At the Barriers On the Poetry of Thom Gunn
edited by Joshua Weiner
University of Chicago Press, 2009
Cloth: 978-0-226-89043-2 | Paper: 978-0-226-89044-9 | Electronic: 978-0-226-89037-1
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Maverick gay poetic icon Thom Gunn (1929–2004) and his body of work have long dared the British and American poetry establishments either to claim or disavow him. To critics in the UK and US alike, Gunn demonstrated that formal poetry could successfully include new speech rhythms and open forms and that experimental styles could still maintain technical and intellectual rigor. Along the way, Gunn’s verse captured the social upheavals of the 1960s, the existential possibilities of the late twentieth century, and the tumult of post-Stonewall gay culture.

The first book-length study of this major poet, At the Barriers surveys Gunn’s career from his youth in 1930s Britain to his final years in California, from his earliest publications to his later unpublished notebooks, bringing together some of the most important poet-critics from both sides of the Atlantic to assess his oeuvre. This landmark volume traces how Gunn, in both his life and his writings, pushed at boundaries of different kinds, be they geographic, sexual, or poetic. At the Barriers will solidify Gunn’s rightful place in the pantheon of Anglo-American letters.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Joshua Weiner is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of two books of poetry, The World's Room and From the Book of Giants, both  published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Washington,  D.C.
 

 

REVIEWS

“Gunn would be an important figure—rewarding, delightful, accomplished, enduring—in the history of English-language poetry even were his life not as fascinating as it now seems; he would be an important figure in the history of gay writing and in the history of transatlantic literary relations even were his poetry not so good as it is. With his life as it was and his works as they are, he’s an obvious candidate for a volume of retrospective and critical essays, and this one is first-rate.”
— Stephen Burt, Harvard University

“Since his death in 2004, poetry on both sides of the Atlantic has missed Thom Gunn—his gusto, his candor, his tact, his persistent doubleness, his unfolding sympathies, his freedom from fixed ideas. This important collection of critical prose, a tribute, a reappraisal, and an extension of his life and work, returns Gunn to our attention in his living power. Poetry will be glad of it.”
— Langdon Hammer

“Academically pith and wise, [At the Barriers is] scholarship that’s heartfelt, intellectually rigorous, yet rarely wandering into academic lexicons that might alienate a wider readership. . . . I could not embrace Gunn’s work as fully if it were not for this deeply moving tribute that serves as a model of literary criticism: it helps us love more intelligently.”

— Michael Morse, Provincetown Arts

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

List of Abbreviations

- Joshua Weiner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0001
[Thom Gunn, 1930s Britain, unpublished notebooks, poet-critics, boundaries, homosexuality, California]
This book surveys Thom Gunn's career from his youth in 1930s Britain to his final years in California, from his earliest publications to his later unpublished notebooks, bringing together some of the most important poet-critics from both sides of the Atlantic to assess his oeuvre. It traces how Gunn, in both his life and his writings, pushed at boundaries of different kinds, be they geographic, sexual, or poetic. The book brings the early Gunn further into focus with chapters by Eavan Boland, Neil Powell, and Alfred Corn. Boland gives us a young Irishwoman's unique account of first encounters; Powell analyzes the variety of early poses Gunn strikes, inflected by his homosexuality; and Corn connects the homosexuality to Gunn's growing commitment to existentialism during the 1950s. Not unrelated to the Corn chapter, David Gewanter enlarges the issue of sexuality by tracing it to mortality in a meditation on how Gunn figures the human body throughout his work. (pages 1 - 8)
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PART I: IN ENGLAND

