THOM GUNN, FORMALIST RENEGADE
My first date with Thom Gunn did not go well. It happened in Chicago in the late-1970’s. After a couple hours of unsuccessful cruising in a few bars, I found Thom in a bookstore in Moly and My Sad Captains. I recognized his name and being newly out as a gay man, surely he could guide me. But I thought Robert Frost was poetry, and Thom mystified me. His poems were complex, his syntax equally so; reading his poems felt like peering into a dark room of yet more secrets. At that stage in my gay career I wanted answers, not more secrets. I didn’t hear mention of Thom’s name again until a friend told me they’d been hanging out on the roof of the Rainbow Cattle Company doing drugs and fucking with Thom.
Later I came to appreciate Gunn as a poet who sought to capture both his sensual and intellectual explorations as a man and as a foreigner in America. Meter and rhyme, his heritage as a British-born writer, clearly influenced his life and predisposed him to poetry deftly made and forceful. Ten years ago I made Thom’s friendship, and he was good enough to sit for an interview in September of last year. “I’ll answer any question you ask,” he said as I turned on my tape recorder. Then he laughed. I knew Thom through mutual friends in the leather community. My experience with them included intimate conversations about all manner of sex but not thrugh his poetry. My challenge was talking honestly with Thom about his poetry, leatherman to leatherman, poet to poet. I suspect for Thom that was no difficulty.
Gunn came from a family who believed in the written word. His father, Herbert Smith Gunn, was a journalist with Beaverbrook Press, moving from provincial papers like the Kent Messenger to becoming editor of the Evening Standard in 1944 and later, in the 1950s, editor of the Daily Sketch. Gunn’s mother, Ann Charlotte Thomson Gunn, worked as a journalist until her pregnancy with Thom. An avid reader, he told me she read all of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall while she carried him. Later she had Thom read Jane Austin, Louisa May Alcott, and John Masefield, and like most children his age, Gunn studied the classics in school. When he was sent away during the London Blitz, his English teacher at the Bedales School in Hampshire introduced him to The Poet’s Tongue, edited by W. H. Auden, a book of varied poets and styles, a decided break with traditional texts.
When Gunn was ten his parents divorced, and in his mid-teens his mother committed suicide. It is not clear what affect those events had on him as a writer; he was circumspect talking about them. He wrote very little about his father, and he did not write about his mother’s death until Boss Cupid, published in 2000.
As a teenager Thom wrote poetry and plays, and he made another attempt at a novel. He said that poems written during his two years in the British Army were destroyed several years later, not thinking they were worthy of him. Once admitted to Cambridge he wrote again, and some those poems would appear in Fighting Terms (1954) published after graduation.
At Cambridge Gunn found identity with classical literature.
“I was still influenced by dead writers – especially the Elizabethans – but they were writers I could see as bearing upon the present, upon my own activities. Donne and Shakespeare spoke living language to me, and it was one I tried to turn to my own uses. (Occasions, P. 173)
He attended the lectures of E.R. Leavis who emphasized “movement as an essential part of the poet’s exploration.” (Occasions, p. 175). Perhaps it was there that he developed his distaste for confessional poetry in favor of action; Leavis abhorred it, calling self-pity a limitation in moral fibre. Gunn counted Marlow, Meredith, Tennyson, Keats, Baudelaire, Yeats, and Auden as well as his contemporaries at Cambridge as other early influences.
Exposed to progressive politics throughout his life, their influence is seen in Gunn’s choice of subject matter. He and his friends at Cambridge were socialists, but Thom aligned himself with Sartre and Camas using a vocabulary of will, choice, self-determination and individualism. At Cambridge Michael Kitay became his lifetime companion; his friends included Karl Miller, Nicholas Tomalin, Mark Boxer, John Coleman, and John Mander who were frequent contributors to the university review Granta. When Gunn wrote an anti-war poem at the end of his first year in a periodical called Cambridge Today it was favorably reviewed. Thom said that gave him confidence to continue; he spent the following summer writing poetry which “allowed me to get a lot of mistakes out of the way.” (Interview).
