39. (Thom Gunn)

Although I assume he has a host of them, I have not met a devoted admirer of Thom Gunn’s poetry. But most, young and old, profess admiration when they encounter it. Gunn died in 2004, but, born in 1929, he was only three years older than Geoffrey Hill, and the two contemporaries might be aligned and opposed as many of poets are: Bishop and Lowell; Auden and Empson; Eliot and Pound; Hopkins and C.G. Rossetti; Tennyson and Browning; Arnold and Clough; Keats and Shelley; Wordsworth and Coleridge (it should be, Wordsworth and Byron); Milton and Dryden; Donne and Jonson.

At the very least, their names lock into place like heroes of a western, like proprietors of a general store, like a comedy duo: Hill and Gunn, Gunn and Hill.

I find one critical source on the two, “The American Poetry of Thom Gunn and Geoffrey Hill,” which draws parallels between the distinct American inheritances of each of the poets: Hill’s debt to Allen Tate; Gunn’s debt to Yvor Winters. (Knowing that Gunn could find validity and inspiration in Winters might make Winters bearable to detractors of the California Curmudgeon).

Pairing poets off like dance-partners can become, like many dances, an intricate scheme for predictable ends. But it may also, like ritual dances, delineate and illuminate some of the differences style and role that are essential parts of social (read also: poetic) identity, and the order of things (read also: literary history)

The question is whether by pairing Hill and Gunn, I am setting the belle of the ball with a partner beneath her station? Whether I am proposing a pairing akin to Pound and the Sitwells (c.f. Jarrell’s devastating quip on English modernism (David Jones is Welsh), to which Hill is the rejoinder)? Mightn’t Gunn not better be set up with another movement poet, Larkin or even the more-modernist-inflected Davie?

I think not. And this because I do believe that, if Gunn is nowhere as ambitious as Hill, nowhere as searching of history and politics, of the poet’s function and limitations, or even of the English language, he is nonetheless the greatest British (though he is more properly British-American, whatever that means exactly) poet who writes in a long tradition alien to Hill’s, and who nonetheless draws on, and renovates, and extends, the same source materials as Hill does. Hill the erudite poet, the poeta doctus, the sentimental poet, the poet of footnotes; Gunn the naive poet, the poet whose erudition is not necessarily felt as erudition in the activity and claims of the poetry, whose erudition is not the subject of self-conscious scrutiny, even though it is the means to many of Gunn’s conscious effects.

The great mistake is in thinking Gunn a Movement poet like Larkin: Gunn never went in for Larkin’s performance of faux-naive insularity; Gunn embraced what American poetry offered, he drew freely on, and openly admired, the poetry of Pound (one of the three P’s in Larkin’s list of Modernity Blasphemers, alongside Picasso and Parker), and also the poetry of dullness, Dryden and Jonson (“Shite Dryden!” Larkin writes in a blisteringly funny letter to Amis). These are, it is not a coincidence, some of the poets who have inspired Hill’s best criticism: Pound is the dominant presence behind “Our Word is Our Bond,” Dryden drives at least two of the essays collected in The Enemy’s Country, and Jonson’s political engagement in the tragedies, dismissed by many critics as clunking wooden machines, is persuasively praised by Hill in ” ‘The World’s Proportion’: Jonson’s dramatic poetry in Sejanus and Catiline.”  Although many of the twentieth-century’s major poets owes something to Pound, they have no all studied him as assiduously as these two British poets; what’s more, they do not all discern in Pound, as Hill and Gunn do, the line of debt from Dryden and Jonson: the aspiration to find in poetry the sinews of the English language, an aspiration more evident in early Hill perhaps. (What is more–and what I will explore in relation to Gunn at great length later–both Hill and Gunn were liberated by Yeats from the excessive weight of certain immediate predecessors and contemporaries.)

The similarities are probably most evident in the earliest poems by Hill and Gunn, the works of the 1950s–and because the similarities are most evident in those poems, the differences are set in starker relief.

