Shadows Hard as Board
Selected Poems of Thom Gunn, ed. Clive Wilmer.
Faber & Faber. £16.99.
People used to talk in the 1960s — perhaps they still do — about true poets “finding their own voices.” Gunn appeared not to have a distinctive voice. Indeed, he appeared to have no wish to find one.
Reading this, I pause. My pencil-end hovers, before marking the margin. Wilmer knows, surely, that blurbists (and not only they) have, alas, never stopped speaking thus. “I am not ‘confessional’ by nature,” Gunn said; Sylvia Plath is “the last person I want to be!”; “Lowell ... is obviously central to our period in many ways, even if sometimes I cannot help wishing he wasn’t.” Movement poets (the label came from The Spectator, and never sufficed, for Gunn or the rest) revealed themselves more quietly, in verse larded with English speech-fillers — or, as linguists have it, “hedges” — perhaps, and I suppose, and the rest. (Donald Davie, a transatlantic migrant like Gunn, criticized his own verse for its good manners.) Gunn’s “Expression,” which he began writing, Wilmer informs us, in May 1977, turns from the melodrama of “very poetic poetry,” to an “early Italian altar piece” of the virgin and child:
The sight quenches, like waterafter too much birthday cake.Solidly there, mother and childstare outward, two pairs of matching eyesvoid of expression.
The poem’s last word repeats its title, placing under scrutiny a concept central to the modern lyric. Painting also plays this corrective role in a poem written almost two decades earlier, as Gunn’s verse, in firm form, manages the miracle of seeming to emit perception unmolested by personality. The first stanza of “In Santa Maria del Popolo,” from his third book, My Sad Captains (1961):
Waiting for when the sun an hour or lessConveniently oblique makes visibleThe painting on one wall of this recessBy Caravaggio, of the Roman School,I see how shadow in the painting brimsWith a real shadow, drowning all shapes outBut a dim horse’s haunch and various limbs,Until the very subject is in doubt.
An “I” appears, and “conveniently” is witty. But the plaited rhythms and perception-enhancing meter really conjure the equivalent of a painting in verse. The speaker is present, but as a point-of-view in the literal, and not the opinionating, sense. Why should his feelings obtrude, when the data can be given us untainted?
Gunn refused to position himself as a “gay poet” — though he wrote directly, and with compassionate acuity, about the sex lives of gay men (early on, he pretended a woman addressee in some of his poems). Of his poem “Carnal Knowledge,” in his first collection, Fighting Terms (1954), he claimed: “anyone aware that I am homosexual is likely to misread the whole poem.” Against Gunn’s wishes, one could limn a psycho-biographical trajectory in his Selected Poems: once he moved to San Francisco, shortly after the publication of Fighting Terms, he began to write more openly about being gay, and he also accepted, with refinements, the idea of a free verse capable of true spontaneity. You could say the uptight Brit loosened up once he crossed the pond. But Gunn always accepted control and impulse as interlocking elements: he continued to write both freely and formally. He insisted on a verse tradition of greater antiquity than creative writing programs like to admit — he was a great admirer, for instance, of Ben Jonson, who reveals, in Gunn’s words, that “artifice is not necessarily the antithesis of sincerity” — and liked to make remarks such as: “in his attraction to inherently awkward material, Ginsberg resembles Hardy”; or, “I want to be an Elizabethan poet. I want to write with the same kind of anonymity that you get in the same way somebody like Ben Jonson did. At the same time I want to write in my own century.” As a gay man, he was fortunate to live in the twentieth and not the seventeenth. But we shouldn’t claim, of his life, and his desires, simply a case of pre-Stonewall opacity replaced by post-Stonewall candor, or of individual self-liberation (that’d be where the myth of “voice” comes in, and, as stated, he was no confessionalist). As Gunn wrote in “My Life Up to Now”: “My life insists on continuities — between America and England, between free verse and metre, between vision and everyday consciousness.”
Wilmer’s selection is the ideal place to begin with Gunn — the major poems are here, and the facts of their provenance (over seventy pages of this book are given over to notes); sequences arrive happily entire. Wilmer is truly selective — he rightly takes just five poems from Gunn’s first book. His second volume, The Sense of Movement (1957), made his reputation in England, and produced a couple of masterpieces. “On the Move,” the first poem in the collection, is one:
On motorcycles, up the road, they come:Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,Until the distance throws them forth, their humBulges 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.
Equally inspired by, or obsessed with, the films of Marlon Brando and the existentialism of Sartre and Camus, this is very much a young man’s poem, but few young men can write like this. In his criticism Gunn speaks eloquently, and vividly, the language of metrical verse, and this poem uses variations in the pentameter available for centuries in the service of a contemporary astonishment. (The assonance, and the inverted first foot, which outlines those “bulges”!)
