a fresh, venturesome eagerness, and a mastery that make being merely an American poet or an English one seem beside the point. As Thom Gunn has written of Hardy's work in relation to Hardy's character, "It is a happy embodiment".

Clive Wilmer with Thom Gunn (interview date 1995)

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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 by the end of that time I'm really ready to teach again and have somebody else's timetable imposed on me, because I'm chaotic enough that I just couldn't be master of myself for the entire year. It would leave me too loose and unregulated. As I say, I'm eager to teach again in January and then, during the term, very often I'll think of ideas for writing on but I usually don't have time to work them out. By the time I can work them out at the end of the term, I've either lost them or else I've got them much more complex and intense, so that's good too. I like the way my life has worked out very well. I live with some other men in a house in San Francisco. Somebody once said: "Oh, you've got a gay commune." I said: "No, it's a queer household!"—which I think was a satisfactory answer. Right now there's only three of us there. There were five: one of them left and one of them died of AIDS. But we really fit in well together. We really do work as a family: we cook in turn—stuff like that—we do a lot of things together.

Do you have a writing routine?

When anybody says, "Do you have a routine?," I always say piously it's very important to have one, but in fact I don't. I write poetry when I can and when I can't, I write reviews, which I figure at least is keeping my hand in, doing some kind of writing. Finally, however difficult it is, it does make me happy in some weird way to do the writing. It's hard labor but it does satisfy something in me very deeply. Sometimes when I haven't written in some time, I really decide I'm going to work toward getting the requisite fever, and this would involve, oh, reading a few favorite poets intensively: Hardy, for example, John Donne, Herbert, Basil Bunting—any one of a number of my favorites. I try to get their tunes going in my head so I get a tune of my own. Then I write lots of notes on possible subjects for poetry. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. It's been my experience that sometimes about ten poems will all come in about two months; other times it will be that one poem will take ages and ages to write.

Do you tend to work very hard on poemsrevising and so on?

It depends on the poem. Some poems come out almost right on the first draft—you really have to make very few small alterations. Others you have to pull to pieces and put together again. Those are two extremes: it might be anything between them. For instance, I have a poem called "Nasturtium." I worked at it for ages and then decided it was just terrible. I only kept about one line, but then I rewrote the poem from a slightly different idea—I don't remember the difference between the two, but it was a completely different poem from the first draft, and I think it only has about one or two lines in common with it. Only the last two lines, I think.

When you start writing a poem, do you ever have a form in your head before you write, or do you always discover the form in writing?

Again, sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. For example, a poem called "Street Song." Part of the idea of that poem was to write a modern version of an Elizabethan or Jacobean street song. So of course I knew it was going to rhyme, that it might have some kind of refrain, it was going to be a particular kind of poem. Other poems I don't really know what they're going to be like, and I will jot down my notes for them kind of higgledy-piggledy all over the page, so that when I look at what I've got maybe the form will be suggested by what I have there. That's mostly what happens with me. I don't start by writing a couplet or something, knowing the whole thing's going to be in couplets—though even that has happened.

I know that you quite consciously and deliberately draw on other writers and writings in your poems. Could you describe that process a little? Do you quite ruthlessly plagiarize or pilfer?

Yes, yes, yes. Well, T.S. Eliot gave us a pleasing example, didn't he, quoting from people without acknowledgement? I remember a line in Ash Wednesday which was an adaptation of "Desiring this man's art and that man's scope." When I was twenty, I thought that was the most terrific line I'd read in Eliot! I didn't know that it was a line from Shakespeare's sonnets. I don't resent that in Eliot and I hope people don't resent it in me. I don't make such extensive use of unacknowledged quotation as Eliot does, but every now and again I'll make a little reference. This is the kind of thing that poets have always done. On the first page of The Prelude, Wordsworth slightly rewrites a line from the end of Paradise Lost: "The earth is all before me" instead of "The world was all before them." He was aware that many an educated reader would recognize that as being both a theft and an adaptation. He was also aware, I'm sure, that a great many of his readers wouldn't know it was and would just think it was original. That's part of the process of reading: you read a poem for what you can get out of it.

Actually, though, what you do much more often is model your poems on other poems.

Well, I grew up when the New Criticism was at its height, and I took some of the things the New Critics said very literally. When I read (let's say) George Herbert, I really do think of him as being a kind of contemporary of mine. I don't think of him as being separated from me by an impossible four hundred years of history. I feel that in an essential way this is a man with a very different mind-cast from mine, but I don't feel myself badly separated from him. I feel that we're like totally different people with different interests writing in the same room. And I feel that way of all the poets I like.

Donald Davie says of you in Under Briggflatts that you don't use literary reference, as Eliot does, "to judge the tawdry present. " He finds that refreshing.

I don't regret the present. I don't feel it's cheap and tawdry compared with the past. I think the past was cheap and tawdry too. One of the things I noticed very early on—and I probably got it from an essay by Eliot—was that the beginning of Pope's "Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" is virtually taken from the beginning of the "Elegie on the Lady Jane Pawlet" by Ben Jonson. Now I don't think most of Pope's readers would have realized that. I don't think Jonson was that much read in Pope's time. I may be wrong… So I figured that was a very interesting thing to be able to do. But no, I don't do it in the way Eliot and Pound do—to show up the present. I do it much more in the way I've described Wordsworth or Pope as doing it.

Are there any particular influences that have been consistentlyor intermittentlyimportant for you?

The first poet who influenced me in a big way—in poems that never got into print—was W.H. Auden. I'm speaking about when I was about nineteen or twenty. He's someone I'm profoundly grateful to for giving me by his example the feeling that I could write about my experience. Anne Ridler, I think, said this many years ago: that his example enabled her to write. That's what his example did for me: it made things seem easy, and the poetry I wrote then—I doubt if any of it exists any longer—was riddled with Audenesque mannerisms. But he was tremendously helpful to me. He's not been an influence I've gone back to, however. The biggest two influences after him were, in my first year as an undergraduate, John Donne and Shakespeare. I read Donne en masse and understood him for the first time. I had tried reading him in my teens and I guess I just wasn't mature enough to know what to do with it. Suddenly I could see, and it was tremendously exciting. Then, that summer vacation, I read all of Shakespeare. I read everything by Shakespeare and doing that adds a cubit to your stature. He's so inventive with language. It's the idea of concepts and experience going into language, and going into exciting language—of creating the language for your poem as you're writing it. Of course, both of those influences have returned. Who has not been influenced by Shakespeare? Even somebody who doesn't like the influence, somebody like Pound, is influenced ultimately. Then, of course, Yeats was an influence"…

Let me put a more specific question. Could you name anybody who has extended your sensibilityopened you up to things in experience that you were not sufficiently aware of?

