August Kleinzahler

There’s only one naked lady left, going to ruin out there in the fog amid the dahlias and lavender, its pink trumpet flowers wilted and in tatters. There used to be a couple of dozen of them blooming in the yard every August. Not much else was out there in the yard doing much of anything so the ladies made quite a spectacle of themselves, like Rockettes in a dusty frontier town. The neighbour on the third floor got a horticultural bee in his bonnet about seven years ago and dug the girls up, except the one. Of course, they weren’t symmetrically arranged and, like some outlandish pink crepe accessory, didn’t really go with anything else. But I hated to lose them. Like Paris, they looked their best in grey light.

Thom Gunn brought over a sackful of the bulbs (amaryllis belladonna) I don’t recall how many years ago, ten or twelve perhaps. He was always doing things like that. He liked gardening and wanted me to partake more fully of its pleasures. After his teaching obligations of the spring term at Berkeley ended every year, he would apply himself to his own small garden, sheltered and south-east facing. He seemed to enjoy organising and cultivating his little patch of wild. And in this, as in most things, his approach was methodical, reasoned and fastidious, even fussy.

Auden writes somewhere that it’s good for a poet to have hobbies like gardening and cooking. This advice struck me as sound and I commend it to young writers. Thom, who was often compared to Auden on account of being queer, famous and an English expatriate poet living in America, met Auden at least once. They didn’t particularly get along. Thom wasn’t at all catty about other poets (well, rarely), but at this late stage in his career Auden in public had become Auden. Thom remembered him going on at some length about martinis, what constituted a good one and where the best were to be found. This subject would have been of little or no interest to Thom then.

Thom admired Auden, at least his early poetry, which was a large influence on his own early work. Once, over lunch, he told the story of how Auden had come out here to San Francisco in 1954 and given a series of readings, the proceeds of which were handed over to the fledgling San Francisco Poetry Center in order to establish a reading series (a recent phenomenon popularised by Dylan Thomas) and archive. Auden stayed with Ruth Witt-Diamant, the Poetry Center’s founding director, and, in return for his considerable largesse, asked only that he be delivered to gay bars where he might meet young Jewish American males with blond hair.

Thom Gunn arrived in the Bay Area that same year, following a young American Jewish male with blond hair, Mike Kitay, whom he had met and fallen in love with at Cambridge. Mike had been posted to San Antonio, Texas to do his service in the US Air Force. Thom took a steamship from England, stayed with Mike’s family in New Jersey (who took him to Radio City Music Hall where he probably saw the Rockettes), then moved on to California and took up studies with Yvor Winters at Stanford, an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. He got a great deal from his time with Winters and wrote about it at length in what may be his finest essay, ‘On a Drying Hill: Yvor Winters’.

He wore glasses and smoked a pipe, and both of these adjuncts served to mask a face that was not in any case volatile. Pleased or displeased, he was most of the time thoughtfully of the same expression; his shabby suit, too, always had the same unpressed demeanor. Almost any photograph taken of him in his last two decades shows accurately what he looked like. It was his voice that was remarkable, though I don’t think I noticed it until I started taking his classes. He never played tricks with it, and in fact he habitually used a measured tone in conversation, but it was a voice which an actor would have envied, as you noticed as soon as he started to read poetry aloud. It was deep but capable of great variety in its modulation. It has always struck me that the argument of his essay on the audible reading of poetry is a little weakened by the fact that he could read poetry in what from anybody else would have been a monotone but from him was a controlled resonance, suggesting large emotions barely held in reserve.

Later on, after a not entirely comfortable year in San Antonio with Mike, teaching at the (then) very small Trinity College, Thom settled with him in the Bay Area. They remained together, with variations on the theme, for fifty years.

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