Thom Gunn’s Selected Poems

My introduction to the British poet Thom Gunn (1929-2004) came via Oliver Sacks, whose beautiful memoir On The Move, written shortly before his death, took its title from one of Gunn’s poems. The two men shared much in common: both were born in England, both were gay, and both emigrated to the United States, spending significant time in California. Gunn, however, had a rougher upbringing: his parents divorced when he was just 10 years old, and his mother – who had introduced him to the verse of Keats, Tennyson, Marlowe and Milton – committed suicide a few years later. Gunn graduated with distinction in English from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1953, and his first collection of poetry, Fighting Terms, was published the next year, to widespread acclaim. It would prove to be the last time the critics were fond of his work (“Gunn is living proof of that sad cliché that first thoughts are always the best,” one reviewer later put it). The editor of this particular volume, August Kleinzahler, describes him best as “an Elizabethan poet in modern dress,” someone schooled in the rigours of form and meter but applying them to modern themes. “It does no harm when thinking of Gunn’s poetry to think of Marlowe, Shakespeare or Jonson transposed to the San Francisco Bay area in the second part of the twentieth century, living through and making poetic record of the raucous, druggy late sixties, through to the ‘plague’ of the late eighties and nineties, and its aftermath.” Those dingy decades found their bard, and Gunn’s poetry remains to sacralize the lives they devoured.

This Selected Poems samples verse from each of his major publications, spanning nearly fifty years, from 1953’s Fighting Terms to 2000’s Boss Cupid, and that kind of breadth gives the reader an excellent appreciation not only for the range of Gunn’s poetry but its evolution. Gunn was a member of The Movement – a group that included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest, dedicated to what came to be known as the Plain Style: the simple, the unadorned, the colloquial. In Gunn, that commitment existed in concert with a highly formal poetic education, helped along by one of his Cambridge teachers, the notoriously formal F.R. Leavis. Later, at Stanford, Gunn would study under another proponent of poetry’s obligation to the intellect, Yvor Winters. These influences are most apparent in the impersonal narration of his early works: even when there is a poetic I, it remains essentially an enigma, an anonymous commentator. He addressed this impersonal approach in an interview early on in his career:

People do have difficulties with my poetry, difficulties in locating the central voice or central personality. But I’m not aiming for central voice and I’m not aiming for central personality. I want to be an Elizabethan poet. I want to write with the same anonymity that you get in the Elizabethans and I want to move around between forms in the way way somebody like Ben Jonson did. At the same time I want to write in my own century.

What, exactly, does that look like? Here are the opening two stanzas of “On the Move,” perhaps his best-known poem:

The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows
Some hidden purpose, and the gust of birds
That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows,
Has nested in the trees and undergrowth.
Seeking their instinct, or their poise, or both,
One moves with an uncertain violence
Under the dust thrown by a baffled sense
Or the dull thunder of approximate words.

On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt – by hiding it, robust –
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.

There is an abrupt transition between these stanzas, from the pastoral scene of the birds, a staple of British poetry for untold centuries, to the choppy rhythms of the second stanza (two caesuras in the first line, three in the second), and yet Gunn is deliberately comparing them. The “gust of birds” and “the Boys,” the one “seeking their instinct,” the other almost able to discern “a meaning in their noise.” This poem belongs to 1957’s The Sense Of Movement, and though we can imagine the poet as a third-party to this country scene interrupted by a gang of noisy bikers, we cannot know him. Gunn’s emphasis is on the scene itself, which concludes beautifully by rejecting the bird-biker comparison:

A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self-defined, astride the created will
They burst away; the towns they travel through
Are home for neither bird nor holiness,
For birds and saints complete their purposes.
At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

In “From the Wave,” we get a similar scenario: an anonymous onlooker watching a natural scene invaded by the human will, but this time it is surfers that catch the poet’s eye, offering him the opportunity to share some of his most exquisite verses:

Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight
With a learn’d skill.
It is the wave they imitate
Keeps them so still.

The marbling bodies have become
Half wave, half men,
Grafted it seems by feet of foam
Some seconds, then,

Late as they can, they slice the face
In timed procession:
Balance is triumph in this place,
Triumph possession.

By the 1990s, after watching friends contract and die from AIDS, those poetic powers are put to a less exalted purpose. Here is “Still Life,” about the haunting memory of such a death:

I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tight: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.

He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscene knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,

Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.

This poem, or poetic era, seems to signal a kind of dam break, for Gunn’s final book of poetry, published just four years before his death, contains surely his most heartbreaking poem, “The Gas-poker,” about his mother’s suicide – a subject he had until then never approached in verse. And yet even here, in this most intimate of subjects, he recedes from us, preferring once again the impersonal narrator:

Forty-eight years ago
– Can it be forty-eight
Since then? – they forced the door
Which she had barricaded
With a full bureau’s weight
Lest anyone find, as they did,
What she had blocked it for.

She had blocked the doorway so,
To keep the children out.
In her red dressing-gown
She wrote notes, all night busy
Pushing the things about,
Thinking till she was dizzy,
Before she had lain down.

The children went to and fro
On the harsh winter lawn
Repeating their lament,
A burden, to each other
In the December dawn,
Elder and younger brother,
Till they knew what it meant.

Knew all there was to know.
Coming back off the grass
To the room of her release,
They who had been her treasures
Knew to turn off the gas,
Take the appropriate measures,
Telephone the police.

One image in the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.

Who is it, in the opening stanza, astonished by the passage of time? One of those same brothers going “to and fro” on the winter lawn, forced to reconcile themselves to the irreconcilable. How painful that solitary line, not even a sentence but a dependent clause: “Knew all there was to know.”

In Gunn’s poetry we glimpse a man struggling to come to terms with life, his life: the tragic death of his mother and the equally tragic death of his friends from AIDS; the life of a British immigrant to America; the fact of change and the necessity of accepting it. He brought to these subjects an uncommon poetic gift and continued to hone his craft for more than half a century, and the results remain for us to enjoy long after his death: a defiant final victory over time’s transience.