- Eavan Boland
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0002
[Thom Gunn, poet, stanzas, cold roads, dance halls]
In this chapter the author intends to sketch something of the young Thom Gunn as he first appeared to him: as a poet from a different world whom he tried to apprehend and, at first, only partially understood. This is a description of an inexact process whereby he offers this piece not as a scholarly or complete view of his first book, but rather as a snapshot of how younger poets first understand older ones. The author writes “I listened and listened. It all sounded strange to me—those blunt and thumping stanzas about cold roads and dance halls. And yet something about it was also familiar, startling, and thrilling. I was surprised, engaged, and lost.” (pages 11 - 18)
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- Neil Powell
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0003
[Thom Gunn, Fighting Terms, High Diver, memoir, adolescent poet]
Thom Gunn's autobiographical writings give us the portrait of a young man unusually sensitive and rather pliant. If he titled his first book Fighting Terms, a book containing poems with aggressive and often soldierly content, we can understand these as part of a program or strategy of “poses,” the choice and implementation of an identity not innate in the author. It's in Wishart's evocative if chronologically fuzzy autobiography, High Diver, rather than in Gunn's tactful memoir, that we catch our most revealing glimpse of the emerging adolescent poet: “Thom had a quicker wit than all the other boys.” The key imagery of Gunn's first three collections repeatedly alludes to the homosexual iconography of the 1950s, and its power is immeasurably increased by being strapped into tight verse forms. (pages 19 - 34)
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- Alfred Corn
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0004
[existentialism, poetry, homosexuality, 1950s, sexuality]
Powell analyzes the variety of early poses Gunn strikes, inflected by his homosexuality; and Corn connects the homosexuality to Gunn's growing commitment to existentialism during the 1950s. Not unrelated to the Corn chapter, David Gewanter enlarges the issue of sexuality by tracing it to mortality in a meditation on how Gunn figures the human body throughout his work. Delicacy of thought wrapped up in protective toughness: this is not a bad description of Gunn's early poetry. His readers were quick to notice the juxtaposition, often with a degree of puzzled surprise, which suggests that they had not fully understood its origin; for among the regenerative aspects of homosexuality is the way in which the gay man's images of himself and his desired other may change places, overlap, or elide. Perhaps he will put on his leather disguise, look in the mirror, and think: “I could go for him.” Does that sound familiar? It should: “In goggles, donned impersonality, / In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust, / They strap in doubt . . .” The key imagery of Gunn's first three collections repeatedly alludes to the homosexual iconography of the 1950s, and its power is immeasurably increased by being strapped into tight verse forms. (pages 35 - 44)
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- Clive Wilmer
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0005
[Thom Gunn, free-verse poems, Shakespeare, Elizabethans, modernity, Cambridge]
This chapter on Gunn shows how his dramatic power and shape-making integrity reach back to his favorite poet. Everyone seems to agree that, in August Kleinzahler's words, “Gunn is an Elizabethan poet in modern dress.” For Michael Schmidt, “His English roots are deep in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” and the Elizabethan influence is apparent “even . . . in his . . .free-verse poems.” This influence is never academic: in Gunn's hands, the inherited forms and conventions seem utterly natural and breathe with his own modernity. As with Gunn's lovers, it is she who is the sexual aggressor—the Goddess of Love, no less—while the object of her attraction is one of Shakespeare's many young men who, addicted to masculine pursuits—war or, in this case, hunting—are wary of the bedroom. In the chapter “Cambridge in the Fifties,” Gunn relates his theory of the pose to “some of Shakespeare's characters, like the Bastard in King John and Coriolanus,” and it is clear that White's dramatic performances fueled this sense of real life as a drama. Gunn learned infinite things from Shakespeare—as most good English poets have—but this one seems to have been his own discovery. (pages 45 - 68)
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PART II: ACROSS THE WATER

