Introduction

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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...

(This entire section contains 706 words.)

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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

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[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 was part of an unsuccessful conspiracy to assassinate the Führer. He is thought to be the man who planted the bomb which, in fact, led to his own death and not the death of Hitler. The poem suggests that, although the act is a failure in terms of its own goal, it succeeds in another way; for the act and man lodge in our memories, in history itself, as an image of the courageous individual action of a man who kept firm hold of his sense of morality while those about him who were most powerful were systematically deranging humanistic values. (pp. 88-90)

It is written in a cool, spare language with a traditional fourline stanza in iambic rhythm and rhyming abab.

This form is shared with 'Innocence', a poem that explores the other, darker side of the self-disciplined will. Again the subject concerns Nazi Germany, this time describing how a young boy grows through his Nazi youth to become a soldier on the Russian front killing partisans. (p. 90)

We have in this poem a strong image of the warped self. It uses a ballad-like stanza but does not so much tell a narrative as describe a sequence of conditions which are both commented on and placed at the same time. It reveals the limitations that result from the development of self through action that has no regard for any goal. The innocence is turned into a dangerous egotism that reduces man to his physical self and, paradoxically, blinds him to the bodily suffering of another….

In these two poems we see the two separate selves of the poet as portrayed in the early books. In My Sad Captains it is as if Gunn has arrived at the point where he is able to see both the strengths and weaknesses of this divided self but is as yet unable to heal the rift. That is why the book ends with the title poem which is a valediction to these early heroes. However, a more hopeful change is seen developing in the poems of the second half of the collection which immediately precede this valediction. These show the influence of Gunn's decision to live in California, several of them being about his life there. They also show a move towards looser rhythms and forms. Many are written not in traditional forms but in syllabics. These are composed of lines of equal numbers of syllables (usually six, seven or nine) and with a rhythm of two main stresses and two subsidiary stresses to each line, the stresses occurring in irregular sequences. It is a rhythm more American than English (it has been perfected by William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, although W. H. Auden has made good occasional use of it). Its freedom shadows the freer themes of the poems. (p. 92)

These poems are frequently about the Californian landscape with its eucalyptus and giant redwood firs and, especially, the peculiar clarity of light which typifies California. There seems here to be the beginning of an openness towards a new sense of delight and awe in the presence of nature which has not previously appeared in the poetry of someone who earlier celebrated city scenes because they are 'extreme, material and the work of man' ('In Praise of Cities'). (p. 93)

In 'My Sad Captains' Gunn takes leave of his tough-guy pose. Whatever meaning he once found in it he now recognizes as significant only for the individual who experiences it—it contains no power to relate that individual either to nature or to others. The old heroes are stars that 'turn with disinterested / hard energy', shining with a light which, however brightly it appears in the firmament, cannot cast any real illumination across the dark universe. It is in the 1967 volume that, as the title Touch suggests, we see the poet exploring how contact can be made with nature and with other people. The centre of the book is the long poem sequence 'Misanthropos', arguably one of Gunn's most effective poems. In it he imagines a solitary man in a bare landscape, apparently the sole survivor of a holocaust. In some poems he is described from outside by an observer-narrator, in others he speaks with his own voice. (p. 94)

This is a fine poem, full of variety but with strict control of the developing theme which traces a whole movement of possible thought and describes the incredibly difficult leap from 'the imprisoned self' (as Martin Dodsworth describes it) through the mysterious and irrational, to the touch of human sympathy. (p. 98)

In 'Back to Life', the last poem of the book, we discover an ending with this … realization: that there is no way in which man can completely merge with others—he is condemned to remain solitary—and yet this very recognition shared by all is the only redeeming possibility for communication. In the poems of this volume we see the protagonist experiencing his sense of touch, not just physically but also in the sense of 'getting in touch' with others, sympathizing with and understanding someone beyond ourself. Although the sense of the other is vague and shadowy in many of the poems, it does nevertheless provide the first experience at the feeling level of the protagonist's responses in his fumbling search for genuine communication. Moly (1971) is the collection in which Gunn wrote of his experiences with the drug LSD. (pp. 98-9)

In their form [the poems in Moly] return to carefully developed structures and frequently employ traditional metre and rhyme schemes. This refelcts Gunn's feeling that careful ordering is necessary to balance the content…. Clearly the book suggests that a new freedom—even revelation—has been obtained through the drug, but it is not advocating its wholesale use. LSD/Moly signifies the need for an openness to experience and the need to articulate a new vision.

