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Gunn, Thom(son) 1929–

Gunn is an English poet now living in the United States. His use of traditional poetic forms contrasts with his occasional use of pop culture subjects; as if, said Stephen Spender, "A. E. Housman were dealing with the subject matter of Howl, or Tennyson were on the side of the Lotus Eaters." (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Alan Brownjohn

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The title-poem of Thom Gunn's [Jack Straw's Castle] is a scary sequence which concentrates in itself most of the thematic and technical problems this considerable poet now faces. In a famous early Gunn poem, 'Human Condition', the castle image stood for a defiant, existential individualism, spelt out in six tight-lipped stanzas. Today, the personal fortress is depressingly lonely, full of sinister apprehensions (furies with 'mad puppety heads') and nightmares which reproach the poet for dreaming them. It has more rooms and voices than he can comprehend, ominous cellars, and a staircase which stops in air. And it takes nine pages and 11 sections before he can bring himself to live with the man he finds in it. Coming to terms with all this appears to have been a harsh necessity. But the poem only partially works: read as a whole, it feels wilfully bizarre, and ragged in structure.

This newly vulnerable Gunn, at times almost inarticulate with self-doubt ('nothing outside the bone / nothing accessible / the ambush and taking of / meaning were nothing'), is a very different proposition from the brutally confident persona of the earlier books. There is some real gain in the gentler, more patient attention to detail in 'Thomas Bewick' or 'Last Days at Teddington'…. But other poems here leave the impression that this is still uncertain territory for him…. 'Hampstead: the Horse Chestnut Trees' and 'Autobiography' ('longing so hard to make / inclusions that the longing / has become in memory / an inclusion') tail off in portentousness for want of ideas; and 'Breaking Ground', set in Kent and Monterey and concerned with thoughts of loved ones, is simply not as affecting as he would want it to be.

Turning back to old themes and habits, he writes well: 'Iron Landscapes' and 'The Corporal' (as much about corporeal existence in general as about one particular young soldier) are as good as anything he has done for some time…. Yet it is essentially change, renewal and variety that Gunn is after; and a way of looking into some darker cellars than any he has explored before. The result is an even more mixed book, in both approach and quality, than his last, Moly.

Part of the trouble is certainly technical. For quite a time now, Gunn has been trying to do things differently (getting away from the powerful iambics which come to him so easily), and in Jack Straw's Castle he has gone farther than ever before. In 'The Geysers', describing a hippy health resort in a Californian valley, nicely modulated heroic couplets get broken down, stretched, and spaced out during a drug-trip in the bath-house:

      green moonlight, smell of dope                          the shining arms and eyes       staring at me without surprise….                                         (pp. 417-18)

Gunn's best venture outside strict forms has been into a personal kind of slow, heavily-stressed free-verse line. In this book, 'Plunge' and 'The Cherry Tree' seem on the way to marrying this successfully with the rhythms of latter-day American free verse. But the quest for new forms seems to leave him, generally, less rather than more able to accommodate the changes in mood and tone. It's all too thoroughgoing and hazardous, on the...

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evidence of this consistently interesting but very uneven volume, for a poet who now urgently needs to settle on the right mode for the major poetry which one feels he is capable of giving us. (p. 418)

Alan Brownjohn, "Carnal Knowledge," in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 92, No. 2375, September 24, 1976, pp. 417-18.

Catharine R. Stimpson

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Among modern British poets, [Thom Gunn]—like Donald Davie or Charles Tomlinson—helps to dramatize the encounter, neither churlish nor chauvinistic, between a talent England has educated and a career America has engaged. (pp. 391-92)

Gunn's texts, both surface and hidden, assign place several meanings. The first is the body itself, the flesh within which we dwell. That occupation often seems uneasy, the body a marred counter in games of identity. Gunn explicitly mourns his generation's discomfort with the physical self. In "Three," for example, the speaker is alone on a California beach. He watches a family: father, mother, little boy. The child is "rapt in endless play," but the adults "had to learn their nakedness." (p. 392)

The body is most often at ease as the agent of human will, the weapon of the existential subject. In such poems as "Lerici," "My Sad Captains," or the first of the two "Modes of Pleasure," the sexual male personifies the energetic will. Gunn uses the Elizabethan pun on "spend" to mix ejaculation and defiance. His notorious poems about motorcycle boys are more sceptical of leather-and-steel dandyism than a casual reader might assume. Nevertheless, the costumed rider and the bike itself are outward and visible signs of a drive towards self-definition.