Anybody I enjoy reading has always done this. A literary influence is never just a literary influence. It's also an influence in the way you see everything—in the way you feel your life. I'm not sure that this affected my poetry, but I read Proust when I was about twenty, just before I went to Cambridge. (We went to university rather late in those days. We had to do national service first, you should remember.) Of course, when you read all of Proust, you live in a Proustian world for a moment. You know, that bus conductor may be homosexual! So may your grandfather—or anybody maybe! I remember when I went to Chartres for the first time, I was all set to have a Proustian disappointment and I didn't! Instead I had absolute delight; it was even better than I expected it to be. But every writer does this to you to some extent. Auden, Donne, Shakespeare, Yeats—I was about to say Yvor Winters: all of these modified the way in which I see the whole of my experience. I don't think there's any one person more than others. And I don't lose them: I never lost Donne, I never lost Yeats really. William Carlos Williams came later on.

Can we take Williams as an example? You got interested in his work inwhat?the late fifties. Shortly afterwards your poetry began changing a lot and started including things from the world which it hadn't included before.

It's very interesting you should say "things from the world." Up to about halfway through My Sad Captains—that is, my first two-and-a-half books—I was trying to write heroic poetry. There are interesting reasons for this. When I was at Cambridge, as I've said, I was very much influenced by Shakespeare, and of course much of Shakespeare deals with the heroic of a certain kind. This was emphasized by the fact that I was at Cambridge with a particular generation of talented actors and directors. Some of them went on to become famous—people like Peter Wood, Peter Hall and John Barton, who directed remarkable productions of Coriolanus, of The Alche-mist, of Love's Labour's Lost, of Edward II: all sorts of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. My great friend Tony White was an actor in many of those. I was in some sense trying to write, with Sartre's help, a modern equivalent to heroic poetry. The influence of Williams altered everything. I'd been reading him a bit, but I couldn't incorporate that influence until I started to write in syllabics, and that was about 1959 perhaps—the poems from the second half of My Sad Captains. There I found a way, with William's help, of incorporating the more casual aspects of life, the non-heroic things in life, that are of course a part of daily experience and infinitely valuable. I suppose I could have learned that from Hardy too but I wasn't very influenced by him at that time. I'd read and liked some Hardy, but you can't always incorporate your learning from a poet at the time when you first start admiring that poet. Then I got into rather a mess with my next book, Touch, and some of that book seems to me distinctly inferior in that I really wasn't quite sure how to connect the poetry of everyday life and the heroic poetry (which is greatly to oversimplify the two kinds). But I wanted to make some kind of connection. I maybe started to do so when I wrote a longish poem called "Misanthropos," which is included in that book….

In those early books you establish almost a kind of map of terms and conceptions which stay with you all through,though they get more ghostly and more complex later on. They're things like the will and energy, and the figure of the soldier, and the concept of self, and posing, and this whole idea of risk as something which helps to define the self. Is that something that you 're conscious of as you workthat you have this structure, almost, that you build on?

Well, I don't think conceptually about my poetry very much. I try not to think as a critic, I try not to think of key words: otherwise I would start being overly self-conscious about using them. But some of them I just can't avoid noticing, and of course they're also life-images. Now the idea of the soldier: my childhood was full of soldiers. I tried to write about this in a poem called "The Corporal." I was ten at the beginning of World War Two and sixteen when it ended, so my visual landscape was full of soldiers. Of course, I became a soldier for two years of national service and so that was another kind of soldier. It was a strange kind of role I had to measure myself against. And the idea of the will: there's a poem in The Man with Night Sweats called "The Differences" and in the last two lines I say that I

think back on that night in January,When casually distinct we shared the mostAnd lay upon a bed of clarityIn luminous half-sleep where the will was lost.

So that is not willed love at all. This was a very conscious reference back to my over-use of the word will in my early books. I'm saying in a sense that I'm no longer the same person as I was then, and I'm pleased that I'm not the same person. So there is a certain consciousness of themes but, at the same time, there's a certain blessed unconsciousness. There was a review, for which I was profoundly grateful, in the Times Literary Supplement by Hugh Haughton: he was reviewing my recent book, The Man with Night Sweats, and he traced the imagery of embracing and touching and holding hands—and even embracing oneself at one point. That was extraordinary: it was all there. That was not planned, it was due to the consistency of my own mind. We all have that kind of consistency of course. It's a question of opening yourself up to what you really want to say, to what for you is the truth, and you come out with consistent images in that way. I've not been aware of that, I've really not been aware of that, and of course the embrace is in half the poems in the book. I was glad I didn't find that out till the book was finished! So one does not operate in complete rational awareness of what one's doing all the time, and I don't want to. I seem to write awfully rational poetry, but I want there to be a considerable amount of strength given from what is not conscious into the consciousness there—that kind of energy. (I won't talk about the unconscious.) I've noticed recently I've been particularly attracted by various things in visual art or in poetry that I explain to myself as being a mixture of the extremely sophisticated and the primitive. I was just pointing out this morning some lines from Spenser's "Epithalamion." They're the ones about who is it "which at my window peeps." It is the moon, who "walks about high heaven all the night." It's a wonderfully sophisticated and ornate kind of poetry, and suddenly this tremendously physical, almost anthropomorphic image of the moon walking around the sky. It's so magnificent! I find them wonderfully beautiful lines! I think that kind of thing happens in some way in all the art I like. I'd like that to happen in my poetry. I think that sometimes when my poetry comes off—anybody's poetry when it comes off—it's making use of two strengths at once: a very conscious arranging strength, keeping things in schematic form, but also the stuff you can call primitive or unconscious.

So you have the controlling mind or intellect, but it's a control that's prepared to allow things to slip in "…

Yes, allowing, very good word, yes. It's a control that will still allow things to slip under. Welcomes them in fact.