- August Kleinzahler
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0006
[Collected Poems, New Yorker, Fighting Terms, Moly, Thom Gunn, poetry]
The popular line on Gunn's poetry, trotted out as recently as this past summer by A. Alvarez, in a review of Gunn's Collected Poems in the New Yorker, is that his first book, Fighting Terms, and his next, The Sense of Movement, established him as the young lion among poets of his generation; that he came unglued, rather lost, after his move to the States, and with his 1971 collection, Moly, had utterly gone down the tubes. There is one fine example of his early style in the book, “The Wound,” seamless in execution and convincing all the way through, but the poetry in the book is top-of-the-line juvenilia, interesting only with respect to the later work. In truth, very few actually read the book at the time (it was published in an edition of only three hundred copies), but it established his reputation, a reputation amplified and consolidated by The Sense of Movement, published by Faber in 1957. Gunn's talk was of the first order. His reading of the poem was close, appreciative, and smart. The critical voice was modest. Gunn resisted the broad claims that usually attend the reexamination of neglected figures, particularly those identified with the avant-garde, and located the poem in a tradition, pointed out its virtues, explained what the poet was up to, and, in general, recommended reading it in very strong, if understated, terms. (pages 71 - 84)
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- Keith Tuma
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0007
[Anglo-American, modernism, American poetry, English poetry, Thom Gunn, poetry]
Keith Tuma takes a distinctively broad view by looking at Gunn's identity as an Anglo-American poet through the lens of British and American modernism; August Kleinzahler extends the discussion specifically in relation to Gunn's style, but also by turning our attention to poems by Charles Baudelaire, who remained an influence on Gunn throughout his life, and long after the grip of French existentialism had loosened. Much as Gunn never became a citizen—he is not an “Anglo-American” in that sense—but remained an Englishman living in America, his poetry is never far removed from its origins in England, even as it successfully incorporates, as only a few English poets of his generation do, the American modernism of poets such as William Carlos Williams. Gunn was able to sustain a sizable readership on both sides of the Atlantic, something few poets in recent years have managed, and this fact is arguably a consequence of what I am pointing to here: his ability to modify his practice without giving up its core values. His visibility as a poet, however, did not mean that he was able altogether to avoid the rhetoric that has sometimes posed Americans against English poetry (English more often than “British,” though the terms are still too often confused) in recent decades. Whatever we choose to make of Gunn's example, Gunn himself seems to have had little interest in complicating the familiar story about English and American poetry. (pages 85 - 104)
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- Joshua Weiner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0008
[Misanthropos, narrative, rhythm, Thom Gunn, poetry]
“Misanthropos,” a poem understood to be central to Gunn's body of work, is not one that has been very well served by a previous generation of critics. Gunn did not try to explore experience through an open lyric sequence (as did Robert Duncan), nor through extensive meditations on culture and history (as did Eliot, Pound, and, later, Charles Olson), nor through a reimagining of historical space (as did W. C. Williams). With “Misanthropos,” he worked through an essentially narrative enterprise: to show how a character finds an ethical solution to a social problem, a solution that comes from feeling one's way toward acting in the world. The process of discovery may be interior to the self, but the problem is one of social relation. (pages 105 - 126)
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- Thom Gunn
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0009
[Meat, continuity, Thom Gunn, poetry, rhetoric]
“Two Versions of ‘Meat’” was reprinted for two reasons. The first is substantial: because of where we sit historically, some presume that progress in the art of poetry involves a re-visioning from the more formal to the less formal, along the line of a literary historical cliché. But Gunn's poem “Meat” moved from the less to the more formal (his sense of continuity was always a two-way conduit); and the two versions of it exist now side by side as an exemplary case of how form and rhetoric convey different qualities of experience, instinct, and intellect. The second reason is sentimental: when the author asked Thom, in 1992, for permission to reprint the free verse “Meat” to accompany a short chapter on the two versions for AGNI, he responded that he was “thrilled to my tits” that someone had taken up the subject. The reappearance of the two versions suggest so much of Gunn's experiential range and technical flexibility; and he would take some private pleasure, too, in the cross-circuited complementary attentions gathered here in an admittedly weird wide net of a book. (pages 127 - 128)
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- Joshua Weiner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0010
[Meat, free verse, Night Sweats, abstractions, rhymes]
Reading “Meat” in its early incarnation as free verse against the final, more formal version included in Gunn's book The Man with Night Sweats shows us how a poet gets different effects from different forms, and how those effects change our experience of the poem. The writing in both versions of “Meat” is characteristically chaste and unadorned, the diction terse, the images concise, and the abstractions plainly elegant. About the free-verse version, Gunn says that the poem “was completely finished, no rhyme or suggestion of rhymes.” Indeed, the free verse is so plain it seems quite stripped of sonic figures altogether. The poem catches the reader initially, not through euphony, cacophony, or rhyme, but through its darting, rhythmically quick observation of physical movement. The occasion of “Meat” is that of a social, moral judgment publicly uttered, and as such it seems to have a fuller, more lively embodiment in pentameter couplets. (pages 129 - 132)
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PART III: IN AMERICA

