The Poetry Of Thom Gunn: Simple, Structured, And Distanced

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The poetry of Thom Gunn is written mostly in the idiom of everyday speech, with few artificially decorative phrases or overly wrought constructions.

Gunn is no phrase-monger.   He’s not a super-quotable poet.   But he does have the gift of slowly creating a moment, as in this excerpt from A Sketch Of The Great Dejection:

“All movement had stopped

except for that of the wind, which was continual

and came from elsewhere, from the sea,

moving across unplanted fields and between headstones

in the little churchyard clogged with nettles

where no one came between Sundays, and few then.

The wind was like punishment to the face and hands.

These were marshes of privation:

the mud of the ditches oozed scummy water,

the grey reeds were arrested in growth,

the sun did not show, even as a blur,

and the uneven lands were without definition

as I was without potent words,

inert.”

Gunn speaks again of his frustration with the language (a not uncommon theme among poets), in On The Move, lamenting the “dull thunder of approximate words.”

However, most of that poem, On The Move, is paean to life’s wild bunch… those “afloat on movement that divides and breaks.”  Of these non-conformers drifters seekers, Gunn writes…

“A minute holds them, who have come to go:

The self-defined, astride the created will

They burst away;  the towns they travel through

Are home for neither bird nor holiness,

for birds and saints complete their purposes.

At worst, one is in motion;  and at best,

Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,

One is always nearer by not keeping still.”

Gunn narrates events in short lines, usually with a distance– similar to how someone might describe a mugging they are witnessing from a balcony.  Most of Gunn’s poems concern “I.”  Yet, even using the normally intimate first person voice, there’s typically a pane of glass put up between us and the specimens of modern life which he displays for us.  Part of this distancing manifests itself in Gunn’s refusal to conflate lust with love, as in Modes Of Pleasure #2, excerpted below:

“Why pretend/ Love must accompany erection?/ This is a momentary affection,/ A curiosity bound to end.”

And in The Feel Of Hands, he admits, of hands groping him, “I do not know whose hands they are.”

And from The Goddess:  “rats/ breeding, breeding, in their nests; / and the soldier by a park/ bench with his great coat collar/ up, waiting all evening for/ /  a woman, any woman / her dress tight across her ass/ as bark in moonlight.”

Gunn, who lived long enough to gain age’s perspective on life, not infrequently speaks of the issues and outlooks pertaining to the older crowd.  Speaking of his now-elderly heroes (calling them My Sad Captains), he writes, “Winnowed from failures, / they withdraw to an orbit/ and turn with disinterested/ hard energy, like the stars.”

Reminiscing about the long wild nights of youth, Gunn asks, in To Yvor Winters, 1955, “Where now lies the power to hold the evening back?”

And, speaking as someone amazed by his own body’s transformation, Gunn writes in Rites Of Passage that “something is taking place./  Horns bud bright in my hair. /  My feet are turning hoof../  And father, see my face/ — skin that was damp and fair/ is barklike and, feel, tough.”

Gunn tends to prefer structure in his poems, which I applaud (as, well, part of the game… playing poetry without structure is like bringing a football to a tennis match).

The poem, Moly, is a series of rhymed couplets, some of the best being:

“Parrot, moth, shark, wolf, crocodile, ass, flea.

What germs, what jostling mobs there were in me.”

and…

“The pale-lashed eyes my only feature.

My teeth tear, tear.  I am the snouted creature

that bites through anything, root, wire, or can.

If I was not afraid I’d eat a man.”

Gunn often uses enjambment (which I find an overly, and ill-, used device in modern poetry).  Even Gunn– one of the more formal of late 20th century poets– goes overboard with the use of enjambment, which should be saved for a moment or a word in a poem which needs sudden emphasis.  For an example of the wrong use of enjambment, check out these lines from the poem The Goddess, wherein Gunn writes,

“the soft abundant soil, which/

still does not dissipate her/

force– for look!  sinewy thyme” […]

Here, the enjambment occurs between two weak words, “which” and “still,” that deserve no special emphasis.  The argument could be made that “force” deserves its special spacing (which in the original poem also comes with a whole blank line before it), but for two things:  1) there occurs just after force the real emphasis of the line, with “for look!” occurring between a dash and an exclamation mark…  and 2) the sudden line break after the word “her” confuses the mind and eye for a moment as two whether “her” is a pronoun or a adjective– thus needlessly tripping up the reader.

Gunn is not afraid to go old-school and utilize a rhyme-scheme, but sometimes the rhymes are so oddly scattered that the imperfect rhythm largely negates the trouble taken to  make same-sounds at all.

In my next post (see it HERE), I’ll talk briefly about my favorite complete poems of Thom Gunn.

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