Going back to the soldier for a minute, one rather striking thing about that figure is the way it establishes an atmosphere for those early books. At the time there was a lot of talk, much of it rather vacuous, about violence in those poems. I remember Ted Hughes saying somewhere that he thought this emphasis on violence superficial and what was much more important in your work was tenderness. Don't the two things go together?

Of course, of course. I can quote from "The Missing," a passage in which I'm speaking about a sense of "the gay community" (a phrase I always thought was bullshit, until the thing was vanishing). In "The Missing" I speak about the "Image of an unlimited embrace," and I mean partly friends, partly sexual partners, partly even the vaguest of acquaintances, with the sense of being in some way part of a community.

I did not just feel ease, though comfortable:Aggressive as in some ideal of sport,With ceaseless movement thrilling through the whole,Their push kept me as firm as their support.

Take that image of sport. (Somebody pointed out that I constantly use the word play in The Man with Night Sweats, which is—again—something I wasn't completely aware of.) If you use the idea of sport, you think of the violence of the push, yes, but there's an ambiguity: an embrace can be a wrestler's embrace or it can be the embrace of love. There's tremendous doubleness in that image, which I have used elsewhere in fact: the idea of the embrace which can be violent or tender. But if you look at it at any one moment, if it's frozen, it could be either, and maybe the two figures swaying in that embrace are not even quite sure which it is. Like Aufidius and Coriolanus: they embrace, they're enemies. They embrace in admiration at one point. It's ambiguous because the two things are connected. It could turn, at any moment, from the one to the other, I suppose."…

You once said to me that free verse and metrical verse are different in kind. Did you mean by that that, from yourpoint of view as a writer, to write in free verse is almost as different from writing in meter as it is again from writing in prose?

Yes, as a form, given the essential difference that prose is enormously expansive and that most good poetry tends to be condensed. That makes for the major difference. But otherwise, yes, I think there is as much difference. You know, I've been reading for the first time a bit of Glyn Maxwell, whom I like very much. I originally got his book because I read a terrific poem of his called "Dream but a Door." That poem and a great many of the other poems I've read so far seem to be in what I would call proper meter, as opposed to sloppy meter.

In 1961 you published a book, My Sad Captains, in which this difference in kind was acknowledged by the structure of the book and, except for your last collection, you've followed that pattern ever since. However, in My Sad Captains the non-metrical section is in syllabics, not free verse. How did you start writing in syllabics?

I admired a lot of American poetry in free verse but I couldn't write free verse. The free verse I tried to write was chopped-up prose, and I could see that was no good. Then I thought of ways in which I could learn how to write in something that was not metrical, that did not have the tune of meter going through it. Once you've got the tune in your head it's very difficult to get it out. Then, somehow or other I heard about syllables and discussed them a bit with Winters, and I found a terrific example in some poems by Donald Hall about Charlotte Corday. Donald Hall, as opposed to (let's say) Robert Bridges or Marianne Moore, was not using a long syllabic line. His was a short line and the great virtue of this, for me, was that it was not in what we understand as a meter, which involves combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables. It was virtually in free verse or prose, arranged in lines, but each line simply depended on a mechanical count. I found the short line adaptable and interesting. After a while, when I was writing in (for example) the seven-syllable line, which was my favorite, I found that I could recognize or could think up a line of that length without counting the number of syllables. I'd check on it—yes, there were seven—but it had a kind of tune of its own. This was interesting. Anyway, I was halfway to writing in free verse and then I did, later on, in my next book, go into free verse itself. I don't think have written any syllables since the poems in "Misanthropes" in Touch.

Was there anything you could do in syllables that you can't do in free verse?

I'm not sure. I must say I'm quite pleased with the poem called "My Sad Captains." I think I hit on something there but it's not something I've been able to repeat. There's something going on there with the sounds that I'm amazed I was able to achieve. I don't think I've ever done that in free verse. I don't think I could do it in syllables again. I certainly couldn't do it in meter: it's not a metrical effect.

It's sometimes struck me that, in syllabic verse, you get closer to prose than you do in free verse.

I don't know. It seems to me that a good deal of D.H. Lawrence's free verse is very close to prose. I like it for that. Some is more incantatory, some is more biblical, but some of it is not. It depends which poet you're speaking about: there are so many different kinds of free verse. There's a different kind for every poet using it in fact.

As if each writer had to invent his or her own?

Yes, though of course Pound invented several kinds. Williams invented one kind in his youth and another kind—I don't think so good—in his old age. Stevens invented one amazingly subtle kind. Winters invented a kind all of his own.

Do you think yours is a different kind again?

I try to make it so. I hope it is.

But is there a principle that you follow?

No, it just depends on my ear.

We're about to touch on the point where form and content relate to one another. When you look at My Sad Captains, it's not just a formal difference between the first and second halves of the book, but a difference in the kind of content.

It seems to me that the freer forms—and that includes syllabic—are hospitable to improvisation or the feel of improvisation. Lawrence puts this wonderfully in his famous essay "Poetry of the Present." He speaks of free verse as poetry of the present: that is, it grabs in the details and these are probably very casual details of the present, of whatever is floating through the air, whatever is on the table at the time, whatever is underfoot, however trivial—trivial but meaningful. Whereas metrical verse, he says—I think rightly—metrical verse has the greater finish, because in a sense it deals with events or experience or thinking that are more finished. "Finished" in both senses: in a punning sense, it's also more over and done with. He calls it "poetry of the past." (He also calls it "poetry of the future" but I've never understood what he means by that.) But there is the idea of the completed thought; there is what we nowadays call the idea of closure. So the freer forms invite improvisation and are hospitable to the fragmentary details of one's life, as opposed to the important completed thoughts and experiences of one's life. The freer forms are less dramatic, I think, and more casual.

Taking My Sad Captains as a whole, it's a much more humanistic book than the previous two.

I was less of a fascist. I had been a Shakespearean, Sartrean fascist! I was growing up a little, I wasn't quite so juvenile. I was very much influenced by Sartre, as everybody realized and as I was not sorry for everybody to realize. I was in quest of the heroic in the modern world—whether I succeeded or not—and that was a slightly fascistic quest because the heroic is so often a martial kind of virtue. Well, by the time I got to My Sad Captains I was growing up a bit… I suppose I acknowledge other kinds of life in the first poem in the book, "In Santa Maria del Popolo," in that I'm speaking about the old women as well as the heroic gesture that's "Resisting, by embracing, nothingness."

