THOM GUNN, A LAST INTERVIEW
My first date with Thom Gunn did not go well. It happened in Chicago in the late-1970’s after sitting for hours in a Boystown bar. Wandering down Broadway I found Thom in a bookstore and took him back to my hotel. In a copy of Moly and My Sad Captains. I recognized his name and being new at being out I expected a gay poet to guide me through this strange new world, just as Robert Frost had made New Hampshire more bearable in college. But Thom’s language mystified me; his poems were complex, his syntax equally so, and even more frustrating, no gratuitous sex. If Thom was to be a model, I had a lot to learn.
My next encounter came in a report from a friend who met Thom on the roof of the Rainbow Cattle Company to do drugs and each other, then ten years later another friend asked if he could bring Thom to a party I was hosting. Sure! I hadn’t expected a McArthur Fellow to grace my door, and now I was regretting those English courses I didn’t take.
That was the beginning of our friendship. Our conversations were few and never about poetry, but as I read his I was intrigued with his use of meter and rhyme to describe a life very much like my own. At a time of beat poetry and language poetry, and abstract poetry I couldn’t grasp, Tom both challenged and comforted me for his formalism. If he didn’t have answers, he was talking about our lives in ways I wanted to hear. Here was a gay man who bent meter and rhyme to his own purposes and shared his life in forms as old as Elizabethan poetry. Were our lives worthy of five centuries’ poetic traditions? Thom believed they were.
In 2003 I chose Thom’s work as the subject of an MFA thesis, and he was good enough to sit for an interview in September of that year. “I’ll answer any question you ask,” he said as I turned on my tape recorder. Then he laughed.
In his comfortable kitchen where he’d offered beer or tea, I sat at the table as Thom lay back on a bench, working hard to make the hour a conversation, not an interview. Thom interrupted answers with questions of his own, and I was surprised how much he knew about me and how much he’d fancied a prior boyfriend.
What follows are my notes from that interview. I have filled in some of the gaps with materials from other interviews with Thom that appear in ____________ and __________________.
We began at the beginning with Thom growing up with his father, Herbert Smith Gunn, a journalist with Beaverbrook Press and his mother, Ann Charlotte Thomson Gunn, also a journalist until her pregnancy with Thom. An avid reader, he said 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. 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 and 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 effect those events had on him as a writer; 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, plays and made an attempt at a novel. He said he destroyed poems written during his two years in the British Army as none too good, but once admitted to Cambridge he wrote again, and some those poems appear in Fighting Terms 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)
It was also at Cambridge that he discovered his sexuality. While he acknowledged his teenage interest in men, it never occurred to him that he was anything but straight. Thom was attracted to soldiers, both metaphorically and physically, dating 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.” 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 wars. 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.”
Meeting Mike Kitay at Cambridge helped Thom come out. Mike was an American who …………… Thom and Mike continued living together, often with others, for the rest of Thom’s life. Beyond his group of friends at University, Thom was not open about his sexuality. Finding a job in Britain or ever getting to America would have been impossible, had it been known. In his early poems Gunn referred to the beloved as “you” as Auden had. This is Mike in “Tamer and Hawk,” a potent early poem:
Even in flight above
I am no loner 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.
Gunn says he might have discovered Auden’s homosexuality if he had read “a little more intelligently,” but in the process of being careful, Gunn made his experience universal.
Exposed to progressive politics throughout his life, their influence is seen in Gunn’s choice of subject matter, but it was Sartre and Camus that fascinated him. He saw himself as an existential warrior with a vocabulary of will, choice, self-determination and individualism. In “The Wound,” the opening poem of Fighting Terms (1954), Gunn is that warrior struggling with identity while recovering 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 portrays a young man attempting to cross the minefield of affection. Male egos are set against one another, morality against experience, and Cupid set against a world of drunken celebration where lovers fearing rejection undermine their relationships.
To remain close to Kitay, who returned to the States to serve in the Air Force, Gunn secured a fellowship at Stanford. There he studied with Yvor Winters, critical of 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. 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 of falsification. (Occasions, p. 176).
Thom did not complete his degree at Stanford; he found graduate studies boring and came to see the limitations of Winters’ perspective. When Thom was offered a teaching position at UC Berkeley he accepted. “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 his tenure, a rare occurrence. A few years later when it was clear that he would not complete his degree, Berkeley “gave me something called ‘security of employment’” that guaranteed him health and retirement benefits without requiring him to complete his PhD.