A second meaning of place, more conventional, is the external physical world. Gunn's distrust of nature, his perception of it as a purposeless material world that will not go away, is well known. He seems conscious of the irony of using male sexuality, an aspect of natural being, as a sign of the resolution to which "Much that is natural … must yield." For the self to succumb to a place is both to tempt death and to act in bad faith…. For the self to move, to keep on moving, is to court life and good faith. Motion sufficiently internalized can become a source of art…. (pp. 393-94)

Finally, a third meaning of place is that of the mental landscape. Some internal spaces are those of dream, the mind's recognition of its raw, unconscious, hidden materials. Other internal spaces are "cerebral world[s]," the mind's conscious projection of desire and wish, of idols and idylls. Still other internal spaces are the fluid visions that drugs provide. They may threaten to overwhelm the given physical world, to define it freshly, or to render it irrelevant…. Still other mental landscapes are metaphors, locales invented to dramatize states of mind and feeling. Using them, Gunn reveals his acknowledged debt to Auden. Peopling them, he calls on figures from history and literature. As Gunn pictures Lazarus in his coffin; Achilles in his tent; a smalltown Edmund on the streets; a sailor whom Circe has enchanted snuffling for a supernatural herb, he objectifies experience without making it too theoretical. He also distances the personal from its final expression.

To speak of place may imply stability, the firm placing of place itself. That would be misleading, for after 1954 Gunn's poetry changes. The alterations are gradual—additions, rather than conversions, to new forms or visions. (pp. 396-97)

The collection in which change is obvious is My Sad Captains. A poem published in 1962 ["A Crab"], however, clearly shows both Gunn's new accomplishments and their attendant risks…. [Rhythms] are looser; diction is more colloquial, even dull; wit at once homelier and more tender. Though Gunn never abandons the persona of the spy, he becomes a less wary, less guarded observer; a more sympathetic, more self-confident witness. Though he never turns to confessional poetry, the "I" is more straightforward about participating in the action of a poem. Though he never rejects his existential precepts, he expands his figures of moral valor to include an ordinary but compassionate man. (pp. 398-99)

Significantly, Gunn's sense of place deepens and clarifies. The body, both of the self and others, becomes more acceptable. Aggressive sexuality, for which "loot" is a favored term, is more pleasurable, even celebratory. The release of animal energy is a path towards myth. In "Rites of Passage," whose title may contain intentional puns, the speaker becomes a centaur or satyr…. The body is more willing to touch, even to merge with, external worlds. Space is more apt to collapse between the varieties of place…. At the same time, Gunn struggles to perceive things as they are. If the earlier texts tended to impose a set of beliefs on reality, the later try to recognize the peculiarities of the particular. Gunn moves from deductive to inductive poetic logic.

In the later poetry, one aspect of the theme of the acceptance of places and the experience of their separation and unity emerges with fresh strength: connections between mother and child, most likely a son. Gunn rarely writes about women. When he does, he is conventional. Women are fertility goddesses; rural Phaedras; warriors in a sexual battle; sexual objects. In an early poem, "Lofty in the Palais de Danse," a provincial Don Juan fondly remembers a female lover. Unfortunately, she is dead. Mothers, however, have a persistent and self-contradictory role. On the one hand, they want to possess their sons; their excess of protective love may be destructive. On the other hand, they let their sons go; they drop them from the womb. The birth trauma initiates the sense of physical and psychological isolation…. To reconstruct that lost unity, Gunn flees into myth. He feminizes nature and burrows into "Mother Earth."