The nature of this vision can begin to be seen when we realize that many of the poems are concerned with transformation (many poems in Gunn's books describe changes in a person). Some of the central poems are to do with half-men, half-beast creatures ('Moly' and 'Tom-Dobbin'), and others concern the transformation of vision ('The Colour-Machine', 'Three'). (p. 99)

The final poems of the book are about the attempt to merge with surroundings in a meaningful unity through the effect of the drug. 'The Garden of the Gods' creates a mythic sense of divinity, a magical nature which is a rich profusion of delights and the source of fecundity in man. It is a beautiful description of an Eden-like garden in which 'It was sufficient, there, to be', an existence in which meaning-as-explanation was superseded by meaning-as-simply-experience. The conscious mind becomes perception within a fully living body. (p. 101)

In Jack Straw's Castle (1976), Gunn continues the theme of the previous book in poems written after the LSD experience which, benefiting from the liberation which that experience wrought, attempt to translate it into the events of ordinary reality. There are poems suggesting how life may be lived with an intimate sense of relation to our world, but they are realistic in measuring the possibility of failure to do this and the consequences flowing from it. The kind of success that can be achieved, and the recognition of the inner self's properties which must be given their full weight if that success is to be gained, are dealt with in the two long poems on which the book is centred.

'Geysers' adopts an irregular, fragmented line which represents the experience of the subject matter, rather than commenting on it from outside. The subject is an account of camping out in the hills above a group of warm water geysers in Sonoma County, California. As the campers move among one another, they go down to join strangers in a primitive communal bathhouse, taking part in what becomes a drugged, bisexual orgy. In this experience their conscious wills are subordinated to their feelings and desires…. In this poem the divided self which has formed the staple image of so much of Gunn's poetry, even when the attempt to touch was made, becomes at last a unity. The experience that is evoked is impossible to describe and can only be felt as read. It is possible that the weight and effect of the poem as Gunn might wish a reader to experience it can be brought out only for someone who has been prepared by reading all the previous poems. But it remains the one poem of his that has come closest, not to describing, but to enacting the desired experience. In many ways it is the freest of all his poems.

In the title poem of the volume Gunn uses looser forms again, although they are not as free as in 'Geysers'. He takes up the children's rhyme and employs it to symbolize the poet's mind (his conscious, subconscious and unconscious selves) in describing the rooms of the house/castle in which he lives. Much of the poem is concerned with a nightmare that turns the rooms into hellish horrors with images of the demonic murderer Charles Manson bobbing up wherever the poet looks. In these horrors, drawn from real life, Gunn seems to be suggesting a recognition of feelings, desires and responses that he possesses deep down in his normally buried self which, when brought to the surface, reveal us all as implicated to some degree in the pain and suffering that a man like Manson creates. (pp. 102-03)

'Jack Straw's Castle' ends on a positive note, like many others in this collection. It is an acceptance that our sense of identity is given significance precisely through the existence of others and that by trusting in their reality and their goodness we may achieve our own power of touch. In this book a new freedom has been acquired. The divided self may not be entirely healed, but at least that part of the self which is conscious, detached and willed is finally able to merge with experience and become 'as if' something beyond its own boundaries. A striking example of this is the poem 'Yoko'—a tour de force in which Gunn writes as if he was a dog speaking of his love for his master and his joy-in-the-world that he experiences when out walking with his master. It is virtually the only complete poem of Gunn's entire output in which he writes as if from inside the skin of a subject totally different from himself. The nearest poem to it is 'Considering the Snail' but there the snail is commented on, not just re-created. In 'Yoko' the poet is the dog. It is not a pose or a disguise, but rather a true creation of another world that is felt, not willed. (p. 105)