In “The Wound,” the opening poem of Fighting Terms Gunn assumes the role of an existential warrior struggling with identity as he recovers from a wound that is never described:
I was myself: subject to no man’s breath:
My own commander was my enemy.
We also find images of soldiers in “Captain in Time of Peace” and love as a battlefield in “To his Cynical Mistress,”
And love is then no more than a compromise?
An impermanent treaty waiting to be signed
By the two enemies?
— While the calculating Cupid feigning impartial-blind
Drafts it, promising peace, both leaders wise
To his antics sign but secretly double the spies.
On each side is the ignorant animal nation
Jostling friendly in streets, enjoying in good faith
Forgetting the enmity with cheers and drunken breath,
But for them there has not been yet amalgamation:
The leaders calmly plot assassination.
Borrowing the title from Marvel, Gunn found universal truth in the experience of a young man attempting to cross the Black Forest of affection. Male egos are set against one another and morality is set against experience. Cupid as the symbol of Greek love is set against the reality of a world of drunken celebration where lovers, fearing rejection, undermine their relationships.
To remain with Kitay, an American who returned to America to serve in the Air Force, Gunn secured a fellowship at Stanford. There he studied with Yvor Winters, a controversial figure critical highly regarded poets like Eliot and Henry James. The chair of the Stanford English Department called Winters “a disgrace,” but he made a lasting impact on students that included Gunn, Robert Pinsky and Philip Levine. His poems featured natural and personal subjects and dramatic formal experiments that emphasized abstract reason. Gunn described winters’ concept of poetry as:
an instrument for exploring the truth of things, as far as human beings can explore it and it can do so with a greater verbal exactitude than prose can manage. Large generalized feelings (as in Whitman) were out, and rhetoric was the beginning off falsification. (Occasions, p. 176).
Gunn did not complete his degree at Stanford; he found graduate studies boring and came to see the limitations of Winters’ perspective. After leaving Stanford, Gunn was offered a teaching position at UC Berkeley. Needing the income, he accepted. “I was doing quite well teaching at Berkeley. Then they gave me tenure after a few years, which was nice of them. I think they expected me to finish my degree, which I did not want to do.” He later resigned to experiment with acid and attend rock concerts. (Interview). Several years later the Berkeley faculty invited him to return. When it was clear he would not complete his degree Berkeley “gave me something called ‘security of employment.’ (Interview) that guaranteed him health and retirement benefits without requiring him to complete his PhD. According to his students he was always a popular teacher, patient and wry.
Gunn met Christopher Isherwood in the mid-1950’s on a visit to Los Angeles. He was impressed with Isherwood’s ability “to present complexity through the elegance of simplicity, but without ever reducing it to mere simplicity,” (Occasions, p. 177) and his visit began a friendship. “The writer I think I modeled myself on, always tried to model myself on after I met him, was Isherwood.” (Campbell, p. 53) At one point, according to Thom, Isherwood began to withdraw from that friendship, and Thom assumed it was because Isherwood considered him a “brash, pushy young poet.” (Interview) After Isherwood’s death he learned that Don Bachardy, Isherwood’s partner, had developed a crush on him. “It never occurred to me at the time, as I was never interested in him.” (Interview)
Gunn was attracted to soldiers both metaphorically and physically. He dates his fascination from a time just after the Blitz, when he enjoyed “eyeing the well-fed and good-looking G.I.’s who were on every street, with an appreciation I didn’t completely understand.” (Interview) In the poem “The Corporal” he says “half of my youth I watched the soldiers,” but it was their uniforms and masculinity that attracted him, not their warring. When I asked him about never becoming an American citizen he said, “Whenever I thought seriously about it, some nasty little war would come up and I wouldn’t want to be identified with it.” (Interview).