I become very conscious in that book that religion is an option not open to you.

I'm not very spiritual!

Yes, but I'm asking you about a quality of language, I think. There are certain poems in the first part of My Sad Captains which are metaphysical in content. They seem to invite inquiry into purpose and meaning in experience, yet the possibility of purpose and meaning seems closed off for you. You know: "Purposeless matter hovers in the dark" and so on.

Oh I agree. Of course, this was somewhat different when I came to write Moly, when I took LSD. LSD certainly extends your awareness into other areas. It's chemical: it may be simply that you're not seeing round corners but you just think you are. You tend to think that these other areas are spiritual—and they may be. There's at least one poem, "The Messenger," in which I speak about angels: "Is this man turning angel as he stares / At one red flower…?" I was playing with the idea. I don't think I was being irresponsible. It is still a question, and it's not a question that I answer in the poem. The poem where I most overtly take up religious terms—spiritual terms would be better—is a poem called "At the Centre," which now think is rather a pompous poem. This came out of my biggest acid trip. I took a colossal amount and stood with my friend Don Doody on a roof from which you could see the sign of a brewery, which had on the top of it a magnificent image in neon lights, even during the day, of a huge glass. The outline was permanently there, but it would fill up and drain with yellow lights, as if it were a filling-up glass of beer that would suddenly vanish and then fill up again from the bottom. This of course became a fantastic image for… Existence Itself! I think it comes into the poem with all the talk of flowing and stuff. And there was indeed having, in that experience, a rather defiant conversation with a God whom I did not believe existed! There was one very funny thing happened during that day. I've only been able to admit it in recent years. (This was about 1968.) At one point, in this grandiloquent way that I had, I said to God: "What does it all mean?" Suddenly—this was a genuine hallucination—what seemed like a plastic bubble of shit crossed the sky. I did not admit this to my companion but I do remember saying: "No, oh no, not that. I do not want to believe that life is shit!" And I rejected that hallucination. But of course, the hallucination came from me in the first place. I'm not saying that the experiences in Moly were not genuine and I wouldn't disown anything in Moly. In fact, I still think of it as my best book, though few others have thought so. I think these experiences elicited my best poetry from me.

The last poem in Moly, "Sunlight," is in form a kind of religious poem—in a way that "At the Centre" isn't. I mean, it's a sort of hymn.

And the sun is like a god. At the same time, I do:say in the poem that it has flaws and it's all going to burn out one day. So I'm qualifying it there.

So it's finite.

It's finite, yes, but to take a line of Stevens's from "Sunday Morning": "Not as a god, but as a god might be."

The other thing in Moly, of course, is metamorphosis, and that reminds one of paganism.

Yes, well the whole theme of the book is metamorphosis. Almost every poem I think. That was LSD, of course. It did make you into a different person. The myths of metamorphosis had much more literal meaning for me: the idea that somebody could grow horns, that somebody could turn into a laurel tree, or that somebody could be centaur (in the "Tom-Dobbin" poems—Tom is me of course), or turn into an angel. In the hallucinations—or more likely, distortions—that you saw under the influence of LSD, things did change their shape. You know, you could see bumps on somebody's forehead perhaps—I never did—but that's the kind of thing you could see that might resemble horns. You saw other possibilities.

Was there also a literary source? Were you thinking of Ovid?

Of course, yes. But I don't know if I'd read Ovid yet. Where I first got the myths was from Nathaniel Hawthorne's two retellings of them in Tanglewood Tales and A Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls. Often when people think I'm deriving from Ovid, I'm actually deriving from those books, which I read in my childhood. But he got them from Ovid.

We've skated over your previous book, Touch. A lot of that was written during a year's visit to London, wasn't it?

It wasn't actually. I'll tell you what I wrote on that year's visit. I wrote a good deal of "Misanthropos," but it was about half written before I came. It was certainly all sketched out, so I was in a sense filling in blanks. I also wrote "Confessions of the Life Artist" and all of Positives—but those are just captions, those were easy.

They're quite important though, aren't they? Weren't they your first poems in free verse?

I think they probably were, yes. I remember thinking to myself rather pompously at the time that I was trying to adapt William Carlos Williams for the English—as if Charles Tomlinson had not been doing that for some years before me! I had very great difficulty in the years when I was writing the poems that went into Touch. There was a lot of time that went by when I just wasn't able to write… I either couldn't write anything or I was writing poetry that got printed but didn't ultimately seem good enough to put in the book. I still wouldn't want to reprint them. They seem melodramatic or phony or something.

The book strikes me as transitional. Would you say it was because around that time—possibly through coming to London—you were becoming more decisively American than British? You lay yourself open to American influences…

I suppose that's right. How interesting! Yes. You know, people don't always think of themselves that clearly, so I need someone like you to tell me this kind of thing and I can assent to it. I'm not being ironic when I say this. It's just that we all know how difficult it is to stand back from ourselves and to perceive the pattern in our own lives, which may be perfectly obvious to other people. I do indeed think that's true. Yes.

Was it difficult to accept that you could write that sort of "open" poetry?

No, though change is always difficult. It's so true what you're saying. While I was in England I wrote an essay about William Carlos Williams, which later got into my prose book I The Occasions of Poetry. So I did a lot of reading of Williams for that. And I discovered Snyder while I was here in England. I read Riprap, which I found in Foyle's bookshop in London. It had been out for four or five years but I hadn't yet read it. Creeley I didn't like at that time. I had to read more of him and eventually came to like him a very great deal. But he didn't make sense for me somehow, until I'd read him more thoroughly.

And Robert Duncan?

