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Thom Gunn, Collected Poems – Andy speeds from icy indifference to dopey reverence

June 8, 2010

This was one I pushed for. I’d read a handful of Gunn’s poems in anthologies, I knew he was gay and I was interested to read more. I also pushed for it being May’s book. I was on holiday in May (did I mention I’ve been on holiday?) and I quite liked the idea of bumming round Turkey with a crystal meth addict; since Ben Cousins wasn’t available I settled for Thom Gunn.

It would be fair to say I didn’t warm to this book to begin with. In fact that would be a bit of an understatement. Being familiar with a tiny portion of Gunn’s work I thought I knew what to expect, and for the first 2oo pages of this collection I was mostly wrong. Gunn’s early work is often dense to the point of impenetrable, and his slavish worship of poetic formalism doesn’t help. At all. Nor do his numerous references to classical mythology – some of which are familiar but many of which are terribly obscure. Forty years older than me, he was perhaps writing at a time when it was assumed that anyone interested in reading poetry would be well versed (boom boom) in the complexities of Greek and Roman mythology.

That said, some – though not all – of these earlier poems reward with re-reading, as most poetry – indeed most literature – does. I’ve flicked back through this volume and revisited plenty of material that has left me going, Oh, so that’s what he’s on about. That said there are plenty of poems that left me as dazed and confused after two or three readings as I was to begin with. And you’d like to hope that good poetry offers a reward of some sort on first reading – meagre, perhaps, in comparison to what will be revealed once it’s been properly digested, but some reward at least. Many of Gunn’s earlier poems, and some of his later ones, are so dense, so difficult, that a first reading left me stumped.

But it must be said that even some of those early, impenetrable poems made me want to go back. I was re-reading this stuff before I finished the book, flicking between poems I’d liked and wanted to re-read and poems that had bamboozled me but demanded a second chance. My copy of Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems is looking a tad the worse for wear and that’s not just because it was in a backpack for a month.

A not-conclusive selection of my favourite poems from 1954 to 1971 would be Carnal Knowledge, In Santa Maria del Popolo, The Monster, Modes of Pleasure (1) and (2), A Map of the City, Black Jackets, The Feel of Hands, Touch and Apartment Cats. I hadn’t noticed beforehand but all but three of these (the first and the last two) come from his 1961 collection, My Sad Captains.

Things start to improve in 1976’s Jack Straw’s Castle and for my money he really hits his straps in 1982’s The Passages of Joy. Perhaps it was the move from the UK to the US (in ’54 according to the biographical note in this volume, in ’60 according to Wikipedia); perhaps it was his growing comfort and acceptance of his sexuality; perhaps it was his notorious and presumably copious consumption of illicit substances. Perhaps it’s simply the evolution of his writing and sensibilities. But the later work is not just more accessible and less formal, it’s also more personal and more grounded in the world Gunn inhabited – inhabited with considerable gusto, apparently. His obsession with classicism fades, although it never completely disappears, and instead we immerse ourselves in the work of a man who clearly loved life, even if, after engaging with life and the living, he could step back and regard that engagement with a cool eye. Then again not all of this work boasts emotional distance and some of it can safely be described as love poetry. After all (according to Wiki), he moved to the States to be with his boyfriend.

It really does all come together in the last collection (the last in this collection, anyway – Collected Poems, published in 1993, was followed in 2000 by Boss Cupid, which was followed by Gunn’s drug-related death in 2004). The Man with Night Sweats is an achingly, harrowingly good collection of poems. There are four parts and it’s the last that rips your guts out – most of these poems are about “friends who died before their time”, to use Gunn’s words. Gunn was gay and he lived in San Fransisco and he wrote these poems during the ’80s and the early ’90s. No prizes. This is beautiful, heartbreaking poetry. I suspect I could’ve ploughed through 400 pages of unrelenting shite, got to this and thought, OK, you win. Because he does.

There are probably other, better compliments you could pay a writer, especially a dead one who’ll never know you’ve said it. But I kind of hope that in the next few years my constant re-reading sees my copy of Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems slowly fall to pieces, until eventually I’m left with no option but to buy another copy. There are pages coming loose already.

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