Take Hill’s “The Turtle Dove” and set this aside a poem by Gunn, not representative of the best of the early achievements, but worth setting aside Hill in several ways:

Tamer and Hawk

I thought I was so tough,
But gentled at your hands,
Cannot be quick enough
To fly for you and show
That when I go I go
At your commands.

Even in flight above
I am no longer free:
You seeled me with your love,
I am blind to other birds—
The habit of your words
Has hooded me.

As formerly, I wheel
I hover and I twist,
But only want the feel,
In my possessive thought,
Of catcher and of caught
Upon your wrist.

You but half civilize,
Taming me in this way.
Through having only eyes
For you I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose
Tamer as prey.

Hill’s poem is indebted to the Southern Agrarians, Gunn’s to the northern agrarian, Robert Frost, “To Earthward” in particular (“But only want the feel” and the metrically curbed final lines). But each is marked, distinguished really, by the same brutality towards and in the language; the abrupt shifts of subject, giving us, by syntax, the tension and separation between those bound in love and desire; the tone that never succumbs to the accusation it threatens to become; each poet is fascinated with the violence of love, and this without overmuch sympathy, without any coddling, and without prurient indulgence in (Hill) or seeking after (Gunn) pain.

The bud of the difference between Hill and Gunn I find in the first line of each poem:

Hill: Love that drain’d her drain’d him she’d loved, though each

Gunn: I thought I was so tough

The difference is found even in the first word: “Love” and “I”. For Hill, following one side of Dryden, and Johnson, and even Pound, a challenge has been to write poetry that does justice to abstraction, that endows it with life and force and body of its own, that impacts that lives and forces of those with bodies. Christian mysticism, with the real presence and visible manifestation of the divine, is an additional inheritance in his verse. Hill’s opening line is a beautiful chiasmus, surprising because the balance of words depends on “Love” (noun), “drain’d” (verb), “drain’d (verb)” and “Loved” (verb), with the people, “him” and “her” dependent on the verbs “drain’d,” but not themselves chief points in the constellation of ABBA (a constellation best seen from Sweden). Braced against the rhetoric is the word, “drain’d”–low connotations of bathtub hairballs, sexual innuendo and folk psychology at once: that word already does violence to the formal aspiration of the lovers. It is an instance of spoken English bearing and straining against the burden of rhetorical formality: there are the sinews revealed, by violent collision.

Gunn’s opening is a flat colloquialism. But within the register of the common tongue, an intricacy is shadowed (it was the fifties, after all): “Thought” becomes “tough”: “I thought” becoming “I tough.” The sinew of English is not in the simple fact of simple words: Gunn needs to show that it functions, that it serves the muscle of his mind, and this he does because for Gunn the movement of “I thought” to “I tough” is not accidental, but essential to the poem, and to the verse everywhere. The mind reflects upon the body, and gives way to the body thinking through its touch. Whereas Hill is a poet of the body bruising itself against abstractions, ghosts, histories, and voices; Gunn is a poet of the body bruising against itself, as it moves among others, places, voices, myths.

Gunn, the poet whose great subject is the thought of flesh (where “of” is expansive, referring to the thought in the flesh, the thought directed towards the flesh, and the thought that the flesh makes happen, the thoughts thunk by the flesh), and Hill the poet who returns again and again to the flesh of matters that for others might be dismissed as airily as thoughts, without bearing: these things bear on Hill with the presence of bodies, with moral inflections that are felt as inflictions of the blood. Gunn, the poet of the second half of the twentieth century, who has shown how much an experience of the flesh is an experience of history, or religion. of place, of matters public and private at once—and how the permeable membrane of the body often leads to the dissolution between public and private. Hill, the poet of the second half of the twentieth century, and first decade of the twenty first, who has shown how much the experience of history, of religion, of place, of matters public, can be felt as burdens in those regions of private experience which we often describe and consider too much in terms only of sexual pleasure, pain of the private, skull-contained psyche, or else intimate conversations over dinner and drinks.