To construct an abbreviated topography of Gunn's multiple sense of place, one can select one poem from each of the collections up to 1975. That one is able to do so, bespeaks a certain internal coherence within his work as a whole. To begin, take "Without a Counterpart" from Fighting Terms (an obviously punning title). Consisting of five five-lined iambic pentameter stanzas, it takes place in bed. Mental landscapes dominate the poem, however, particularly an unwholesome span of earth that symbolizes its primary emotion—a fear that shifts into ambivalent acceptance of a passivity that is at once imprisonment and the beginning of tenderness. One detail of the conceit hints that "Without a Counterpart" is about homosexuality…. The speaker lies in terror, his "cheek on prickly turf." Then, as the ground shakes, he says "your name." Lover's language works its magic. The spell breaks; the ominous geography dissolves into a humanscape…. (pp. 399-401)

Next, read "To Yvor Winters, 1955" from The Sense of Movement. Comprised of three paragraphs of irregular but cadenced couplets, the poem is set in the garden of Gunn's friend and mentor. The enclosed space, though described realistically, also assumes the status of symbol. It marks the use of human capacities—especially rational intelligence and will—to tame nature; to confront death, a dictate of natural law; and to resist the despair and passivity that such a confrontation might breed. If "Without a Counterpart" explores the ambiguities of sex, "To Yvor Winters, 1955" defines the austere splendors of isolation. (p. 401)

Next, in "Lights among Redwood" from My Sad Captains, a series of brief loose paragraphs, the speaker has a companion. Having company, however, seems easy: the speaker refers simply and directly to "we." The poem's perceiving eye notes the Muir Woods, a California landscape—the light among ferns, the colors of the ground, the strength of the trees. On the one hand, the experience is disgusting. The external world is powerful enough to reduce human personality to its physical self; to deny the generative agent of mental landscapes, the mental self. On the other hand, the experience is exhilarating: the external world is rich enough to contain other worlds. (pp. 401-02)

Then, in "The Garden of the Gods" from Moly, Gunn creates an apparently magical, divine garden, using orderly, iambic tetrameter quatrains. The poem's echoes of Marvell are but one example of Gunn's adaptations of the English literary tradition. In the garden of the gods, plants grow so profusely that nature seems artifice, flowers seem to be jewels, beyond the ability of human consciousness to give them explicable meaning except through imperfect metaphor. The poet does comprehend, however, the source of the garden's fertility: the human process of life and death. He abruptly comes to such knowledge through the operations of both mind and body, thought and sensation…. (p. 402)

Finally, explore "The Bath House," the last poem from the sequence "The Geysers" in To the Air. Gunn is now working with a variety of concrete verse, with spatial irregularities and fragmented lines. "The Geysers" begins with the speaker and a genderless friend who are camping out in California. They and other campers inhabit the wilderness. Following an ecological ethic, they fit themselves into a feminized nature: they do not try to master it; they sleep by a stream in a valley's "crotch." At the same time, the speaker enjoys human companionship, particularly that of men.

Then, in a dark bathhouse, the speaker deliberately violates the ordinary processes of mind by getting half-stoned, and of body, by immersing himself in steaming waters. That breakdown is a preliminary step on an expansive mental and physical trip during which he slides into the primitive past to live the age of reptiles out. At its climax, he permits himself to succumb to a bisexual orgy; the responsive body dominates the will…. [The] orgy becomes cannibalistic. The speaker turns into a modern Dionysius as well as his own Pentheus, against whom his mother, unwilling to perform the act herself, has sent agents of erotic dismemberment. The act of decomposition, however, is also part of the ritual of recomposition. He becomes both beast and deity, natural and divine, profane and sacred, profaned and sacralized….