Oh yes, and Duncan was all mixed up with my acquaintance with him of course. The three writers who have influenced me personally—in a combination of their work and their characterin other words through friendship—have been Yvor Winters, Christopher Isherwood and Robert Duncan. With two of those, Winters and Duncan, I was really just a listener. I call myself a friend but I wasn't a friend in that there wasn't much reciprocation between us. I don't think Winters or Duncan knew me very well. Partly, with Duncan, because he talked so much! He talked all the time—fascinatingly—and didn't give you much time to answer. Or when you did have a chance to answer, it was about ten minutes too late. Duncan was aware of this and was always making jokes against himself because of it. He had one very funny story about Olson. He said: "When first met Olson, we found there was an immediate problem, because he liked to talk all the time and I liked to talk all the time, but we solved it at once by talking simultaneously!" But I don't think Duncan knew me very well. I was perfectly happy: I learned from him. Having lunch with him or spending an afternoon with him was such an extraordinary experience. I would go away with my head teeming with ideas and images and I'd write them down in my notebook and feel like writing poetry. I usually didn't and I didn't write Duncan-type poetry in fact, but he was a tremendously fertilizing influence. He was that kind of influence on everybody.

Winters and Duncan, though, seems an extraordinary contrast.

I have sometimes said to myself: "I am the only person in the world ever to have dedicated poems to both Winters and Duncan." They hated each other. They didn't meet but they hated each other. When they referred to each other it was with contempt, though I must say Duncan was a little more respectful at times of Winters for his sheer consistency. Of course, as I said before, Winters was what we would nowadays call homophobic.

That seems not to have bothered you, though?

Well, most people were homophobic; whole departments of English were! You couldn't be honest then. Sometimes young people say to me: "Why were you in the closet in those days?" I was in the closet because I would not only have lost my job, I'd have been kicked out of America and consequently would not have been able to live with my lover. That was a very practical reason for my behavior, dishonest though it may have been. I suppose there was even a danger of going to prison at certain times, because the act of having sex with another man was illegal in many states. So there was no question of my being frank with Winters, though I think latterly he must have realized. He certainly didn't at the period of our greatest contact. I didn't see that much of him once I had left Stanford.

Can we return to the contrast with Duncan?

Yes. Winters tried to be a complete rationalist, though he was in fact a tremendous romantic. Nobody would be that much of a rationalist unless they were really romantic. Duncan was a joyful irrationalist, even liking to write non-syntactical sentences which could be looked at from each end! It could be very irritating: looked at from each end they'd have different meanings. Suddenly the syntax can change…

How do you think it is that you absorb such contrasts into your personality without losing the coherence of your writing?

I've never had any trouble with that. When I was reading what they nowadays call the canon of English literature to get a degree here at Cambridge, I had no difficulty in reading Pope with appreciation and Keats with appreciation, though they stood for completely different things. I, in a sense, read them as living writers. They were living in that they were speaking directly to me. I'm aware of all that's wrong with reading unhistorically. Nevertheless, one does read unhistorically. Primarily it's Pope or Keats speaking to me, Thorn Gunn. I was aware that they would not have wanted to have anything to do with each other, but I never had difficulty in reconciling people who were in themselves irreconcilable. I'm a very unprincipled person. People like to talk so much about poetics now and theory. I don't have theory. I expect my practice could be brought down to theory but I'm not interested in doing that. Maybe if I ever get famous enough, somebody will do it for me!

Can you summarize what you learned from Duncan? There's a poem dedicated to him in your next book, Jack Straw's Castle.

It's not the best example though. I think the poem where I used Duncan most was "The Menace." I put on different voices, I am somewhat dislocated… His greatest poem he speaks of as a mosaic, "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar." Actually it's something like Pound's way of writing—by juxtaposition of fragments. "The Menace" is written in this way: there is free verse, there is even kind of nursery-rhyme regular verse, there is prose and there is a freedom of form that I learned from him. It's deeper than just form, of course. Put it this way: the main difference between Winters and Duncan was that Winters was deliberately a poet of closure and Duncan deliberately a poet of process. Duncan spoke of writing as a process in which, if you were a good boy, things would come to you during the writing. The most interesting parts. Of course, they're both right to some extent, but they were making different emphases. I think in my practice I have become more interested in this idea of writing as a process and being open to things happening to you while you're writing—I mean things coming out of your imagination.

In the second half of your career, you seem to have become preoccupied with those ideas of openness and closure. Somewhere, talking about Moly, you refer to "definition" and "flow," which are analogous to openness and closure.

They are analogous. I play with these notions particularly in a poem called "Duncan," which is about his death. The last lines of the poem recapitulate the Venerable Bede's famous story about the sparrow flying through the feasting hall. I see the hall as some barns are nowadays, with open gables at each end: that is, both open and closed. It depends whether you're inside or outside. They're inside a building, and Bede's analogy is that this is a man's life. But if you see it under the aspects of eternity—of the whole sky as being what you're in—then you're never inside. I'm playing with the notion of insideness and outsideness.

The subject of that poem, "Duncan," is a writer who takes the view from the outside, but the poem itself is in a strict traditional stanza form. Is that also important, that not only are you preoccupied with openness and closure but that you marry the two in different ways?

I've always been trying to, yes. Donald Davie once said that he wanted to combine the influences in himself of Pound and Winters. I remember rather sarcastically remarking in print that this was like trying to abide by the principles of Hitler and Gandhi at the same time. But Donald was right! One can do this kind of thing; if one believes in the validity of the different poetries, then one can in some way marry or digest whatever is in them. Yes, I feel very much at ease in metrical and rhyming forms. I feel a certain freedom in them. I don't feel that they are constricting. I feel I can play tricks with them that open them up.

There are two moments in your relatively recent writing when you seem to fall back on closure and on meter. One is in Moly and the other is in The Man with Night Sweats, the elegiac poems about AIDS victims…

I know why I did that in Moly. I've spoken about it so often that I'll simply summarize it by saying that I was trying to deal with what seemed like the experience of the infinite, deliberately using a finite form in dealing with it because I was afraid that it would not be dealt with at all in a form that also partook of the non-finite. I don't know why I've been attracted to it recently. It's not just with the AIDS poems. It's in the poems I was writing for about four years before I started on any of those. The first of the AIDS poems was "Lament" and that's in couplets. It just came to hand, it just seemed to me a useful form, but it was also that because I'd been writing in rhyme and meter so much, so concentratedly, for the previous four years.

Do you think that writing "Lament" in couplets established that as the kind of form you would use for the rest of them?

That's probably right.