Gunn's poetry is the account of an existential quest, a pursuit of a sense of personal identity and meaning in a world where the traditional supports for life's meaning are being questioned. It is a quest that may not yet be finished: a resolution that so far has been perhaps more often stated than enacted would imply this. Nevertheless it is a quest which in its manner of proceeding has produced some fine poems that articulate the genuine response of a late twentieth-century man to the possibility of identity. Slowly he has moved towards a position where he is beginning to be able to convert those forces ranged against the individual, even death, into something positive. Taken as a whole the poems of Thom Gunn repudiate the criticism of someone like Alan Brownjohn who has said that Gunn idealizes 'the brutal, the irrational and the wilful'. In so far as some early poems may appear to do this, these may be regarded as the few failures of Gunn's work. But if the poems are taken together, in support of one another, the reader can discern a deliberate moving away from the early fantasies and false poses towards a more hopeful, more realistic acceptance of self and the world in which the whole is always greater than its parts. (p. 106)

P. R. King, "'A Courier After Identity': The Poetry of Thom Gunn," in his Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical Introduction, Methuen, 1979, pp. 77-106.

Clive Wilmer

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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 orthodoxy that abstract language is inimical to poetry, has become over the years increasingly sensuous in detail, reflecting preoccupations that were there from the beginning, though not at first as qualities of the language. For this most chaste of modern poets is a philosophical hedonist—rather like Camus, of all modern moralists the one he appears to value most.

The most interesting contrast of all, perhaps, is connected with his sense of the past. What strikes us most immediately in Gunn's poems—what made him famous in fact—is their contained energy. Yet he is also, without fallng into academicism, a highly literary poet, and his literariness, far from being a limitation, may well be the main source of his strength. Gunn's vulnerability, as Donald Davie has said in praise of him, has much to do with his renunciation of the 'glibly deprecating ironies' that insulated so many of the fifties' poets from the full range of poetic possibility. In order to escape such 'facile knowingness' and the phase of British culture that it expressed, Gunn went back to the youth of English poetry 'to discover that phase of British English—Donne's, Marlowe's, above all Shakespeare's—in which the language could register without embarrassment the frankly heroic'. And in his mature work, says Davie, 'The Renaissance styles—of life more than of writing—are invoked … 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….' The only tradition in the English language that shares this verbal innocence is that of American poetry since Whitman, with all its vulnerability and spaciousnes. Gunn, who has lived in the United States since 1954, has nourished himself on that tradition too—so it is perhaps no accident that most of the essays in [The Occasions of Poetry] deal with American or Renaissance writers. (pp. 11-12)

[Gunn's] criticism is interesting for what, indirectly, it tells us about his poetry, but it is still more valuable for the way his own experience of writing illuminates what he reads. He is, quite simply, a marvellous 'reader' of other men's verse. The aspect of literary practice which engages Gunn's critical intelligence most frequently and most fruitfully is the relation of a poet's words to the subject matter that calls them forth. (p. 13)

The occasions of poetry … are only starting points. They constitute the 'shape' of experience, but the task of a poet is to seek out its 'content'. Gunn employs a variety of related metaphors to describe the journey between the two: exploration and adventure, and the related images of looting and conquest. These metaphors unite poets as diverse as Robert Duncan and Yvor Winters. (p. 14)

If the process of poetry, then, is adventure or exploration, its goal must be 'understanding'. This is a word which recurs so often … that we are justified in suspecting its meaning to be less obvious than we might at first have thought…. 'The process of understanding', says Gunn, amounts to something 'more than the business of comprehending the text … Understanding means taking (the poems) to heart, means—ultimately—acting on them.' Of course, he is referring not to the business of understanding life but to the effect of literature. But to apply the word 'understand' to experience at all is, in a sense, to draw an analogy between life and books. If we study life, we can learn from it; our chances of acting on experience are improved. (p. 16)