The moment in “Tamer and Hawk” when Gunn most becomes himself is with the line, “Upon your Wrist.”  The moment in “The Turtle Dove” when Hill most becomes himself is in the line: “Bore down with visitations of such love.” The one settles down on a particular joint; the other gives us a love that might pierce the skin.

Since I have posted lately on Hill, I’ll leave him by the side. Gunn does so much with, makes so much of, the flesh, and what it is like to be of it, as we all are, that it is worth further discussion. One might think the subject limiting, but as Dryden and Jonson would have recognized, it is no such thing: it is the one thing we all always have, whatever else happens, to memory, cognition. It even outlasts what we know as us.

The crucial biographical fact is Gunn’s sexual orientation—a gay man, writing at first in his native Britain in the 1950s, the same decade that saw Turing take his life after his homosexuality brought others to bring him to trial, Gunn could not but be sensitive to what it means to be made, by convention, law, and social approval, to stand askew to what would most satisfy touch. The biographical fact is no explanation; Auden was gay, and he is hardly a poet of the flesh—but even in the case of Auden, sexual orientation, and the refuge it would have required Auden to seek, is a crucial fact (see my post). And the same fact need not bear the same way on each person for it to make a difference, the difference, in the case of any one.

Flesh does not improve Gunn’s poetry: it is when he finds what he can make of flesh that his poetry improves to something new. Too often, in the first two volumes, the voice from the past that speaks through Gunn is Auden’s. So the first poem of the first collection:

The huge wound in my head began to heal

About the beginning of the seventh week.

Its valleys darkened, its villages became still:


In these verses, Auden’s entry is conspicuous and unproductive: the third line borrows too directly from “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”  The challenge, imaginative and technical, for Gunn is dramatically put forward in the lines: where to go from flesh? As always in poetry, the imaginative and the technical are inextricable: how can the flesh be seen anew such that an innovation of form and voice is demanded to meet the subject matter, or/and how can an innovation of form and voice be found in order to renovate the matter of flesh?

The results in the first two volumes are not unsatisfactory, but they are not especially distinctive. There is more of the lurch towards Auden, as in “The Allegory of the Wolf Boy”:

The causes are in Time; only in their issue

Is bodied in the flesh, the finite powers.

And how to guess he hides in that firm tisue

Seeds of division? At tennis and at tea

Upon the gentle lawn, he is not ours,

But plays us in a sad duplicity.


At other times, the evasion of Auden leaves to a tone of restraint and coyly self-deprecating confession, which smacks more of Larkin—not a poet to avoid, but one away from whom Gunn would move, over time:

Even in bed I pose: desire may grow

More circumstantial and less circumspect

Each night, but an acute girl would suspect

That my self is not like my body, bare.

I wonder if you know, or, knowing, care?

You know I know you know I know you know.


Until that last line of what is the first stanza of “Carnal Knowledge,” Larkin is within earshot.

I do not mean to dismiss those early books–“Tamer and Hawk” is in the debut collection, along with other poems that are exceptional. They are never parodies of Auden or Larkin; they use Larkin and Auden. But they are subservient to the resources of these poets, without having adequately established a new store of materials of Gunn’s own, so that, as moving as the verses can be, they don’t do much to suggest that Gunn ought to be taken seriously as a major poet with a distinct contribution of his own.

He becomes himself away from England; in 1960 he moved to San Francisco and, wherever the verses that went into it may have been initially conceived or composed, the volume of 1961, My Sad Captains gives us the Gunn who finds both his region of poetry (and habitation) and also his first collection of trusty, mastered tools.

First published in 1958, before the migration to the United States, the first poem in that volume, “In Santa Maria del Popolo” already shows his distancing himself from both Larkin and Auden before his emigration.

A rhetorical formality that would later be rare in the verse is here at least other than the rhetorical posturing of Auden. Here is Gunn, at the close of the second stanza:

O wily painter, limiting the scene

From a cacophony of dusty forms

To the one convulsion, what is it you mean

In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?

