A Life in Letters

August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer

On Thom Gunn's Legacy

Barnes and Noble

Thom Gunn has been described as “one of the most singular and compelling poets in English during the past half-century” (Times Literary Supplement). Gunn was an Elizabethan poet in modern guise, though there’s nothing archaic or quaint about his poetry. His method was dispassionate and rigorous, uniquely well suited for making a poetic record of the tumultuous time in which he lived. Gunn’s brilliantly realized poems about nature, friendship, literature, sexual love, and death are set against the ever-changing backdrop of San Francisco—the druggy, politically charged sixties and the plague years of AIDS in the eighties. In the forthcoming collection of Gunn’s work New Selected Poems, his friend Clive Wilmer traces the full arc of Gunn’s inimitable career. Here, Wilmer joins award-winning poet August Kleinzahler, whose collection Before Dawn on Bluff Road / Hollyhocks in the Fog came out in paperback in May, to discuss the evolution and impact of Gunn’s work.

August Kleinzahler: Clive, Your marvelous new Selected of Thom’s work seems to have struck a nerve. It’s fetching raves on both side of the pond. I’m wondering if we’ve somehow reached a point, say “historically,” as readers of English language poetry, at which the full dimension of his achievement can begin to be appreciated? Where would you locate the focal point(s) of this new interest? Is it the rigor of Gunn’s poetry, on the heels of so much loosely put together twaddle; the bracing anonymity of the voice after so much cloying post-Lowell/Plath/etc. confessional poetry; is it the normalizing of homosexual love and subject matter? Or is that over time the cream rises, the artistry comes clear?

Clive Wilmer: Thanks for the compliment, Augie! I agree that something has happened. Ten or fifteen years ago, I almost always found myself being defensive about my admiration of Thom’s work. Now it’s “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this guy when I was reading all those poets who haven’t added up to much?” Many of the people who say that are young. So I think it’s partly the new generation coming up—with new tastes and preferences—and yes, they couldn’t care less about whether he was gay or not, which must make a difference. And oddly, just as the sexuality is no longer an issue, neither are the rigorous formality and the anonymous voice. Also, the thing that used to really annoy me was the notion that you can’t write good poetry out of happiness, and much of Gunn’s middle-period poetry is happy, notably Moly of course. I imagine that was more of an issue here than over there. But I noticed it surfacing again in some of the older British reviewers. I don’t think that makes any sort of sense to my students, whether they like the poems or not. I have no answer to any of your specific questions, though I think the last suggestion must be true: “over time the cream rises, the artistry comes clear.” What do you think?

“Over time the cream rises, the artistry comes clear.”

Kleinzahler: Yes, the happiness part . . . I hadn’t thought of that. Especially in Old Blighty. The arbiters of taste in poetry weren’t too thrilled already with TG having abandoned them for the New World and begun writing some free verse. And then, on top of that, Thom engaging in lots and lots of contra naturam sex, even celebrating it, along with illicit drugs . . . He clearly had lost his way. The reaction in Britain could be severe. Here is Kenneth McLeish in his Penguin Companion to the Arts in the Twentieth Century: “On present showing Gunn is living proof of that sad cliché that first thoughts are always the best . . . only My Sad Captains (1961) contains anything to match with theirs [Hughes, Logue], or remotely to rival his own spectacular early work.”

Donald Davie, in his excellent essay “Thom Gunn” from his collection Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960–1988, makes a distinction between a poet having a “public” [Hughes, Larkin, Heaney] and a “following” [Hill, W.S. Graham, Roy Fisher, Charles Tomlinson]. Of Gunn he writes: “Particularly odd in this connection is the case of Gunn, who once had a British public but seemed later to have only a following. His being a long-time expatriate in San Francisco might have something to do with it . . . ” Davie goes on to praise the later work. It’s not an accident that Gunn’s penultimate volume, the magisterial The Man with Night Sweats, a work filled with death and grief, rehabilitated his reputation in Britain, and brought wide attention in the United States, where he never enjoyed a public and had a smaller following than in Britain.

In fact, Thom becomes a very different kind of poet with Moly in 1971, I think a great poet, having moved on from a somewhat self-consciously heroic literary posture to something far more immediate and human, more attentive to the “ordinary” things of the world, as per W.C. Williams and others who had begun to claim his attention.