What traces of America are there on such a poetic map? One hesitates to see too much. The fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc is crude. America, nonetheless, is the physical place in which the ores of Gunn's adult poetry were mined, as well as frequently being its empirical setting. Though California is hardly the only site in which the experiences of the poems might have occurred, its life is flexible, its cities interesting, and its landscape beautiful, compelling enough both to provoke and to silence thought. In America and in the West, the alien seems to have mitigated his sense of alienation. (p. 403)

Catharine R. Stimpson, "Thom Gunn: The Redefinition of Place" (a revision of a lecture originally delivered at a meeting of the Modern Language Association in December, 1975), in Contemporary Literature (© 1977 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 391-404.

Lance Lee

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[Thom Gunn's work] has reached something of a culmination and turning point in Jack Straw's Castle…. (p. 108)

The nature of Gunn's development can be glimpsed in three 'mirror' poems. The persona of "The Corridor" (1957) peeps through a keyhole at an act of love. He masters his ambivalent reaction by willing not to participate in such pleasure in order not "to be mastered" or become "the inhabitant/Of someone else's world, a mere shred to fit." But when he discovers he is being watched in a distant glass his self-denial of pleasure to preserve a fictional privacy becomes pointless. Yet, though Gunn's persona is prepared to meet the watcher as a friend, it's clear this compromising 'other' is a stranger.

"The Messenger" (1971) intensifies the ambivalent pulls. A man stares "At one red flower he dares not know," though he tries to echo and become it like a mirror and search out a face in it that yet remains one "without a name." The poem is LSD influenced, the image suggestive of the eternal self (unconscious being) that he "dares not know" for fear of self-annihilation (becoming "a mere shred to fit").

Contrast this to "Behind The Mirror" in Jack Straw's Castle where Gunn realizes the 'other's' gaze is his own in a mirror…. The poem turns to Narcissus who "glares into the pool" as Gunn into the mirror but sees "only the other," unlike Gunn who now watches the watcher, "The Corridor" inverted and made conscious. What if Narcissus/Gunn drowns himself?… There is no facile act of will to master a pleasure for fear of loss of self.

Significantly, that dreaded loss has had its sting drawn through a growth in self-knowledge. Consequently, will is altogether absent from Jack Straw's Castle as Gunn goes down to the roots of his own violence. In fact, acts of will, admirable as they may be, had already proven insufficient to master or execute violence effectively, as so early a poem as "Claus Von Stauffenberg" (1961) shows.

Gunn starts this probing for self-understanding in "The Geysers." He fantasizes "bobbing in the womb, all around me Mother" from whom life separated him into self-hood…. So torn "I am/I am raw meat/I am a god." He is not Gunn/god, however, but an "unreflecting" part of the raw process and stuff of nature, his attainment of divinity a largely rhetorical flourish that lets him out of the poem. It's a bit of a failure.

'Bringing To Light' has more success though a less definite end…. Dam, dame, feminine, animal nature: no matter how far down we go, there is "a separating/of cells." Such a separation is from a living wholeness into a conscious fragment at once ashamed of and intent on having the selfhood it regrets,—as the only apparently incestuous image of mother and lover fused richly suggests.

The title poem takes a profounder look at the relation of this tension to violence. Gunn takes another trip down "in the cellar" and comes to a scene of ritual self-sacrifice, but understands priest and victim (like mother and lover) are "Two limbs of the same body." (pp. 109-11)

The dangers in this sort of poetry are the revelation of the merely private, mawkishness, or addle-pated psychology. Gunn avoids these (least in "The Geysers"). "Mother" is both mother and the unconscious life force, the continual expression of 'becoming,' something, however, we feel torn from into individuality to our great gain and great pain, a "caesarian" operation. We ache for release from being born into ourselves (separate, conscious, human), while this ache for the lost wholeness fuels an equally basic process, 'ceasing-to-be.'

