Thom Gunn Gunn, Thom(son William) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thom(son William) Gunn 1929–

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. His subjects range from metaphysical conceits to motorcycle gangs and LSD, and at the center of his work there is a tension between constraint and energy that Gunn describes in Moly (1971) as "a debate between the passion for definition and the passion for flow." As a student and beginning 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. Like Movement poetry, 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 (1954), were written at Cambridge and reveal his attempt at stylistic sophistication and hard realism. Gunn's admiration for the man of action, which recurs throughout his career, is evident here in the many images of soldiers and war. In 1954, Gunn moved to California and enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied under the poet and critic Yvor Winters.

Gunn's life in the United States has strongly influenced his work. 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, as well as his philosophical approach. His second collection, The Sense of Movement (1958), like Fighting Terms, displays a formal construction and examines the existential premise of a valueless world in which the individual creates meaning through willed action. However, the influence of American culture begins to emerge and in Gunn's next collection, My Sad Captains and Other Poems (1961), this influence becomes explicit.

My Sad Captains is divided into two thematically and stylistically different sections and is considered a major transitional volume. The first half continues in the mode of Gunn's previous volumes, stressing violence, roughness, and action with tight, formal control. The second section marks the beginning of Gunn's movement from metrical verse to syllabics and eventually to even more relaxed free forms. The change in technique is mirrored in the emergence of new poetic concerns: Gunn's metaphysical contemplations are abandoned in order to record experiences in and perceptions of the physical world. Nature begins to figure prominantly and Gunn's combative stance toward the world is softened. The poems begin to express a recognition that emotional contact between humans is both possible and desirable. Gunn's next collection, Touch (1968), expands on this sense of hope and possibility. The poems are written mostly in free verse or a combination of free verse and syllabics, a style which is seen to reflect Gunn's developing optimism.

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 and Other Poems (1976). This was a period of almost ecstatic discovery for him, and these two volumes reflect his growth as he embraces the community of humankind while also acknowledging the pain and trauma of deeply sharing oneself.

The Passages of Joy (1982) contains what many critics consider his most revealing poems. They explore his English heritage, and in several poems Gunn speaks openly, for the first time, about his homosexuality. As Gunn's style continues to relax, some critics express regret over his departure from formal literary traditions, but his poems are frequently praised for their heightened clarity and directness and for the precision of Gunn's control. In 1982 Gunn also published his first collection of essays, The Occasions of Poetry. This volume contains critical analyses of the work of other poets as well as autobiographical pieces. 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.

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27.)

P. R. King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Thom Gunn] shared the belief of The Movement poets that poetry should be well made and craftsmanlike, utilizing traditional rhythms and rhyme schemes. Many of his early poems expressed fairly complex ideas within intricately extended metaphors, a style which helped earn him the label of 'a modern metaphysical poet', especially as these poems were often concerned with matters of love and passion, one of the traditional themes of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets.

Now that he has published six volumes of poetry this view seems somewhat limited and cannot provide a full account of his strongly individualistic voice…. Many of his poems, particularly his best ones, are linked closely to his life and experiences and especially to his exploration of his sense of himself and the possible attitudes and commitments he might embrace. There is a sense in which his poetry might be seen as a continuously developing attempt to understand the intellectual's condition in modern life and to explore the divisions, conflicts, tensions and problems that he faces. His poems explore aspects of the rift between thinking man and acting man, between body and mind, self and others, self and the natural world.

In Iris Murdoch's novel The Time of the Angels there is a character called Pattie, a black servant who suddenly finds that after years of loneliness, grinding work and poverty, after the experience of an aching lack of companionship and affection, she is able, under the gentle touch of another's love, to let the bitterness and cold egocentrism of her earlier self melt into a new sense of identity. Her new self is able to respond to others. It is described at the moment of rebirth [as 'some sudden amazing freedom']…. This 'sudden amazing freedom' and its accompanying sense of completeness in responding to another is a perfect description of the goal towards which the poetry of Thom Gunn moves…. (pp. 77-8)

It is hardly a characteristic most easily perceived at first glance and particularly not if the reader concentrates only on the early, better-known poems. In these, Gunn's famous concern with the world of the leather-jacketed ton-up boys, and his apparent mistrust of love which almost amounts to scorn, prevents the deep groundswell of this theme being seen at a superficial glance.

