By Toh Hsien Min
Not many people outside Britain remember Thom Gunn, the last surviving member of the triumvirate of British poetry in the 1950s (alongside Larkin and Hughes), although some may remember some of his early poems. His first book, Fighting Terms (1954), was a huge success. It struck a refreshing contrast with 1940s Romantic delicacy, and presaged the plain-speaking and tidy formalism of the Movement. There was barely time for Gunn to be co-opted into the Movement before he was off, to San Francisco, whose gay culture appealed to him and where he settled finally in 1961 after two more collections, A Sense of Movement (1957) and My Sad Captains (1961). The signs were good: his qualifications of terms, of both treaty and treatise, had become more subtle as his poetry became more robust and rebellious, although this tended to hide a particularity which shows up a poem such as ‘Considering the Snail’ as self-justification: Gunn writes that, to see the snail’s “trail of broken white” after the fact,
I would never have
Gunn subsequently released, in 1962, a joint Selected Poems with Ted Hughes that is today still Britain’s best-selling single book of poetry. And then he lost his way. His 1965 long poem ‘Misanthropos’ was dense and primal, but lacking primacy, and was thus largely ignored. While Gunn was friendly with many of the Beats, his poetry wanted vigour in comparison, and the American poetry scene found it easy to bypass him. The 1970s saw Gunn produce a range of underformed hippy poems fuelled by LSD and other drugs, including a poem about masturbation that is a deserving finalist for worst published poem of the century. Passages of Joy (1982) suffered as a result, and it took the explosion of HIV in the 1980s to refocus critical attention on his 1992 collection, The Man in Night Sweats. With an awareness of physicality, degradation and death, most strikingly in images of blood, Gunn had returned to capturing the structure of feelings that his readers knew.
Now a new collection, Boss Cupid, is threatening to make his career a huge cosine curve. The first six poems are as good an opening half-dozen as any this year. The book begins with a moving elegy to Robert Duncan, but with ‘The Antagonism’ not only returns to the historical poems Gunn wrote in his early days but also revives the scepticism of artistic and religious value of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘In Piam Memoriam’:
The dream and dreamer warmed in fusion,
It is a sobering start. After his first two poems on his mother’s suicide, the theme of fatalism comes to the fore in ‘A Young Novelist’: “You might say a whole life led up to it, / A novel’s publication”, and, as it happens, the death of a lover also. However, the crushing blow of circumstance effects not only a loss of response, but a loss predicated on first seeking transcendence in a deliberate aversion that momentarily throws the reader into confusion also:
Once on his way to school a schoolboy surfaced
In a poem addressed ‘To Cupid’, Gunn presses home the grievance of modern homosexual love. Upon overhearing the sounds of a convivial wedding dinner, he calls Cupid the “devious master of our bodies” and nurses a subterranean sense of injustice. “You were the source then of my better rest”, he concludes, recalling Propertius in the Latin love poet’s only instance of naming Cupid rather than using the honorific ‘Amor’: “quin ego deminuo curam, quod saepe Cupido / huic malus esse solet, cui bonus ante fuit.” (“Still, my sorrow diminishes when I consider that Cupid is often cruel to those he had been kind to before.”)
The difference is between these two poems is that the bulk of the book has occurred in between. One of Gunn’s strengths is a talent for organising his books. This means not only the continuity of imagery between poems (for instance, after ‘Cat Island’, the lovers of the next poem are “catlike”), but the architecture of the entire collection. Like many of Gunn’s collections, Boss Cupid is split into sections, and its three sections may be bluntly categorised as death and disease, recalcitrance, and rehabilitation. As in ‘A Young Novelist’, Gunn has a strategy for dealing with the fates that he cannot ignore, which, if he needed more reminding, recur in ‘Nights with the Speed Bros.’: “Dead leaves replaced the secret life of gold.” This strategy involves stubbornly seizing on life with even more vigour, and results in some poems of very fine observation, such as ‘A GI in 1943’: “Nowadays I see / forward boys in backward caps / armored in hide that / adorns to hide / every fallibility”, and some poems of very explicit sex - Boss Cupid is not a book for the squeamish. Unfortunately, dealing in moment thins out the book somewhat, and leaves it reminiscent of a cosine curve or some 1988 Pomerol: perfectly charming and classic wines that are nonetheless somewhat hollow in the middle.
Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the final section begins a process of mellowed rehabilitation, albeit after a series of daringly imaginative songs on the serial-killer Jeffrey Dahmer that are themselves recuperative. Gunn turns to trust: “No one can hold a heart, / but what we hold in trust / We do hold, even apart”, and this becomes something like faith by the final poems of the book, on King David, which serve to realign love almost to belief. If, as Gunn has written on Fulke Greville, Cupid is the Christ of the religion of love, this book may just be Gunn drawing himself up for
The ultimate moment of the improvisation,
QLRS Beta issue