Saturday, July 11, 2009

David Orr Reviews Thom Gunn: Selected Poems

A nice review from the New York Times of Thom Gunn's new Selected Poems.

Too Close to Touch

Published: July 10, 2009

Christopher Felver/Corbis -

Thom Gunn

All poets, if they are any good,” Charles Simic has said, “tend to stand apart from their literary age.” The key phrase here, of course, is “if they are any good”; average poets don’t just stand within their age, they compose it. But we sometimes talk as if ­poets are exceptions not simply when they write well, but because they write at all. According to this way of thinking, the art form demands such devotion to one’s individuality that every poet, no matter how lowly, is a kind of outsider — a Cheese Who Stands Alone. This perception frequently finds its way into depictions of poets in popular culture; it also emerges in the vehemence with which poets themselves regularly declare their opposition to labels, categories, schools, allegiances, booster clubs, car pools, intramural softball teams and so on. Yet when everyone is busy standing apart, how is it possible to stand out? What does real independence look like?

Possibly something like the work of Thom Gunn, whose new Selected ­Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, paper, $14) is edited by August Kleinzahler. Gunn, who died in 2004, began his career as a hot young poet in England (he published his first book, “Fighting Terms,” when he was only 25) and was generally associated with the taut, plainspoken aesthetic favored by writers like Philip Larkin and Donald Davie. In 1954, he left England for San Francisco, where he eventually settled after studying with Yvor Winters at Stanford. Gunn embraced the city’s bohemian lifestyle — Edmund White called him “the last of the commune dwellers . . . serious and intellectual by day and druggy and sexual by night” — and he grew increasingly interested in syllabics and free verse even as he continued to hone the metrical forms that distinguished his early career. He’s possibly the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD, and he’s certainly one of the few to profess genuine admiration for both Winters (the archformalist) and Allen Ginsberg (the arch . . . well, Allen Ginsberg). This is, even for the poetry world, a pretty odd ­background.

It’s also the kind of background that leads to misleading career narratives. Like most people, poets rarely undergo multiple metamorphoses in their lives and art over a short period. In time, they might shift their style; they might take up different subject matter; they might buy a duplex in Miami. But generally speaking, their existence is reasonably consistent, and they stick fairly close to what they know. Gunn, however, not only moved from England to America, he exchanged the rarefied air of Cambridge for the hothouse of 1960s-era San Francisco, became openly gay, started dabbling in drugs, began writing about the urban underbelly and set about tinkering with the verse techniques that had made him (relatively) famous — all in the space of about 10 years. Critics often attribute changes in a poet’s style to changes in his life; this much change in both arenas threw some readers into what could be described as a tizzy of questionable causation. British reviewers who opposed Gunn’s technical shifts blamed California, just as American critics would, later on, connect his adventurous lifestyle with his more “relaxed” versification. (You can still see this dynamic at work today, whenever critics contrast Gunn’s libido with his tight metrics — as if no one had ever written quatrains about having sex before.) In any case, all of the talk about Gunn’s life and style, and style and life, almost makes one wish the poet had stayed in England; at least then no one could say he wrote seven-syllable lines because of Jefferson Airplane.

Kleinzahler believes that Gunn’s development was steadier and, in some ways, more conventional. He’s right. Gunn began to come into his own with the publication of “My Sad Captains” in 1961, when he was 32, and his work steadily strengthened for the next four decades. In his best, most characteristic writing, Gunn is what you might call a poet of friction: he’s interested in the ways in which surfaces push off, against or into each other. Consider his description of surfing in “From the Wave”:

The mindless heave of which they rode
A fluid shelf
Breaks as they leave it, falls and, slowed,
Loses itself.

Clear, the sheathed bodies slick as seals
Loosen and tingle;
And by the board the bare foot feels
The suck of shingle.

There are many ways to write about surfing — one could focus on the danger, the grace, the speed and so forth. But it’s typical of Gunn that while he gives us a sense of all these elements, he’s drawn to instances of contact: the point at which “the bare foot feels / The suck of shingle”; the moment in which “marbling bodies have become / Half wave, half men, / Grafted it seems by feet of foam.” Feel and touch and pressure are constants throughout this selection, whether it’s the longing of a hawk for “the feel . . . / Of catcher and of caught / Upon your wrist”; the swimmer who remembers “the pull and risk / Of the Pacific’s touch . . . Its cold live sinews tugging at each limb”; or simply the “secure firm dry embrace” of longtime domestic affection.

Even in the AIDS-related elegies that dominate his most famous book, “The Man With Night Sweats,” Gunn is drawn to comparisons involving substance brought to bear on substance. “Still Life,” a poem about a terminal patient, concludes with the image of “the tube his mouth enclosed / In an astonished O.” “The Missing” imagines the vast web of friendships, now vanishing, as a “supple entwinement through the living mass / Which for all that I knew might have no end, / Image of an unlimited embrace.” But the poem that gives “The Man With Night Sweats” its title is perhaps Gunn’s most arresting use of this sort of metaphor. The poem begins with a man waking at night (“I wake up cold, I who / Prospered through dreams of heat”) and recognizing the rising weakness in his once-powerful body. It concludes:

I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead

Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,

As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.

The delicate suggestion of alienation, or at least separation, between self and body (“Hugging my body to me”) pre­sages the even greater disruption that occurs in the final couplet. We think of the earth as being our foundation: we’re “on solid ground.” The image of an avalanche is especially disturbing, then, because it suggests that what had supported our bodies is now bent on destroying them. The touch has become a blow; the heat of friction has become a conflagration. Here, Gunn is (consciously or not) rewriting the great American poem of unity between body and earth, Robert Frost’s “To Earthward.” That poem ends: “When stiff and sore and scarred / I take away my hand / From leaning on it hard / In grass and sand, / The hurt is not enough: / I long for weight and strength / To feel the earth as rough / To all my length.” Oh no, says Gunn, you don’t.

One can quibble with some of the ­choices in this volume. Kleinzahler’s version of Gunn is a little more austere than some might like, even when the poems themselves are bent on advertising their ­counter​cultural bona fides. It’s puzzling, for instance, that space was made for a druggy yet prim couplet about, yes, Jefferson Airplane (“The music comes and goes on the wind, / Comes and goes on the brain”), but not for any of Gunn’s epigrams; for instance, the superb “Barren Leaves,” which reads in its entirety: “Spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling: / Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.” Gunn was a very funny poet, and it would have been good to see more of that. But of course, his total output ran well over 500 pages, almost all of which are well worth reading, and any selection was bound to have holes critics would cry over. It’s to the credit of this remarkable writer that those absences seem unimportant beside what is so rousingly present.

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