In “On the Move,” the verse-rhythm is already more susceptible, and uncertain, than it seems. The commas in the first two lines quoted are marvelously controlled — a delight for the savoring ear — but they also register that “doubt” which is eventually strapped in and hidden (where the fitting of rhyme to rhyme is the poet’s own version of this process). Writing of Thomas Hardy, Gunn says his “poetry is almost always robust, never fretful or neurotic.” Yet, in this poem, the hidden neurosis is acknowledged. And we shouldn’t miss, in either the essay on Hardy or “On the Move,” the genuinely mitigating (rather than habitual) word “almost” — as crucial here as when it appears twice at the close of Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb,” from which it tends to vanish whenever that poem is sentimentally quoted. The internal rhyme with “dust” and “robust” emphasizes the word: Gunn won’t wholly idealize his kinetic toughs.
Comparing this with the verse of his following books, we see how Gunn gradually learned to combine his rhymes with soft-hard meter. “In Santa Maria del Popolo” is slicker, less insistent and more insinuating — the syntactical distensions have become second nature. In 1965, Gunn collaborated with his brother Ander on the photo-book Positives (only “The Old Woman” makes the cut here); two years later, Touch appeared, containing the sequence “Misanthropos” (solipsism diagrammed, with a diamond-point chisel), and also the famous title poem. Here sexuality is held in abeyance, allowing a space for the metaphysical; the speaker melts toward, and into, his lover, and the experience requires of the poet a newly limber free verse:
You are alreadyasleep. I lowermyself in next toyou, my skin slightlynumb with the restraintof habits, the patina ofself, the black frostof outsideness, so that evenunclothed it isa resilient chillyhardness, a superficiallymalleable, deadrubbery texture.
Present tense takes us directly into the scene. The conceptual language is tactfully makeshift. It captures that distance which can arrive between lovers at, it seems, any time — a sort of stubbornness which comes of the fear, perhaps, of being absorbed. The speaker has grown “cold,” in both the literal and the emotional sense. His partner turns and holds him:
doyou know whoI am or am Iyour mother orthe nearest human being tohold on to in adreamed pogrom.
The lineaments of identity are shed, as Gunn seeks an experience, however elementary and insentient, that’s universally shared. The infant’s bond with the mother, global atrocities — this is the world in which we live, and where we find our happiness, or not at all.
What I, now loosened,sink into is an oldbig place, it isthere already, foryou are alreadythere.
The first line of the poem returns. Now there’s no holding back:
What is more, the place isnot found but seepsfrom our touch incontinuous creation, darkenclosing cocoon roundourselves alone, darkwide realm where wewalk with everyone.
Wilmer explains that continuous creation “is one of the theories of the origin of the universe, sometimes called the ‘steady-state theory,’ in which the universe has no beginning and no end”; his gloss also relates the poem to Donne’s “The Good-Morrow,” and “The World,” by Robert Creeley. Open form licenses the poet to seek, as we watch, for the correct word — and to find it. The separate shape of each lover is lost within the “cocoon” that both isolates them in a realm of two — which, for Donne, is grandiosely its own kingdom — and unites them, in tenderness, with “everyone.” Soft w sounds, slipping from the repeated word “what,” provide the momentum. You can’t speak the lines without shaping your lips, as if for so many kisses.
There is a feeling, in Gunn, that sinuosities of syntax, given the scaffold of rhyme, and proved upon the pulse of meter, cannot fail in the quest for complexity; he has a habit of relentlessly finessing a perception until the rhymes begin to self-generate, and the metaphysical contortions produced as a result are mannered, not cognitive. Rococo, not rational, though Gunn’s no-nonsense aesthetic — he was hard on poets like James Wright, for writing disconnectedly — packages these flourishes as a strict logic. This tendency survives into Moly (1971), and “For Signs,” whose second stanza, and what follows, can’t live up to the first:
1In front of me, the palings of a fenceThrow shadows hard as board across the weeds;The cracked enamel of a chicken bowlGleams like another moon; each clump of reedsIs split with darkness and yet bristles whole.The field survives, but with a difference.
2And sleep like moonlight drifts and clings to shape.My mind, which learns its freedom every day,Sinks into vacancy but cannot rest.While moonlight floods the pillow where it lay,It walks among the past, weeping, obsessed,Trying to master it and learn escape.
The last three lines are superfluous: they only fill out the form, with a bit of mind-body confusion. A “mind” can’t lie on a pillow, or walk “among the past, weeping”; nor can the perfectionist’s cleaving to ten syllables excuse the compressed clumsiness of “learn escape.”
