Looking Up

Donald Davie

  • The Passages of Joy by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 93 pp, £4.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 571 11867 4
  • The Occasions of Poetry by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 188 pp, £6.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 571 11733 3

In the past, I have been persuaded by those like Colin Falck who have thought Thom Gunn’s distinctive and great achievement was to have re-established creative connections with at least one aspect of Shakespeare, and with some of Shakespeare’s great contemporaries, notably Marlowe and Donne. Gunn, I believe, liked this notion, and Clive Wilmer endorses it in his excellent and too brief Introduction to The Occasions of Poetry. It is disconcerting to have to acknowledge that in Gunn’s very fine collection of poems this dimension of his writing is no longer evident. In none of these 37 poems, as I read them, is there any longer evidence that their author has been attending to the songs from Shakespeare’s plays, to Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, or Marlowe’s translations and imitations of Ovid: they are ‘contemporary’ in an altogether less complicated and more obvious way. Although the title of the collection and an epigraph to one poem come (surprisingly) from Johnson’s ‘Vanity of Human Wishes’, in all other respects these poems seem to remember not much before Whitman, and certainly nothing before Stendhal or Keats. Clearly, if Gunn has indeed been one modern poet with a sympathy for the English Renaissance, that was far from being as central to his achievement as some of us thought. For the achievement is still there: The Passages of Joy is as fine a collection as he has ever published, and if it lacks the resonances that some of us have come to expect and delight in, it provides others that many readers may well prefer.

And after all the signs were always there, if we had cared to look. Rereading in The Occasions of Poetry Gunn’s essay on Ben Jonson, one notices for the first time how difficult he finds it to enter into Jonson’s world. The difficulties can be surmounted, and mostly he surmounts them, after very plainly and helpfully and not without erudition pointing them out to his readers. One difficulty he does not surmount, I think, is his inability to share Jonson’s Christian piety. But more revealing in relation to his own poetry is the difficulty he has with the famous forthrightness of Jonson’s not necessarily Christian affirmation:

Not to know vice at all, and keepe true state,
Is vertue, and not Fate …

‘Jonson,’ Gunn comments, ‘like so many of his contemporaries, looked up to the moral chastity of someone who knew what was right to do (and did it) rather than having to learn it from experience.’ The implication is rather plainly that whereas this ‘looking up’ was a possibility for Jonson and his contemporaries, it is no longer possible for us, or not for those of us who write poems. And sure enough, when we turn to what Gunn writes about his own poems and about 20th-century poetry, we see that a Keatsian ‘proving upon the pulses’ is for him axiomatic.

So it is, I dare say, for most of his readers. But if so, that only shows how unrepresentative poetry-readers are. For can we doubt that knowing what is right, and then doing it, accounts for most of the decencies and braveries that we see from time to time performed around us? Or that just such acting from conviction, rather than from experience, is still what most of our unsophisticated fellows recognise as goodness? Gunn has always been a highly intellectual poet: but that is not quite the same as saying, what seems to be also true, that he is a poet of and for the intelligentsia. The reason for this, for his having no choice in the matter, has been widely known for a long time, but in these two books he takes great care that none of us should be in any doubt about it. He is a practising homosexual, and in poem after poem here he proves on his pulses, from experience, that so far as he is concerned homosexual practices (even, in some circumstances, of a notably promiscuous and mercenary kind) constitute ‘what is right’. Among the essays, one on ‘Homosexuality in Robert Duncan’s Poetry’ makes the same point. The appeal to experience, and alleged vindication by experience, are what Gay Liberation, when it is respectable, is all about; and Gunn’s fearlessness about it, together with his ardent belief that the liberation is momentous and overdue and enlightened, is impressive, all the more because it’s clear that he’s naturally a reticent man who dislikes self-exposure. And inside the intelligentsia it may well be that these are no longer minority opinions. But in the population at large surely they are. Certainly in Ben Jonson’s England such a secular experimental attitude to ethics was virtually unknown. This seems to mean that Gunn’s sympathies with any period before the Enlightenment can never be more than skin-deep.

