Sunday, March 17, 2013

On Thom Gunn

"Around 1960, it sometimes seemed as if all the poetry being written in England was being produced by a triple-headed creature called the "Larkin-Hughes-Gunn" " said Edward Lucie-Smith in British Poetry Since 1945, " is Gunn whose reputation has worn least well." With all three dead, the distinction between the reputations of the first two and the third is pronounced. There is no biography for Gunn, and his books seem out of stock, yet "The Man with the Night Sweats", published in 1992 was, along with "Angels in America" and the movie "And the Band Played On" one of the earliest key pieces about the AIDS epidemic. Here we have a writer who, dying in 2004, was still writing valid work half a century after he'd burst onto the scene with the undergraduate work of "Fighting Terms", yet less than a decade after his death he seems to be unread or unvalued. It's time I think for a reappraisal, for of the three poets mentioned, he may well not have had the greater gift than Larkin but he certainly had a greater range, and the emotional hole at the centre of much of Hughes' work (until "Birthday Letters" at least) is not an accusation that you can level at Gunn, though like both these poets he was meticulous in keeping a distance between the self and the poem.

Reading various bits of critical analysis it appears that Gunn did the unforgivable sin of British writers, by moving to America early, and then staying there. Its an interesting variation on the cultural cringe. We accept Eliot, Pound, Plath as American writers who have become British and enhanced our poetry; yet when Auden or Gunn or Spender goes the other way, the critical consensus is that their work is less important. Yet how can this be? The second half of the century was determinedly American. Moreover, whereas as other British poets either embraced the lessons of Eliot and Pound (Sweeney, Bunting, Raworth) or created their own limited acceptance of free verse forms (Heaney, Hughes, Raine) fed through their own personal mythos, Gunn only slowly moved away from the metrics that he'd discovered in the Elizabethans, and which rung in his own head. Going to America, didn't make him American, at least not immediately.

"I admired a lot of American poetry in free verse, but I couldn’t write free verse. The free verse I tried to write was chopped-up prose, and I could see that was no good. Then I thought of ways in which I could learn how to write in something that was not metrical, that did not have the tune of meter going through it. Once you’ve got the tune in your head it’s very difficult to get it out," he told the Paris Review in 1994.

That Gunn felt happier personally in America, I don't think there's any doubt, he went not just for love (his partner was American) but also security - being gay in the UK in the the 1950s wasn't easy. Yet also here was a young, vibrant writer who could embrace all America had to offer - seeing in the Beats a kindred spirit even if his own poetry was far more formal and had a muscularity (or stiffness, depending on taste) that there's often lacked. A biography of Gunn would be useful in many ways, but not least to understand how the various tribes of poets interacted during those three decades of change, the 50s, 60s and 70s. I feel there's a partial picture - New York Poets, travelling Beats, Ginsberg at the Poetry International, St. Mark's Poetry Project etc. How does Gunn, an out gay man, an academic, a careful writer and a careful reader who would later choose an exemplary selection of Pound for Faber, despite them being so very different as writers, fit into this world?

I go back to the poems. The Collected goes up to and includes "The Man With the Night Sweats."  more judicious selection chosen by August Kleinzhaler shows no falling off a quality. It seems right to start with that late work.

"I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet"

There's the formal structure, the light rhymes, yet Gunn never seems stymied by form, it's always malleable in his hands, the rhymes are under emphasised. In just a few words he sets up the short poem brilliantly, the narrating "I" both in the past and the presence - the present reality of waking up cold contrasted with a vivid life, and the plague of AIDS is put to bed in just a few sharp phrases, for few diseases attack the body quite so visibly as AIDS, with the breaking down of the immune system leading to diseases such as cat flu, and sarcomas that would be highly unusual in young men. This is recent history, and Gunn was one of the earliest writers to address the plague from seeing so many men he knew succumb to it. Here as well, Gunn's methods serve him well, I think, for in many ways his poetry echoes pre-19th century forms and writers - and a medieval disaster such as the AIDS epidemic requires a slightly wearier form. 

"As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off."

The final two lines are almost Biblical, but are also direct and powerful. Its an important poem that is the start of this sequence of poems, an In Memoriam, not just for one man, but for a generation. Here he has learnt from his American counterparts, for these intimate poems are also public poems, these are the "best minds" of Gunn's generation, and they are suffering.  

"Qualities in his verse which once seemed to exist in an asethetic vacuum now serve an urgent purpose," writes Alvarez in the New Yorker in 1994, "...the restraint has something difficult to restrain - pity (for his friends), fear for himself."  

So is this the case and if so how did we get here? His first collection "Fighting Terms" was the only one written whilst he lived in Britain. They are dynamic, purposeful poems but it is his second collect "The Sense of Movement" written whilst on a Creative writing scholarship in America, where he comes into his own. The opener, "On the Move" (aka "Man, you gotta go") is an observational nature poem about biker gangs. He manages to evoke a spectacle with its dust, its smell and its noise, whilst remaining a distance. This is a poem about Hells Angels that begins with "The blue jay scuffling in the bushes..."

"On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt - by hiding it, robust - 
And almost hear a a meaning in their noise." 

This is written in the late 1950s. Gunn is 30. "Blackboard Jungle" "Heartbreak Hotel" and "On the Waterfront" have assailed British and American youth;  "On the Road" and "Howl" have only recently been published. Or look it another way: the bestselling records in Britain in 1958 are by the Everly Brothers and Connie Francis, Larkin is writing "the Whitsun Weddings" and John Masefield is poet laureate. What a strange world to land these poems in. Several years before Larkin mentions, sardonically, the Beatles, there is a poem called "Elvis Presley." 