Gunn came out slowly:
My mother died when I was 15, and she would have taken it all right. My father was still in England and he would have been appalled and never spoken to me. We were never very close. He died in the early 50’s, and I never spoke to him about my sexuality. I didn’t come out in any real sense until what was quaintly called Gay Liberation was already going, and I can remember being in NYC in 1963. I stayed with somebody who said you’ve really got to come to the Gay Parade, so I did rather reluctantly. I’m a coward, you know. Not that I had anything to be afraid of. I remember the extraordinary rush of adrenalin when we got out of Christopher Street, because it’s a gay enclave, and got onto Sixth Avenue to go uptown with all the crowds there. That was extraordinary. Fuck! I’m telling everyone I’m gay. There was a wonderful moment. I was walking with my leather friends, and I got a little ahead or a little behind to be among some of the other people in the parade. I saw this guy who looked like a bank clerk; he was from Hartford, Connecticut and I thought, ‘He’s one of us too. We are all of us brothers.’ After that I was rather open about it. (Interview)
In his early poems Gunn referred to the beloved as “you”, as Auden had. Notice how he treats Mike in “Tamer and Hawk,” one of his most powerful early poems:
Even in flight above
I am no longer free:
You seeled me with your love,
I am blind to other birds –
The habit of your words
Has hooded me.
You but half civilize
Taming me in this way,
Through having only eyes
For you I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose
Tamer as prey.
Just as Gunn says he might have discovered Auden’s homosexuality if he had read “a little more intelligently” (Interview), we as readers who know Gunn’s history can understand the deepest meaning of these early poems. In the process of being careful, Gunn made his experience universal.
Sense of Movement (1957) includes poems written at Stanford. They depart from his classical heroes with subjects as American as Elvis Presley. While he continued to write in the form and style of British poetry, critics made much of the influence of will and choice in this second collection. Gunn made an interesting comment on his infatuation with ‘will” having learned many years later that in Shakespeare ‘will’ often referred to the penis. In retrospect he thought many of his poems had a similar sense to them.
Most of the poems written at Stanford emphasize the importance of action and movement rather than thought, but Gunn is careful in his assessments. In “On the Move” he favors movement:
One joins the movement in a valueless world,
Choosing it, till, both hurler and hurled,
One moves as well, always toward, toward.
but concludes the poem with the enigmatic:
At worse, one is in motion, and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.
While this poem has been widely anthologized, Gunn does not consider it a good one. He thought it sounded stilted, and he was not sure that the last line meant anything (Interview):
Nearer what? Well, the motorcyclist is nearer the destination, but what’s the destination of human beings? Aha! It’s a question that seems to answer itself but doesn’t. (Campbell, p. 29)
In this collection Gunn’s fascination with toughs is apparent, a fascination that continued to intrigue him, evidenced by the skinhead on the cover of his last collection Boss Cupid. Much of his initial interest came from Hollywood movies. Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones was an inspiration for “On the Move” and “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death.” Gunn also was taken by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, a blue-collar hero, unlike Cary Grant and the gentlemen heroes he’d known as a child. The tough represented the independence of an existential hero and the loneliness of an outcast. For Gunn, a shy man, writing about them allowed him to savor their aggressiveness.
My Sad Captains (1961) is a pivotal collection that Gunn divides into two sections; one represents his old style, which was metrical and rational, and the other his new style which was “a little more humane.” (Occasions, p. 179). We see the old in “The Book of the Dead” where Gunn uses an iambic pentameter line and a rhyme scheme of abab in the first stanza and cdcd in the second. Although the third stanza begins with a rhyme scheme of efef ghgh, its final four lines have an irregular beat and do not rhyme. The final stanza returns to pentameter and an ababcdcd rhyme scheme as Gunn treats the story of Odysseus and Tiresias more as a riddle than a portrait of the gods. In the new style he works in syllabics. Gunn says, “Writing in a new form almost necessarily invited new subject matter.” (Occasions, p. 179)
In “My Sad Captains” critics say that Gunn is saying farewell to Alexander, Coriolanus and Brutus, the heroes of past work. As they “Turn with disinterested/ hard energy” some see Gunn turning from them. In this poem of three stanzas with seven beats per line there is no rhyme scheme and the importance of classical heroes he portrayed in his first two collections has waned. This poem can also been read as Gunn looking back on the men he cruised in bars as “heroes” he once admired. “…they appear in / the darkness… how late they start to shine!” The men are restless in their quest, “only to / renew the wasteful force they / spent with each hot convulsion.” At the end of the night they are still searching, but not having met a partner for the night, they “turn with disinterested / hard energy, like the stars.” Gunn captures the universal experience of men who cruise with a fierce desire for release and a steely posture to cover their fear of rejection.