Let's go back to Jack Straw's Castle. A lot of that book, particularly the title poem, seems to me to represent the bad face of the Moly experience.

That was deliberate. Much of Moly was about dreams; this was about nightmares. Maybe I should explain who Jack Straw is. There's one of many songs that I like from the Grateful Dead called "Jack Straw" and I used to wonder what an American could make of the phrase "Jack Straw." There's an English pub called Jack Straw's Castle and an English reader might know that Straw was one of the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt. But Americans couldn't be expected to know that. So I looked "Jack Straw" up in the dictionary and found that it means a worthless person—legally "a man of straw," a person of no account. Also I was reading Dante at the time, so lots of references to the Inferno come in. There are heaps of literary references in that poem, but it's absolutely unnecessary for anybody to know. It was just fun doing them. The kittens changing into the Furies came from Through theLooking Glass, when the kittens change into the Red Queen and the White Queen and so on. There's a bit from Kidnapped when David Balfour's walking up some stairs and suddenly there's a great gap. But yes, you're right, the drug dreams of Moly have all gone sour in Jack Straw

I suppose I was trying to say that Jack Straw's Castle feels less optimistic than Moly. Also, Robert Wells was telling me that he'd noticed in a lot of your poems a preoccupation with sequences of rooms, with houses and cellars and so on, which have a somewhat claustrophobic effect.

You'd have to ask a shrink about that. It's a common enough metaphor for a person's body or a person's mind. It's like a house and there are rooms, there are half-hidden rooms in it, there are attics where nobody ever goes… I expect Freud speaks about it somewhere. You might almost say it was a cultural metaphor rather than an individual one. I do dream a lot about houses and about rooms, but I've always assumed everybody did.

Two other things happen in Jack Straw's Castle that hadn't obviously happened in your work before. One is that there 's a series of poems which are clearly autobiographical, in which you 're looking back mainly on your childhood and adolescence. The other is that it's the book in which you come out as a homosexual. I wondered if there was any connection between that and the secret rooms: you know, the opening-up.

Probably, probably. In the following book I use it as a metaphor in a poem called "Talbot Road," where I speak about the canals which are there all over London, but you never know they're there unless you happen to be on the top of a bus: they're hidden behind walls and fences mostly. Yes, it's not unconnected. Of course, I came out sexually because, when everybody came out sexually, it became safe enough legally for the first time. In 1974 I was in New York, and there was the gay parade there. I didn't particularly want to go on it, but I was staying with somebody who was going on it and who would really have felt considerable contempt for me if I hadn't gone. I went on it so that he would think well of me. I was delighted by it! I was walking along in it and I kind of floated forward and backward a bit, so I was sometimes walking with my friend and sometimes not, and there was this wonderful little man who looked like a bank clerk. He was wearing a suit and he said he was from Hartford, Connecticut, and I thought: "Yes, that's terrific. That's what it's all about, isn't it?" I was delighted by it. Or as they nowadays say, "empowered!"

But how did it then come into the poetry?

I admitted it in, whereas formerly I had covered it over or disguised it or excluded it. I was now able to include it. For one thing, if I'd brought it in when I first started to publish, I don't think periodicals or possibly even book publishers would have found my work publishable. Things were that different in 1954. It was good reasoning; it was not just cowardice. I mean, it was cowardice as well, but there was good reason not to write openly. Only a few very unusual people like Robert Duncan and Angus Wilson did write openly, and even with Angus Wilson I think it was only implicit—nobody could have been that interested in gay behavior without being gay himself. So that's how it happened. The end of "Jack Straw's Castle" where I'm in bed with a man—it would not have ended that way twenty years before. I'd have found some other way of dealing with it. Mind you, I never lied. I never wrote about a woman as a disguise for a man, the way Tennessee Williams in a sense did in his plays.

So the women in Fighting Terms…

The women in Fighting Terms were real women, yes. But I was guilty of using the Audenesque you to cover both sexes, which is what I think Alan Sinfield means when he speaks about "universality," which we were always taught at school was something we should be finding in our reading. Sinfield says that, when you use you, Auden could say it was the universal you, which could be applied to anybody, but in fact we are going to think it's a woman—and probably a white woman too! It's something I have a great distaste for, the word universality. My attitude to it is slightly different from Alan's—or rather, I come to a dislike of it through a different approach. Of course, this is something I was taught at school—this is something my students were taught at school. I started to have trouble with it when I would say to a student who was reading (let's say) Othello, "What value is this play to us? Why should you be interested in Othello?" And they would say—a little too glibly, I thought—"Oh, it's universal!" Well, one thing the situation of Othello is not is universal! In his position as the black commander of a white army, or in his marriage, or in his very dubious connection with Iago. That's unique. I suppose one might say that there are sentiments voiced in the play that could be universalized. I mean, if we were in that position—though I have certainly never felt jealousy of that sort myself—we could feel "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." But it seems to me that, in a larger sense, the idea of universality depends on a notion of similarity. That is, people like Hamlet particularly, men like Hamlet, young men like Hamlet, because they identify with Hamlet, because they are similar to Hamlet. But in my own experience, what I get from reading is both similarity and dissimilarity, likeness and difference. I think I probably read more for difference than I do for likeness. Appealing to universality seems to obscure this (for me) rather important mixture. I reached this conclusion quite independently and now I find that it's a very fashionable notion indeed! I find that all the critics nowadays are against universalizing.

There's a review of The Passages of Joy by Donald Davie, where he somewhat recants on an earlier statement he had made in which he had praised you for renouncing what he calls "the glibly deprecating ironies" of much modern British poetry and going back to "that phase of English in which the language could register without embarrassment the frankly heroic." He's talking about the influence of Shakespeare and Marlowe on your work.But in this particular review he suggests that something has happened to your poetry which involves your sacrificing that rhetorical force. It's quite clear, though he doesn't directly say so, that what he means is that by admitting to homosexuality in your poems you have somehow given up a poetic advantage.

