Thom Gunn has an intelligent rock star’s ear for titles: Fighting Terms, My Sad Captains, Touch, Moly, Jack Straw’s Castle, The Man with Night Sweats. Punchy and enigmatic, they read like the back catalogue of a highbrow, low-life singer-songwriter. The career they mark has always had an air of rock rebellion about it, too: soon after publishing his debut collection (which appeared while he was still an undergraduate), Gunn moved to California and produced poems influenced by the emergent youth culture, hymning Elvis and black-leather ‘boys’ on motorbikes. By the early 1960s he was reported to be experimenting with syllabic verse and LSD. After the buttoned-up forms and conceits of his early work, Gunn seemed gradually to be learning to let it all hang out, and as the hippy pop of the 1960s gave way to the self-indulgent ‘progressive’ rock of the 1970s, he published a memorably terrible two-line tribute to Jefferson Airplane:
The music comes and goes on the wind,
Comes and goes on the brain.
With the 1980s came The Passages of Joy, containing more free verse than ever before and speaking openly, for the first time, about the poet’s homosexuality. It also contained some of his weakest material to date, but he made a comeback in the early 1990s with The Man with Night Sweats, a sombre, one-man-and-his-acoustic-guitar sort of book, written out of the Aids epidemic.
Boss Cupid, a decade later, with its bicep-tattoo title, is a book about survivals and sequels. The elegiac note persists, but the tone is lighter than in The Man with Night Sweats – the presiding sense is of a man who has come through. He also takes time to revisit earlier books. Boss Cupid’s epigraph, a quotation from Thomas Hardy – ‘Well, it’s a cool queer tale!’ – first caught Gunn’s eye in an essay written in 1972, where he cited it straight-faced; now it is reused to point up the modern connotations of ‘cool’ and ‘queer’. The second poem of the book, ‘The Antagonism’, is a surprising return to the bold historical colour of early poems such as ‘A Mirror for Poets’, with its talk of ‘Hacks in the Fleet and nobles in the Tower:/Shakespeare must keep the peace, and Jonson’s thumb/Be branded (for manslaughter).’ ‘The Antagonism’ paints a medieval scene of ‘cholera in the keep, or frost’s long ache/Afflicting every mortal nation/From lords to villagers in their fading dyes’, going on to consider the pagan ‘Green Men’ lurking in old churches and cathedrals:
But carved on a high beam
Far in the vault from the official version
Gape gnarled unChristian heads out of
Long stems of contrary assertion,
Shaped leaf ridging their scalps in place of hair.
Their origins lost to sight,
As they are too, cast out from light.
They should despair.
This is finely done, the stanza form handled with confidence, the poem gaining resonance from its place in a collection dominated by poems about relationships within a marginalised community: the decorative Green Men become symbols of forbidden love, ‘boss’ Cupids in another sense, up in the rafters and ‘aloof’ to the Christ worshipped below. ‘Cupid is the Christ of the religion of love,’ Gunn observed in his essay on Fulke Greville.
This sense of continuity with Gunn’s previous work is not always welcome. A potted account of his career suggests a questing spirit; but stylistically, Gunn has tended to return to a relatively limited range of modes, especially when writing formal verse. His characteristic manner could be described as ‘modern Drab’, to borrow a term applied by C.S. Lewis to Greville and other 16th-century writers: plain, rhythmically sturdy, rhyming verse, strongly Anglo-Saxon in diction, often lyrical, and often sententious. The term is not necessarily pejorative; it applies to Thomas Wyatt, for instance, whose exemplary plainness in despair – ‘In slumbers oft for fear I quake,/For heat and cold I burn and shake,/For lack of sleep my head doth ache’ – informs ‘The Man with Night Sweats’, one of Gunn’s best poems:
I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet.
Gunn looks good in these tight trimeters, and the exacting form keeps things simple. A single metaphor (the body as a shield) is handed carefully from stanza to stanza, until the terrified last line, with its unexpected image and sudden, extra syllable:
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hand were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
But Gunn can often be merely drab when his models are more recent poets – when plainness is simply lazy. Boss Cupid begins:
When in his twenties a poetry’s full strength
Burst into voice as an unstopping flood,
He let the divine prompting (come at length)
Rushingly bear him away any way it would ...
Between the notebook-margins his pen travelled,
His own lines carrying him in a new mode
To ports in which past purposes unravelled.