Gunn wrote very little during the 1960’s. He was not certain why, but he felt some of it was due to adjusting to life in America that was both exciting and strange and some due to wanting to write more passionately. He was frustrated by not finding subjects or forms that worked for him; his early experiments with free verse were unsuccessful.
In 1962 Faber published a single volume of the collected poems of Gunn and Ted Hughes who had followed him by two years at Cambridge. The book was a great success, selling 100,000 copies, but it didn’t please Gunn to be labeled a “New Brutalist” when he was trying to put more humanity into his poetry. (Interview) It was a label that had no more meaning than being called part of “The Movement” by earlier critics. Gunn never saw himself part of any particular school of poetry, and throughout his life he remained true to his own sense of his words. Not averse to trying new forms, he considered himself a poet of his time, not of any particular aesthetic.
Gunn lived from mid-1964 to mid-1965 in a London filled with a new sense of personal freedom, with the Beatles and Carnaby Street. Gunn spent time with younger brother Ander, who had established himself as a photographer, his friend Tony White. He and his brother collaborated on Positives (1966) with Ander providing the photographs and Thom writing a poem for each. The book includes “very little great poetry, and I was never sure if I was writing poems or captions ,“(Interview) but he was able to focus on many of his favorite subjects: pop music, motorcycles, and the subculture of tough male youth.
Gunn had read William Carlos Williams at Stanford, and he now found himself returning Williams for inspiration in his efforts to write free verse which did not come easily:
I probably write better when I’m writing in meter and verse. I taught myself how to write in free verse. It was not common when I started writing. Not in England, and not in America, either. I never read William Carlos Williams until I got over here. Wallace Stevens had his collected poems published in England the year I left England. I hadn’t read any Whitman.
The only poet I liked I’d read in free verse was D.H. Lawrence, and I got nowhere trying to be him. He’s awfully good; he got a lot from Whitman reading him in 1916, and he wrote slavishly like Whitman …until he got his own rhythm going. That’s the thing with free verse. You’re inventing an interesting rhythm. It’s not just chopped up prose.
I learned to write it by writing in syllabics. It got me away from the iambic thump, the iambic music that seels your head, and when you sit down to write something you’re either going to write a bit of prose or something probably iambic, which is what I was always doing. So writing in syllabics and avoiding any regularity of meter did help very much.
The seven-syllable line I used most successfully. It’s easy to avoid the iambic music if you take an irregular syllable line. The second half of My Sad Captains is in syllabics. (Interview)
Thom was eager to meet other California poets whose poetry he admired. In the process he became friends with Robert Duncan of whom he said,
“Duncan came out in 1944, when he wrote an article for a periodical called Politics, edited by Dwight McDonald about ‘The Homosexual and Society.’ The writer admitted to his own homosexuality; that was unheard of. In response, John Crowe Ransom [the editor of the Kenyon Review] wrote to Duncan de-accepting poems he had solicited saying they were a form of sexual advertisement. That was untrue. There was nothing sexual about any of them. He wasn’t using his poems to attract partners. I’m not searching for partners in my poetry, even when I am dealing with sexual matters. (Interview)
It was not until he started taking LSD that Gunn found new experiences and a new way of expressing himself. Of that time he says, “These were the fullest years of my life, crowded with discovery both inner and outer, as we moved between ecstasy and understanding.” (Occasions, P. 182.)
The poems in Moly (1971) focus on the street culture of the Haight Ashbury and drug experiences, written in rhyme. Notice how he blends the two in these lines
from “Street Song”
I am too young to grow a beard
But yes man it was me your heart
In dirty denim and dark glasses
I look through everyone who passes
But ask him clear, I do not plead,
Keys lids acid and speed.