The first stanza gives us, as Gunn writes of a poem-opening of Fulke Greville’s, the spectacle of “the observing intelligence ... making careful distinctions.” Gunn scopes out the area (he did two years of national service); posits certainties; and goes on from there. “Hardness was a quality,” he writes,
sought after by the avant-garde poet during the period marked approximately by the years 1910 to 1925. It was considered a corrective to what appeared the softness of the poetry in the years preceding. It took the form of an emphasis on clarity, explicitness, and sharpness of language and image, accompanied by an equal emphasis on objectivity or the appearance of it.
“That is a summary,” writes Gunn — this in “Three Hard Women,” a review of H.D, Marianne Moore, and Mina Loy — “of what everybody knows already.” Yet, as the context suggests, he’s particularly alert to the gendering of hardness, a concept bound to identity, and how porous to other people’s desires, and other people’s voices, any of us wishes to be. His unashamedly phallocentric poetry is aware of how the rigidity of a penis may be premised on an individual or a collaborative denial of the erect organ’s in fact surpassing vulnerability. Gunn’s persons, as well as his objects, would be invincibly solid, but the tropes of armor, containment, and the bulletproof libido learn to self-scrutinize. “An Amorous Debate,” from Jack Straw’s Castle (1976):
Then a tremor passedthrough his body, the sheenfell from him, hebecame wholly sensitiveas if his body hadrolled back its own foreskin.
Wilmer can’t help but exclude some of the briefer, lighthearted verse which, in the Faber Collected, allow the reader a breathing space. “Courage, a Tale,” for example, also appeared in Jack Straw’s Castle:
There was a Childwho heard from another Childthat if you masturbate 100 timesit kills you.This gave him pause;he certainly slowed down quite a bitand alsokept count........................The 99th timewas simply unavoidable.Weeks passed.And then he thoughtFuck itit’s worth dying for,and half an hour laterthe score rose from 99 to 105.
I love the paced humor: how the indentations exaggerated by William Carlos Williams into a tendentious philosophy of the “variable foot” appear here as the stand-up comedian’s pauses for effect. Keeping “count” gives way, impudently, to keeping “score.” Interviewed by Wilmer, Gunn said “stylistic concerns” have to do
with impulses and decisions in our lives in all aspects. Impulses, of their nature, are kind of open-ended and we have impulses all the time. We also make decisions all the time and those are closed, like closed lines in poetry, they’re like metre, they’re considered. Our lives are mixtures of those. So I continue to have sympathies with both kinds of poetry.... I’m surprised that everybody doesn’t.
Gunn’s known for oscillating stringently between, as he terms it here, “open-ended” and “closed” forms. He’s many-sided, and knows others are too: admiring of the hard lines of individual identity, he nevertheless takes out his eraser. Sometimes one feels solid — elsewhere, a series of impulsive mental occasions, or, as Yeats had it, a “bundle of accident.” And so Gunn’s own “mixture” of poems, both light and heavy (refusing to provide a picture of the major, male poet before which to prostrate ourselves), also refutes a voice-led poetics.
Both pair-bonded and promiscuous, Gunn was, in his sexual adventures, formidably and self-endangeringly exposed, all his life, to the other. He died in his seventies of, probably, a drug overdose, having perceived the unjealous open-form lusts and loves of the San Francisco scene as an unrealized utopia, “the community of the carnal heart”:
That’s what we were part of, a visionary carnal politics. No wonder Blake was often cited!... The 1970s were the time, as I heard someone say later, of a great hedonistic experiment.... As hippies were the indirect heirs of the communists between World Wars, so we were the direct heirs of the hippies, drug- visionaries also. At the baths, or in less organized activity, there was a shared sense of adventure, thrilling, hilarious, experimental.
Gunn listed in his notebook, at the end of the sixties, what he took for the stages of “Self-Education.” More young man’s theorizing, but there’s something to it:
1. Nobody watches him, not even himself.
2. He imitates, to be like others.
3. He endows himself with an identity, to be unlike others.
4. He seeks purposes.
5. He seeks to lose identity, to join everyone.
Those stuck at stage three, or four, haven’t quite made it. The list is, one assumes, self-addressing, self-critical. Not aloof but agonized. Gunn’s verse worries at the matter, inhabiting the question without arrogance, or a claim to exemption. “To lose identity” suggests the mystic’s hunt for nirvana, or T.S. Eliot’s catty remark on the desirability of impersonality, at least for those who know what it’s like to have a personality.
