Thom Gunn and the Largest Gathering of the Decade

Alan Sinfield

  • The Man with Night Sweats by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 88 pp, £5.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 571 16257 6

‘If he were a dog he’d have been put down five years ago’ – so the Daily Sport on Freddie Mercury. The virulence of the hostility towards gay men that the Aids pandemic has released, it occurs to me, is directly proportionate to the idea, which was getting into general circulation in Britain around 1980, that gays were doing better with the sex-and-love questions. We seemed to have learnt a few tricks that straights had yet to develop. Gay men had organised genial ways of meeting for casual sex, and also loving couples that might manage, even, to evade gendered roles. They knew how to see other men without falling out with their partners; how to go to bed with friends; how to remain on close terms with former lovers; how to handle age and class differences. They were at ease experimenting with kinky games; they were getting the fun back into sex. For the right-wing bigot, therefore, the Aids pandemic was a godsend. It countermanded, precisely, that alleged gay advantage. It had all been a fantasy, ‘the family’ should set the limits of human experience. Gays, Section 28 says, have only pretended families.

The largest gathering of the decade in San Francisco, where Thom Gunn lives, and in many cities, is made up of people with, or who have died of, Aids. The phrase occurs in ‘Courtesies of the Interregnum’, where Gunn tells how a friend, who once had hosted weekly gatherings, is now pleased to report that he is able to eat hot food at all. The friend becomes aware that his preoccupation with his illness is excluding the poet – not a person with Aids – who is still his guest:

He is, confronted by a guest so fit,
Almost concerned lest I feel out of it,
Excluded from the invitation list
To the largest gathering of the decade, missed
From membership as if the club were full.

The civil intimacy of their relationship reasserts itself, making the poet a fit guest after all. Through ‘such informal courtesy’ the host, an athlete, achieves a triumph – ‘with not physical but social strength’. In the face of Aids, gay community is more, not less, necessary and rewarding.

Civility does not always win out in these poems. ‘Lament’, a narrative of the last days of another friend, I find as painful after many readings as it was at first. Nevertheless, in the face of Aids, because of it, Gunn reasserts that civil intimacy is best generated in sexual encounters and the relationships that they produce. There are affectionate, delighted and respectful poems here for recent as well as past lovers. Then again, ‘The Hug’ finds the poet and his partner of thirty years and more in bed together after a party.

It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
          Or braced, to mine,
    And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
    Become familial.

(Yes, familial.) The range of emotional experience included in that hug is vast, and yet the tension and support, body to body, remains consistent. ‘It was not sex,’ but neither (to pick up an echo from John Donne) was it a mixing of souls.

In ‘The Missing’, Gunn writes of his friends as ‘an involved increasing family’ (another family) of gay lovers:

Contact of 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.

Now many of these friends are dying. Gunn thinks at first of his own condition, as his friends grow thin and drop away, as like a sculpted figure emerging from the stone. But no, he says, it is not like that: he was more defined when he was supported by his friends.

It was their pulsing presence made me clear,
I borrowed from it, I was unconfined,
Who tonight balance unsupported here,
Eyes glaring from raw marble.

Now, he is ‘trapped in unwholeness’. The loss of friends does not show that the project of an unlimited embrace was wrong, but just how right it was and how much it is needed now. ‘Memory Unsettled’ remembers a comforting:

You climbed in there beside him
And hugged him plain in view,
Though you were sick enough,
And had your own fears too.

This vision of civil intimacy is not just a theme in these poems: it is the enabling condition of them. For writing about Aids must be difficult. How to match the scale of the thing, how to avoid appearing to use it? Gunn’s poems work, I believe, because the deaths they record are not only a personal concern – and not merely a ‘universal’ one either. They are points of engagement with a milieu, a subculture. Among many British gay men, fortunately, Aids is slightly less familiar and, therefore, leaves most of us not knowing quite where to look, how to say things. (Poets may help us with that.) In San Francisco, there are organisations for people who test HIV negative – to enable them to contribute, to feel less guilty about being ‘fit’.

When I met Gunn there in 1989, the Bay Area Reporter, a give-away paper, had a dozen and more obituaries each week. Perhaps two hundred words; just who they were, how old, what they did, what they were like, how their lover and friends and (often) relations miss them; a small photo. But, unlike other obituaries, these are all the same: all Aids deaths. For that large gathering, there is a new public significance to dying. Most of us have expected our passing to be notable only to friends and family in the ordinary sequence of life. But this dying is part of a huge, continuing, subcultural event – civil and yet intimate. These poems are part of that. And this, I think, is what enables Gunn to write them, and what makes them so important.

I have argued with Gunn, in an interview and in correspondence, about the scope for poetry today.[*] Is he a gay poet, or a poet who is gay? ‘At times,’ he says, ‘I do think of my-self as writing for a gay audience.’ However, he adds: ‘I don’t usually think very precisely about the matter of audience; I doubt if many writers do, unless they are deliberately writing for a specialised audience, like writing boys’ adventure novels.’ ‘But if you don’t think about it,’ I reply, ‘don’t you just end up writing for the normal Faber and Faber poetry audience? And it’s doubtful how far that general, “human” voice of traditional poetry can be trusted any more.’

Actually, I have two arguments in view. One is whether the traditional idea of poetry – associated with the Faber slim volume – has not run its course as an effective cultural form. The other is whether a more valuable project, anyway, is to reinforce a beleaguered gay subculture (similar considerations would apply to other subordinated groups). The arguments are connected, for the customary idea of writing and reading poetry assumes an essential humanity that ineluctably effaces subcultural difference. In that discourse, it is not necessary to consider for whom one is writing; implicitly, it is Man – he informs both text and reader. And Man is defined as not special to a locality, gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality. He ‘rises above’ such matters – and, by just so much, he pushes them down. Adrienne Rich was right to be angry when friends said they found her poems ‘universal’: she heard ‘a denial, a kind of resistance, a refusal to read and hear what I’ve actually written, to acknowledge what I am.’