But as "Bringing To Light" made clear, the source of this paradoxically opposed process is in ourselves. Escape is as much a delusion as total self-sufficiency was for the persona of "The Corridor" twenty years ago. The tension of this fundamental paradox in ourselves splits us apart into (at least) victim, sacrificer, watcher. This is the heart of our violence: irreconcilable inner conflict. Or is it irreconcilable? Perhaps "ritual and ceremony" offer a hope for a measure of reconciliation and peace. Art is needed to complete or balance not Nature but our nature: "Jack Straw's Castle" functions in just such a way, transiently, for poet and reader. (p. 112)

Immediate as these experiences may be, our understanding remains in part interpretative. In "The Cherry Tree" Gunn gives expression to this fundamental paradox, the split between individuality and wholeness, in a way that makes his subjective perception immediately accessible and reconciles us to it by unifying the complexities this paradox engenders in a single metaphor. The cherry tree slowly pushes buds out: they flower, "they're … here/she wears them like a coat/a coat of babies." The tree is "jubilant," and works to feed "her children" from the roots "while the petals drop" and they "get pink/and shine among her leaves."… It's a brilliant success. (pp. 112-13)

Gunn's openness goes hand-in-hand with a growth of poetic ability. Earlier poems in previous volumes and in the present are sometimes enough to make an American eyelid grow heavy. English commentators may have found something violent in or about them but they are, with their traditional rhyme and meter schemes, tepid in our tradition with such diverse, powerful poets as Whitman, Jeffers, or Ginsberg. Apparently Gunn found this formalism necessary to make his violence safe enough to express: now, the fear of looking inward gone, the formal distancing is not so necessary. The free verse poems from "The Plunge" onward in Jack Straw's Castle show a powerful growth in formal and expressive capacity. "Thomas Bewick," "The Outdoor Concert," the delightful "An Amorous Debate," "Hampstead: The Horse Chestnut Trees," and some of the later, more autobiographical poems are fine pieces of work. (pp. 115-16)

To develop the uniquely authentic voice of human reality as Gunn has started to, a voice that only seems too modest to count and always finds itself in danger of being silenced by the surrounding rhetoric is, if truth be told, far the finest and most dangerous ambition a poet can have. (p. 116)

Lance Lee, "Roots of Violence," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1979 by Chicago Review), Vol. 30, No. 4, Spring, 1979, pp. 108-16.∗

Donald Davie

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It makes sense to me, as an Englishman living in the United States, to say that British English has lost its innocence, where American English hasn't. At any rate, when I read Thom Gunn, an expatriate of longer standing, along with any able American …, that's the first overpowering impression that I get: how many more centuries of usage Gunn's English must take account of and be burdened with! (pp. 36-7)

It's [an] ultimate constriction in Gunn's poetry—not anything in his psyche but (as I believe) inherent in the British English which is his medium—that moves me most deeply. So in his "Autobiography," it isn't the London references that move me, but the enormous difficulty that British English has—having, as it were, suffered so much—in registering inclusiveness…. (p. 37)

Gunn in fact has resisted, has done his best to abjure, the facile forms that British knowingness took in his generation: the more or less glibly deprecating ironies, for instance. His strategy for doing so was unexpected and admirable: since his medium trailed with it distracting echoes from earlier centuries, he decided to dig back into those centuries further than his British contemporaries, to recover that phase of British English—Donne's, Marlowe's, above all Shakespeare's—in which the language could register without embarrassment the affirmative, the frankly heroic. In some early poems that he has sensibly left out of [Selected Poems 1950–1975], this was overt in subject matter and hints of fustian rhetoric…. [His] style assimilates those Renaissance precedents in a way quite different from [Ivor] Winters and other Stanford-influenced Americans. His poem to Winters, included here, is an homage appropriately couched in Winters's own manner; and so it reads as affectionate pastiche, ventriloquial, not really in Gunn's voice at all. In his mature work the Renaissance presence isn't narrowly stylistic but, one is tempted to say, ideological. For instance he believes, though in a very sophisticated way, in destiny…. The Renaissance styles—of life more than of writing—are invoked by Gunn not to judge the tawdry present, nor to keep it at arm's length, but on the contrary so as to comprehend it in a way that extends to it not just compassion but dignity…. Thus,… a drug-pusher's sotto voce spiel in a San Francisco street is uttered in a poem ["Several Voices out of a Cloud"] that in its impassive tone recalls Autolycus the pedlar of A Winter's Tale, and in its overall strategy is close to Dowland's "Fair Knacks for Ladies." Or there is the young wino in the poem called "Sparrow," where the allusion to pitiful songs from Shakespeare isn't anywhere in the diction but all in the meter and rhyme. It's in this not altogether obvious sense that a British critic, Colin Falck, can credit Gunn with "the lines of most near-to-Shakespearian power in twentieth-century English or American verse." It is an astonishing claim to make for anyone, and a higher claim than is usually made for Gunn; and yet I think it is just. (pp. 37-8)