Fighting Terms (1954, revised 1962), as its title suggests, promotes a tough, hardened stance towards the world and personal relationships. In the various situations and personae of these poems the individual, even when he is in love, is seen to occupy an embattled position. Poems like 'Lofty in the Palais de Dance' or 'The Beachhead' adopt an aggressive pose. They are not immediately personal poems, even when dealing with personal emotions. Gunn wears a series of masks and looks at a number of situations, writing as if from within a different character. (pp. 78-9)

[The poems in this volume] have a strict structure (frequently a six-line stanza based on an iambic rhythm) with carefully developed imagery and fastidious rhymes which emphasize the intellectual control and sharp consciousness shared by the protagonists of the poem who try to overcome their detached nature by burying themselves in action. The Sense of Movement (1957) takes this theme further and uses a theory of pose as its vehicle. Gunn developed this theory while a student at Cambridge. He maintained that, since everybody seemed to behave quite differently with different people and in different circumstances, it would be best to be fully aware of this and to control such roles consciously. A poet, particularly, might use such a theory to write from outside his own personal experience. We can see this conscious adoption of different poses in both the first two books, but it is in the second that the theory is used to explore facets of contemporary life.

Many of the poems both employ the theory and at the same time hint at its limitations. The pose particularly pursued is that of the Hell's Angels motorbike gang member (these poems were written in the period of the James Dean-style tough-guy rebellion). Its best presentation is the most heavily anthologized of Gunn's poems, 'On the Move'.

This poem describes a gang of ton-up toughs, 'the Boys', who race their motorcycles across the landscape, tearing noisily from one barely noticed town to another without any clear sense of direction. Around this central description Gunn weaves a series of ideas that convert the motorcyclists into a symbol for a particular response to life. (pp. 83-4)

[The Boys' solution to a sense of meaningless is generalized] into an image of modern man who, it is claimed, is born amid movement and who cannot properly control this very movement he is committed to because he has no sense of final goal. All he can do is commit himself to the ongoing action. (p. 85)

In 'On the Move' Gunn successfully employs images from contemporary culture, but only in part to help him explore the motives for the behaviour of the rebellious youths that anonymously populate many of his poems. His real concern is to make them symbolize not just their own generation but a whole way of possible confrontation with our modern world. Whether the motorcyclists could actually see themselves in the way Gunn sees them is beside the point. What matters is the articulation of the poet's possible stance towards his world—a world which he sees in this poem as giving no sense of absolute value to man. (pp. 85-6)

It is in such poems [as 'On the Move'] that Gunn laid the groundwork on which his early critics erected an image of him as the 'tough-guy intellectual'. Yet this label neglects the fact that he has been a self-conscious writer from the very beginning, always aware of his limitations. 'On the Move' contains its own distancing comment on the posture it decribes. This sense of the limits of the pose becomes increasingly explicit in the next book; meanwhile the remaining poems in the 1957 volume create a sense of modern man 'condemned to be an individual' in that he must explore the limitations of thought and of the world in which he lives, a world in which he can no longer wrestle a meaning from the historically meaningful traditions but must instead test all values through his own sense of the possibility of man. (p. 86)

The images that predominate in this volume are of toughness, hardness and self-discipline. Their connotations suggest a view of man imprisoned within his individual self, unable to know himself through any inherited value system and unable to lay hold of authentic life except by self-control and conscious exploration of his sense of apartness from nature and his fellow human beings. This exloration can be achieved only through action and commitment in which the action is the greater part of the meaning. It is not an achieved philosophy in which a man could rest for long, and Gunn himself was unable to rest in it, as we shall see…. There is a price to be paid by those who try to will desire and control energy and action by disciplined order. In 'The Beaters' there is a suggestion of the dangers involved. The enemy is seen as necessary in order to provoke the required discipline, and the implication is that life can be lived only by continually promoting its own adversary. This is a dangerous stance which leads inevitably to a split between people and a division within the individual. My Sad Captains (1961) takes the examination of this danger further and consciously elaborates it in the first half of the book, while in the second half the first suggestions of a different direction begin to emerge.

In the first part there are still poems on motorcycle gangs ('Black Jackets') and tough heroes ('The Byrnies'), but these are somewhat forced compared with earlier ones…. For a much more impressive presentation of the strengths and weaknesses of this pose of the isolated individual creating his own morality by force of will and self-discipline, we must turn to 'Claus von Stauffenberg' and 'Innocence'.

'Claus von Stauffenberg' concerns the Second World War German army officer, a maimed veteran of many successful campaigns who became a member of Hitler's staff and who...