In recent years, Gunn's interest in American poery has moved away from the traditionalism Winters stood for towards the more loosely informal writing that acknowledges Pound and Williams as its masters. [The Occasions of Poetry], which begins with an essay written in 1965, may be read in part as a record of that shift in emphasis. During this period Gunn seems to have broadened his use of the word 'understanding'. For Jonson and Winters it was the sine qua non of poetry and implied a reduction of experience to generalized formulae. Gunn now argues that poetry is 'an attempt to grasp, with grasp meaning both to take hold of in a first bid at possession, and also to understand'. A grasp of particulars is now quite as important to him as the formulation of propositions, and it entails a concreteness of language that twenty years ago had seemed beside the point. This has nothing to do with metaphor or symbol or correlatives for private emotion. What he values is the precise rendering of physical fact as it is, in all its 'thinginess'. Yet when he says of Gary Snyder, the master of this kind of writing, 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', we realize that Gunn has not moved far from the Wintersian position, for he sees Snyder's poetry as a matter of exploration, discovery and understanding…. In attempting to notate the particulars of experience accurately, Snyder guides us gently into territory we all share. Language, after all, is a common property. When we are persuaded, through language, of the truth of a perception, we have entered the realm of generality: we have stumbled on meaning. Gunn's special talent as a critic lies in his ability to show how, as we read, we move in this way from occasion to meaning. (pp. 16-17)

Clive Wilmer, in an introduction to The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography by Thom Gunn, edited by Clive Wilmer, Faber and Faber, 1982, pp. 11-17.

Jay Parini

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[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, 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. (pp. 134-35)

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. (p. 135)

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…. 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…. 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. (pp. 135-36)

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. (p. 138)

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. (p. 139)

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 syllabics work, the effect is stunning, unsettling: the lines seem cut off like fingers, raw, unbandaged. (p. 140)

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…. [It] is a tender yet fiercely self-critical piece …, 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. (pp. 141-42)

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…. (p. 142)

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….

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." (p. 143)

While "Misanthropos" 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 the 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…. (p. 145)

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 … 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. (p. 146)

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…. The poet loosens, gradually, his grip on self-consciousness, and the poetry itself loosens; meters break down as barriers break…. 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…. (pp. 148-49)

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…. 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…. 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. (pp. 150-51)

Jay Parini, "Rule and Energy: The Poetry of Thom Gunn," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 134-51.

Donald Davie

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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 attending to the songs from Shakespeare's plays, to Donne's Songs and Sonnets, or Marlowe's translations and imitations of Ovid: they are 'contemporary' in an altogether less complicated and more obvious way. Although the title of the collection and an epigraph to one poem come (surprisingly) from Johnson's 'Vanity of Human Wishes', in all other respects these poems seem to remember not much before Whitman, and certainly nothing before Stendhal or Keats. Clearly, if Gunn has indeed been one modern poet with a sympathy for the English Renaissance, that was far from being as central to his achievement as some of us thought. For the achievement is still there: The Passages of Joy is as fine a collection as he has ever published, and if it lacks the resonances that some of us have come to expect and delight in, it provides others that many readers may well prefer.

And after all the signs were always there, if we had cared to look. Rereading in The Occasions of Poetry Gunn's essay on Ben Jonson, one notices for the first time how difficult he finds it to enter into Jonson's world. The difficulties can be surmounted, and mostly he surmounts them, after very plainly and helpfully and not without erudition pointing them out to his readers. One difficulty he does not surmount, I think, is his inability to share Jonson's Christian piety. But more revealing in relation to his own poetry is the difficulty he has with the famous forthrightness of Jonson's not necessarily Christian affirmation…. 'Jonson,' Gunn comments, 'like so many of his contemporaries, looked up to the moral chastity of someone who knew what was right to do (and did it) rather than having to learn it from experience.' The implication is rather plainly that whereas this 'looking up' was a possibility for Jonson and his contemporaries, it is no longer possible for us, or not for those of us who write poems. And sure enough, when we turn to what Gunn writes about his own poems and about 20th-century poetry, we see that a Keatsian 'proving upon the pulses' is for him axiomatic….

Gunn has always been a highly intellectual poet: but that is not quite the same as saying, what seems to be also true, that he is a poet of and for the intelligentsia. The reason for this, for his having no choice in the matter, has been widely known for a long time, but in these two books he takes great care that none of us should be in any doubt about it. He is a practising homosexual, and in poem after poem here he proves on his pulses, from experience, that so far as he is concerned homosexual practices (even, in some circumstances, of a notably promiscuous and mercenary kind) constitute 'what is right'. Among the essays, one on 'Homosexuality in Robert Duncan's Poetry' makes the same point….