The debt is to Yeats, who is the one modern English language poet who might provide a workable model of dramatic questions, since Yeats’ questions are identifiable not by their tone so much as by their being the nearest modern poetry has to a classical rhetorical dramatization. Not Yeats-aping though (Yeats, with a late life surgery for virility, is said to have aped himself); and the question is not in fact rhetorical, if we accept that Gunn really doesn’t know the answer before-hand (rhetorical questions being distinguished from non-rhetorical by the questioner’s fore-knowledge).

Yeats shows Gunn a way forward because asking so monumental a question does not efface the poet, but calls him forth in what follows: Gunn’s answer will not sound like Yeats’ would, but Yeats’ capacity to ask questions in lyric poetry, in a formally pitched style, gives Gunn the chance to generate the response:

No Ananias croons a mystery yet,

Casting the pain out under name of sin.

The painter saw what was, an alternate

Candour and secrecy inside the skin.

He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent

Young whore in Venus’ clothes, those pudgy cheats,

Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,

For money, by one picked off the streets.


With each line, he moves away from Yeats. At “Candour and secrecy inside the skin,” he is at home, and the final four lines, their succulent admiration and belligerent observation, are his own entirely.

Larkin’s “Church Going” had been first published in The Spectator  three years before, in 1955, and the final stanza is, I think, Gunn’s push away from the dominant British poet of The Movement, that faux-terie of poets with whom he too had been identified:

I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel

To the dim interior of the church instead,

In which there kneel already several people,

Mostly old women: each head closeted

In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.

Their poor arms are too tired for more than this

–For the large gesture of solitary man,

Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.


The shove from Larkin commences in “tiny fists,” but extends its force in “Their poor arms are too tired for more than this”—a line of beautiful pity and exhaustion, imaginatively shared with the women—and a line that insists on the physical fatigue, the body’s inability to participate in flesh, as does the final line’s “embracing,” embraced by “resisting” and “nothingness.” The progression from fists to arms to embracing—though each part of the body is inadequate for its task—is itself a gesture by Gunn to take in the reach of arms.

(For another, roughly contemporaneous beautiful observation on the somatic experience of worship, turn to Austin Clarke, “Martha Blake”, especially the lines: “But now she feels within her breast | Such calm that she is silent. | For soul can never be immodest | Where body will not listen.”)

Another poet that seems to move forward from Larkin and Auden, and into Gunn’s own resources, by way of Yeats is “Consider the Snail.” But also evident in the strident accuracy is the inheritance of Yeats’ secretary Pound; and behind Yeats’ sense of the body is, among others, Dryden the translator of Lucretius. So it is difficult to say what is owed where, but there is a firm sense that Gunn takes his place in this gathering, and that Yeats was the poets who liberated Gunn from Larkin and Auden—as perhaps Yeats liberated Hill from the undue influence of Eliot and Tate.

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,
pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later
I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.


The difference between Yeats and Gunn, incidentally, is in the phrasing of the question: “what power is at work” sounds like Yeats; “I cannot tell” does not. And the question’s dramatic pitch, “What is a snail’s fury?,” tottering, like Yeats’ questions about swans, on the verge of absurd comedy—and we would be wrong not to catch the whiff of self-conscious absurdity, the joke in the line—once again elicits from Gunn a voice of his own: “All | I think is that if later”….

The snail, which is all slimy flesh, in slow motion.

The same volume sees a Gunn content to rid himself even of the Yeatsian rhetorical grandeur. In a poem that I gave a class last year, with curious responses as a consequence, we hear something modest and plain and confidently with-holding:

The Feel of Hands


The hands explore tentatively,

two small live entities whose shapes

I have to guess at. They touch me

all, with the light of fingertips


testing each surface of each thing

found, timid as kittens with it.

I connect them with amusing 

hands I have shaken by daylight.


There is a sudden transition:

they plunge together in a full

formed single fury; they are grown

to cats, hunting without scruple;


they are expert but desperate.

I am in the dark. I wonder

when they grew up. It strikes me that

I do not know whose hands they are.


“It strikes me” a cliche with force: hands that can strike, in their anonymity, lives of their own.

