Friday, May 01, 2009

The new edition of Thom Gunn.

The new edition of Thom Gunn’s poetry has been referred to as a Selected Poems. This edition even opens its introduction with “It’s now thirty years since the first Selected Thom Gunn” which implies that this latest edition follows the first: it is a second Selected Poems. Mistake? Exaggeration? This latest offering is in no way a Selected poems. It is a “Poems Selected by”, a selection that bears all the usual idiosyncrasies of this poetry series. (The USA version of this book is responsible for this confusion. It bears the title Selected Poems and refers to Kleinzahler as the "editor". Such a description masks the personal bias in the book). Gunn, himself, did his own take on Pound, and “Hang it all, Thom Gunn,” your Pound was never my Pound. An identical problem exists in relation to Thom Gunn: Poems selected by August Kleinzahler.

The Faber poet-to-poet series has been a largely British affair. The poets read are varied, but the poets reading the poets come from the UK camp of contemporary poets. (Why Hollinghurst gets a look in is odd: when did he become a significant poet?) That Faber should choose an American poet to select Gunn indicates something of a departure and an implicit bias in what was desired by the publisher: a robust, modern, American Gunn.

Kleinzahler’s approach to Gunn is robust. His introduction, however, makes rather more sense than his selection.

In his Introduction, Kleinzahler rightly challenges the usual analysis of Gunn’s career. It was brilliant, then Gunn went to the USA, discovered gay sex and gay drugs, and went down hill from Moly; until the elegiacal strain of The Man with Night Sweats gave him fitting content and resulted in a return to form: nothing like tragic deaths to legalise gayness! Kleinzahler offers a much better reading of Gunn as a poet who continued to progress and develop. This perspective is offered as new. In essence, it comes across as “Thom Gunn, the American story”. It isn’t either of these things. Gregory Woods argued much the same a decade ago. Michael Schmidt revised the false reading of Gunn three decades ago. If there is one advantage to the revision affirmed by Kleinzahler, however, it is this: it indirectly corrects the popular, trashy views of Colm Tóibín (who has suddenly acquired gay guru status): Gunn was a poet who “pushed against his own talent”.

Gunn, in his early days, was what the publishing establishment loves, a youthful genius. He was the “discovery” dreamed by every publishing house. Unfortunately, honesty got the better of him. He admired Duncan who placed sexual integrity above the demands of editors. Gunn’s poems developed a mode of speaking that was against the shrieking confessional and against the ambiguous lyric. As if to correct this, Kleinzahler only includes two poems from Fighting Terms (1954). The energies of youth are quickly ditched.

Tóibín’s faulting of Gunn is connected to his failure to have a central “myth”. Kleinzahler almost delights in hiding the “myth” that Tóibín misses. As stated earlier, Gunn selected Pound for Faber. He knew his Pound thoroughly. And what runs through Gunn is an antidote to Pound, a belief that the gay poet has a place within the natural cosmos. The gay poet too can “Make Cosmos”. Gunn was an urban poet, but he was also a pastoral poet, a poet of nature and metamorphosis. Much of this is ignored by Kleinzahler in his selection. So, no “Allegory of the Wolf Boy”, “The Book of the Dead”, “The Garden of the Gods”, “The Messenger”, “Thomas Bewick”, “The Cherry Tree”, “Odysseus on Hermes” and “Duncan”. The whiff of Hermeticism is kept in “Rites of Passage” and in “Philemon and Baucis.” But it is preserved for other reasons. The straight-talking “Philemon and Baucis” begins with an epigram from William Carlos Williams. It comes into the picture—as Kleinzahler paints it—because it shows Gunn’s debt to the American tradition and Williams. For the “poet” reader of this edition, Gunn’s heritage is Williams, Auden, Winters, Keats and the Elizabethans. (The Elizabethans? Only an American could get away with such a meaningless term. American poets are identities whereas English poetry exists as collective abstractions. Kleinzahler quotes Gunn on this: “I want to be an Elizabethan poet” and this moment of autobiography saves a lot of detailed enquiries into what is really there in Gunn’s poetry…his voice, for a start, is often closer to Marvell than Donne). Another theme, out of Pound, that runs through Gunn relates to the qualities of love and the troubadour tradition. The intersection of the body and the spiritual is key to any reading of Gunn. Yet, vital poems that reference this tradition, “The Monster” and its aubade, “The Differences” and Cavalcanti, “Wrestling” and vision, “Troubadour”, a major poetic sequence, these spiritual poems are deselected from the corpus.