In ‘The Redress of Poetry’ Seamus Heaney has recognised, among writers situated on the margins of English culture, a tendency ‘to refuse the exclusive civilities of established canonical English literature’. They want to ‘give voice and retaliatory presence to suppressed life, be it ethnic, sexual, social or political’. Heaney endorses this impulse towards subcultural allegiance: but, he believes, such poets still must defer to the established discourse, insofar as they must be faithful to their ‘auditory imagination’. ‘Whether they are feminists in reaction against the patriarchy of language or nativists in full cry with the local accents of their vernacular, whether they write Anglo-Irish or Afro-English or Lallans, all writers of what has been called “nation language” are caught on the forked stick of their love of the English language itself. Helplessly, they kiss the rod of the consciousness which subjugated them.’

This is well discerned: poetic discourse, like any other, cannot be re-invented out of thin air. If you are going to write what people in our cultures recognise as poetry, you have to reach some accommodation with what poetry is generally reckoned to be like.

The quarrel I have with Heaney concerns how far this accommodation has to go. He instances George Herbert: ‘even the most imposed-upon colonial will discern in the clear element of Herbert’s poetry a true paradigm of the shape of things, psychologically, politically, metaphorically, and, if one wants to proceed that far, metaphysically.’ To my mind, this yields far too much ground. George Herbert is unquestionably a fine poet, but I don’t want to adopt his psychology, his politics and his metaphysics. I may want to quarrel with them – which I think shows more respect.

Gunn believes he is using, in the main, a voice that is not universal or ‘human’, and not specifically gay either: just his own. Thus he shows that ‘being gay is as normal as anything else; so when I write about my life as a gay man, or with a gay emphasis, I am implicitly saying that I don’t have to put on a special voice to speak about such matters.’ I reply that this is still a version of the Faber stance: but I have to admit that Gunn’s use of it may be subversive. For, to be sure, subcultures cannot evade involvement with the centre – often they are positioned as its defining others. Through this very involvement, they may return to trouble the centre. They redeploy its most cherished values, downgrading, abusing, inverting or reapplying them; willy nilly, they draw attention to its incoherence and contradictions. So they form points from which repression may become apparent, silence audible. Gunn’s deployment of ‘family’, for instance, is doing this.

Even so, there is no security in trying to join the mainstream. While Aids was thought to affect only gay men, governments did almost nothing about it; but for gay subculture, thousands more would be dying now. Sub-cultural groups gain more self-respect, more community feeling and a better self-understanding by insisting on their own explicit history, fiction, music, cultural commentary. Dominant ideologies strive to constitute subjectivities that will find ‘natural’ their view of the world; to combat that, we need to develop and validate dissident subjectivities. Subcultural milieux are where that happens – where alternative subject positions are created.

As a matter of fact, Gunn’s vision of civil intimacy is generalisable, beyond gay subculture (only a little over a third of the 48 poems in this book are about Aids). It affords a standard by which to test that other process of the Eighties: the Reaganisation of the city. In this volume, mentally disturbed people wander the streets, poor people eat garbage, and mean-spiritedness drives from the neighbourhood Vietnam veterans who fix cars (I’m told Gunn has got the auto-freak culture spot on). In ‘An Invitation – from San Francisco to my Brother’, the familiar host speaks to this also. As well as Ocean Beach and the ferry to Sausalito, Gunn promises a visit to Coil Tower, implicitly linking its Thirties murals, in which ‘fat silk-hatted bosses strut and cower,’ to ‘Reagan’s proletariat’ queuing for food handouts.

You’ll watch the jobless side by side with whores
   Setting a home up out of doors.
And every day more crazies who debate
   With phantom enemies on the street.

Gunn will take his brother back to his home (not out of doors) for dinner with his gay household (three of them take it in turns to cook); they will talk until late (whereas the crazies have only phantoms to debate with). It is by such civil intimacies that our cities may be judged. It is one answer to MajorMan, the citizen as consumer.

Perhaps Gunn wins our argument, then. The Man with Night Sweats shows that the Faber genre can be made to work, at the same time as addressing the largest gathering of the decade. I predict that this book, Gunn’s first in ten years, will be received with immense respect. The fact that it is partly about Aids and gay love will be noted, ‘unflinchingly’, and it will be celebrated for its firmness of voice, distinctive range, consistent intelligence, lucidity, graciousness, generosity; for the civil intimacy of the writing. All that will be absolutely right. It locates Gunn squarely in the mainstream; any young poet could learn from his tact and precision. So the margins may trouble and revive the centre. But I want to record, also, that it is a fighting gay poetry.

The book, and Gunn’s ‘year of griefs’, end with a poem about an erstwhile lover who has adopted a child. This could be the corniest humanist closure, could it not? – thou mettest with things dying, I with things new born. But, of course, the politics are far more challenging. For the qualities that the poet’s friend is devoting to the child are related to those he displayed as a lover:

                                    he transposed
The expectations he took out at dark
– Of Eros playing, features undisclosed –
Into another pitch, where he might work
With the same melody, and opted so
To educate, permit, guide, feed, keep warm,
And love a child.

And this is not, they tell us, how families are supposed to be formed.

[*] See Gay Times, August 1989, and Critical Survey, 2, 1990. There is a recent volume of new British male gay poetry: Take any train, edited by Peter Daniels (Oscars Press, 64 pp., £4.95, September 1990, 1 872668 00 3).