In Love With Queer Words
This month, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a new collection of Thom Gunn’s selected poems, a fresh reminder of the late poet’s eloquence and formal rigor. Gunn, a British poet who spent most of his adult life in San Francisco, put traditional poetic forms in service of once-outré subjects such as the Hells Angels, LSD, and queer culture. Described by his friend and fellow poet Tom Sleigh as “a true servant of eros,” Gunn celebrated communalism in all its forms, whether carnal, psychotropic, or artistic. From 1971 until his death at age 74 in 2004, for example, Gunn lived with his longtime partner and their housemates while also welcoming various love affairs and sexual partners. “[His] development of this trope of seamless connection among eroticism, pleasure, and domestic stability is one of the deep sources of his originality,” Sleigh writes.
Gunn’s books include Fighting Terms (1954), The Sense of Movement (1957), My Sad Captains (1961), Jack Straw’s Castle (1976), and Boss Cupid (2000), among many others. His The Man With Night Sweats (1992) is considered a classic of AIDS literature. To mark the release of this new collection, the Poetry Foundation invited three of Gunn’s friends and admirers to reflect on his influential work and its legacy.
Thom Gunn was a man of strong passions and exquisite taste. The taste is obvious in his sober insights into Fulke Greville in the introduction to Greville’s Selected Poems. Gunn knows when a Renaissance line or a sentiment is cliché, just as he can tell when it’s original and deeply felt. Of the line “memory doth worlds of wretchedness assemble,” Gunn writes, “the generality here is a summation of experience and not an evasion of it.” He thinks the word assemble “is shockingly accurate: this is what memory does in a period of unhappiness, it deliberately and carefully and painstakingly reconstructs the past causes of present misery, with the perverse result that the accuracy and completeness of its reconstruction only increases the misery.” When Greville touches on the worst aspects of romantic love, “his regret at such facts is expressed cleanly, artfully and movingly.” Gunn demonstrates how a poem that appears to be about psychological confusion is really about the reality of Hell and the soul deprived of God.
Gunn’s passion was often held in check by the formalism that he learned at the feet of his mentor, Yvor Winters; the subtle architecture of the poem is built by intense feeling and a supreme intellect. Sometimes it felt to this neo-Romantic reader a bit too restrained, but when he wrote about the AIDS epidemic and the death of friends in The Man With Night Sweats, Gunn’s control, his rigor, made art out of loss. Now the rhymes chimed with unexpected concision, and the epigrams flushed the mind’s wandering wild life into steely traps of language. In “Lament,” the poet leaves the hospital terminal ward and a dead friend:
Outdoors next day, I was dizzy from a senseOf being ejected with some violenceFrom vigil in a white and distant spotWhere I was numb, into this garden plotToo warm, too close, and not enough like pain.I was delivered into time again
The one-sentence syntax and “numb” diction of the first four lines delivers us into the strong “plain speech” of the fifth and sixth lines and the heartbreaking reality and dailiness of lingering grief. Or take the Holy Sonnets [by Donne] sound of these lines about cremation, from “Words for Some Ash”:
Death has wiped away each sense;Fire took muscle, bone, and brains;Next may rain leach discontentsFrom your dust, wash what remainsDeeper into damper groundTill the granules work their wayDown to unseen streams, and boundBriskly in the water’s play;
Everything here fits perfectly: the successive waves of deterioration (death, fire, rain) that plunge the cremains into another, joyful element, the “water’s play,” and the unflashy rhymes (sense/discontents or brains/remains) with their literal and metaphysical import.
I knew two of the subjects of Gunn’s death poems, Charlie Hinkle and Norm Rathweg, lovers both, which normally I’d comment on, but Gunn’s deathless poetry has elevated them above mere anecdote.