Donald Davie, "'Selected Poems 1950–1975'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 15, October 13, 1979, pp. 36-8.

Donald Hall

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Eliot wrote of James that he was "difficult for English readers because he is an American; and … for Americans, because he is European…." Thom Gunn reverses the direction….

Some poets who suffer their reputations have positively constructed them. Gunn's willful exile or assumed estrangement takes up certain burdens in exchange for certain liberties. I have the sense that his situation—nationless, speechless, placeless, almost a name without an address—suits him exactly, and makes for him the kind of island Yeats was always imagining….

For Gunn's is a voice that wishes to fly any nets that would entrap it, nets of family or nation or doctrine; he has cherished silence, exile and cunning in an American city. If his exile is a vantage point, it is also a vision: life pared down to its nakedness….

This Selected Poems is a remarkable book, consistent in its bleak detachment, varied in style and manner, an anthology of changing voices chanting the same song. It starts with the young poet, a Cambridge undergraduate, writing vigorous stanzas of pentameter, poems constructed of large conceits inventively fleshed out…. The language begins as English and progresses toward American. (p. 472)

Along the way Gunn writes the best syllabic verse of his generation, notably in the title poem of an earlier volume, My Sad Captains…. No one has used so well the strange but defined shape of the syllabic stanza; he makes it seem as if it had been created to contain his own paradoxical detachment and willed connection.

In later works, some conviction departs from his metrical poems. English metrical writing as its best [Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill] uses the line as a structural connection to 500 years, and in early Gunn this confidence is unquestioned. More recent poems show metrical wit and trickery which remind me more of American practitioners [Anthony Hecht] for whom meter seems less structure and allusion than ornament or decoration…. But by the end of this volume Gunn has assimilated the short-lined free-verse movement of American poetry that descends from William Carlos Williams to the rest of us…. (pp. 472-73)

Donald Hall, "The Music of What Happens: 'Selected Poems 1950–1975'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 15, November 10, 1979, pp. 472-73.

M. L. Rosenthal

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[Thom Gunn] is unusual among English poets in allowing himself to reveal vulnerability. Without self-pity, and often hesitantly inward, he implies a half-reluctant, all but passive fascination with the unknown and the forbidden. We can follow its progress through the years [in his Selected Poems], from the wavering "Wind in the Street" through the astringent "A Map of the City" (in which private and social "malady" is linked with "endless potentiality" and "my love of chance") to the disillusioned yet persistent "The Idea of Trust." These poems, especially the third, reflect a peculiarly contemporary habit of mind: the hope that one throw of the dice can redeem something, make room for significant experience, no matter how depressive the general terms of life.

And yet Mr. Gunn is not lugubrious. His best work is exploratory in a courageously candid way…. In "Moly" … the bestial and the human in ourselves are seen struggling to engulf one another; the agony is projected in allegorical symbols borrowed from the Odyssey but suggestive of drug-induced hallucinatory states.

