on 13 June 1999
One of the most exciting and challenging bodies of poetry created over the past forty years, Thom Gunn's Collected Poems offers a heady Anglo-American cocktail of liberal sensuality, often contained within surprisingly conventional forms.
Gunn's poetry is characterised by a cool sense of intellectual detachment, and a penetratingly lucid ability to follow experience to its resolvable core. This sensibility is offered in disarmingly casual, laid-back tones inherited from post-60's American poetry. Gunn successfully pulled off that rare and necessary trick of re-inventing himself through American poetry, thus bypassing the pedestrianism which blighted so many of his British contemporaries. This ongoing re-invention and self-resurrection is one of the most interesting and inspiring subtexts of his Collected Poems.
Taking up residence in the United States in 1954, Gunn soon got turned on to a variety of recreational drugs, including LSD. Clearly, these experiences proved a catalyst, shifting the terrain of Gunn's work. Yet right from the start, Gunn had presented an angular, leather-cased shoulder to social convention. In The Sense Of Movement (1957), he sided with the Beat and Teddy-Boy culture of the late 50's, employing motorbikes and Elvis as distinctly valid, modern subjects for poetry. Gunn's telling lines in the poem "Elvis Presley" could also be read as a credo for his own evolving poetics:
"He turns revolt into a style, prolongs/The impulse to a habit of the time."
Turning revolt into a style was to prove Gunn's directive. While the allegorical poems from his first two books still draw on unsurprising themes and employ myth and religion rather conventionally to explore their subjects, a liberating undertow of defiance is everywhere present. In "High Fidelity", a poem about listening to records, Gunn's metaphysical playfulness works to impose reason on an emerging pop culture:
"I play your furies back to me at night,/ The needle dances in the grooves they made,/ For fury is passion like love, and fury's bite/ These grooves, no sooner than a love mark fades..."
By the time Gunn published Moly in 1971, he was deeply involved in the west coast rock scene of outdoor festivals and psychedelic happenings, and his work took on a spacey, almost visionary quality. Poems like "Tom-Dobin," "The Colour Machine," "Street Song," "The Fair In The Woods," "The Messenger," and "At the Centre" are all examples of a poetry siding with altered states. Gunn writes about his LSD experiences with remarkable clarity:
"...Later, downstairs and at the kitchen table,/I look round at my friends. Through light we move/Like foam. We started choosing long ago/--clearly and capably as we were able--/Hostages from the pouring we are of. /The faces are as bright now as fresh snow." ----(From "At the Centre")
Gunn's first five collections, represented in the first half of Collected Poems, gave little indication of his coming out as a gay man. The acid landscape of Moly, however, seems to have provided a space of psychological transition necessary for the poet to write more explicitly about his sexuality. Since Jack Straw's Castle (1976), his work has been explicitly informed by the details of his engagement with the gay subculture and its interactions with the culture at large. It is also more explicit about his interior emotional landscape.
Ten years lapsed between Gunn's publication of The Passages of Joy (1982) and The Man With Night Sweats (1992). This interval is in part attributable to the adjustment, personal and poetic, to watching a generation liquidated by AIDS. The plague and its increasing casualties have proved a central subject for Gunn's later poetry, and by the final phase of the Collected Poems he has taken on the role of principal elegist to a virally stricken gay community. The poem "Elegy" first provided Gunn the stripped-down manner and elegiac tone which he needed for his task, and which he has subsequently made inimitably his own. Here, a sense of the unwavering terror at the heart of suicide is powerfully evoked:
"Though I hardly knew him /I rehearse it again and again/ Did he smell eucalyptus last?/No it was his own blood/as he choked on it"
In Thom Gunn's incarnation as a compassionate, deeply humane elegist to dying friends, his touch is neither too grave nor too light. Steeped in 17th century poetry-a period rich in the elegist's art-he proved himself as adept at writing formal couplets in the celebration of the dying or the dead as he had at writing free verse. "The Missing" is a particularly successful late poem in Gunn's canon. In it, he perceives himself as belonging to a universal gay family, a resilient but continuously reduced nucleus in which survival is all.
"Now as I watch the progress of the plague,/ The friends surrounding me fall sick, grow thin, /And drop away. Bared, is my shape less vague/Sharply exposed and with a sculpted skin?// I do not like the statue's chill contour,/ Not nowadays. The warmth investing me /led outward through mind, limb feeling and more/ In an involved increasing family. // Contact of a friend led to another friend, /Supple entwinement through the living mass /Which for all that I knew might have no end, /Image of an unlimited embrace."
Nobody has or will put this better. Gunn's achievements over four decades of writing are those of an innovator pushing the boundaries of the accepted subject matter of poetry. He is a master of the compressed lyric executed in formal stanzas, yet he is always modern. And he is compellingly truthful.
An outsider to British poetry by reason of place and sensibility, Gunn is, to me, the most exciting poet of his generation. The Collected Poems is the place to get at the whole body of work of a poet who continues to surprise, who celebrates those who live on the cutting edge of social and sexual issues in our crazily up-ended, but always meaningful world.