Thom Gunn Gunn, Thom(son) (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Catharine R. Stimpson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lance Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

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Donald Davie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Donald Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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James Finn Cotter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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