Clive Wilmer calls Gunn 'this most chaste of modern poets'. He does not have in mind Gunn's subject-matter…. 'Chaste', as Wilmer uses the word, refers to Gunn's style, and in that sense it is exact. That has always been what is singular about Gunn's work: the combination of unchaste subject-matter (one can be unchaste in other matters than sex) with a remarkably chaste, remarkably lean and unadorned, style. This fruitful tension is more marked in The Passages of Joy than ever before, chiefly because unusually many of the poems are in unmetred verse, where the tautness of formal control can show itself only in a diction that is, as always with this poet, terse and rapid and non-sensuous. Yet, enamoured though he is of liberation …, he has never fallen for the simple-minded liberationist arguments for free verse as against metre; and the alternately rhyming pentameters in a poem called 'Crossroads' splendidly vindicate his belief that 'in metrical verse, it is the nature of the control being exercised that becomes part of the life being spoken about.' Similarly (that same fruitful tension in another key), though he idealises the Sixties, he doesn't like, and never did, a kind of writing that came in with that disgraceful decade:

          For several weeks I have been reading
          the poetry of my juniors.
          Mother doesn't understand,
          and they hate Daddy, the noted alcoholic.
          They write with black irony
          of breakdown, mental institution,
          and suicide attempt, of which the experience
          does not always seem first-hand.
          It is very poetic poetry.

This is a fair example of the firmness that Gunn's chaste diction can manage in free verse, but the acerbity (relatively rare in Gunn but always welcome and well managed) gives it an adventitious lift. A purer example, because free of such special effects, is the last poem in the book, 'Night Taxi', which resists quotation precisely because its 65 lines of unmetred verse support one another totally, so that no excerpt from them carries any punch on its own. And surely just that effect is what is meant, stylistically, by 'chaste'….

The most scholarly essay in The Occasions of Poetry is also the longest and the best, on Fulke Greville. Here not only is the learning impressive and well marshalled, but the critical intelligence is at full stretch as nowhere else. The criticism is methodical and trenchant in the manner of Gunn's old teacher, Yvor Winters: but it discriminates far more patiently than Winters did. I do not scruple to call this essay 'masterly', with a mastery that is likely to be overlooked because Greville is a poet who has never will. Gunn confronts that in Greville which he too finds unappealing: 'The preceding outline ends as a description of attitudes that I find at best sterile and at worst obnoxious.'… What is exemplary is Gunn's insistence, and his demonstration, that in poem after poem Greville can and does validate poetically ideas that remain, in the abstract, obnoxious. This seems to represent an exertion of sympathy beyond what six years later Gunn was able to manage for Greville's contemporary, Jonson; whether or not Gunn can nowadays enter into pre-Enlightenment ethical attitudes, in 1968 he certainly could.

He did so by way of Camus, in whose image of 'le malconfort'—'the cell where one cannot stand, sit, or lie'—he finds an exact analogy to Greville's 'that strait building, Little-ease of sin'. Gunn applauds Camus for saying, 'Il fallait vivre dans le malconfort,' for 'the determination to live with that sickness, fully acknowledging it and accepting it as the basis for our actions'. 'Greville,' Gunn says, 'could not make such an acceptance.' The rigour of this is extraordinary: Gunn calls us to live in Little-ease, while denying ourselves the Christian consolation that even the notoriously bleak Calvinist Greville could fall back upon. Obviously for an unbeliever like Gunn neither sin nor depravity can have, strictly speaking, any meaning: but that distinction is quite consumed in his conviction that Greville's Little-ease, whether or not we call it 'sin', is the state in which we all live, and have to live. That is borne out by Gunn's poems. Let no one be deceived by the title: The Passages of Joy isn't in the least a joyous book. The steely temper of it comes clear as soon as we return the phrase to its context in 'The Vanity of Human Wishes':

             Time hovers o'er, impatient to destroy,
             And shuts up all the Passages of Joy.