Gunn says part of the inspiration for that poem comes from Elizabethan street vendors who walked through the streets of London selling their pies. The diction is colloquial, and the meter lends itself to that quality of song. By linking the subject to the form he gives it a grandeur and history that is lost in, say, the poetics of the Beats. The youth selling drugs in this poem comes with a provenance.
Gunn describes his drug experiences using meter, what he called a reliable form to deal with unreliable experience:
Metre seemed to be the proper form for the LSD-related poems, though at first I didn’t understand why. Later I rationalized about it thus. The acid trip is unstructured, it opens you up to countless possibilities, you hanker after the infinite. The only way I could give myself any control over the presentation of these experiences and so could be true to them, was by trying to render the infinite through the finite. (Occasion p. 182)
Moly is filled with the people of Gunn’s neighborhood, as well as his cats (“Apartment Cats”).
We find him listening to Jefferson Airplane, watching a homeless man on the beach and the acrobatics of surfers. Moly reflects a less threatening world as Gunn finds delicate and humane connections between himself and his surroundings, the title of the collection coming from Gunn’s deep affection for classical Greeks: Hermes gave Odysseus the drug moly to break the spell of confinement.
In “From the Wave” Gunn sees surfers dancing on the waves as part of the ocean rather than the macho conquerors of earlier works like Fighting Terms.
Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight
With a learn’d skill.
It is the wave they imitate
Keeps them so still.
The title Moly signals Gunn freeing himself from a poetic spell of confinement, seeing the
release of moly much like the release he found in LSD. Contemporary authors like Mary Renault sought a gay utopia in ancient Greece, but Gunn refused to go there. Rather than find respite in the past, he used the forms and characters of the past to celebrate the present, with the classics as a stage set for a very American world. By continuing to use forms as old as Elizabethan and referencing the universal stories of Greek myths, Gunn connects his subjects to the past without leaving California. The connection is immediate, and in doing so Gunn confirms that what he experiences, even on the darker side of the street, has corollaries in history. Gunn never adopted radical poetic forms to express his very contemporary circumstances but used his considerable skills with form and meter to shape them to his needs. If Gunn sought a utopia, it is innocence regained which he captured in “Three” about a naked couple at the beach with their son.
Only their son
Is brown all over. Rapt in endless play,
In which all games make one,
His three-year nakedness is everyday.
Swims as dogs swim.
Rushes to his father, wriggles from his hold.
His body which is him,
Sturdy and volatile, runs off the cold.
Runs up to me:
His hi there, he shrills, yet will not stop,
For thought continually
Accepting everything his play turns up
He still leaves it
And comes back to that pebble-warmed recess
In which the parents sit,
At watch, who had to learn their nakedness.
Jack Straw’s Castle, published in 1975, is dedicated to the memory of Tony White, Gunn’s good friend who died at 45 in a soccer accident. It was written at a time of personal loss and the national unease of the Nixon era. Gunn was making new friends in San Francisco and had begun to temper his commitment to the communal life we see in Moly. Written in his mid-forties, Jack Straw’s Castle can be read as a mid-life re-evaluation.
In “The Geysers” Gunn experiences a defining connection between nature and spirit, and describes it majestically. The poem has four parts that recount a single day at the Geysers. The first (Sleep by the Hot Stream) is an ode to the natural beauty of the place as the narrator begins his day.
Gentle as breathing
down to us it spills
From geysers heard but hidden in the hills.
The small flat patch of earth fed evenly
By warmth and wet, there’s dark grass fine as hair.
The second (The Cool Stream) describes the day and the communion of campers and place.
And some are trying to straddle a floating log,
Some rest and pass a joint, some climb the fall:
Tan black and pink, firm shining bodies, all
Move with a special considered grace.
For though we have invaded this glittering place
And broke the silences, yet we submit:
So wholly, that we are details of it.
The language of the third section (The Geysers) changes from the elegiac to hard words: “pocked” “cinderfield” “searing column.“ Approaching a geyser Gunn is confronted with a raw force not under his control:
A cinderfield that lacks all skin of soil,
It has no complications, no detail,
The force too simple and big to comprehend,
Like a beginning, also like an end.
