Like Learning to Swim in Early Middle Age

Colm Tóibín

  • Shelf Life: Essays, Memoirs and an Interview by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 230 pp, £14.99, July 1994, ISBN 0 571 17196 6

‘Fame is difficult for a writer to deal with,’ Thom Gunn writes in his essay on Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. ‘It dries you up, or it makes you think you are infallible, or your writing becomes puffed out with self-esteem. (Victor Hugo thought himself superior to both Jesus and Shakespeare.) It is a complication that the imagination can well do without.’

It is the spring of 1993. Gunn is on the list of those who will read at a literary festival in a huge old market building in the centre of San Francisco, which has been his home town since the late Fifties. His first book in 11 years, The Man with Night Sweats, has just been published. The main auditorium holds thousands who are here to see their favourite writers. People sit on the floor because all the chairs are taken up. All eyes are on Armistead Maupin as he reads from his new book and answers questions about sexual politics. Crowds stare in wonder as Isabel Allende reads from a new novel. After her reading she will sit at a table in a side stall and sign copies of her books. The queue to get her signature stretches into the next stall, where Thom Gunn is due to read, so we have to wait. There are maybe thirty or forty of us. In the distance we can hear the voice of another main attraction holding the crowd in the central auditorium.

I am surprised that Gunn is not a main attraction. I thought that those early tough poems delighting in the body’s toughness (‘Much that is natural, to the will must yield’), the urge to write memorable lines (‘Are you a warning, Father, or an example?’), the fascination with low life and moral ambiguity (‘Oh dead punk lady with the knack/Of looking fierce in pins and black,/The suburbs wouldn’t want you back’), and the frank versions of a gay overworld (‘Yet when I’ve had you once or twice/I may not want you any more’) would have made him a guru here; I presumed that his recent elegies on the deaths of friends from Aids would have made him a central figure in the literary life of San Francisco.

But much of his poetry has also been laden down with paradox and wit; it is deeply conscious of several great traditions. ‘The care and the cunning of the style’, as he has written of Yeats’s ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, ‘its very finish’, serves ‘to place all impulsive decisions many drafts anterior to the version we read’. There is a beautiful neutrality, most of the time, in his tone. He gives nothing away. He does not know, just as the reader must not know, how much of his secret self is in the poems. In The Occasions of Poetry, a book of essays, he writes about his poem ‘From an Asian Tent’: ‘What does it do if I say ... that in it I am finally able to write about my father? ... I would like the poem read as being about what it proclaims as its subject: Alexander the Great remembering Philip of Macedon.’

The middle stanza of ‘From an Asian Tent’ reads:

You held me once before the army’s eyes;
During their endless shout, I tired and slid
Down past your forearms to the cold surprise
Your plated shoulder made between my thighs.
This happened, Or perhaps I wish it did.

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