In many of Mr. Gunn's poems, introspection rises to a sort of surrealistic, terrified pitch reminiscent of the work of Sylvia Plath and Ramon Guthrie. (p. 20)

At the same time, Mr. Gunn can be very humanly direct, as in the plain-spoken monologue called "Sparrow." He can also combine richness, subtlety and forthright compassion, as in the remarkably orchestrated "In Santa Maria del Popolo." Here esthetic and sacred vision, slowly unfolding in a dark painting seen in difficult, changing conditions of light, comes painfully into view. (pp. 20-1)

With their undemonstrative virtuosity, their slightly corrupt openness, their atmosphere of unfathomable secrets and their intimacy, so like that of a reticent friend who has something crucial to confess, these poems strike a chord at once insinuatingly familiar and infinitely alien. (p. 21)

M. L. Rosenthal, "Intimate and Alien," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 20, 1980, pp. 20-1.

Richard Murphy

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With versatile literary allusions and metaphysical wit, [Thom Gunn's early poems] use the manners of the past to cope with modern situations. In this they remain true to the spirit of postwar Britain, open to new ideas while bound by archaic rituals. "The Wound" is about a trauma whose cure involves frequent changes of identity, and this contemporary subject is defiantly set on the Trojan battlefield of Troilus and Cressida. "The Beach Head" rehearses the play of love as a mock-heroic war game with Shakespearian (Marlowe Society) bravado…. Here are many of his themes: the cult of male energy, the self-destructive lure of danger, the lack of a positive sense of direction, the need to pose as another person, the separateness of lovers. There is also the delight in style for its own sake….

In Gunn's poetry a metaphysical game of ideas and feelings is played with words. Arbitrary rules govern the play of violent or self-destructive forces on a limited field of action. Soldier, motorcyclist, hustler, panhandler, or thief perform their butch parts in smoothly rhymed stanzas or free verse of transparent liquidity. The structure of the poems often has the duality of a male contest. Women appear only as goddesses or mothers or cherry trees. Energy toils to overcome inertia; lover wrestles man to man with alienation; mechanized goggled youth explodes across the dirt of nature; knowledge refines ignorance which consumes knowledge. The need to find value in life confronts the awareness that life has no value that can satisfy the need. The castle of identity resists the assault of its owner's gothic freak out. Nothing annihilates nothing, and leaves "a huge contagious absence." (p. 28)

In an excellent poem, "The Byrnies," he has imagined how conceptual thought must have originated as a defense, like armor, against the unknown terrors of the primeval forest. Every abstract word in it is given the weight of an object. The idea is transformed into a brazen thing…. With English and French literature at his fingertips, as well as some German and Italian, Gunn can use strange voices and styles for the purpose of his pose. In diction he can make foreign words brush past one another unfamiliarly: for example, words of Greek, Nordic, and Latin origin hover into a strange English proximity….

Another real power of Gunn's poetry is to define a split second of decision in the turmoil of an action or a moral conflict. He can almost photograph the human mind, and capture in a poem the instant timing of photography…. In "Epitaph for Anton Schmidt," a section of "Misanthropos," Gunn imagines the situation of an ordinary German soldier who during the war "helped the Jews to get away." The conclusion is a moving passage of moral photography, in which he democratizes the hero and gives him a noble anonymity….

"Innocence" [is] a poem about what [Gunn] believed the force celebrated in Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, with its exaltation of the Germanic energy which he admired, could finally achieve: the extinction of sympathy for another person's pain and death. Gunn's poem is a complex moral drama or movie of the mind. The cool tone of its voice, the British uniform of the style, insulate our feelings: meter and rhyme control the temperature, putting ice on the forehead for the fever of the last lines. (p. 29)

"Innocence" is a serious game about the ambiguous meaning of that word; a moral assault on the idea of goodness enshrined in its etymology; and an attack on the myth of the fall of man. Gunn's strategy here is to encourage us to identify with the athletic, Nordic, energetic youth: he is our representative, who does his daily jogging. It's a shock when we find where the argument leads us in the last two quatrains…. ["Innocence"] makes us see how closely to our own ideals of "courage, endurance, loyalty, and skill" the boy was reared, and how, if we let ourselves be protected by uniformity and inspired by force, we could commit that kind of atrocity. The poem suggests that abstract evil in this case is the ambiguity of a word saturated in the blood of myth.