No customs I have learned can make we wise
To deal with such. And I do recognize
— for what such recognition may be worth –
fire at my centre, burning since my birth
under the pleasant flesh. Force calls me to force.
Up here a man might shrivel in his source.
Gunn answers the question of the fire “burning since birth” in the fourth section of the poem (The Bath House) as a fierce erotic energy. The evening begins in the hot baths with the “drifting fume of dope” and “moonrays slope” and “candleflicker.” He is surrounded by other men (gay and straight) and women of various ages.
Bodies locked soft in trance of heat not saying much
Other senses breaking down to touch
Uncertain, he finds himself becoming part of a communal orgy.
Who I am or where
Weight of darker earlier air
The body heavily buoyant
Sheathed by heat
Hard, almost, with it
Upward, from my feet
I feel rise in me a new kind of blood
The water round me thickens to hot mud
Sunk in it
passive plated slow
Stretching my coils on coils
And still I grow
and barely move in years I am so great.
I exist I hardly can be said to wait.
The form of this section is far looser than the previous three, ranging across the page, leaving the control of the left margin. Most sentences end without a period.
Gunn is upfront with his sexuality in The Passages of Joy (1982). In “Bally Power Play” Gunn shows us a man playing a pinball machine in a gay bar. “Selves” is a long poem to an artist, Bill Schneussler, whom Gunn describes as a “vulnerable and tender man / I have dreamed about / three nights running.” “The Menace” is a long poem about a night of cruising in the meatpacking district of New York, meeting a man, playing in the backroom of a bar, and attending a drag show.
Gunn did not publish for another ten years. During that time San Francisco became the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America. Many of Gunn’s friends became sick and most of them died. Gunn had his own sense of what was going on:
I think the reason it hit us so hard, for our generation and subsequent generations, we hadn’t known death. My parents knew friends who died of diphtheria. In the late 40’s antibiotics were invented, so we didn’t see contemporaries of ours dying except in freak things like traffic accidents. It was uncommon for young people, and suddenly it became all the rage. The first few years of AIDS were deeply shocking. (Interview)
The Man with Night Sweats, published in 1992, is considered by many critics as his finest collection. Gunn received the first Forward Prize in England, it’s most generous. He received the 1993 Lenore Marshall Nation magazine prize for poetry and was subsequently awarded a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation.
Gunn recounted one response to The Man With Night Sweats:
In an English publication called The Economist there was an essay about The Man with Night Sweats, the author, who was anonymous, seemed to like it more than my earlier work because instead of celebrating gay sex, I was writing about tragedy. That seemed to satisfy him more. (Interview)
The collection is written in four parts, and the poems include both traditional and free verse. Gunn creates the setting in the first section with erotic poems about men he’d met (“The Differences,” “The Hug,” and “Bone,” his friendship for a man who escapes to the country (“To A Friend in the Time of Trouble”) and a short autobiography (“Lines for My 55th Birthday”). Gunn uses iambic meter and irregular rhymes in “The Hug.”
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.
In “Odysseus on Hermes, his Afterthought” Gunn portrays an older man’s infatuation with a younger, handsome god. This story is both true to the classical material and an opportunity for Gunn to say something about himself.
The second section is a single poem “A Sketch of the Great Dejection” in which the narrator finds his body and spirit failing
Having read the promise of the hedgerow
The body set out anew on its adventures,
At length it came to a place of poverty,
Of inner and outer famine
Where all movement had stopped
As he sits in a graveyard contemplating his life and death he comes to appreciate the self-knowledge that comes from it:
My body insisted on restlessness
Having been promised love,
As my mind insisted on words
Having been promised the imagination
So I remained alert, confused and uncomforted.
I fared on and, though the landscape did not change,
It came to seem after a while like a place of recuperation.