I first met Thom Gunn in 1999, about a year after I had moved to San Francisco. We arranged a late breakfast at a Union Square hotel, which I thought a curious choice and a long way to go. (I lived by the ocean then, in the Outer Sunset; downtown might as well have been another planet.) I caught the N train and swung by Cole Valley, where Thom lived, then hopped back on with him. We stood in awkward near-silence for five stops.
It was better at the restaurant. I hadn’t gotten sober yet, so I kept up with Thom in the drinks department—I liked gin, even in the morning. Gin and pancakes. (I got sloppy toward the end, the “I-love-you-and-your-writing variety,” yikes.) He cracked me up when he talked about other poets, such as the time Czesław Miłosz called and summoned him to a meeting. (“It was as if God himself was on the phone,” Thom said—or basically said.)
On the way back to the train, he explained his theory of street philanthropy. He gave money only to panhandlers who were so hideous that they were likely to be ignored. We talked about earthquakes too. The game of “It feels like the house settled into itself in a peculiar way, was that an earthquake?”; the little tremors we didn’t give a thought to. Thom said that during the Lomo Prieta quake in 1989, he stood in a doorway—that debunked survival myth—and he and his dog stared at each other to stay alive. I wrote a poem about much of this, “Breakfast with Thom Gunn,” in which I edited out—I’m still editing out—a superfluous ex-boyfriend who tagged along.
The formal detachment of Thom’s poems is one of the elements that makes them so indispensable. When he writes, in “Lament,” “Your dying was a difficult enterprise,” there’s an almost clinical matter-of-factness—an acceptance—of death. Even that word enterprise provides a devastating distance, as does the iambic pentameter. This to me is one of the best paradoxes of his work, all the calculated removal to get closer to the emotional center. It’s an aesthetic form of intimacy, this sort of control—the “secure firm dry embrace,” as he ends “The Hug,” of Gunn.
I love his poem “The Differences,” a great one about age disparity, among other things, between gay men. It features Gunn’s characteristic offhand way with description—the young lover is described “your blond hair bouncing like a corner boy’s” (fans of alliteration, take note)—but more than that, it’s a piece on the limits of suspension of disbelief. “When you gnawed my armpits, I gnawed yours,” the speaker admits, following suit, trying “to lose my self in you as well.” But no. “I did the opposite,” he writes: “My love not flesh but in the mind beneath.” Love is ultimately “opaque,” the last word of the poem. “The Differences” may open with the younger man “reciting Adrienne Rich at Cole and Haight,” but by the end, even that “reciting” seems a mild form of indictment: the boy may parrot Rich, but one suspects the speaker knows Rich in a fashion beyond recitation.
I hesitate here, but I have to confess that I mostly sleep with men far younger than I and can relate to this lack of disbelief in my own congresses. I also confess that once, when I was still in my late twenties, I took both The Man With Night Sweats and Rich’s Poems Selected and New, 1950–1974, the one with green water on the cover, to Cole and Haight, softly read some Rich out loud and then “The Differences.” Thus, reciting “Reciting Adrienne Rich at Cole and Haight” and Adrienne Rich at Cole and Haight! Ha. The things one does in youth, in love with queer words.
Thom Gunn’s diary, which he kept until his death in 2004, starts on the day of his mother’s suicide: Friday, December 29, 1944. Fifteen-year-old Thom and his younger brother, Ander, woke late that morning. They lived at 110 Frognal, in the north London suburb of Hampstead, in a cream-painted brick house set back from the street by a walled garden. The boys shared the house with their mother, Charlotte (from whom Thom inherited his dark good looks), and their detested stepfather, Joe. Their mother’s second marriage was proving as tempestuous as her first; Joe had walked out on the family for the second time just two days earlier.
Though the German bombing of London was greatly reduced from the height of the 1940–41 blitz, during which Frognal sustained two direct hits, the blackout was still being observed in the winter of 1944, and the windows in the Gunn house were covered with heavy fabric to block artificial light from escaping into the night. The boys woke in darkness, dressed in a leisurely fashion, and were then baffled to find a note on the parlor door: “Don’t try to get in. Get Mrs. Stoney, my darlings.” (I found this note, along with a suicide note addressed to Gunn’s father, tucked between the leaves of a scrapbook that Gunn kept in the 1970s. So British and restrained was the suicide note that it went unnoticed when the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, acquired Gunn’s archive in 2007.)
