In which Netty discovers that Thommy’s a bit of a Gunn at this poetry caper (boom boom … sigh …)

June 12, 2010

More likely than not, you’ve never heard of Thom Gunn. I certainly hadn’t – and I pride myself on being hip to this sort of stuff. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso … yeah, bring it on. But Gunn? A gay, junkie, septuagenarian poet? How did that one slip through to the keeper? Well, listen up, readers … together we can be ignorant and/or oblivious no more.

Thom Gunn (and yeah, that is his real name – well, Thomson Gunn, which is even more, err, nevermind …) was an English-born poet, from an academic background (a Cambridge literature major, he later taught writing at first Stanford, then Berkeley, on and off for more than 25 years). He moved to the States at the age of 25, the same year his first collection of poetry, Fighting Terms, was published. He settled in San Francisco, which remained his home until his death in 2004, in the very late 1950s. By then openly gay (he had followed his partner, whom he had met at college, to the US), by all accounts he embraced all aspects of the 1960s west coast, counter-cultural bohemian lifestyle, which infuses the subject matter of his best work.

Gunn published some dozen collections of poetry, not including anthologies, during a 45-year period, the last four years before his death from drug abuse at the age of 75. Andy first proposed putting Gunn on ANRC09 (our poetry selection last year ended up being Miller Williams – see the July 2009 archives for more details) and was pushing for The Man With Night Sweats; we finally settled on Collected Poems. It was first published in 1993 and unfortunately has not been updated since the author’s death – as with the Williams anthology, there is no preface or biographical notes (although at least each poem has its own page(s) – a personal bugbear of mine when it comes to poetry collections). There is a postscript, where Gunn states he omitted a dozen poems he found “stupid or badly written” and included a dozen more that had not made previously published collections; he also includes a few notes on individual poems.

Gunn’s Collected Poems is, as its title suggests, 500-odd pages comprising eight collections and two sections of “collected poems”, from the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. As a friend noted recently, a volume of poetry is not something you can easily sit down and read cover to cover – it is more designed, and certainly favours, being dipped into, skimmed, skipped, read and re-read. I originally attempted to do the cover-to-cover thing, bunkered down on the couch with a stack of little Post-It notes by my side to mark my favourites as I went along. Working my way through the first collection, I found I was marking every third or fourth poem, so I gave up and then just starting dipping in at will, disregarding the chronological order in which Collected Poems is arranged. There was but one exception – The Man With Night Sweats, which I read in its entirety in one sitting, but more on that later.

So to the poetry. Gunn is at his best when he’s dealing with the politics of the personal. The classical allusions, the very self-consciously academic strains through his early work, mostly went over my head; I’m guessing you’d appreciate this stuff more if you had a solid grounding in it, which I certainly don’t (damn it – Andy already beat me to the “well-versed” pun!). He is also far better when his writing abandons the florid for a more stripped-back, economical style. And while there is no mistaking Gunn’s sexual orientation in his mid to late work, the references are far more oblique, coy even, at the outset – is he writing about women, is he imagining the female experience, or is he substituting genders surreptitiously but intentionally? A lot of Gunn’s poetry is imbued with an often-overt sexuality, but it is both the mental and physical, and in a very universal sense – I found that for a straight woman reading a gay man’s perspective, the differences are but anatomical.

Overall, there’s a lot of damn fine poems in here, and then there’s the finale. The Man With The Night Sweats, published in 1994 and considered the apex of Gunn’s oeuvre, is basically an elegy for friends lost to AIDS; he namechecks them in the postscript. This amazing suite of poems is powerful, compelling and heartwrenching – this is the only collection of the volume I plowed through relentlessly, unable to put it down. At the end Gunn sits next to hospital beds, watching and waiting as loved ones die, musing on mortality, love, loss and regret. Stunning in its simplicity, it is a heartfelt tribute to friends loved and lost too soon – and a fitting end to the anthology. If Gunn had never done anything either before or after, I suspect he could have rested on his laurels with that one.

Thanks, Andy. A great choice.

NB: We had to order Collected Poems from Amazon; I don’t think it’s readily available in Australia. Which is a shame. It’s more than worth your while to go the distance, though.


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