Wilmer: I doubt if we wholly agree about this. I like the first three books as much as anything and I think you don’t. What I like, and what I suspect other Brits like, is the fierce compression and structural rigor of the early work, the combination of intellect and passion buckled into formal confines. Randomly:

What I like, and what I suspect other Brits like, is the fierce compression and structural rigor of the early work, the combination of intellect and passion buckled into formal confines.

You do not know you are observed:
Apart, contained, you wait on chance,
Or seem to, till your callous glance
Meets mine, as callous and reserved.

And as it does we recognize
That sharing an anticipation
Amounts to a collaboration—
A warm game for a warmer prize.

Where I part company with those older British critics is in their assumption that because this is good it needs to be repeated—endlessly, it would seem. I think Thom traded it in for something different and also good. But in your short Selected you hardly represent the first two books at all, and I don’t understand that.

Kleinzahler: HA! I thought that would wind you up, caro mio! Actually, I once cheekily volunteered to Thom that he wasn’t much good until he started dropping acid. He laughed his big laugh, rather tickled by both the notion and my audacity. But I’m not sure he didn’t agree with me. My original selection of Thom’s poetry for Faber included only two, I think, poems from the first two books: “Tamer and Hawk,” which reminds me a bit of the one Robert Duncan poem I truly like, “My Mother Would Be A Falconress,” which Thom would not have known at that time, nor may it have yet been written, and “To Yvor Winters.” Thom came to revere Duncan’s poetry, and Duncan himself, after he moved here, incidentally, as totally different as their poetry was from one another. In any event, Paul Keegan, then the poetry editor at Faber, strongly “urged” me to put in a few more from the early books. I knew my take on the early work would rankle. As you point out in the enlightening introduction to your Selected TG the early Gunn was the poetry that appeared in the wildly influential and popular 1962 volume, Selected Poems of Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, a book that became an A-level set text in the British secondary schools, and wound up going through six printings. That’s the poetry, of both men, who lads like yourself cut their teeth on and fell madly in love with: a “vigorous new direction” in English poetry and all that. For what it’s worth, I think Hughes’s first books are by far his best—maybe the first three—and then the psychological violence, usually evinced through nature, becomes mannered and strained. Quite the reverse, I think, of the arc of Thom’s oeuvre.

The poetry of Thom’s first two books is extraordinarily accomplished, his great gift immediately in evidence, at least in its earlier stages, but, as I suggested earlier, rather self-consciously literary and straining for “importance.” The early influences of Donne and Marvell are there, which is not a bad thing, but there’s nothing terribly individual about it apart from the masterful command of technique, a notion which you will fervently contest!

Wilmer: Well, I do contest it, as you anticipate, but I’m not sure I can prove you wrong. I think much of the poetry of that period is in general wrongly estimated. Like you, I think Hughes’s early poetry, especially that in Lupercal, is marvelous, but there’s practically nothing later than his third book that I care to read now. That’s another story, though, and I fear a tragic one. In Thom’s case, I think he was most valued when most shocking or most trendy or most clearly offering a grand existential statement about—you know—the condition of modern man. Which I suppose is what you’re saying. I don’t think poems on fashionable subjects like “On the Move” or “Elvis Presley” are of much importance, though I do sort of like them. But the two poems you anthologized—in marked contrast to one another—seem to me as good as anything he wrote, and there are others only slightly less good: “Jesus and his Mother,” “Vox Humana,”and “The Allegory of the Wolf-Boy.” “The Wound,” his other very famous early poem, is immature technically, but it still takes my breath away:

I was myself: subject to no man’s breath:
My own commander was my enemy.
And while my belt hung up, sword in the sheath,
Thersites stumbled in and breathlessly
Cackled about my friend Patroclus’ death.

I called for armour . . .