The life in Gunn's poems is life in Little-ease; and he persuades us while we read that this is true whether we are 'straight' or (the pathetic incongruity of the word!) 'gay'.

Donald Davie, "Looking Up," in London Review of Books, July 15 to August 4, 1982, p. 19.

Peter Kemp

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'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 deplored in the essays. The poems brilliantly snap up a collection of high-definition images. But there's more to them than mere Nikon precision…. [Gunn] invests his own sharp images with depths of significance: 'every detail brightened with meaning'. Sometimes this is accomplished by the angle from which things are viewed. More usually—it is Gunn's favourite technique—two pictures are creatively juxtaposed.

Juxtaposition increasingly characterises Gunn's writing. Bringing together techniques learned from both English and American poets, he also shows a taste for coupling the literary and the louche…. His latest writings show an imagination amiably hospitable to hustlers and Hardy, Keats and Castro Street, S/M paraphernalia and sonnet sequences. The manner of his poetry is carefully played off against its matter, the former becoming more chaste as the latter gets raunchier.

With impeccable control, The Passages of Joy often depicts kicking over the traces. Gunn's imagination alertly cruises through leather bars, round all-night partyings, past towel boys, rough trade and urban cowpokes. Linking solicitude and soliciting, a number of poems pore attentively over San Francisco studs…. (p. 21)

This is the side of Gunn's personality that relishes high-adrenalin stimulation—butch insignia, wild-side sex. Frequently, in this new book, it is ranged against its opposite. 'New York', for instance, opens with high-risk alfresco sex but cosily concludes amidst sleepy domesticity. 'Hide and Seek', the title and subject of one poem, and a recurrent motif in others, encompasses both extremes: going covertly out on a limb; being eventually drawn back into everyday community. 'Talbot Road' uses the game to staple together two companion pictures set on Hampstead Heath: Gunn, as a boy, by day, sedately playing hide and seek; Gunn, as a man, by night, romping through rougher rituals.

This poem also engineers a confrontation between his adolescent and present selves. Such eerie alter ego meetings are common in Gunn. His poems are full of scenes in which one aspect of his life or personality stares at its opposite. Dichotomies intrigue him: day and night, trust and risk, indoors and outdoors, streets and vegetation.

And there is a fissure through his attitude to pleasure. Part of Gunn hankers after a hippie Eden, some great bounce-around of nude togetherness…. But another part—that which pins a monitory epigraph from Johnson on to this new book of poems—is grimly aware of the casualties of hedonism.

The Passages of Joy abounds with reference to the transience of fun…. Presley, charismatic rebel in an earlier poem, is brought on again—but now as a sorry object-lesson: 'almost matronly', a dropsical zombie numbed by painkillers.

Numbness and unfeelingness always provoke Gunn's distaste. Here, besides drug-clotted Presley, he shakes his head over a comatose cousin, a stupefied alcoholic, and some 'heavy' office-girls who 'sweat into their double knits' as they 'belch and munch' their way through lunch. Attempting to disparage crudity and animus, this latter piece topples embarrassingly into what it derides.

Usually, though, Gunn sustains a fine poise of style and attitude. The Passages of Joy offers some of his most sensitively powerful poetry—pieces like 'June', where he focuses on Oriental poppies blooming in a San Francisco yard. With Imagist precision—vivid and meticulous—he itemises the process of their bursting into flower.

Blazing with sensuous evocation, the lines also glow with rich significance. The flare of floral splendour turns into a delicately handled image of erotic heat. The uncanny natural concord of the poppies—blossoming simultaneously—becomes a fertile emblem of human sexual harmony. In poems like this, Gunn triumphantly unites the graphic and the resonant. He is able, as he says of Isherwood, 'to present complexity through the elegance of simplicity'. (p. 22)

Peter Kemp, "Gunn's Views," in The Listener, Vol. 108, No. 2773, August 12, 1982, pp. 21-2.