There is too much from the career for me to continue at this pace, but there is a sense, I sense at least, that Gunn’s poetry saw some falling off in the 70s, as if he were at his best when the move to San Francisco, and its 60s scene, had substantially softened and compromised the formal and tonal inheritance of Auden and Larkin, and even eroded much of the Yeats that had provided the first means of escape. “Moly” is the anthology piece of these years. But then, the narrative I’m imagining goes, San Fran took too much of a toll; what was softened crumbled and Gunn abandoned formal measure and tautness all too much, only to recover it later, in a still weak dose.

I am sympathetic to those who have more trouble with the poem’s of Jack Straw’s Castle (1976), but the blame seems wrong; Gunn has imbibed, not just San Fransisco life, but also the American post-war avant-garde, esp. the poets of Black Mountain College, devoted to Pound and Imagism, and the poem dedicated to Robert Duncan, of that college, “Wrestling,” takes us as far in that direction as anything by Gunn. Uneven, yes, but a poem of religious devotion, Jacob wrestling with the angel, or the man or God–whatever it is. Gunn does not tell us either: the poem is suspended between possibilities of an encounter with the divine and an encounter with an anonymous body: sex and the sacred wrestle behind it’s stuttered lines, groping after something unknown. From the poem:

continual discourse

          of angels

          of sons of angels

          of semen, of beginnings

lucid accounts of flight

          arms for wings


a tale of wrestling with a stranger

         a stranger, like

         a man, like


a messenger

          loping, compact

          in familiar places

         he moves with that

        separate grace, that

       sureness of foot

        you know in

       animal and angel


Taut with struggle; taut with frustration without release; taut with expectation; taut like flesh, at times.

I find in these lines, and in others that are less excessively hewn out from the stock of Gunn’s past procedures, that the memory of something more intricate remains; maybe it is just knowledge of what Gunn has done before them, but they seem in some way implicitly knowing themselves, of what else they might  be, of the possibility of taking another shape, even if it is denied to them.

There is, in all the best cases of Gunn’s verse, a reason for us to feel that form might have been and was not, could not–and this even in subsequent years when, without returning to the sturdy shapes of the poems of the 1960s, he suggests more strongly, and imperils with slighter destruction, the poetry’s formal aspirations. Cut ahead to Gunn’s most famous volume, 1992’s The Man with the Night Sweats, and to the title poem.  It’s second half:


I cannot but be sorry

The given shield was cracked

My mind reduced to hurry,

My flesh reduced and wrecked.


I have to change the bed

But catch myself instead


Stopped upright where I am

Hugging my body to me

As if to shield it from

The pains that will go through me,


As if hands were enough

To hold an avalanche off.


The means of Gunn’s effects are so obvious–the off-rhymes, the awkward rime riche–that it is tempting to dismiss them as parlor tricks; it’s tempting to dismiss much of Tennyson similarly (the opening to Lotos-Eaters, for instance, with the rime riche of “land”). But why not admire that such simple tricks can be made to work afresh, for ends that are genuine and that do no feel work-shopped (maybe not workshop would take seriously the possibility of such simple moves). And finding critical justice for the lines is difficult too: the sinews of the language exposed and wrecked in poetry about a body whose flesh has been reduced to sinews, bone, tendons, and essential muscles.

As awful as it is that there was a time of plague for Gunn to witness, and live through, that there was a Gunn at all for the time is fortunate—it’s not a time that the culture much returns to in polished and produced recollection.

Along with “Lament,” which I’ve linked to elsewhere, here is one final poem by Gunn, “The Reassurance,” one of the few poems that makes good on italics (and a poem apparently popular among mourners; it’s available through several “funeral helper” sites):

About ten days or so
After we saw you dead
You came back in a dream.
I’m alright 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 so kind,
Seeking to reassure.
And, yes, how like my mind
To make itself secure

That “was” is so desperate, so self-deluding, as if it really wants to believe a person can come back, “fleshed out again,” as if it really wanted us to believe that we could hear the voice of the poet, as we would a person fleshed out before us, or fleshed out over the phone, speaking with the intimate intonations that only flesh, and not an italicized word, permits.




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