The Letters of Thom Gunn, Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer (eds), Faber & Faber, 800 pp, £40, ISBN: 978-0571362554
When Thom Gunn visited England in 1979, it was to take part in a seventeen-readings tour. He was a staple of English A-level study at the time, and an anthology combining his and Ted Hughes’s work had sold 80,000 copies. Gunn, writes Simon Armitage in one of his recent Oxford lectures, appeared to English readers then as “a real life tough guy … combative and belligerent on the page … with his six-pack stanzas and hench rhymes … [one of] the cocky young gang leaders of the New Poetry”. Reflecting on his visit, from the San Francisco address he lived in from 1971 until his death in 2005, Gunn told Douglas Chambers, “as a poet, I am a good deal too famous to be comfortable … It was simply ludicrous being introduced to audiences as if I were Yeats, for Christ’s sake; and it was fun being a star for a while.”
In the US, Gunn’s less starry routines come back into focus. The letters report on the movies he is watching that year (Coppola), or rewatching (Hitchcock), the fiction he is reading (Richard Price) and rereading (Henry James), and new poetry (Josephine Miles, WS Graham), and he is back teaching “one term a year” as he writes to Hughes: “the very fact of being prevented from writing for 10-12 weeks, because I am too busy, seems to concentrate the faculties … I have a lot of impetus to write, which I might not have if I’d been completely free.” To other correspondents, news about his writing and reading are spliced with successes in his gardening (celosia, orange pansies – “I have dreams of it, profuse and as orange as oranges”) or finding new leather bars, sending helpful directions in the days before StreetView: “if you are interested and in NY on a Tuesday, it is called Jay’s, on Hudson St, just off 14th in a triangular shaped building”.
Gunn worried about inspiration, about writer’s block, and the letters are revealing about his determination to create good conditions for poems: to not be too “Gunny” (a fate as bad as not writing); to wrestle a new, more accurate style into being. He felt lost if he was stuck in repetitive modes, or if he could not feel the pressure building which he associated with new work. He set up his life – the teaching, regular San Francisco haunts, reviewing, to make writing possible. He had learnt that as soon as he finished a book he would have dry spells so he devised publishing schedules which meant he started a new book before he delivered his current project. In 1979, he was completing The Passages of Joy, drafting “Talbot Road”, a long elegy for Tony White, with its magical, revelatory river trip through the “live current” of a hidden city. And, almost immediately, he started work on the poems which would be included in the subsequent book, for which he would become famous, again, The Man with Night Sweats, which he decided, long in advance, to publish in 1992, allowing himself plenty of time to get a head start on its successor.
If this central section of the Letters, the backdrop and contexts for The Man with Night Sweats, had been published alone, it would have been plenty. During that time, between 1979 and 1992, Gunn did not visit England again. He writes, often, to his friends and family there. In 1985, to his aunts Mary and Catherine Thomson (lifelong correspondents): “immigration is giving a hard time to foreign homosexuals entering the country. Worse than a hard time, I should say – turning them back.” He would not trust the Ronald Reagan government’s “sexual bigotry”. The previous year, his friend Allan Noseworthy had moved in to the house on Cole St, suffering from Kaposi’s sarcoma. Gunn tended to him, and took him to the hospital where he died, writing the poem “Lament” in the wake of his death:
the bed restful as a knife,
you tried, tried hard to make of it a life
thick with the complicating circumstance
your thoughts might fasten on
Over the next few years, other friends and lovers die from AIDS-related illnesses, some of them tended by Gunn and his life partner, Mike Kitay, in the same Cole St house, men he will memorialise in the 1992 book. The letters tell this story with great calmness, even as they record his heartbreak at what was being lost, the unfairness and sorrow of watching friends being taken before their time. The letters are “thick with the complicating circumstance”: they are part of Gunn’s poems’ process and fascinating as sources for the poems, but the letters are also something themselves, not braced by rhyme and metre but equal in tone –grieving, despairing – to the catastrophe which overtook Gunn’s generation.
But the letters, like those of Larkin or Bishop or Hughes, also tell his story, though admittedly partial (some lifelong correspondents declined permission to the editors). Here is one version Gunn’s life, from the collapse of his parents’ marriage, the suicide of his mother, National Service and studies at Cambridge, then emigration to the US and the cobbling together of a new kind of life there, and its dissolution. Gunn’s sanity, his likeable clarity and ungainsayable honesty, mean that he is good company, while the development of a poetics, his distinctive hybrid rhythms and forms, are another story this very enjoyable book sets out well.
Even in the first, Cambridge poems, Gunn is thinking about how to engage living speech with the formal pressures he loved in, especially, sixteenth and early seventeenth century poetry. Poses, his books, dreams, illness are tested by lines which ask us to notice what they are doing as lines: “I know you know I know you know I know.” In the US, he set himself new models, writing to John Lehmann: “I have very deliberately tried to learn a new tone from Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and even Wallace Stevens.” Seven-syllable lines and retained, regular stanzas make for an addictive music which defines some of the best poems in his 1961 book My Sad Captains, the title poem (“[they] turn with disinterested / hard energy, like the stars”), and “Considering the Snail” (which “moves in a wood of desire // pale antlers barely stirring”) and “‘Blackie, the Electric Rembrandt’”, which memorably depicts another sort of writer, a tattoo artist at work whose hand
is steady and accurate;
but the boy does not see it
for his eyes follow the point
that touches (quick, dark movement)
a virginal arm beneath
his rolled sleeve: he holds his breath.