John Lucas

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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 began and which now has about it a kind of metallic heaviness, a lack of rhythmic grace which Yvor Winters sanctioned … but which is in fact fatally dull. The trouble with The Passages of Joy is that the voice we are required to listen to finds it very difficult to say anything that is new, plausible or engaging. (p. 21)

John Lucas, "Pleading for the Authenticity of the Spirit," in New Statesman, Vol. 104, No. 2682, August 13, 1982, pp. 20-1.∗

Mark Caldwell

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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 unassumingly puts his intelligence wholly at the service of the occasioning subject, which is never a mere pretext for self-analysis or sermonizing. He's well worth reading when he explains how Greville, a late Elizabethan and Jacobean courtier and poet, appropriated and transformed the different kinds of poetry made available to him by the cultural ferment of the 1590s. Or the way Hardy adapted the taciturnity of English folk ballads, cutting away connective tissue and explanation to let events speak starkly for themselves.

Note that stress on "experience," not meddled with by the writer's ego, as the stuff of the good poem…. Gunn wants to avoid the self-involvement of confession, to make the act of writing a testimony to what he calls "the particulars of the present" transient and elusive, but significant just because they exist: parts of an individual's life, but somehow transcending it.

This, I think, suggests both the strengths and weaknesses of Gunn's poetry, here and elsewhere. He never quite explores his idea that writing affirms experience, never seems quite aware of how complicated the connections are, or how yawning the gulfs that can open up between experience (whatever that is) and the apparently simple but really eldritch act of turning it into blobs of ink on a page. His poems sometimes have a trustful way of taking intractably weird things and pulling all their teeth out, either by making them into ressuringly general emblems of the human condition, or by fitting them to traditional iambics or quatrains, which in another writer might point up their strangeness but which in Gunn more often just domesticates them…. [The poems in The Passages of Joy] are smart, sincere, humane, but tamer than Gunn's own experiences suggest they ought to be.

Mark Caldwell, in a review of "The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography" and "The Passages of Joy." in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 43, October 26, 1982, p. 55.

Dana Gioia

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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 becomes a general lament for all of his dead…. But ultimately Gunn undermines whatever tenderness he shows with the bitter reminders of reality. In "As Expected" the slow gains a young man makes with a ward of retarded adults are destroyed by his successors. Or in "Adultery," a variation on the Elizabethan echo poems that have always fascinated Gunn, a wife's carefully orchestrated lie is rendered pointless when Gunn suddenly reverses the points of view and reveals how little her husband cares for her. Games of Chance is a powerful book. (pp. 491-92)

Dana Gioia, "Poetry and the Fine Presses," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 483-98.∗

John Mole

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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 Gunn has always seemed to go for. In his strongest poems he has achieved a balance of rule and energy where, with an increasing confidence in the handling of free verse and syllabics, the celebrated pose has gradually relaxed into a more mature poise.

The poems I like most in The Passages of Joy are, in the words of one of them, exercises "in stance, and / in the muscle of feeling." They are full of teasing questions of identity, and often turn on a moment of complex interplay experienced as a creative tension…. Gunn's continual alertness to the need to be "loose but in control" (or, as he reverses it in the sonnet "Keats at Highgate", "perhaps not well-dressed but oh no not loose") keeps the reader involved with his search for that fusion of passion and intellect which, for him, is the essence of a good poem. His scenarios have increasingly become the streets and bars of San Francisco or New York but they are not just those of a convert to the American way of life excited by local colour. They are occasions for the exploration of "the cool source of all that hurry / and desperate activity", just as in the autobiographical sequence about living in London, "Talbot Road", his memories weave their way between impressions of remoteness and pressing activity…. When, though, the poems become merely a part of that "live current", when they are loose to the point of hanging out—as in some of the pieces which seem to do no more than celebrate coming out—they seem very limp indeed. The freebooting innocent abroad, preoccupied with the "warm teasing tickle" in the cave of a handshake which takes his mind off toothpaste, offers whimsical glimpses of the gay life but fails to make them more than a faintly embarrassing catalogue of local thrills. The gap between Gunn's best and worst poetry remains a vast one, and points to a paradox he has not yet resolved. (pp. 63-4)

John Mole, "Modern Languages," in Encounter, Vol. LX, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 60-6.∗

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