The final section celebrates the lives of the homeless (“Improvisation” “Outside the Diner,” “Cafeteria in Boston”) and youth (“Skateboard”). Also included are short poems to children (“Three for Children”), a poem to Christopher Isherwood as he is dying and “The Beautician” in which a woman comes to the morgue to prepare a friend for an open casket. These poems exhibit a melody and humanity warm and gracious.
The fourth section begins with “The Man With Night Sweats.” This poem was written in syllabics with an ababcc rhyme scheme. This title poem opens this section on AIDS just as night sweats announce an HIV infection. In the second poem “In Time of Plague” the narrator tries to get into the minds of two attractive men who want him to “stick their needle” in his arm. He loves “Their daring, their looks, their jargon / and what they have in mind.”
My thoughts are crowded with death
and it draws so oddly on the sexual
that I am confused
confused to be attracted
by, in effect, my own annihilation.
“Lament” is a three-page poem that tracks the illness and death of a friend in iambic pentameter.
In hope still, courteous still, but tired and thin,
You tried to stay the man that you had been
No respite followed: though the nightmare ceased,
Your cough grew thick and rich, its strength increased,
A gust of morphine hid you. Back in sight
You breathed through a segmented tube, fat, white,
we talked between our sleeping bags, below
A molten field of stars five years ago:
I was so tickled by your mind’s light touch
I wouldn’t sleep, you made me laugh too much
Two weeks of abominable constraint,
You faced it equably, without complaint
unwhimpering, but not at peace with it.
You’ve lived as if your time was infinite:
Nothing was said, everything understood,
At least by us. Your own concerns were not
Long-term, precisely, when they gave the shot
— You made local arrangements to the bed
And pulled pillow round beside your head
And so you slept, and died, your skin grown grey,
Achieving your completeness in a way.
You never thought your body was attractive,
Though others did, and yet you trust it
And must have loved its fickleness a bit
Without sentimentality Gunn gives a clear recording of events and honest commentary on the death of his friend. Those of us who lived those times find it a compelling and accurate poem as Gunn gives the epidemic its place in the great traditions of literature through meter and rhyme.
Two poems exemplify Gunn’s humor and wisdom in Boss Cupid, published in 2000. The first is a small untitled poem about a small girl who asks her mother “what do we think about God.” She gets a brief, surprising answer:
The little cousin dashed in
from her friends outside:
do we think about God?”
My aunt’s brisk answer:
“We think God is silly.”
My cousin dashed back
with the news.
Gunn combines patrician language (what do we think about God?) with that of evangelists (the news). Gunn described himself as an atheist who admits to the supernatural, and in this poem he deals quickly and unequivocally with a subject that has had theologians chattering for lifetimes. As if compelled to comment, Gunn makes his statement in as few words as possible and is done. Clearly, he does not plan to go there again.
Gunn is a candid and generous older man in “American Boy.” In a culture that dotes on youth, this poem is an appropriate coda for his life as a gay man. The poem employs a rhyme scheme (abbcdca) of his making. He structures the poem formally in each stanza with lines that alternate in length, growing longer until a forceful last line of four beats. Unafraid to look at himself as an older man and his potent desires, he begins the poem finding camaraderie with the beloved, “…we both still / Warm to the naked thrill / Precisely of that strangeness that has made / For such self-doubt.” Without flinching he tenderly finishes by generously bestowing power and care on the beloved. “Expertly you know how to maintain me / At the exact degree / Of hunger without starving. We produce / What warmth we can.”
Typical of Gunn, he reveals himself only in what he chooses to describe, more often the storyteller, not the actor, in his poems. We come to know him through his subjects without seeing him. In “The Life of the Otter, Tucson Desert Museum” he first blurs the line of gender by portraying the otter as a skater with “hands behind her back” then brings our attention to its male genitalia. He bestows an unexpected classical grandeur on them, eschewing sentimentality about an animal the cuddly favorite of children. By describing the otter’s aggressive play, he shows play as vital to existence. In this poem Gunn sees play as an essential element for survival in otters, as it is for gay men.
“The Gas Poker” is a poem about a suicide forty-eight years ago, and Gunn is totally absent from the story.