After trying the parlor door and the door to the adjacent kitchen, both of which were locked, Ander and Thom went next door to Mrs. Stoney’s, only to be told that she’d gone shopping. The boys returned home and found that the backdoor leading from the garden to the parlor was unlocked. They entered to discover their dead mother. She had committed suicide by inhaling the toxic gas from a gas-poker, used to ignite coal fires.
Thom describes the horrifying scene in graphic detail in his first-ever diary entry, written that day (the full description may now be found in the excellent notes to Clive Wilmer’s Selected Poems of Thom Gunn):
There was a smell, not a very great one, of gas. It haunted us for the whole day afterwards. I turned the gas off and Ander took the gas-poker out of her hands. We didn’t undo the blackout for we could see her well by the light from the French windows, open behind us. We uncovered her face. How horrible it was! Ander said afterwards to me that the eyes were open, but I thought they were closed; she was white almost, like the rest of her body that we could see. ‘Cover it up. I don’t want to see it, it’s so horrible,’ Ander cried. Her head was back, and the mouth was open, – not expressing anything, horror, sadness, happiness, – just open.
Gunn didn’t write about his mother’s suicide explicitly for another half century, when he wrote “The Gas-poker” in 1992. (The poem appears in his final collection, Boss Cupid, published in 2000, 56 years after his mother’s death.)
Many objects noted in the original diary account also feature in the poem: the heavy bureau Charlotte pushed against the door to stop her boys from finding her, her red dressing gown, the frozen garden, and, of course, the gas-poker. Gunn holds her suicide at a distance, not only temporally with his opening rhetorical question about the passage of time (“Forty-eight years ago— / Can it be forty-eight / Since then?”) but also through his use of the third person and, most effectively, through the formal constraints he imposes upon the event. Each end-stopped septet underscores the inexorable outcome with its repeated ABCDBDC rhyme scheme and brisk, matter-of-fact trimeter beat.
The poem is about the exact circumstances of the suicide, but it’s also about the relationship between experience, knowledge, and poetry:
The children went to and froOn the harsh winter lawnRepeating their lament,A burden, to each otherIn the December dawn,Elder and younger brother,Till they knew what it meant.
Here it suggests the event itself, but in Gunn’s diary entry, it is little Ander’s grief-stricken objectification of his mother’s corpse.
Most significant, though, is the “one image from the flow” that sticks “in the stubborn mind”: the “backwards flute” of the gas-poker. Like Milton in his great elegy “Lycidas,” Gunn rhymes flute with mute, the last word of “The Gas-poker.” However, though Milton’s oaten flute is one of poetic possibility (“the rural ditties were not mute”), Gunn’s backwards flute is one of utter negation. This moment of silencing led Gunn to spend the rest of his life filling the void his mother’s death left with the music of his poetry.
Sally Connolly is a scholar and critic specializing in Irish, British, and American poetry. Her first book, Grief and Meter (University of Virginia Press, 2018), is the first to consider elegies for poets as a significant elegiac subgenre. Her second book, Ranches of Isolation (Madhat Press, 2018), explores 20th- and 21st-century transatlantic poetic relations. She is an...
Poet Randall Mann is the author of Complaint in the Garden (2004), which won the Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry; Breakfast with Thom Gunn (2009), finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and the California Book Award; Straight Razor (2013), also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award; and Proprietary (2017). He is co-author of the textbook Writing Poems (2007)....
Edmund White is an award-winning novelist, memoirist, and essayist. His many books include A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1987), Genet: A Biography (1993), City Boy (2009), Jack Holmes and His Friend (2012), and Our Young Man (2016). He is a member...