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.

Anyone reading this will know, from the tone, that the poem is not, on one hand, an exercise or a mere exploration of a historical moment, nor, on the other hand, a simple study in autobiography. The feeling in the poem is too real and exact to be explained away by whim, or, indeed, experience. ‘The poem’s truth is in its faithfulness to a possibly imagined feeling, not to my history,’ Gunn writes.

Thom Gunn on the platform is warm and affable, but he maintains a somewhat distant air. He is not in love with his own voice; some of his mind is elsewhere; he will not detain us longer than is necessary. His voice is calm. In a time when poets have held on tight to their focus and tone, Gunn has been concerned with contradictions. He is an English poet living in California, he is a 16th-century poet alive in the 20th century, he is a paleface poet prepared to attend to the sound of the redskin. He has studied under two rigid and dogmatic teachers, F.R. Leavis and Yvor Winters, and yet he remains open to things, almost casual in his opposition to the notion of dogma.

At the end there is time for questions. Always you want to know how poems came, and always, too, a poet like Gunn must resist answering, he must leave the mystery to its own devices. ‘I borrow heavily from my reading,’ he has written, ‘because I take my reading seriously: it is part of my total experience and I base most of my poetry on my experience.’ There are things about his reading and his writing that I would love to know. I find myself suddenly eager with my hand up ready to ask a question.

‘Fifteen years ago,’ he wrote in 1966, ‘the English hardly credited North America with having any poetry at all; but they are now, it turns out, ready to accept all and any American poetry.’ In an interview, published at the end of Shelf Life, his latest collection of essays and criticism, he mentions that ‘the English’ don’t think that his free verse is very good. ‘I don’t think that they can hear free verse, actually,’ the interviewer says. ‘I don’t think they can hear it either,’ Gunn replies. He mentions that he chose to publish a pamphlet of free verse in England. ‘Just to irritate them?’ the interviewer asks. ‘Just to irritate them,’ Gunn assents.

In his two books of criticism he has been concerned to explain and read the American free verse tradition, to try and cure even the most Irish of us of our Englishness. In The Occasions of Poetry there are essays on Williams, Snyder and Robert Duncan, and in Shelf Life on Whitman, H.D., Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and two essays on Robert Duncan. He reprints his review of Helen Vendler’s book of contemporary poetry (published by Harvard in the US and by Faber in Britain), ‘an obviously worthless book’, for him, because it narrows the ground of American poetry, excluding the two extremes of Charles Olson (‘the poet who actually feared closure, each rhyme an exclusion’) and J.V. Cunningham (‘who saw language as the mark of human choice, each phrase a closure, each rhyme an exclusion’). It is clear from his own poetry and from his criticism that he is only too ready to read both and argue the case for both, and for others who have been left out of the canon, rather than join in the fashionable argument between the New Formalists and the Language Poets.

He is excited by the idea in Robert Duncan’s work of ‘an open poetry in which the process of writing gets excitingly out of control, thus admitting interesting accidents and unforeseen directions’. Duncan, he writes, ‘believes in the centrality of what we call accident or chance. By our inadvertence and error we find out what we really mean, beyond and beneath purpose ... Everything depends on the energy of the present.’ At this stage, it is hard not to wish that Yvor Winters, or even F.R. Leavis, would come in to break all this up. But the essays on Duncan help us to engage with some of those poems by Gunn – ‘The Geysers’, ‘Wrestling’ (dedicated to Duncan) and ‘The Menace’ – which, for those of us brought up on the idea of poetry as ironic and formal and worked-on, are hard to read. ‘Wrestling’ begins:

Discourse
          of sun and moon
fire and beginnings
behind words
          the illuminated words

My problem here is that I am not sure what Gunn is talking about. I am not even English but I still want a verb. I don’t know why I go back to these poems so often; maybe it is because I admire the poems which surround them so much; maybe there is another reason, something compelling in their verblessness, which I don’t yet know. Is he writing down anything that comes into his head? This is essentially what he recommends about Duncan’s procedures. For someone as steeped in the sound of the iambic pentameter line and the syllabic form as Gunn was, the freedom of free verse and aleatory writing must have offered great release, like learning to swim in early middle age. But his own best work still seems that which is most concentrated and may have been most revised.

His work with the syllabic line, however, offered him a density and calmness of tone which produced masterpieces like ‘Considering the Snail’, which no other English poet nor any American poet could have written: it is open and closed at the same time, like the poem ‘Touch’. I feel that these are poems that were worked on over and over in order to seem casual, easy to read and unLatinate.