Gunn liked to set himself up as more a student than an authority, and the letters record how he sought out new poetic models. His teachers included, formally, FR Leavis and Yvor Winters, but also Donald Davie and Robert Duncan, each of them idiosyncratic and passionate builders of personal canons, whose example Gunn followed. His own elective affinities emerge in the US: teaching confirms his enthusiasm for Ben Jonson and Fulke Greville; something else happens when he “hears” Ezra Pound first. In 1963, he wrote to Tony Tanner: “am now working my way through Pound, for this new course next semester. I must say, there isn’t really much there in Pound, is there?” Three years later, he tells Tanner, “With Canto 2 or 47 or the other splendid bits of Pound, I completely forget all the bullshit about Usura”, and by the 1980s, the Cantos have become a completely integral part of his imaginative resource: “We don’t think of them as disasters, do we?”, he writes admonishingly to Clive Wilmer, “We think of them as defining a new sense of form. What needs emphasizing is that the best of the Cantos are as solid as writing can get, for example, I don’t see how Canto 47 could be better, in any way.”
The innovative edge, the risk of writing which could be either a disaster or a new form, drew him not just to Pound, but to Basil Bunting and Edgar Bowers, to Elizabeth Bishop’s later poems: these are particular, poet’s enthusiasms and they reflect his own efforts to yoke together traditionally useful and usable forms with different metres, an effort which began with My Sad Captains, continued through the mixed forms of his superb “last man” fantasy Misanthropos in 1965, and is present in every book he would write after that. As he put it, too modestly, to Jon Silkin, “I taught myself syllabics so as to free myself from meter into free verse, and I did – so that now I can write free verse or metrical, but I can’t somehow do my best in a rhythm that partakes of both.” The tension in his style speaks too to another tension, there in the poems, but defining the letters too, questions of trust and freedom, who could be trusted, and how free he could be.
In the UK, Gunn’s poetry became divisive as his style evolved. He got to see his critical star fading in the 1970s and 80s: in the newspapers, influential reviewers (Al Alvarez, Peter Porter and Ian Hamilton – “a career founded almost entirely on malice”) regularly ganged up on the poems; he writes gratefully to those critics in the journals who were alive to the decisive turns he had taken. If Gunn was affected by the critical weather and the fashions his poems contended with, he was direct in his response to what he saw as betrayal and dishonesty. Although he continues to admire Donald Davie’s writing, his friendship with Davie never recovers from a breach of trust:
But perhaps be more careful what you write in private letters to Marjorie Perloff. She shows around her letters (not to me, I hasten to say, since I don’t know her). She showed one to Robert Duncan, in which you thank her for her book about O’Hara, and apparently go on to say that you don’t think that a homosexual (except, you rather sweetly said, for me) could write good poetry. I’ve thought about this statement for several years, and I still don’t know how you could deny the title of poet to, say, Marlowe or Whitman.
Although outside many of the tenured literary circuits in the US, he was a regular visiting lecturer and reader at festivals and on campuses, and the letters provide blurry snapshots of other writers and the latest fashions. He writes to his friends and often changes his mind about the period’s colossi, Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Ginsberg, and also about Richard Murphy, Medbh McGuckian and Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery, William S Burroughs, and Frank Kermode and Stephen Greenblatt … But Gunn remains at a critical distance from the world outside San Francisco, and when the freedom of his life there intersects with the knifey atmosphere and cabals of contemporary literary networks he is forthright. To one poet, he writes, in 1997:
Tim Liu tells people you said that I have AIDS. Not true. I’m more cautious than I may seem. Let me say that I don’t consider it dishonourable to be sick, but I get the test once a year, the last one as it happens in October, and as usual I was HIV negative. So – one romance for another: if anybody else says you have told them this, I’ll say I got it from you!
It would be unrepresentative, though, to play up the po-biz elements of the letters. The correspondence with Mike Kitay affectingly figures out how an open relationship would work for them, and the household of friends and lovers they established together. And the book charts, with joy and great good humour, his appetites and satisfactions. Many of the lovers he “tricked with” would become friends with whom he shared often hilarious correspondences; he offers a lifetime of frontline reports on the many new drugs he took and which provided him with, among other things, experiences that he ploughed into the poems (Misanthropos surely originates in a mescalin pill supplied by Paul Bowles in 1958: “the most appalling sense of isolation imaginable ‑ the only person in the world – like being the first man on another planet. I’d take one again if I had the chance, though: it was fascinating.”)
After the publication of his last book, Boss Cupid (2000), the letters mostly miss out on literary matters. He writes to his brother about the possibility of a new tattoo, BORN TO RETIRE and, a year later, “Yes it is true that I write less often now that I am retired. I do less of everything now I am retired – especially of those things I used to find time for between, after, and before bits of real work. My retired butcher has the same experience he says.” He reports on how his friends worry about his lifestyle and, if he does not reflect on the absence of writing and projects from his day-to-day activity, he does not delude himself either.
He describes his retirement to Douglas Chambers:
As for me, I continue to indulge in behaviour regretted by the whole house, & somehow continue having a great time with the dashing John [Ambrioso] – every time we’re together it’s an adventure – who is bound to let me down bigtime one day, everybody assumes but me. He’s an addict, a reckless biker, never reads, never thinks, is only marginally honest (though he has never cheated me), is over-emotional, the best sex I’ve ever had, and at the same time strangely intelligent in a specialized way. Anyway, he’s more fun than I have any right to expect at this age.
John McAuliffe’s Selected Poems is out from Gallery in October.