It has to be said that any short selection of a poet’s work (here, 58 from 400 poems) is bound to be partial. And readers are always going to create their own versions of a poet. This edition, however, though it provides the range of Gunn’s work from 1954-2000, which is a positive, is not really true to the real Gunn. Not only has the Hermetic Gunn been conjured away, also, the gay Gunn: Eros becomes Thanatos, sexual life is replaced by sexualised deaths. Encounter and chance are replaced by a more rational (heterosexually authored) universe. “Shit”, is taken out of context as a tribute to Rimbaud and Gunn’s love of profanity. Truthfully, it stands in homage to Gregory Woods, as Gunn, right at the end of his life, still playing with the English tradition in poetry, still responsive to the tensions between technique, voice, and dissension, What is also shamefully missing is Gunn’s reflections on the art of poetry: no “A Map of the City”, no“Expression”, no “Painting by Vuillard.” This volume should be read as response by a poet-to-a-poet, and as an intelligent poet’s posthumous understanding of a friend. It is, however, a dubious survey of Gunn and a simplification of the complex gay identity that Gunn sought through poetry.


Steve Fellner said...


You know I love you as much as I can from such a distance. And the sad fact that I haven't met you. So it surprised me to read this:

And what runs through Gunn (and Mark Doty in a similar, brilliant vein) is an antidote to Pound, a belief that the gay poet has a place within the natural cosmos. The gay poet too can “Make Cosmos”.

This is pure hyperbole. You know that. Did someone contact you to write a fall-back blurb.

It seems to me that someone has such a nuanced intelligence that you would make such overstatement. Any reservation? Do you have any concern that you might be praising them for purely issues of content as opposed to form?

What's up here.

(The rest of the post is rational, rooted. As I expect from you.

Eshuneutics said...

Actually, I agree that this comment has no place in the discussion. I was disagreeing in my head with Toibin (his views on Gunn and Doty in "Love in a Dark Time" and one disagreement ran into another). My focus should have stayed on Gunn. Your point is valid.

BarbaraS said...

An interesting read of Gunn's work through the prism of August Kleinzahler. You're always going to get someone else's slant on the work, without the poet there to suggest otherwise. I wouldn't claim to know that much about Gunn, but I do love my copy of The Man with Night Sweats so much that it is very, very dogeared at this stage. I should like to know his work a lot better.

Eshuneutics said...

Hello, Barbara. You are of course right. The intentional fallacy is a real problem: Gunn believed readers read too much into the structure of his books, notably TMwNS. The problem, for me, is that Gunn did a (Gunn) Selected Poems. If a poet selects works by another poet, it isn't a Selected Poems, it lacks that authority. At £3.99, this is a cheap poetry book. Hurrah! I am tired of paying £9.99 for little books of poems! BUT, it's also a cheap selection (in my opinion) that could misrepresent Gunn to many people. I came to Gunn late...mainly because the education establishment kept sticking unrepresentative poems i.e. non-sexual poems and pseudo-political poems in front of me. The humour and humanity of Gunn was sadly missed.

Steve Fellner said...


I should put this on my own blog, but I want to make sure you get it, and I don't have an email.

First, my partner loves your posts. And so do I! I get lonely on my blog, and you're one of the few that challenge me. And I have a hunch you're much smarter than me.

I still don't understand what hermetical means!

And maybe I'm just being too literal and dramatic. Which all us gay men are.

Don't leave me. I like you.

I just am struggling with this idea of Light Verse and whether it can for that matter be something worthy enough to take seriously or even call art. Yeah: that's what I mean. That's the question I'm struggling with.

I love what you say about Kleinzahler here.

Eshuneutics said...

"I still don't understand what hermetical means!"
I'm not sure that I do either. I thought I once did.