On Selected Poems by Thom Gunn

On the front and back covers of this slim volume, The Washington Post praises Gunn’s work for its “raw anarchistic energy and powerful intellectual control,” for its “existential rebelliousness” that is “tempered by a sense of our common humanity.” The New York Times Book Review elaborates and reaffirms thus: “Gunn allows his patterns of meter, rhyme and stanzaic form to emerge organically from the material … One can almost follow this happening on the page, observation finding its proper rhythm, emotion its spiritual level, the poet discovering new moods, new modes of reflection.”

While finding these gleaming recommendations interesting, informed, seductive, and, after reading this entire collection, quite spot-on, I would just like to insert here some of my few observations, and perhaps some reasons of my hesitancy to eulogize him.

Thom Gunn’s entire oeuvre is liberally accessible in this edition of Selected Poems, reassessed and edited by his poet friend August Kleinzahler. It collects some of his best, most elegiac and penetrating work from the 1950s to 2000, and according to the book’s blurbs, provides “a fuller retrospective account of the breadth and magnitude of Gunn’s extraordinary achievement.” This is my first time to encounter Thom Gunn – my first time, in fact, to encounter poetry of this kind – and I find that his work’s wealth and richness, its much-celebrated adroitness and terseness of language, its concentration on counterculture themes, resonates from a bygone era in the 1950s, 60s and 70s: from the so-called metaphysical poets drawn through the intermingling leitmotifs of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – seemingly crude topics such as the celebration of black-leather-jacketed motorcyclists, explorations and experimentations of homosexuality, drugs, the AIDS epidemic, and the destructive tragedy of death in the form of high Elizabethan poetry.

August Kleinzahler praises Thom Gunn for being “an Elizabethan poet in modern guise,” and I couldn’t have described him better. Gunn, especially in his later career, is a champion of formal delicacy, and of modernism – a coalescence of high art and the vulgar interwoven together in a way that makes him a master poet. This collection, however, while taking a broad view of Gunn’s work, reveals as it conceals: it presents a Thom Gunn in total command of iambs and intricate pentameters and enjambments with metallic rhyme and their sharp, acerbic sound relationships, and a Thom Gunn wildly tripping on LSD, a master poet inundated with pop culture, with counterculture. It’s as if Gunn has made a specialty of playing style against subject as he contends with the outré-decadent, the out-of-control, through tightly controlled meters and with the systematized, the well-structured, through free, open forms.

I can only surmise that Kleinzahler has selected the best there is in Gunn’s work, because at only 102 pages this is a truly slender collection, with a curious mixture of poems that I found, at times, irregular in their levels of discipline. In the lengthy introduction it is revealed that Kleinzahler intimately knew Gunn through several years, and is privy to the ways Gunn’s mechanics worked best to achieve a heightened level of splendor, of grandeur, which, in the case where language is manipulated to a razor’s edge, serves in the mind as a kind of magic. The problem seems to be that he has selected from early set pieces – for instance, poems taken from Fighting Terms and The Sense of Movement, (where I found to be often technically smug and so playful that it verges on the trite) – to midcareer ex post facto works like Autobiography where, to Gunn, “The sniff of the real, that’s / what I’d want to get”, through the poetic melancholia of Boss Cupid, Gunn’s most recent collection, with its long-deferred, carefully intensified response to Gunn’s mother’s suicide. I expected the poems from this last work to rise in a crescendo, Gunn finally maturing, doing away with the gutter talk and achieving the best of his capabilities as a poet, but he appears to be past his best.

I wouldn’t dare argue, however, Gunn’s skill with meter and form: it cannot be disputed that it’s done with a decisive, almost single-minded purposefulness with regard to content. Neither decorative nor ornamental, it wrenches his sounds along an architecture meant to elucidate, to illuminate, and to give sustenance. “Gunn’s work is nothing more than drug-enhanced, drug-addled experimentations in technique-quatrains, tri-meter stanzas, meticulous free verse, and so on,” I initially thought. True, Gunn wrote of dance clubs, street protests, drugs, and sex, but he also wrote of grief, care, personal loyalty, love. More than anything, however, what I find most admirable in these Selected Poems is the impression of Gunn’s detached coolness of perspective, at times his icy tone, albeit slightly mocking, and his almost rigid attention to rhyme and pattern in his preoccupations with his subject – the sex, the venereal diseases, sunlight, poetry, words themselves, whatever the case – extreme topics subjected to remarkable formal control. This formality of versification, i.e., extremely complex schemes of rhyming and meter, is pretty stunning. Besides my admiration for his technicality, however, and for his adventurous experimentations with language, I don’t seem to have been moved.

“The poet one finds in these pages,” writes Kleinzahler in his avid introduction, is a quite different quantity from the earlier Thom Gunn. From this distance in time, and with the work of the seventies, eighties, and nineties before us, the nature and scale of his achievement, as well as how truly anomalous a poet he really was, come into perspective.” And the whole of Selected Poems bear him out.

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