Sense of Movement (1957) includes poems that depart from his classical heroes with subjects as American as Elvis Presley and motorcyclists, but Gunn continued to write in the forms and style of British poetry. Critics made much of the influence of the existentialists in his focus on the will and choice in this second collection. Thom had an interesting latter-day comment on his infatuation with ‘will’ learning that in Shakespeare ‘will’ often referred to the penis. In retrospect, he thought many of his poems were penis poems.
Gunn varies his strong-willed heroes from motorcycle toughs to Merlin, St. Martin and Jesus. Most of the poems address 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 he 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, Thom did not consider it a good one. He thought it sounded stilted and was not sure that the last line meant anything:
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)
With The Sense of Movement Gunn introduces toughs, a subject that continued to intrigue him, evidenced by the skinhead on the cover of Boss Cupid. His initial interest came from Hollywood movies with Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones his inspiration for “On the Move” and “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death.” Thom also was taken by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, as 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.
My Sad Captains (1961) is a pivotal collection that Gunn divides into two sections; the first representing his old style, which was metrical and rational, and the other his new 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. In the second half of the collection he works in syllabics because “writing in a new form almost necessarily invited new subject matter.” (Occasions, p. 179)
In the title poem critics found Gunn saying farewell to Alexander, Coriolanus and Brutus, the classical heroes of past work as they “Turn with disinterested/ hard energy.” 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.
Thom met Christopher Isherwood in the mid-1950’s on a visit to Los Angeles. He’d been 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 Isherwood began to withdraw from that friendship, and Thom assumed it was because Christopher considered him a “brash, pushy young poet.” 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.”
Thom wrote very little during the early 1960’s. He admitted to frustration at wanting to write more passionately and not finding subjects or forms that worked for him; his early experiments with free verse were unsuccessful. In 1962 Faber published a 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, and while the income was appreciated, Thom disliked being labeled a “New Brutalist” when he was trying to put more humanity into his poetry. For him the label had no more meaning than being called part of “The Movement” by earlier critics. Thom never saw himself part of any school of poetry, and throughout his life he remained true to his own sense of words. Never averse to experimenting with form, he considered himself a poet of his time.
Thom lived from mid-1964 to mid-1965 in London , producing Positives (1966) with his brother Ander who provided 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 ,“ but he was able to focus on some of his favorite subjects: pop music, motorcycles, and the subculture of tough male youth.
Free verse did not come easily to Thom. He had read William Carlos Williams at Winters’ urging, and he now found himself returning to Williams for inspiration:
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.
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 [sic]. I stayed with somebody who said you’ve really got to come on 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.
After coming out Gunn became good friends with Robert Duncan whom he considered
“a courageous poet who came out in 1944 when he wrote an article for a periodical called Politics, edited by Dwight McDonald about ‘The Homosexual and Society.’ In it the writer admitted to his own homosexuality; that was unheard of. In response, John Ransom wrote to Duncan de-accepting his poems [at the Kenyon Review] 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. “
It was not until he started taking LSD that Gunn found new experiences and a new way of expressing himself. In 1965 he gave up tenure, telling the Berkeley faculty that he wanted to devote his time to writing poetry, but his real reason was to “take acid and go to rock concerts.” 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.)
Gunn published Moly in 1971 with poems about the street culture of the Haight
Ashbury and drug experiences, written in rhyme. 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.
Thom said part of the inspiration of the poem came from Elizabethan street vendors who walked through the streets of London selling 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 history that is lost in, say, the poetics of the Beats.
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 Thom’s neighborhood — 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 humane connections between himself and the life surrounding him. The title of the collection evidences 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, the release release he found in LSD. Contemporary authors like Mary Renault sought a gay utopia in ancient Greece, but Thom 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 centuries old and referencing the universal stories of Greek myths, Gunn connects his subjects to the past without leaving California. Through form Gunn’s find corollaries in history with his experience. He never adopted radical poetic forms to express his very contemporary circumstances but used his considerable skills to play with tradition, making it fit his needs.