Each book after "The Sense of a Movement" gives a slightly different Gunn, progressing, but loosening only so far. By "Moly" he is talking about LSD trips in poems like "At the Centre," "What is this steady pouring that/Oh, wonder/ The blue line bleeds and on the gold one draws..." and going to see Jefferson Airplane at the Golden Gate Bridge ("The music comes and goes on the wind/ Comes and goes on the brain." Maybe, we think, Gunn is the wrong poet to be writing about this, though it's his experience. After all, its not quite as strong as "Remember what the doormouse said;"Feed YOUR HEAD..." Poetry was beginning to find a way to write this way.

He seems to have continued to write at a similar pace throughout his life - "Jack Straw's Castle" is something of an attempt to create a mythos that is part-British, part-American. Jack Straw as remembered leader in the Peasant's revolt, as English pub name, as Grateful Dead song, and as the phrase more common to Americans, "man of straw." He would release only two collections in between 1971's "Moly" and 1992's "The Man with the Night Sweats" so may well have been both absent and somewhat forgotten. He was more than likely living his life, in what was a very new age for a gay man. In the Paris Review interview he explains that  "I live with some other men in a house in San Francisco. Somebody once said, Oh, you’ve got a gay commune. I said, No, it’s a queer household!—which I think was a satisfactory answer. Right now there’s only three of us there. There were five—one of them left and one of them died of AIDS. But we really fit in well together. We really do work as a family; we cook in turn, stuff like that."  It was that different life that fed the heartbreak of "The Man with the Night Sweats."

I brought up Gunn in a discussion at my North West Poets meeting, and perhaps for the first time at these meetings, there was some dissension about a poet's worth, though I hopefully encouraged people to read him again. I think what it is is that the prevailing "I am" of late 20th century verse is still there in the system of people's reading and we can't yet read the period historically. I think in 50 years it might seem less puzzling that a writer born in the late 1920s, harked back to early forms, wrote formally, used rhyme, and yet could find time for both the tutorship of the anti-modernist Yvor Winters and the beat poet Alan Ginsberg. For, in Britain at least, there has been a reluctance to go down a purely modernist route - so that we can have well-loved rhymers like Wendy Cope; and formal free versers like Heaney or Armitage; yet Gunn - in his forties at the time of his LSD experimentation with "Moly" - was somewhat out of time, his own poetic structures struggling a little with the freedom of the times, even though his approach was certainly a valid one. Larkin had virtually given up writing verse, (and would certainly have disdained LSD, Jefferson Airplane and the bath houses of San Francisco as he disdained everything else about the modern world), whilst Hughes was at the height of a personal mythos that created the bleak misanthropic "Crow" before reversing into the underwhelming poetry of his Laureate years, before the final triumph of "Birthday Letters."  

Though accepting that Gunn's work is not always as strong as my favourite poems, overall he seems to be a more than minor poet, with a consistency of method and content across several decades that - as if often the case - was both in and out of fashion. Michael Schmidt, in his "Lives of the Poets" quoting Gunn's Winters poem talks about how "Rule or Energy Gunn later recasts as definition and flow. Rule provides a structure or system in or through which the enegy can can't have one without the other."
And it is this, I think, which makes Gunn a poet worthy of rediscovering for a contemporary poet, because he was both a poet of the Movement, and distant from it; both British and American; liberated (in both his love life and poetry) and restrained (ditto). In negotiating the need to find an individual voice we also have to be willing to learn from extant models. Easy to do bad Heaney or bad Pound, less easy to identify the models from the 20th century and earlier which can help that individual voice.

Gunn was an important and well-regarded figure for much of his life time, but if someone with a Faber collected running to hundreds of pages can be seen as "neglected" he does seem to be, a little. I can also see why, in some ways, as his particular style doesn't fit with prevailing winds. The late twentieth century has so often been defined by decades and styles, rather than a continuum. Generational change was measured in half-decades rather than longer; yet I think that may have changed now - we are longer-lived, we are global. The transmission mechanisms (whether for infectious diseases like HIV or for ideas) are much quicker in a global world - but that also, paradoxically limits this idea of "generational change" for everything is here at once - sometimes in the same city. The idea of a "poetry of a decade" - Spender/Auden/Macniece in the thirties, the Movement poets in the fifties - seems a little redundant in careers that span forty years, and where the reception of, say, a Heaney collection, hasn't changed much in that time. Gunn was a fifties poet that didn't fit in even then, and his best work may have been scattered over four decades or more, culminating with that 1992 collection. Seen from this perspective we have to look at poets outside of their times, outside of their movements, as historical figures now, rather than memories. In this sense he stands up; the lineage with much older poetries seems clearer; and the possible connections with future poets and poetry - though never certain - is at least plausible.

Was he a public poet, like the Elizabethan's he admired, reporting on a scene like in "On the Move" or a personal poet post-Lowell, describing his own feelings? Both and neither of course - for "On the Move" has, to my mind a distilled energy - not the deep immersion of "the New Journalism", whilst the poems in "Man with the Night Sweats" is the better for its forensic nature. In the notes at the end of the collected Gunn gives the names of the men whom these poems are about. It is "for my record if for no-one else's because they were not famous people." Such fastidiousness is at one with his writing, and I feel we are the better for it.

I'd suggest you read the Paris Review interview here.
You can read some of his work here
And August Kleinzahler's Selected is a cheap and well chosen collection, with a useful introduction here which includes poetry that appeared after the "Collected Poems". 

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