Clive Wilmer calls Gunn ‘this most chaste of modern poets’. He does not have in mind Gunn’s subject-matter (though let’s be fair – only nine of these poems are overtly homosexual, and of these only one is unequivocally lewd). ‘Chaste’, as Wilmer uses the word, refers to Gunn’s style, and in that sense it is exact. That has always been what is singular about Gunn’s work: the combination of unchaste subject-matter (one can be unchaste in other matters than sex) with a remarkably chaste, remarkably lean and unadorned, style. This fruitful tension is more marked in The Passages of Joy than ever before, chiefly because unusually many of the poems are in unmetred verse, where the tautness of formal control can show itself only in a diction that is, as always with this poet, terse and rapid and non-sensuous. Yet, enamoured though he is of liberation (and not just gay liberation – autobiographical pieces in The Occasions of Poetry show him still starry-eyed about the acid-dropping Sixties), he has never fallen for the simple-minded liberationist arguments for free verse as against metre; and the alternately rhyming pentameters in a poem called ‘Crossroads’ spendidly vindicate his belief that ‘in metrical verse, it is the nature of the control being exercised that becomes part of the life being spoken about.’ Similarly (that same fruitful tension in another key), though he idealises the Sixties, he doesn’t like, and never did, a kind of writing that came in with that disgraceful decade:

For several weeks I have been reading
the poetry of my juniors.
Mother doesn’t understand,
and they hate Daddy, the noted alcoholic.
They write with black irony
of breakdown, mental institution,
and suicide attempt, of which the experience
does not always seem first-hand.
It is very poetic poetry.

This is a fair example of the firmness that Gunn’s chaste diction can manage in free verse, but the acerbity (relatively rare in Gunn but always welcome and well managed) gives it an adventitious lift. A purer example, because free of such special effects, is the last poem in the book, ‘Night Taxi’, which resists quotation precisely because its 65 lines of unmetred verse support one another totally, so that no excerpt from them carries any punch on its own. And surely just that effect is what is meant, stylistically, by ‘chaste’.

‘Night Taxi’ has for me a special appeal because it is dedicated ‘for Rod Taylor, wherever he is’. Rod Taylor was my student before he was Thom Gunn’s; and I too wish that I knew where he is. His one book, Florida East Coast Champion, is known to so few readers that hardly any one will recognise, as I do, how uncannily Gunn’s poem for him recaptures, not in tricksy touches of treatment but in the conception – ‘objective correlative’ is for once the right formula – the peculiar, the perhaps unique quality of Taylor’s American imagination. Gunn’s review of Florida East Coast Champion is reprinted in The Occasions of Poetry, evenhandedly balancing an appreciation of a British product of by and large the same generation, Dick Davis’s In the Distance. And does any one recognise how rare it is, this saluting by a senior poet of juniors who are by no means of his stable, in no sense his ‘followers’? This is generosity: a virtue recommended in the verse and often embodied there, which takes on extra authority when we see it enacted in workaday and unsolicited prose. The man who writes the essays and reviews, and the man who writes the poems, are one and the same. It happens much more rarely than any one likes to admit; and it is exemplary.

