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Life As It Flees

Gerard Dawe

Selected Poems, by Thom Gunn, Faber and Faber, 284 pp, £16.99, ISBN:978-0571327690

If you wanted to recommend to an up-and-coming editor how best to prepare a volume of selected poems for publication, go no further than Clive Wilmer’s immaculate edition of Thom Gunn’s Selected Poems. This really is a perfect volume, from first to last. The introduction, almost thirty pages, tells the reader approaching Gunn for the first time all he or she needs to know about this truly gifted and imposing poet’s work.

The seventy-plus pages of notes pick out the relevant publishing record of the poems and detail where they fit into Gunn’s writing life along with relevant explanatory references, from his first volume, Fighting Terms, published way back in 1954, up until his death fifty years later in 2004. The poems, presented in just under two hundred pages, and drawn from Gunn’s ten collections, are judiciously chosen. There is a sense of accumulation, of a kind of revelatory composure that builds throughout the book, revealing, sculpture-like, the art and design of Gunn’s achievement.

What strikes me so much on reading this Selected Poems after many years of following Gunn’s “career” since I first read him in the late 1960s, in an unusual joint volume he shared with Ted Hughes, is how physical his language is, and how this didn’t really change, although much has been made of Gunn’s embracing of an American idiom, influences which Wilmer points to in his astute and comprehensive introduction:

Why would a poet who moved so confidently in the standard English metres, and insisted, moreover, on the need for discipline, feel this need to work in a new and looser medium? The answer must lie in part in the poetry Gunn had discovered in America: the poetry of Whitman, Pound and Williams, as well as that of Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Synder.

Yet for all the undoubted reading of these American poets there is something unmoveably “English” about Gunn’s English; the clear spoken style which he drew from Ben Jonson and DH Lawrence sits alongside the dramatic story-telling of his finest poems, such as the opening of “My Sad Captains”:

One by one they appear in
the darkness a few friends, and
a few with historical
names. How late they start to shine!
but before they fade they stand|
perfectly embodied, all
the past lapping them like a
cloak of chaos.

No melodrama, no heavy-handed self-regard, but a calm and mature eyeing of how crucial life can be as it flees from us. The Shakespearean riff, as Wilmer’s notes outlines, is from Anthony and Cleopatra, and though we don’t have to know this, it does backlight the poem with a glorious sense of “occasion”:

When Mark Antony loses the battle of Actium and knows that he has lost the struggle for power, he summons his generals and friends to a last revel:

                                                           Come,
Let’s have one other gaudy night, Call to me
All my sad captains. Fill our bowls once more.
Let’s mock the midnight bell.

According to Wilmer, Gunn considered this one of his finest poems and quotes his remark to the effect that “I hit on something going on there … There’s something going on there with the sounds that I’m amazed I was able to achieve.”

The sense of pleasure and “revels” plays through much of Gunn’s poetry, from the famous image of the motorcyclist in “On the Move” to Elvis Presley’s sexuality and the sixties freedoms. For while sex, drugs and rock and roll all feature in Selected Poems, there really isn’t a sense of excess recorded here; rather the dominant note is one of an almost moderating, steadying composure, before the thrill of it all unbalances the writing.

There is a tension within these poems that feels as if an emotional volcano is about to erupt. But that doesn’t happen even when the poems face up to the desperate tragedy of the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s and 1990s.

Gunn matched the crisis with elegies of great dignity and truthfulness. Nothing was shunned or set aside and the grandeur of the work contained within The Man with the Night Sweats (1992) rightly placed Gunn back at the forefront of poetry in English after a period of hesitation and uncertainty. From this point onwards, he would produce a highly regarded Collected Poems (1994) and his last collection Boss Cupid (2000), includes a poem, “The Gas-poker”, which he may well have found himself having to wait much of his life to write, about the suicide of his beloved mother, Charlotte Thomson – like his father, Herbert, of Scottish origin. The poem ends:

One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.

Mortality seems to have dogged Gunn throughout his life, chased and chastened by that early shocking encounter as a young boy with his mother’s death. He showed a great appetite for life while also protecting himself from the distractions and delusions of an easily derived cultic celebrity in the States. In a truly jolting remark, Clive Wilmer suggests in his introduction that with the publication of Boss Cupid, Gunn had struggled to maintain his critical balance as a poet as “his habit of self-discipline seemed to fail him” and he considered that the poems he was then writing, in his seventies, were “lifeless”. “‘I’ve got no juice,’ he told me in 2003, which turned out to be the last time I saw him’.”

Having set such a high standard for himself, there was no hiding place, so in “letting himself go” he was “courting death”. Gunn “died of a drug overdose, with methamphetamine, heroin and alcohol in his system”. This untimely death is not the final story though. As Selected Poems abundantly shows, Gunn is one of the great English poets of the last half-century. When his collected prose hopefully appears – bringing together two wonderful collections of essays, The Occasions of Poetry (1982) and Shelf Life (1993) – it will also show how good his intelligence was in identifying the verbal, technical and moral value of poets from Jonson and Pound to his present. As the concluding stanza of “My Sad Captains” has it, his poetry provides a “disinterested / hard energy, like the stars”.

1/3/2018

Gerald Dawe’s most recent poetry collection is Mickey Finn’s Air (2014). A volume of new selected essays, The Wrong Country, will be published in autumn 2018 by Irish Academic Press.

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