Forty-eight years ago
— Can it be forty-eight
Since then? — they forced the door
Which she had barricaded
With a full bureau’s weight
Less anyone find, as they did,
What she had blocked it for.
The tone withholds sentimentality, and the narrative is strengthened by ordinary words, powerfully connected: “They who had been her treasures / Knew to turn off the gas…” The gruesome subject is mated with the elegance of a formal structure and the cadence of an unexpected rhyme scheme. The first line of each stanza sets the tone with the depth of assonance, and the rhyme scheme (abcdbdc) keeps the reader off-balance, first resting with the expected, then uncertain. In the final stanza the poet suggests the poem’s title, and then with beautiful diction and clear syntax he closes the poem.
One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.
Gunn wrote this poem 48 years after his mother’s suicide because he says that he was unable to deal with the subject until he settled on the third person. (Interview) The poem never suggests that it was Gunn who found his mother. Gunn’s reluctance to write about it says still more about Gunn’s hesitancy to put himself into his poems. It is his shyness about emotional matters, not a poetic stance, that urges Gunn to describe his world without actively participating in all of his poems.
Gunn was concerned that readers made too much of his sexuality.
A poem’s truth is in its faithfulness to a possibly imagined feeling, not to my history. In my early twenties I wrote a poem called “Carnal Knowledge”, addressed to a girl, with a refrain making variations on the phrase “I know you know”. If the reader knew I was a homosexual he would likely misread the whole poem, inferring that the speaker would rather be in bed with a man. But that would be a serious misreading, or at least a serious misplacement of emphasis. (Interview)
Far more important is Gunn’s fusion of modern and traditional elements, his aggressive use of poetic forms and a renegade’s fascination with unpopular topics (motorcyclists, LSD, homosexuality). They prompted Stephen Spender to remark in the New York Review of Books that “It is as though A. E. Houseman was dealing with the subject matter of Howl, or Tennyson was on the side of the Lotus Eaters. In Gunn’s award-winning The Man with Night Sweats the collection’s subject matter grows progressively darker, but it concludes on a hopeful note. “
Gunn strived to discover truth from his experience through poetry. In his later works he told stories about the people he encountered, strangers and lovers alike, and for each his compassion and curiosity is curiosity is paramount. Because Gunn has written about darker subjects and been open about his sexuality, some are inclined to think of him as brash or too positive about his life as a gay man. More aptly, David Baker, Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review, described Gunn as a “dangerous poet who writes with a knife.” (Kenyon)
Gunn has been called “cold” and his poems called dispassionate. He agreed: “I don’t want to be cold, but I think I am. I don’t get emotional like Hart Crane or Dylan Thomas. I think I’m cold in that respect. I’m not a romantic.“ (Interview) When writing about his emotional life, Gunn was restrained, consistent with his personality. Gunn was a gentleman, although he would never admit to it. His art compelled him to share his observations of his world, but he shied away from exploring his emotions, and in personal conversations he was equally unlikely to discuss his emotions other than to say he found them confusing. (Interview) He provides his readers with the essence of experience. His gift was writing intelligent poetry infused with a universal sensuality. By detaching himself, he allows us to feel his poems as our own.
Like many of us, Gunn made his own life, and he had the balls to live it fully and without apology. Throughout, Gunn remained true to himself, writing poetry because he had to and leaving academia twice to pursue a life of art and drugs. Living close to the street and forsaking the plumage and attention of celebrity Gunn remained the man he wanted to become, a poet’s poet. His art combined the oldest traditions of poetry with the life of a sometimes reckless but relentless gay man living in San Francisco in the late 20th Century.
Thom wrote about gods and classical heroes as well as leathermen, hippies, and druggies using meter and carefully calculated rhyme schemes — the highest forms of poetry, While I first thought he employed his extraordinary skills as a poet as a safeguard against those who despised his sexuality, I came to see him in the great tradition of artists like Shakespeare and Verdi and Cezanne. Each broke with the academy to write about the people they knew in everyday life. Thom’s poems demand a place for people like me, like us, in American and British literary history.
In a community just creating its pantheon of heroes, Gunn merits a place high on Olympus.