The Best Poems Of Thom Gunn


In the previous post, I described in general the style and some of the themes of the poet Thom Gunn.  In this post I want to talk about my favorite complete poems of Gunn, which I will NOT be quoting in full.  They truly are in no particular order…

The Hug   … A sweet poem, non-passionate but physical, about the joy found in an embrace that is…  “locking me to you/ as if we were still twenty-two/ when our grand passion had not yet/ become familial.”

Considering The Snail     … including the lines:

“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?”

Notice here, as is typical, the simplicity of the language.  Rare is the quadri-syllabic word in a Gunn poem.  Some poems barely contain a three-syllable word.  And there is no shame or loss in the lack of fancy-pants words.  Quite the opposite– sometimes, for the work at hand, flannel and wood are more appropriate than silk and pearls.

Philomen and Baucis     … This one goes against the type… The lines are long, the structure is looser, and the line-breaks more respectable.  The poem, about a longtime couple, sings the bliss contained in a relationship that not only improves the lives of two individuals who have become, on a certain level, one– but also emphasizes that this not simply a relationship that works (that’s cool enough), but this one has worked long-term.  Gunn explains how the couple…

“Riding the other’s nervous exuberance–

knew the slow thrill of learning how to love

what, gradually revealed, becomes itself,

expands, unsheathes, as the keen rays explore:

Invented in the continuous revelation.”

Lament     … A poem of easy, natural rhymes– So natural, in fact, that one –enraptured by the story– forgets that it rhymes, though the pleasant sounds at a half-conscious level add to the beauty of the work.  A masterful achievement it is to write something sincere and tragic in rhyme for a modern audience, for we live in age that no longer seems to take rhyme seriously, but automatically relegates it to the realms of pop songs, witticisms, staid moral advice, and jokes.  I think Lament is also Gunn’s longest poem, appropriate since it tells the story of friend’s long death culminating in an extended stay in the hospital.  In the latter part of his life, Gunn returns again and again to the subjects of sickness and death.  He is also writing, at that point, some of the best poetry of his long career.  Included in the poem are the lines:

“I’d never seen such rage in your before

As when they wheeled you through the swinging door.

For you knew rightly, they conveyed you from 

those normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdom

the hedonistic body basks within

and takes for granted– summer on the skin,

sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea

In a dry mouth.”

Toward the end comes the tragic lines:

“You were not ready and not reconciled,

feeling as uncompleted as a child”

And, after his friend does pass away, the poet steps outside into the hospital’s garden plot and finds that it is “too warm, too close, and not enough like pain.”

Keats At Highgate   … A little vignette concerning the meeting of Keats with Coleridge, and Coleridge’s dismissal of the young poet as “loose” and “slack.”

Well Dennis O’Grady  … a cute poem about the meeting of two elderly people on the street, both happy just be able to stroll through “the slight December sunshine” of their lives.

The J Car  … One of Gunn’s sickness-and-death poems from his later years, it expresses quietly yet powerfully the meeting of a dying friend for lunch, and includes the heart-rending lines…

“Unready, disappointed, unachieved,

He knew he would not write the much-conceived

Much hoped-for work now, nor yet help create

A love he might in full reciprocate.”

The Gas-Poker   … Tells of a mother’s suicide by natural gas inhalation– but not in the sensational manner one might assume for such a ghastly tale, but told dispassionately, with no penetrating psychoanalysis or sympathetic explanations offered.  We get very few details– and all of those from the outside– but they are the right details… like a newspaper account of the event written by the world’s best journalist.

The Dump   … An unpretentious little fantasy about a man visiting the library of a dead writer.

For my general overview post on Thom Gunn, you can go… here.


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