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Clive Wilmer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gunn is quite consciously a writer of contrasts, who has drawn on a wide range of influences and modes. But his work none the less impresses the careful reader with its underlying consistency. He made his name, after all, as a master of rigorously traditional verse forms, and he continues to excel in them, but he has since become hardly less accomplished in a variety of 'open' forms and the verse is no less shapely. His approach is at root impersonal: his first person, like Ralegh's or Jonson's or Hardy's, is unquestionably that of a particular man, but a man who expects his individuality to be of interest in so far as it is a quality the reader shares with him…. His work, which has done much to dispel the critical...

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Jay Parini

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Rule and Energy, two] potentially counterdestructive principles, exist everywhere in [Thom Gunn's] 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. (p. 134)

[Gunn's early poems] 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,...

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Donald Davie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the past, I have been persuaded by those like Colin Falck who have thought Thom Gunn's distinctive and great achievement was to have re-established creative connections with at least one aspect of Shakespeare, and with some of Shakespeare's great contemporaries, notably Marlowe and Donne. Gunn, I believe, liked this notion, and Clive Wilmer endorses it in his excellent and too brief Introduction to The Occasions of Poetry [see excerpt above]. It is disconcerting to have to acknowledge that in Gunn's very fine collection of poems [The Passages of Joy] this dimension of his writing is no longer evident. In none of these 37 poems, as I read them, is there any longer evidence that their author has been...

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Peter Kemp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'I can try / At least to get my snapshots accurate,' Thom Gunn remarks in one of the poems in his new collection, The Passages of Joy. The critical essays assembled in The Occasions of Poetry pay tribute to other poets who have done so. Crisp bits of verbal photography are frequently held up for admiration. Keats is praised for his 'sharp-eyed exactness'; Hardy, congratulated on the 'clarity of … [his] images'. William Carlos Williams—in some ways the key exhibit—is enthused over as though he were a flawless camera lens: 'clear delineation … perfect accuracy'.

Gunn aims at achieving similar results. Cloudiness caused by out-of-focus rhetoric or 'confessional' over-exposure is...

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John Lucas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I am sorry to say that The Passages of Joy seems to me an utterly cliché-ridden collection. There are clichés of phrase: the poet speaks of being 'buried' in his work, he remembers a friend's 'boisterous sense of fun', he 'tingles' with knowledge. There are clichés of thought, of which the poem to Elvis Presley is a particularly unfortunate example…. But above all, it is the cliché of manner that hurts this volume. There are two such manners. One is the laid-back, free-form, West Coast style of the majority of the poems, which is so slack as to be almost enervate, and which therefore works only when it mimes its subject matter as in 'Slow Walker.'… The other is that tight, formal style with which Gunn...

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Mark Caldwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thom Gunn's new book of poems [The Passages of Joy] comes clean with a companion volume of essays [The Occasion of Poetry], as if someone were trying to package him as an august poet and critic—the gay Matthew Arnold of his time. Even their titles have parallel ambiguities. What's an Occasion? What's a Passage?

As an essayist, Gunn is modest and generous, belying the hype. Some of his essays—like those of Rod Taylor, Dick Davis, and James Merrill—are "occasional" in that they're short, casual, slight, even fugitive, floating away into thin air on their own gracefulness. Yet the longer pieces on Fulke Greville and Thomas Hardy are "occasional" in a more satisfying sense: here Gunn...

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Dana Gioia

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gunn is a very versatile writer both technically and thematically. Games of Chance allows the reader to study one side of him in isolation. These eleven new poems, all written in free verse, show Gunn in a reflective mood. Like an operatic tenor whose voice has darkened with age, Gunn is moving into new roles in his recent work, and though he may move among the same scenery as before, he now sees it from a different perspective. He shows the same curiosity as ever, but it is now tinged with cynicism, as in "Expression," where Gunn turns his attention to the work of young poets…. (p. 491)

Elsewhere Gunn strikes a more tender note. In "Elegy" the memory of an acquaintance who shot himself...

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John Mole

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The play of intelligence has always been a distinguishing mark of Thom Gunn's poetry, and his critical essays [collected in The Occasions of Poetry] show that it is what he values most in the poetry of others. Writing on the early work of Gary Snyder—a significant signpost en route to his own Americanisation—he singles out a poem which is "about feeling the cleanness of the senses" and goes on to observe that "cleanness, exactness, adequacy are the first impressions we have of the language and the rhythms … rhythms at one with the perceptions, neither their servants nor their masters." It is this kind of firm grace, a lyrical pact between servant and master, the practice of an efficient sensibility, that...

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