Posts from April 2011

April 27th, 2011

The Collected Poetry of Thom Gunn!

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

Endless potentiality,

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.

January 8th, 2010

Digressions welcome in the Penny Press!

For a bookworm, can there be any more reassuring note of continuity than the year’s first issue of the TLS? The 1 January issue is rich with wonders – it beguiled a portion of my afternoon while the temperatures plummeted and the snow fell.

There’s James Murphy’s long and extremely thoughtful review of D. D. Guttenplan’s new biography of I.F. Stone, one of those instances in review-reading when you come away from a piece absolutely certain the review is better-written than the book it examines (a trend in this issue, as we’ll see). Murphy tosses off quite a few great lines – I’ll content myself with relaying just a handful:

Guttenplan praises [Stone] as a pioneer of confrontational, investigative reporting, but some will question how much there is to be proud of in anticipating the modern newsreaders’ fashionable conceit (in both senses of the word) that everybody in public life is lying to them …

Stone was as much a polemicist as a journalist and one can be moved by his passion and transparent outrage. One can also be numbed by his relentless contumely and snide mockery meant to get a derisive chuckle from like-minded readers.

And this little dig at Guttenplan himself:

His dismissive quip, for example, that Lionel Trilling – surely one of the ornaments of American liberal culture – demonstrated the ‘rebirth of an American Jew as an English gentleman”, strikes an unwelcome note of undergraduate spite.

Elsewhere, Graeme Richardson takes on a batch of books about the transplanted British poet Thom Gunn (“some critics of Gunn’s later work,” he writes, “might have been, not homophobic, but bored”) and the mighty Ruth Morse (the TLS’ version of OLM’s own Irma Heldman) looks into the huge new two-volume British Crime Writing encyclopedia, in the process tossing off a line that stopped me in my tracks:

The book’s design (unjustified typesetting, good-sized print, wide margins) suggests that it is intended for readers as well as for library shelves.

The more I thought about the implications of that dichotomy, the less I wanted to think about them. I’m hoping Morse was just having a little fun.

Alfred in a painting by Daniel Maclise, 1852

But the centerpiece of the issue (at least, and somewhat predictably, for me) was Joanne Parker’s essay on the life of Alfred the Great in fiction – a long and lovingly detailed piece that is ostensibly a review of the latest Bernard Cornwell novel starring Alfred but really just gently uses that book as a platform from which to talk about her subject in general (one wonders if she’s ever been tempted to do the same thing about giant killer shark novels, and if so, whether or not she had to suffer the cynical eye-rolling of her colleagues as a result).  Not that she skirts the novel, mind you – she has some very entertaining things to say about it, as for instance in this aside about the surprisingly appealing way Alfred’s great enemies, the Danes, are consistently portrayed:

Cornwell paints a succession of attractive Danish warriors who roar with delight on the battlefield, swear with mouth-filling oaths, revel in the salt-spray soaking their flaxen locks, and feast with carnivorous joy.

(Parker also makes a reminding mention of John Fitchett’s 1500-page epic poem about Alfred, and now actually owning a copy of that book is my life’s sole purpose)

Parker gives a spirited recounting of the great love the Victorians had for the virtuous Alfred of their fictions (that’s where Fitchett is mentioned, and a good many others who sound equally, deplorably wonderful) – a recounting that nevertheless contains this bizarre line: “After the publication of C. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse (1911), Alfred waited for almost a century for an author to remodel him for modern tastes.”  At which point Cornwell is brought on stage and discussed at length, which – an act of exclusion that would have greatly surprised, among others, Jean Plaidy, Geogette Heyer, and most of all Alfred Duggan.

Parker ends her essay by wondering if Cornwell’s novels will eventually give us an Alfred of the same fictive stature as King Arthur, and that’s too hopeful by far: Cornwell has fallen into the heinous American trap (Gerald Posner, William Vollmann, and James Patterson come to mind) of instantly publishing every single sentence he writes, on any subject, at any time. There were ten new books by him last year, and this year has already seen six or seven more. Since they were written without thought, they cannot be good – and indeed, they haven’t been (although since they were all written by a smart man, neither can they be truly terrible, nor have they been). In order to achieve greater worth – if that’s his aim and not just Parker’s – Cornwell would need to slow down, drop four or five book contracts, and perhaps draw a cleansing breath.  There’s no likelihood of that, so King Arthur remains secure.

The TLS is a cleansing breath in its own right, either way. Our time together today was too brief, but I went back out into the snow feeling a lot less lonely as a reader.