If Thom was looking for utopia, it was 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. Written in his mid-forties, Jack Straw’s Castle can be read as a mid-life re-evaluation; in it he crosses the point of no return. Critics worried that Thom had failed to achieve the promised greatness of his first books by writing about his life in San Francisco, his life as a gay man. With Jack Straw’s Castle Thom declares himself his own poet, not the golden boy of their promise. He has found his poetry, and he intends to keep writing it.
Reading “The Geysers” in this collection was a revelation. It confirmed my own profound experience of the Geysers, a deserted Victorian spa frequented by bikers and gay men communing with nature, with a little help from friendly psychotropic drugs. On my last trip I stumbled on two men I considered demi-gods who invited me to smoke drugs I’d never heard of and share a stainless steel ball that got passed around the campfire mouth to mouth before going elsewhere. Thom’s description of his visit a year earlier is both majestic and sensuous. What I might have remembered as simply lusty, Thom gave the quality of eternity.
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,” “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, and leaving the control of the left margin. Most sentences end without a period.
In the final section of Jack Straw’s Castle Gunn turns to memories of childhood in “Autobiography,” “Hampstead, the Horse Chestnut Trees,” and “That Road Map”. “Courage, a Tale” is a light-hearted poem about a young man and masturbation. In keeping with the sense of time passing, “The Cherry Tree” portrays the life of a tree through the course of a single year as metaphor for a lifetime.
Gunn published The Passages of Joy in 1982. He was upfront with his sexuality. In “Bally Power Play” Gunn gives 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, 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 HIV/AIDS in America. Many of the Thom’s friends became sick and most of them died. He 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.
The Man with Night Sweats, published in 1992, was Gunn’s most celebrated. For it he received the first Forward Prize in England, its 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.
The collection is written in four parts, with 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 classical material and an opportunity for Gunn to suggest 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 third section celebrates the lives of the homeless (“Improvisation” “Outside the Diner,” “Cafeteria in Boston”) and youth (“Skateboard”). Also included is a poem to Christopher Isherwood as he is dying. The fourth section begins with “The Man With Night Sweats.” 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
Thom 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 he places the epidemic in the great traditions of literature.
In 2000, Gunn published Boss Cupid that would be his final collection. Two poems exemplify Gunn’s humor and wisdom. 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 combined patrician language (what do we think about God?) with that of evangelists (the news). Thom described himself as “an atheist who admits to the supernatural”; in this poem he dealt quickly and unequivocally with a subject that’s had theologians chattering for lifetimes. As if compelled to comment, Thom speaks in as few words as possible and is done. Clearly, he does not plan to go there again.
In a second poem,“American Boy”, Gunn writes an appropriate coda for his life as a gay man in a culture that dotes on youth. 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 his age and 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 finishes tenderly 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 Thom, he reveals himself only in what he chooses to describe, more often the storyteller than 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 plays with gender. First he describes the otter as a skater with “hands behind her back” then brings our attention to its male genitalia, bestowing them with classical grandeur — the result of Thom’s vivid imagination because male genitals are not obvious on otters. The otter’s aggressive play is the center of this poem, and for Thom, play was an essential element of survival.
“The Gas Poker” describes a suicide.
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; he closes with poem with beautiful diction and clear syntax.
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 death because he was unable to deal with the subject until he settled on the third person. 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 in his poems. It is his shyness about emotional matters, not a poetic stance, that urged Gunn to describe his world without actively participating in all of his poems.
Thom 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 to 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.
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. Thom sought to discover truth from his experience through poetry. His later poems describe the people he encountered, strangers and lovers alike, and for each compassion and curiosity are paramount. Because Gunn has written about darker subjects and been open about his sexuality, some critics think of him as brash or too outspoken about his life as a gay man. Sort of the poetry establishment’s version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Thom was a skilled poet for whom reality inhered in the particulars of experience both sensual and intellectual; his poems explore intimate questions he faced as a man, an intellectual, and a foreigner in America. 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’m not a romantic.“ When writing about his emotional life, Thom was restrained. I thought him a gentleman, although he would not admit to it. 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. By detaching himself, he’s allowed us to feel his poems as our own.
Living close to the street and forsaking the plumage of celebrity Gunn remained the man he wanted to become, a poet’s poet. I like to think Thom enjoyed tweaking the establishment by commanding traditional forms to conform to his life, and if he never lived up to the “promise” of early critics, that is because he remained one of us. In a community just creating its pantheon of heroes, Gunn merits a place high on Olympus.