. . . and so on. Heroic, certainly, but wonderfully self-aware and ambiguous as well. By the time you get to the third book, My Sad Captains—is that an early book too?—you are in the presence of a master. “In Santa Maria del Popolo”—say no more! I also think we agree that the syllabic poems in the second half of the book are of ground-breaking importance. There were three times when, without trying to write a sequence, Thom turned out a group of poems that adds up to a work, not a word of which you would want to change. This was the first. The second was the LSD poems in Moly. The third was the elegies in The Man with Night Sweats. Syllabics were one of Thom’s discoveries. Other poets had written syllabics—Marianne Moore, for one—but no one wrote them in the same way as he did. Such a poem as “My Sad Captains” or “Considering the Snail”—three six-line stanzas each, seven syllables to a line, so forty-two syllables to a stanza. You can’t hear forty-two syllables, but you do identify the three stanzas as filling the same temporal space, as it were. As movement, it doesn’t differ all that much from prose, except that there’s this invisible rule determining the finite shape of it. Thom used to say that he wrote syllabics in order to learn how to write free verse and that there was no essential difference between the two. I disagree, and think his syllabics superior to his free verse. Like you, I think that on the whole he wrote better in meter than in free verse, and, in that context, I have to include the syllabics with the meter and not, as Thom himself would’ve, with the free verse. Of course, I’m very glad he wrote free verse as well as meter—not least because his desire to do so gave us “Touch,” to my mind his greatest single poem. Odd that that should be so.

Kleinzahler: Yes, “Touch” is a beauty. “In Santa Maria del Popolo,” too. I find it difficult to choose, there are so many—a score of anthology pieces at the very least. I once asked Thom which poem he was most proud of and I seem to recall him saying, I think, “Sunlight,” but I may be wrong, as I also seem to recall the poem he mentioned having a rhyme scheme more like “In Santa Maria del Popolo.” I very much admire those early poems about California in My Sad Captains like “Waking in a Newly Built House,” “Flying Above California,” and “Lights Among Redwood.” Then later, in the Moly gathering: “Flooded Meadows,” Grasses,” and “Sunlight.” He wrote so many memorable poems situated in an urban setting that it’s easy to overlook just how brilliant a nature poet he was. I must say, Clive, reading through your Thom Gunn Selected Poems, even given my familiarity with and great regard for the work, this collection really strikes home just how major a figure he turns out to be. Bravo! Bravissimo!!

Each poem has its own interest—in terms of subject matter, tone, and formal range. He can be both grave and frivolous, casual and momentous, lyrical and urbane.

Wilmer: As you’d expect, I’m glad you think the book achieves that—and I have to say that working on it convinced me all over again of his brilliance. For one thing, I never got bored with re-reading him. For another: although Thom has several obsessive subjects, there is tremendous variety in his work. Each poem has its own interest—in terms of subject matter, tone, and formal range. He can be both grave and frivolous, casual and momentous, lyrical and urbane. I first saw Thom in 1964. He was spending a year in England and he gave a reading in Cambridge, where I was studying. He read several lyrics from “Misanthropos,” which is rather an uneven poem, though I think it important enough to have included the whole thing in the Selected—it’s the one thing I’ve been widely criticized for, but I’m unrepentant because you need the whole poem to get the force of the individual lyrics. In the section called “Memoirs of the World,” for instance, he gives you knockout poem after knockout poem. He must have been working on this section when I saw him, because I remember him reading mostly those poems. Poems as various as the very Elizabethan-pastoral “Dryads, reposing in the bark’s hard silence”—just quoting that line gives sends a thrill through me—and then the much more casual syllabic piece “A serving man. Curled my hair,” which quotes Shakespeare and, if it were written out as prose, could almost be him. The wonderful extended image of a cancer invading in “All that snow pains the eyes,” though I don’t think he read that. I can still hear him reading the bird call in “It has turned cold. I have been gathering wood”:

As if the bird called, from its twiggy cover,
Nót now, nót now, nót now.

I don’t think I’d anticipated such a musical effect from him. But he does sing. Has any poet learned so much from rock lyrics? “Rites of Passage,” “Street Song,” “San Francisco Streets,” “Nasturtium”—earlier, “Tamer and Hawk,” of course, though that’s more Donne and Campion than rock ‘n’ roll! But, calling to mind the unforgettable moments in my awareness of his poetry, I suppose nothing can rival the appearance through my letterbox—month by month in the 1980s—of the elegies from The Man with Night Sweats. That was a rare circumstance, don’t you think? A new disease and the old issue. The urgency of friends dying now and the eloquence he had at his disposal. The tradition as he gathered it from Jonson and Hardy—those two in particular—and the living experience filtered through the forms and conventions. It was as if he had been preparing all his life for those occasions.

August Kleinzahler was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1949. He is the author of several books of poems and a memoir, Cutty, One Rock. His collection The Strange Hours Travelers Keep was awarded the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize, and Sleeping It Off in Rapid City won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. That same year he received a Lannan Literary Award. He lives in San Francisco.

Clive Wilmer is a poet and translator. He lives in Cambridge, England.