This is a weak echo of Auden’s famous sonnet-autobiographies – in particular of ‘Rimbaud’, where the cliché of poetry as an impromptu flood is wittily reworked:
The nights, the railway-arches, the bad sky,
His horrible companions did not know it;
But in that child the rhetoricians’ lie
Burst like a pipe: the cold had made a poet.
The example was clearly on Gunn’s mind; later in the book ‘Shit’ tells how Rimbaud
Coursed after meaning, meaning of course to
Across the lush green meadows of his youth,
To the edge of the unintelligible thicket
Where truth becomes the same place as
There is an empty portentousness in this technique (its inversions, its heavy feminine rhymes, what one might call its sub-Audenate clauses): it is the modern English poetic autopilot. As Goethe observed of the formulae which make up epic diction, it does your thinking for you. Its characteristic features are not so much stock epithets (although ‘lush green meadows’ are looking pretty dry these days) as stock constructions, encouraged by a tendency to rhyme on the more colourless parts of speech, especially pronouns and prepositions:
The curtains of their skin
Tripping them up at their incautious play,
When out of torpor they
Had woken as ambitious as if in
Their prime again.
This is the style familiar from the Larkin of ‘An Arundel Tomb’, in which the verse and its argument wind circuitously around the casual enjambments, creating a tone which is basically imitative of everyday speech, but sometimes slightly more elevated – and inverted – when the poem crescendos into its main theme. The poet who is prepared to take a more Germanic approach to word order than would be allowed in prose will be better placed to find rhymes in a language notoriously short of them. But rhyming on connectives and qualifiers means ending lines with them: done without care, the cumulative effect is a rhythm of ‘yet’ and ‘therefore’ and ‘furthermore’ in which you can hear the conclusion coming almost as soon as the poem begins. Here is the ‘bridge’ section of ‘Saturday Night’, which relives the atmosphere of a pre-Aids San Franciscan bath-house, and goes on to describe its current dilapidation:
All here, of any looks, of any age,
Will get whatever they are looking for,
Or something close, the rapture they engage
Renewable each night.
Our Dionysian experiment
To build a city never dared before
Dies without reaching to its full extent ...
The lines die in order to reach their full extent, either padded out for the terza rima, or curiously truncated. And after that ominous ‘furthermore’, there should be no surprises as to the conclusion:
Walls darken with the mould, or is it rash?
At length the baths catch fire and then burn down,
And blackened beams damn up the bays with ash.
There is a Wyatt-like brutality in the clubbing alliteration of the last line (‘Me lusteth no longer rotten boughs to climb’), but to get there Gunn is forced into passing off a crude simile as a rhetorical question, and telling us that after something has caught fire it ‘then’ burns down.
One of the depressing things about reading Gunn on autopilot is that occasionally more interesting writing floats past among the verbal filler. This as true now as it was forty years ago:
When he stood near the Russian partisan
Being burned alive, he therefore could behold
The ribs wear gently through the darkening skin ...
They drag the stocky shutters apart
And let light in upon the floor,
The dance-ground of the active heart,
Where they could play for ever more ...
(‘Coffee Shop’, 2000)
The ribs and the ‘stocky’ shutters have, to very different effect, tangible presence. But what of that fussily awkward ‘therefore’, or the archly archaic ‘upon’ and ‘for ever more’? These rhetorical habits are metrical makeweights, drawing attention away from the scene, forcing the poetry into a generic conceitedness. Yet Gunn can go about things differently. A poem entitled ‘A Young Novelist (whose first book was published in the same week that his lover died)’ begins, unexceptionally, ‘You might say a whole life led up to it,’ but suddenly breaks off into an unexpected coda:
Once on his way to school a schoolboy surfaced
From all of loss to one cold London street
And noticed minute leaves, they were soft points,
Virgin-green, newly eased out of black twigs,
And didn’t know, really, what to make of them;
Then turning back to it found he no longer
Knew what to make of the other thing, despair.
The effect is, as Gunn once described looking at early religious art after reading ‘confessional’ poetry, ‘like water/After too much birthday cake’: we are offered something we had not anticipated (presumably oblique autobiography) and which we are not told how to interpret. Our own not knowing, really, what to make of something can be a healthy sign in poetry encountered for the first time.
The coda is also effective because it is composed in loose blank verse, and says what it has to say unhampered by the machinery of much of Gunn’s rhymed work. It achieves the fusion of free verse and metrical restriction which he has elsewhere compared to ‘the alchemist’s search for the philosopher’s stone’. The other extreme, formless doodling, is not necessarily preferable. In the free verse pieces gathered in Boss Cupid under the heading ‘Gossip’, the deliberate lightness of the poems can result in heavy humour:
Most are male, some
– you can tell they are serious
from their hiking boots.