Gunn wished to write in the “plain style,” or, as his essay on Hardy has it, “the reflective mode” which has accreted over centuries of verse in English:
It does seem to me that the related family lines of the ballad and the reflective lyric, joined by ties of economy and impersonality, have run permanently through English literature as providing in some sense a style that is always available. For their very neutrality and adaptability to new content, they have remained possible styles for about five hundred years, while other and equally impressive modes have been born, reached maturity, and died. The reflective mode I am speaking of is, as I emphasize, essentially impersonal, essentially non-confessional. It is concerned with its subject to the extent of excluding the speaker’s personality, even when his emotion is the subject of the poem (as it often is) — for he sees his emotion as one which anybody in his situation would be able to feel.
In Isherwood he found a “colloquial directness of style” that has “been around since the early eighteenth century.... It is in the nature of a bequest to us — like the plain-style of the Elizabethan poets, it is useful for any subject-matter, flexible and all-purpose as it is.” But, as August Kleinzahler notes, Gunn’s plain style isn’t “colloquial,” not exactly. Consider “The Miracle,” which, published in 1982 in The Passages of Joy, doesn’t appear in Wilmer’s selection:
“There in the rest room. He pulled down my fly,And through his shirt I felt him warm and trim.I squeezed his nipples and began to cryAt losing this, my miracle, so slimThat I could grip my wrist in back of him.“Then suddenly he dropped down on one kneeRight by the urinal in his only suitAnd let it fly, saying Keep it there for me,And smiling up. I can still see him shoot.Look at that snail-track on the toe of my boot.”
The man’s speech is denatured — Gunn isn’t trying to reproduce the way anyone would actually talk, and this roundly flouts one of the central imperatives of US verse. (For an English person, “rest room,” presented here as two words, is a phrase one never quite gets used to: Gunn’s poem holds, and tests, the dubious phrase for a moment on its tongue.) The closest one gets to this elsewhere is in verse translation, where another writer might provide a version of Dante, or Ovid, in which people speak with this preternatural transpicuousness.
Gunn is a great poet of the long-term, if not monogamous, relationship. The key poem here — besides “Touch” — is “The Hug,” from The Man with Night Sweats (1992). Unlike its predecessor, “The Hug” is anecdotal, down-to-earth — told in the past, not the present, tense. Its verse-sounds concentrate, rather than dissolve, the feeling of separateness, in combination with strong rhymes:
I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,Suddenly, from behind,In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:Your instep to my heel,My shoulder-blades against your chest.
My quick sleep had deleted allOf intervening time and place.I only knewThe stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
Yet what intervenes between this poem and “Touch,” published twenty-five years earlier, isn’t only a change of style — “Rhythmic form and subject matter are locked in a permanent embrace” — but, to speak frankly, AIDS. The deletion of personal limits in the first poem — the snowflake of identity, turned to a drop of happily impersonal water in the sea — is replaced by a protective carapace. The men lock together like Roman soldiers in a testudo. A cultural shift has occurred, as well as the evolution of a long-term relationship. “The dryness of the embrace,” writes Tom Sleigh,
marks the transition from sexual to domestic love, from the physical joy of sex to the physical joy of being held by someone with whom a life has been shared. Now, what heterosexual male poet would celebrate such a transition? Presumably, that poet would say how sexual attraction was attendant on the hug; or else the poet would lament the passing of such passion.
A subtle point, relating to the contexts in which gay verse is read, the assumptions a reader makes. Though Gunn surely draws, here, on Jonson’s famous translation from Petronius Arbiter — “Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short; / And done, we straight repent us of the sport” — whose less bleakly postcoital close should be as well known:
Let us together closely lie, and kiss,There is no labour, nor no shame in this;This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; neverCan this decay, but is beginning ever.
Here the comma-riddled lines aren’t “halting,” exactly: they linger, wishing the moment to last forever. Defending Jonson’s court-role, his dependence on patrons and commissions, Gunn insisted that all poetry is “occasional” in its own way, and in The Man with Night Sweats, AIDS provides the occasion:
You wrote us messages on a pad, amusedAt one time that you had your nurse confusedWho, seeing you reconciled after four yearsWith your grey father, both of you in tears,Asked if this was at last your “special friend”(The one you waited for until the end).“She sings,” you wrote, “a Philippine folk songTo wake me in the morning ... It is longAnd very pretty.”— From Lament
You wouldn’t replace a word: the cadences could not be less arbitrary, less idiosyncratic. In a remarkable vindication of Gunn’s plain style, the rhyme of “years” with “tears,” one of the most hackneyed in the tradition, more than earns its place.
Vidyan Ravinthiran is the author of Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic (Bucknell University Press, 2015) and Grun-tu-molani (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). He teaches at the University of Birmingham and is an editor at Prac Crit.