Yes. I'm terrifically grateful for that essay and for everything Donald has written about me. I think it has been consistently insightful. Nevertheless, his particular point there is that coming into the open about homosexuality—not being homosexual, but speaking about it openly—has been a diminishing force in my poetry. I don't see that at all and I don't quite understand how it operates in his mind, as if the subject matter were so modern that there can be no influence from any poet earlier than (I think he says) Whitman. Well, there is Marlowe! There are others whom one knows were homosexual. There are also most of Shakespeare's sonnets. We don't know what Shakespeare's primary sexual preferences were, but he does rather more than take up the subject. So it's not without precedents. I don't agree with his main assumption there. Nevertheless, he's got a right to his evaluation of that particular book. It's true that there's probably more free verse in that book and, if we're dealing with traditions, the tradition of free verse doesn't go back very far. So, when I'm writing free verse, I'm writing in a comparatively modern tradition. He connects the two in a way that I think is wrong, but he does it very intelligently. I don't think he'll any longer be able to make that connection in light of The Man with Night Sweats. Let me say that I also respect Donald so much that something that was in my mind the whole time I was writing this new book was: how can I show him that he's wrong?!

I wonder if I can play devil's advocate at this point? Take an early poem of yours, "The Allegory of the Wolf Boy" from The Sense of Movement. It seems to me very clear now—though it wasn't when I first read it—that that poem is about being a homosexual.

Indeed it is.

The poem is, to use Davie's word, "resonant." It's almost as if the not-owning-up is precisely what makes it so resonant, I suppose this is related to what we've just been saying about the universal: that from the particular experience of being homosexual, it seems to establish resonances which all of us can feel as human beings.

There's no real answer to this. I think you probably over-value that poem a bit, but I'll admit your general point: that sometimes strategies of evasion—that does sound very 1990s, doesn't it?—may contribute to what makes a poem successful. In fact, whatever you have going, including the obstacles, contribute to the making of a poem, even the obstacle of having to write with some baby yelling in the next room or something like that. That kind of very obvious difficulty is something you may have to overcome and it may end with some benefit to the poem. I'd go further and say that one of the things that makes for good writing is getting to a certain point and getting stuck in the elucidation of an idea or whatever you're writing about—the description of a thing, some imagery, or even choosing a word—and you have to stop and think maybe for weeks. That very likely may be a strength in the poem. But it doesn't mean that you have to invite obstacles. If you did that, you could invite them so successfully that you'd never write a poem. There are always plenty of obstacles in writing, and I don't think that being honest about one's sexuality is something to be avoided because the need for evasion is a useful obstacle.

There's a splendid phrase on the blurb of one of your books that comes from a review by Frank Kermode. He calls you "a chaste and powerful modern poet." You said earlier on that your poems were moral evaluations of a life some people would find immoral. There's something paradoxical here. What is it in your language that invites such a word as chaste?

I can't really comment on that because I don't know what the principles are that make me choose one word rather than another. I choose a word that seems to me more appropriate, more meaningful. But we all do that, don't we? And we end up with different styles. I do know that, extremely unfashionably, I admire the qualities of somebody like Isherwood—of what I would call a "transparent" style. Now the word transparent, as you know, is much frowned on by most critics nowadays. They don't like that at all. I love it! I think that's what it's all about. I certainly think that's what I want it to be about. Obviously I want more than clarity. I'm raising questions all the way with each of these words, with each questionable abstraction! But you see what I mean? I'm aiming to get through—most of the time—on a first reading if possible. I do not want to be an obscure poet. I do not want even to be as obscure a poet as Lowell, though I may often be so. That's in no sense a derogatory comment on Lowell; he's just a little more difficult at times than I am.

What do you mean exactly by transparency?

Transparent to my meaning. Of course, there is an implied contradiction with what I was saying before about poetry as process. There's the whole question raised of how much meaning you have before you sit down to write and how it gets altered in the process of writing. But you do start with some knowledge of what you're going to say after all. It may well not be what you end up saying, but it often is related to what you say. Yes, transparent… as though you're looking through a glass at an object. That's what the word implies. So the words are the glass to my mind. My mind is the fish in the tank behind the glass.

Isn't it also that you want a style that allows something to come into the poem which has nothing to do with you? You want the world in the poem. You don't want just Thom Gunn in it.

Oh, indeed, yes. I see what you're saying: it's not just the fish but it's all behind the fish as well.

One of the things that happens in The Passages of Joy is that there are lots of other people in the book—there, as far as I can see, for their own sake.

I liked the idea of a populated book. I've always liked the idea of a book of poems as a kind of… if not a world, a country in a world. One of my impulses in writing is the desire to possess my experience and to possess all my experiences—my funny and trivial experiences too. I like to bring in people on the street. I was thinking that, if the romantics had "effusions" and certain of the modernists had "observations"—Prufrock and Other Observations, Marianne Moore's book Observations—what I'm trying to do is record. I'm recording the past, I'm also recording the present and I'm recording the world around me and the things that go through my mind. One of the things I want to record is the street, because the streets that I move through are part of my life that I enjoy and want to possess. I don't any longer think of a poem as "loot," but I do think of it as in some sense possessing something.

The streets are very much San Francisco streets, aren't they—particularly in the last few books?

Increasingly, yes. This started with Touch, though. There are bits of San Francisco in Touch: you know, "Pierce Street," "Taylor Street," "The Produce District." And probably more with each book. It thrilled me to write a litany of names in "Night Taxi," the last poem in The Passages of Joy. There are two lines where I take four extreme points in the city:

China Basin to Twin Peaks,Harrison Street to the Ocean.

I loved doing that. It's pure litany, it's not meaningful. But it gave me a feeling of possession or achievement—to have found a place for those names.

This is terribly surprising for an expatriate really, but it makes you almost a regional poet, like Thomas Hardy in "Wessex Heights." It's almost as if you'd invented roots for yourself.

I have invented roots. There must be some kind of seaweed that's rooted in one place and then floats to another place and puts down the same roots!

The other great theme in The Passages of Joy is friendship.

That was quite self-conscious too. It must be the greatest value in my life. This is not a literary influence, though I admire Ben Jonson very much and he likes to write about friendship. I write about love, I write about friendship. Unlike Proust, I think that love and friendship are part of the same spectrum. Proust says that they are absolutely incompatible. I find that they are absolutely intertwined.

Has AIDS had a fundamental effect on your poetry?

Anything as big as that must have had some fundamental effect, but I can't measure it and I'm not sure what it would be. I've had to attend at the deathbeds of quite a few friends. On the other hand, what I'm especially focusing on is not the kind of death they had. What most of these poems have in common as a subject is the way people face death. It's not the only thing I'm writing about in them but it seems to be one of the main things.