Gunn had no central myth or topic to get him through a lifetime’s work as Larkin and Lowell did, Hughes and Heaney do. Instead, he pushed against his own talent for making formal, Latinate poems to play with a language which was more relaxed and open-ended and all-American. In his essay on Allen Ginsberg he is at his most convincing, acknowledging ‘the feeling around’ that Ginsberg may be ‘more of a public figure than a poet’; but insisting on Ginsberg’s honesty and humour while acknowledging his banality and other weaknesses. He is prepared to study lines and passages closely; he finds real skill and precision in Ginsberg’s language, and then reads on, mixing sense and enthusiasm in a way which is really rare, calling ‘Many Loves’ ‘unique among erotic poems’. ‘It is the rhythm and language of reverence, of awe, of sanctity without sanctimoniousness.’

Meanwhile we are back in San Francisco and I still have my hand up. I want to know when Gunn first came across certain poems, elegies by Sir Thomas Wyatt for friends who were executed, that weren’t published until the early Sixties. They seem close in so many ways to the poems in the last section of The Man with Night Sweats. He referred to these poems in a book review. He obviously knows them well. Their tone is bare and full of grief: there is no room for play or fancy ornament. Did they matter to him, and did they help him to write the poems in The Man with Night Sweats? He is wary of the question. He thinks for a moment: he had read one of them, maybe two before he started on his own sequence, but, he goes on, influence is such a hard thing to know anything about, some things make a difference, others don’t, it’s hard to tell. He smiles, making clear that this is over. He wants to go.

‘Enmeshed with Time’, the essay on Wyatt and others, is in Shelf Life. Gunn quotes from ‘In Mourning Wise’:

And thus farewell, each one in hearty wise.
The axe is home, your heads be in the street.
The trickling tears doth fall so from mine eyes,
I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.

He comments: ‘The axe’s work is over and their heads are on display, but the phrases employed are so mildly, almost comfortably familiar that they increase the horror of the line ... The understated force is such that it spills over into a kind of authentification of the next two lines, making us read as simple truth an imagery that might otherwise have seemed commonplace in its overstatement.’

‘I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.’ The line is haunting in its perfect plainness, and more powerful if you know that the dead were traitors and the poem is dangerous and would be hidden away and not found for more than four centuries. Gunn is fascinated by the dead, and if you read certain poems and essays carefully, it is easy to see that the impulse behind the poems in The Man with Night Sweats is there from early in his career. In his essay on Ginsberg he praises poems in which the dead return in dreams and then adds in parenthesis: ‘as they do to all of us, don’t they?’ They may do, but in Gunn’s poem ‘The Reassurance’, the ghostly presence and its effect seem oddly more real than anything any of us have witnessed or felt:

About ten days or so
After we saw you dead
You came back in a dream.
I’m all right now you said.

And it was you, although
You were fleshed out again:
You hugged us all round then,
And gave your welcoming beam.

How like you to be kind,
Seeking to reassure.
And, yes, how like my mind
To make itself secure.

This is Gunn at his most perfect and plain; the tone is like that in Yeats’s ‘Politics’, Larkin’s ‘The Trees’ or Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Sonnet’, the short poem offering a sudden moment of realisation. Gunn has always written as though he trusted rhyme and was prepared to let its fall be blunt, if necessary – as in a ballad, or a poem by Hardy. In The Occasions of Poetry he writes about Hardy’s poems of 1913: ‘He particularly records his own losses as only important because they are a part of other people’s losses. It is never the poetry of personality ... He must have been a genuinely modest man. His first person speaks as a sample human being, with little personality displayed and no claims for uniqueness.’ The essay was written in 1972; now, something similar could be written about Gunn’s laments for friends who died of Aids.

He writes in detail in Shelf Life about Robert Creeley’s poem ‘The World’, in which a man in bed with his sleeping wife sees the ghost of her dead brother: ‘I wanted so ably/to reassure you,’ the poem begins.

I tried to say, it is
all right, she is
happy, you are no longer

needed.

Throughout Gunn’s criticism, which is the diary of his reading, you can hear echoes and versions of his own work, his own obsessions as a poet. He remains a fascinating presence in the world, presiding over several divided cultures, sexual, national and literary, with a good-humoured and exacting ease.