Thom Gunn started out as a member of the Movement, that 1950s collection of like-minded British poets, but he looks now like a consistent outsider. When he left England and went to America, he detached himself from one poetic community without, it seems, quite attaching himself to another – the judgement of his biographers is that he never reached the status in American poetry circles that he should have. This is just about the point where we might expect an august Collected Poems with juvenilia, footnotes, drafts and unpublished poems; instead, we have an attractive but rather slight Selected Poems, updating a 1979 edition. Is he a minor poet? Or are there other explanations?
Often, Gunn’s mode is exquisitely formal. He had real knowledge and understanding of English lyric poetry, producing an edition of Ben Jonson’s poetry – anyone who goes beyond Jonson’s most famous plays into the lyrics and, especially, the court masques will quickly appreciate his virtuosity. Gunn’s first volume, Fighting Terms, used this formality in approved ways for rather dignified subjects: the Trojan War, the landscapes of the Romantic poets. Between his first and second books, Gunn moved to America to be with the man he spent the rest of his life with. This second one, The Sense of Movement, started to bring the fine Elizabethan manner to some unanticipated subjects:
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.
The poem concludes with a rather Philip Larkin-ish moral, ‘One is always nearer by not keeping still’, but really the magic is in the perfectly period erotic appeal of leather boys with bulging calves and thighs. What to make of this? Gunn was a disciple of the American formalist Yvor Winters, but Winters’s poetry could never give off such a scent of sweat, petrol, leather and poppers.
Those moral judgements and reflections on eternal truths are not at all helpful to Gunn – they make a perfect hash of ‘Innocence’, a poem from his third volume, My Sad Captains, about a German soldier, for instance. But when he moves more confidently into a combination of lyric form and close physical observation, the results are impressive: a wonderful poem about a snail, or a lyric, ‘The Feel of Hands’, that must have puzzled many of its first heterosexual readers in 1961. (I would say it’s about being groped by strangers in a dark San Francisco gay bar.)
Everything Gunn wrote appears designed to foil what was conventionally expected of poetry in his time. His free verse is intimate but not at all confessional. Moly (1971) approached the Californian drug-taking experience through surprising layers of learning and polished formality. When confession appears to approach, as in the Manson-era sequence ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’, it retreats quite quickly; Gunn writes towards the end about an unambivalently homosexual experience, probably for the first time. But the sequence has as much of a Browning-esque quality of performance, of the dramatic monologue, as his splendid free-verse exploration of the world of a dog, ‘Yoko’.
There was, of course, a confessional subject to broach, and another one lurking ahead. The subject that Gunn took years to write about was the suicide of his mother when he was fifteen – he and his brother found her body. It wasn’t until ‘The Gas Poker’ in Boss Cupid (2000) that he confronted it on paper, and then in the third person – ‘Elder and younger brother’ – and not quite successfully. Most of his poems that yield to the pressure to confess, such as the rambling ‘Talbot Road’, are not among his best. The subject of ‘The Gas Poker’ was too much a part of him to be looked at. No wonder he disappointed the guardians of poetry.
The exception, I think, is The Man with Night Sweats (1992). A new and terrible subject presented itself in the shape of AIDS, and like the Elizabethan poets with their dazzling improvisations, Gunn produced some swift and immediate observations of great simplicity and power on the crisis. ‘As if hands were enough/To hold an avalanche off’ has a fine demotic touch, where a more conventional writer might have ended on ‘back’. Gunn is pretty funny about the poetry of the young, in an old fart sort of way, carefully calculated to excite the disapproval of both groovy youngsters and fellow old farts:
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.
Not all Gunn’s confessional work would have escaped his own strictures, but some of it is superb; his marriage of wild and often shocking topics – hardly touched on by poets who live a more sheltered life – with a command of elegant lyric form deserves to be read. He died in 2004 of a drug overdose in the course of an energetic bout of sex with a pick-up, presumed to be much younger and of the semi-homeless type that he very much enjoyed. I suppose you could waste a good deal of time deploring that, but the poet who brought the bulging thighs of the motorbike gang into English lyric poetry had always had a dangerous glint in his eye.