Take "The Man with Night Sweats" itself. You have the image of the flesh as a shield in that, and it reminds me of things you said when you were young and were writing about soldiers. It's as if the invasion of this virus has called into question a lot of assumptions that your poetry had been built on up till then.

I suspect the word shield is something of a dead metaphor as I use it there, but it certainly calls into question the whole concept of taking risks. The same is true of the following poem, "In Time of Plague." I'm not much of a risk-taker myself but I've always found the taking of risks rather admirable in a wonderful and showy kind of way. And that's exactly one of the things one can't do any longer in one's sexual behavior because taking risks can have mortal consequences now. The worst consequence before would have been a completely curable disease—since the invention of penicillin after all. It was a fruitful kind of risk. I'm also implying what we know about even children taking risks. Children take risks in their games, which ultimately strengthen their bodies. So there's a kind of pattern in our knowledge that active behavior is sometimes a bit physically risky. You know, when you go swimming, you could get drowned. But that is ultimately a strengthening thing and suddenly it isn't any longer. This is something that those two poems have in common: they had to go together in the book, though I don't think I wrote them together.

"In Time of Plague" takes it a bit further…

That poem is absolutely true. I changed the names.

In that poem the love of risk is also a love of death, isn't it?

Yes, and I say " I know it, and do not know it," and "They know it, and do not know it." We know several things at once, and we also don't know each of them. We also sometimes act as if we didn't know.

Another theme, which seems to have grown through your work, and which flourishes in a special way in The Man with Night Sweats, is the theme of dereliction. There are a lot of tramps in the book…

I've always been interested in the life of the street. I suppose it's always seemed to me like a kind of recklessness, a freedom after the confinement of the home or the family. This goes way, way back to my teens even. There was a poem which started with the words "Down and out," that being (I thought romantically) a kind of freedom. In my second book there is a poem called "In Praise of Cities" where I play with this idea in a rather Baudelairean kind of way. There is the promiscuity of the streets, which can hold promise of a sexual promiscuity as well, which is exciting. I love streets. I could stand on the street and look at people all day, in the same way that Wordsworth could walk around the lakes and look at those things all day. As soon as Reagan pushed the nutcases out on to the street in California, turning them back to the "community," which means turning them out on to the streets in fact, the composition of the people on the streets began to change a good deal. So I wrote about that. There's a funny case in my recent book where I wrote about a character I call "Old Meg"—after Keats, who was writing after Scott—and I found that, at about the same time, my friend August Kleinzahler, who lives a few blocks away from me, had written about (we concluded) the same person. He called her Mrs. B, which says something about the difference between him and me I suppose: I make a rather literary antecedent and he makes up a name.

Do you suffer badly from writer's block?

Well, everybody does, I suppose. Or there are very few writers who don't. Even Duncan, who I thought wrote continuously and easily: there were two years when he didn't write anything. There are certain times when you are absolutely sterile, that is, when words seem to mean nothing. The words are there, the things in the world are there, you are interested in things in the same way and theoretically you can think up subjects for poems, but you simply can't write. You can sit down at your notebook with a good idea for a poem and nothing will come. It's as though there is a kind of light missing from the world. It's a wordless world, and it's somehow an empty and rather sterile world. I don't know what causes this, but it's very painful.

Do you think that the periods of fecundity are in any way related to these dry periods?

It might be that you have to go through dry periods so as in a sense to store things up. Maybe it's like a pregnancy. Sometimes I think it is and sometimes I don't. It'd be very nice to get up every day and write a new poem. I'm sure every poet would like to do that, but it's not possible. It may be that you've had some imaginative experience that's going to become a poem and it just has to become more a part of you. It has to stew, it has to cook until it's ready, and maybe there's nothing else to write about in-between. You've just got to cook away until it's ready to be taken out of the oven.

T.S. Eliot, when he was interviewed for The Paris Review, was asked whether he thought his poetry belonged to the tradition of American rather than British literature. I wonder if I can put the same question to you in reverse?

I call myself an Anglo-American poet. If it's a question of the poets I admire, there's a tremendous number of both British and American poets whom I admire greatly. I think I'm a weird product of both. I'm not like the other products, but then we're none of us like each other. Most American poets at least know all the British poets and there's some kind of a relation there. Probably that's a little less true of British poets, though they're pretty well-read in the American modernists and probably Whitman and Dickinson as well. So I'm not sure that it's any longer a particularly meaningful question.

What do you feel about the situation of poetry in the English language at the moment?

There's always a lot to be unhappy with at any time. We look back on the best of the romantics or the Elizabethans or any period. We don't remember there was an incredible amount of junk being written too. The Elizabethans seem so good, and there are so many good ones. There were also very many bad ones. At times it seems to me that all the giants have died, but maybe it always seems like that. People like Eliot and Pound and Stevens and Williams and even Yeats were around for part of my life—I suppose I was already reading a bit of poetry at the age of ten, which was when Yeats died. Then the following generation died early. Crane died very early and Winters didn't exactly live into old age. People like Lowell and Berryman destroyed themselves in various ways. But there are a great many youngish poets or poets of my own generation whom I enjoy reading very much and find exciting and like to explore. If I mention a few names, these are no surprise to anybody because I've written about them. In America I very much admire Jim Powell and August Kleinzahler. In Britain I'd like to mention the present interviewer! And I like Robert Wells's poetry a great deal and Tony Harrison's and there are younger people: I mentioned Glyn Maxwell, whom I'm reading right now and who strikes me as very energetic and wonderfully crazy in a really good kind of way. And then there are surprises, of course, like W.S. Graham. I discounted him for so many years. I thought he was just an imitator of Dylan Thomas—and he probably was at first. But meanwhile he was creeping up from behind and, when we all rediscovered him something like twelve years ago, that was quite a revelation. Of course, Basil Bunting only died the other day, and he was a giant. So this isn't altogether a bad time to be living. I've no idea what the time looks like: how it measures up against other times, or even what it's shaped like—who the big ones are and who the small ones. I'd just rather follow my personal interests and enthusiasms.


Gunn, Thom (Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Gunn, Thom(son William)