Subsumed within the image of the guardsman and the burning partisan is a sado-masochistic homosexual relationship between two strangers: Nazism visualized as a beating party that went too far. It suggests that not just totalitarian conscription of human beings into armies leads to abstraction and the extinction of love, but that this is a widespread disease, not confined to homosexuals, of our psyche and our culture, transmitted through words and myths. (pp. 29-30)

Gunn's Selected Poems is an excellent work in progress, drawn from six volumes, with no sense of having been completed. He has never loved completedness: what he likes about cities, such as San Francisco, is their "cool seething incompletion."… In his later work he has tried to create a surrealist art of incompletion without the guilt-proof armor of his earlier styles. He has become more open and vulnerable and loose. His poems have become games that nobody wins, in which the players are sometimes so laid back they forget which side they are on, and in the end what does it matter? Ironside has stepped out of his chain mail to beachcomb and bathe in geysers and freak out in the mythological garden of an acid trip.

Since about 1965 Gunn's poetry has philandered with a modern Californian version of the Celtic myth of Tir na n-Og, where the beautiful young enjoy themselves everlastingly loafing in the west, free from oppressive northern deities, and of course ageless. Few of Gunn's poems in his last three books have worked for me as well as many in the first three. They seem to have forsaken that concept. Take, for instance, "Autobiography," which has a promising title, and begins with a good intention:

                 The sniff of the real, that's                    what I'd want to get

But it gives me a smell of paper:

                 longing so hard to make                  inclusions that the longing                  has become in memory                  an inclusion

In this kind of poem, he glancingly shows us a menu of what he has enjoyed or suffered, but gives us no taste of the meal….

Poems such as "Bringing to Light," in which he keeps opening doors of perception into dank cellars, to meet dream or drug mentors, delving into foundations, seem written in an enervated style that gets no nearer by not sitting still.

Fortunately, in some later poems he has attained an almost liquid permeability of style, using free verse, through which the meaning can shine as clearly as light through a glass of water. In one called "Yoko," the poem assumes the identity of a Newfoundland dog, in order to express his love for a person who is the dog's master. The form is free enough in the manner of Whitman to allow quick changes of rhythm and speed, yet strict enough to call the rambling of the dog's mind back to a leash in the end…. Here Gunn resurrects the dramatic pose, and plays his game of ideas and feelings with renewed skill and energy. (p. 30)

Richard Murphy, "Fierce Games," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, March 20, 1980, pp. 28-30.

James Finn Cotter

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 258

Thom Gunn possesses the poetic gift of an ego open to Self, as [Selected Poems] demonstrates. From the start he found nonce symbols in wound, wind, lighthouse, or looking glass to embody his inner experiences. Both in technique and approach he appeared a traditionalist, but his inspiration and language marked him an original speaker: "I was myself: subject to no man's breath." The familiar matter of "Tamer and Hawk" becomes another experience when we hear the hawk tell us:

                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.

Yet the poem does not present a romantic identification of the poet and the bird, rather the hawk represents the ego's true relationship to the Self: "The habit of your words/Has hooded me." The poem concludes with an echo of the scriptural injunction to lose one's life in order to find it: "I lose to keep, and choose/Tamer as prey." The dramatization of two consciousnesses finds its proper emblem for wholeness in the bond between bird and man. (p. 133)

Gunn is a chameleon in his mature poems: a tattoo artist, a woman and cat asleep, a prisoner, a family naked on the beach become the Self that reflects ourselves. A pet dog, hobo sparrow, or cherry tree transmogrify before us. (p. 134)

James Finn Cotter, "Poetry, Ego and Self," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1980 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 131-45.∗


Gunn, Thom(son William)


Gunn, Thom(son) (Vol. 6)