(‘Coffee on Cole’)
Only one piece, ‘The Artist as an Old Man’, describing a Lucian Freud self-portrait, seems more than throwaway. It ends:
his own eyes
or it might be yours
and his attack on the goods
repeats the riddle
or it might be
Out of the eater
came forth meat
and out of the strong
came forth sweetness.
Again, this stands out because it leaves something tactfully unexplained; and, unlike most of the ‘Gossip’ pieces, it is not a self-portrait.
Gunn has written of his tendency to fluctuate between poetic modes that ‘it has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is an escape from personality.’ This is probably the only time that the caustic young Eliot of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ has been referred to as ‘lovely’, and it is indicative of Gunn’s amiable but crucial misunderstanding of Eliot’s point. A ‘unique poetic personality’, a manner which creates and controls a distinct tone – and which prevents a poet writing certain kinds of poetry, as well as facilitating the composition of other kinds – was, for Eliot, the means to escape unfiltered, autobiographical ‘personality’: ‘It is not in his particular emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting.’ But frequently the expression of such emotions and events seems to be interesting enough for Gunn – whether he chooses to cast them in free verse or rhyme depends on the ‘seriousness’ of the recollected emotion (sadness tends to get rhymed). And this is clearly enough for his readership, too. Pottering about in his poetry, Thom Gunn comes across as an eminently likeable person. One might say of him what he once said of Hardy: ‘Much of what sustains me through the flatter parts of the Collected Poems is this feeling of contact with an honest man who will never lie to me.’
But this is not enough if one is not Hardy, with his enormous formal inventiveness and sure instinct for lyric economy. Some of the strongest moments in Gunn’s poetry occur when he creates the illusion of intimacy with darker, less agreeably representative psyches. He has a knack for portraying solitary men with bestial appetites: Misanthropos (1965), his only long poem, imagines a man living wild in the aftermath of a war. It is generally overlooked, but contains some notable work. The emotional and physical hunger of the protagonist is realised with Hughesian relish: ‘nodding foxgloves are his only girls’, a mouse’s forefeet are ‘slender as wishbones’. There is even some unusually subtle wordplay: a fever drifting through the blood ‘gently, unintelligently’, and a successful modern echopoem:
Is there no feeling, then, which I can trust,
In spite of what we have discussed?
‘Troubador’ in Boss Cupid seems to look back to the dark little section in which ‘Misanthropos’ recalls his days as a sexual ‘serving man’:
I served myself a trencher
of human flesh in some dark
sour pantry, and munched from it.
Again working at a markedly more inventive formal and verbal level than other poems in this volume, ‘Troubador’ is, improbably, a suite of songs ‘for Jeffrey Dahmer’, the cannibal and necrophile. The conceit of psychopath as frustrated courtly lover is presented with cold skill, and the poetry has a sinister precision of tone:
Yet nothing lasts, you know.
I tell you what, there is a place divides
The house’s structure, hidden at the centre.
If I show you that crawl-space, you must show
The inmost secrets to me that skin hides.
Here, I will help you enter.
Yet there are passages stiff with the ‘creaking inversions’ that C.S. Lewis lamented in Wyatt in 1954 (the year Gunn’s debut appeared). Lewis’s summary of the Drab age applies equally well to Gunn: ‘The good work is neat and temperate, the bad flat and dry. There is more bad than good.’ ‘Troubador’, and some of the other poems in Boss Cupid which deal honestly with late-flowering lust – watching an attractive ‘kid’ in a post office queue Gunn wishes that ‘I/Could creep into his armpit like a fly,/Or like a crab cling to his golden crotch’ – show that he has not lost the rock’n’roll impulse to fly in the face of good taste. The last piece of ‘Gossip’ describes a homeless young man who salutes the poet with the remark ‘It’s a doggy dog world.’ ‘Charming error’, the poet comments, assuming it to be a misunderstanding of ‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world.’ Later, in a bar, the same man discreetly places his penis in Gunn’s hand: ‘a lovely gift to offer an old/stranger ... in a doggy dog world.’ The punchline is neat enough, but the error is surely Gunn’s – the youth was probably quoting the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg. Mildly shocking subject-matter cannot disguise the fact that this is essentially old-fashioned poetry, the literary equivalent of Dad Rock – happily out of touch, perhaps (in 1989 Gunn told an interviewer, ‘I have very little interest in any literary movements of the last forty years’), but out of touch nonetheless, and all the drabber for it.