To be sure, Clive Wilmer has chosen not to reprint anything from the period (1958-64) when Gunn reviewed poetry regularly for the Yale Review: this highlights his generosity rather cheaply, since the regular reviewer, if he is honest, necessarily turns his thumbs more, often down than up. We have instead, from Encounter 17 years ago, the obviously important essay on William Carlos Williams, which reveals Gunn’s generosity at its least helpful. For in the course of what offers itself as a recommendation of Williams, Gunn’s honesty compels him to make one damaging admission after another until by the end Williams’s status is less assured than it was to start with. (To be sure, this is normal with Williams’s champions: all of them have to excuse the inexcusable. His heart was in the right place – lord, yes: but where was his mind?) It’s notoriously difficult to applaud Williams without being unfair to Eliot, as Gunn surely is when, without explanation, he refers to the pub scene in The Waste Land as ‘embarrassing’. And one wonders if he still finds Pound’s programme for Imagism ‘somewhat fuzzily expressed’. To judge from his recent PN Review appreciation of Bunting’s Briggflatts (too recent, I suppose, for Wilmer to include it), Gunn has lately been considering The Cantos, and the Poundian precedent generally, more attentively and respectfully than in the past. Another and more worrying case where second thoughts were called for is in ‘Hardy and the Ballads’, where Gunn discusses ‘During Wind and Rain’ in ignorance of Emma Hardy’s Some Recollections, published in 1961; 11 years later in Agenda it was acceptable for Gunn to acknowledge the omission in a somewhat lordly footnote, but to reprint the piece unchanged now, when we know so much more about Hardy’s relations with his first wife, and have reconsidered his poems in that light – this, I’m afraid, is unscholarly.

The most scholarly essay in The Occasions of Poetry is also the longest and the best, on Fulke Greville. Here not only is the learning impressive and well marshalled, but the critical intelligence is at full stretch as nowhere else. The criticism is methodical and trenchant in the manner of Gunn’s old teacher, Yvor Winters: but it discriminates far more patiently than Winters did. I do not scruple to call this essay ‘masterly’, with a mastery that is likely to be overlooked because Greville is a poet who has never appealed to many, and probably never will. Gunn confronts that in Greville which he too finds unappealing: ‘The preceding outline ends as a description of attitudes that I find at best sterile and at worst obnoxious.’ Among these obnoxious attitudes are some that are political, as when Gunn thinks he finds Greville in ‘the peculiarly repellent position of advocating terror as a political expedient in the unified authoritarian state’. This allegation depends on taking ‘terror’, as Greville uses the word, in what may be a peculiarly 20th-century sense. But there is no denying that Greville as a political thinker is profoundly authoritarian. And when Gunn declares, ‘Those who have a constant sense of human depravity end up by being able to trust only in the abstraction of authoritarianism,’ rather than cry at him, ‘Prove it!’ it is better to reflect how hard indeed it must be for him to be fair to Eliot. The difficulty is compounded, as we shall see, by the fact that the Thom Gunn who admires Camus himself thinks that all men are depraved, though he would rather die than use the word. What is exemplary is Gunn’s insistence, and his demonstration, that in poem after poem Greville can and does validate poetically ideas that remain, in the abstract, obnoxious. This seems to represent an exertion of sympathy beyond what six years later Gunn was able to manage for Greville’s contemporary, Jonson; whether or not Gunn can nowadays enter into pre-Enlightenment ethical attitudes, in 1968 he certainly could.

He did so by way of Camus, in whose image of ‘le malconfort’ – ‘the cell where one cannot stand, sit, or lie’ – he finds an exact analogy to Greville’s ‘that strait building, Little-ease of sin’. Gunn applauds Camus for saying, ‘Il fallait vivre dans le malconfort,’ for ‘the determination to live with that sickness, fully acknowledging it and accepting it as the basis for our actions’. ‘Greville,’ Gunn says, ‘could not make such an acceptance.’ The rigour of this is extraordinary: Gunn calls us to live in Little-ease, while denying ourselves the Christian consolation that even the notoriously bleak Calvinist Greville could fall back upon. Obviously for an unbeliever like Gunn neither sin nor depravity can have, strictly speaking, any meaning: but that distinction is quite consumed in his conviction that Greville’s Little-ease, whether or not we call it ‘sin’, is the state in which we all live, and have to live. That is borne out by Gunn’s poems. Let no one be deceived by the title: The Passages of Joy isn’t in the least a joyous book. The steely temper of it comes clear as soon as we return the phrase to its context in ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’:

Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy,
And shuts up all the Passages of Joy.

The life in Gunn’s poems is life in Little-ease; and he persuades us while we read that this is true whether we are ‘straight’ or (the pathetic incongruity of the word!) ‘gay’.