Our book today is 1994’s The Collected Poems of Thom Gunn, who was born in England and followed his lover to California at the height of the drug-soaked ‘counter-culture’ movement then cresting there. He dove into that movement with the same studied abandon he released on all the things that interested him, becoming at once its warden and its bard.
At Trinity College he’d absorbed phenomenal amounts of information and spent countless hours straining his way through what he called ‘a thicket of forms.’ He learned the names and measures of all poetic styles; he learned their limitations and their freedoms; he learned how to do them all, and how to make them do his bidding. In short, he learned what virtually no poets writing today bother to learn: the craft of poetry. Poets – especially young poets – today conceive of the status of ‘poet’ as something inborn, something cellular that they only need to proclaim in order to brandish. They call themselves ‘poets’ with the lazy arrogance endemic to work-shirkers, and they scurry from ill-lit reading to ill-lit reading with the bitter collegiality of people who’ve decided that as bad as ‘the scene’ is, it sure beats sitting down and studying quatrains. In the tangle of this misperception, “I’m a poet” is tortured into synonymity with sloth, or even disfunction. “I’m a poet” becomes the reason why “I don’t write well,” or even why “I don’t write at all.” Show me a ‘poet’ under the age of 25 today, and I’ll show you someone who couldn’t pick a sestina out of a police lineup and who thinks quintain is the crusty old shark-killer in “Jaws.” And worse: if you confront them with this ignorance, you won’t get shame – you’ll get a sneer: “I’m a poet – I don’t bother with those things.”
In the bright new light of a paradise state, Thom Gunn explored all the loose verse-styles making the rounds, and I read all the results (because this is one of the 20th century’s greatest poets) with interest and often pleasure, not because I like those looser styles but because I knew that with him they weren’t the results of mere cowardice – only genuine craft has the right to abandon itself: poets who don’t want to be charlatans learn poetry before they start crapping around with it.
Gunn paid his discipline the honor of knowing it in every quirk and detail, and his “Collected Poems” spans his whole working career, from his earliest volumes like Fighting Terms and My Sad Captains to the late masterworks he created when his fierce talents and fierce heart was confronted with the onset of the AIDS epidemic.
These styles and moods range from the urbanities of Catullus in “A Map of the City”:
I stand upon a hill and see
A luminous country under me,
Through which at two the drunk must weave;
The transient’s pause, the sailor’s leave.
I notice, looking down the hill,
Arms braced upon a window sill;
And on the web of fire escapes
Move the potential, the grey shapes.
I hold the city here, complete:
And every shape defined by light
Is mine, or corresponds to mine,
Some flickering or some steady shine.
This map is ground of my delight.
Between the limits, night by night,
I watch a malady’s advance,
I recognize my love of chance.
By the recurrent lights I see
The crowded, broken, and unfinished!
I would not have the risk diminished.
To the deceptively delicate miniature-work of Basho, as in “Considering the Snail”:
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 it 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 process.
And all of it sadly culminates in the grey angers of his greatest book, The Man with Night Sweats, including what is for me one of the most true and agonized renditions of the sheer haplessness of surviving a loved one’s death, here at the close of the poem “Lament”:
Outdoors next day, I was dizzy from a sense
Of being ejected with some violence
From vigil in a white and distant spot
Where I was numb, into this garden plot
Too warm, too close, and not enough like pain.
I was delivered into time again.
– The variations that I live among
Where your long body too used to belong
And where the still bush is minutely active.
You never thought your body was attractive,
Though others did, and yet you trusted it
And must have loved its fickleness a bit
Since it was yours and gave you what it could,
Till near the end it let you down for good,
Its blood hospitable to those guests who
Took over by betraying it into
The greatest of its inconsistencies
This difficult, tedious, painful enterprise.
Thom Gunn was a resolute explorer. He sought out drugs to learn their gifts (of course they addicted him in the end), he sought out all conversations, always, to learn their speakers, he disdained no ‘pop culture’ until he’d searched it for both strengths and bankruptcies, and while it’s true that his open-mindedness stopped tragically short of appreciating the Legion of Super-Heroes (“there’s just too many of them!”), it had few other limits. And his talent, strong and resourceful to the end, met the catastrophe of its age with the only weapons at its disposal. And they were enough.