- John Peck
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0011
[summation, chthonic power, Thom Gunn, poetry, speech rhythms, open forms, experimental styles]
Summation is powerful and mature statement, but as an organizing principle for poetry in English it has regained, long after the modernist detours around it, at best an intricately defended, half-confident status. To modify a phrase from a late poem by Wallace Stevens in “The Course of a Particular,” there is a resistance involved. Thom Gunn excelled in skillfully neutralizing that resistance from the outset of his career. As for chthonic power, that phrase represents something common in literary thinking since writers began to reassess Romanticism in the wake of the depth psychologies and the ongoing demolition of traditional metaphysics. Gunn hardly walked in fear of the category, though it seems that he never employed it. His flexible style is one of the most conceptually discerning in the twentieth century, and also one of the most mature in exploring the adventures of instinct (“adventure,” a term he takes from Robert Duncan). The two terms in the title to this chapter, especially given Gunn's experience with hallucinogens, point to several dimensions. (pages 135 - 180)
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- Brian Teare
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0012
[Thom Gunn, Dionysian experiment, poetry, gay culture, homosocial, homosexual]
By examining the creative and critical oeuvre of Thom Gunn, with particular emphasis on his notebooks and his work's critical reception, which, when read side by side, allow us to witness a kind of interior/exterior dialectic concerning the terms “gay” and “poetry.” Ultimately, it is the author's contention that, when taken together—Gunn's publication record and its critical reception, his development in his notebooks of a distinctly gay poetics, and his relationships with mentors Yvor Winters and Robert Duncan—all tell an exemplary story about the tension created, sustained, and sometimes resolved by the close proximity of “gay” to “poetry.” And though this chapter is foremost a story about Gunn's own poetry and his development as a gay poet, this story might also be read as representative of aspects of both poetic and gay histories in twentieth-century Anglo-American literature. In light of this dialectic between the evolution of Gunn's work and its interpretation by his critics, the chapter suggests that Gunn's career so expertly elicits from twentieth-century critical discourse the shifting historical definitions of “gay” and “poetry” for the following three reasons: To put the argument about Gunn's style another way, the distinction between homosocial and homosexual is “a strategy for making generalizations about, and marking historical difference in, the structure of men's relations with other men.” (pages 181 - 238)
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PART IV: OF THE WORLD

- Tom Sleigh
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0013
[eros, New Jerusalem, sex, drugs, Thom Gunn]
Gunn speaks of the different varieties of New Jerusalem, the political and pharmaceutical kinds, and tells us how “I’ve visited most of them,” but that the only one he would care to return to is “the sexual New Jerusalem,” because it “was by far the greatest fun.” That sex and drugs go together should be no surprise to anyone, and in Thom Gunn's poems they become dual aspects of eros: on the one hand, drugs and sex can open us up to vistas of human freedoms and discoveries; and on the other, they can lead to darker recognitions about the world and ourselves. Gunn's poems explore both aspects in a way that is compassionate, nuanced, and wide-ranging in scope. Whatever one makes of his death, Gunn was a true servant of eros. And in keeping with that devotion, his New Jerusalem was an open one in its generous conviction that the ecstatic could become a communal property, open to anyone, an apocalyptic city of carnal fulfillment and desire, in which his work will forever be one of the cornerstones. (pages 241 - 256)
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- David Gewanter
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0014
[ecstasy, romantic poet, twentieth-century poetry, Thom Gunn, poetry, gay culture]
How can the body find ecstasy? How can it survive it? For some Romantic poets, moments of bliss may come to a solitary explorer who “wanders lonely as a cloud,” then finds a new flower or ocean. Yet the obdurate materials and boundaries of Thom Gunn's urban world resist such moments of sensation and access, and the simple naturalism of first-person change. His boyhood home of postwar London is the gray city of Dickens, not Keats; his second home of San Francisco, though streaked with Ginsberg's hallucinogenic “Blake-light,” is still plagued by Blake's “mind-forged manacles” and “harlot's cry.” In postwar America, other poets of Gunn's generation sought bliss in drugs, drink, and flesh; but whether through Ginsberg's “Blake-light tragedies” or Robert Lowell's dramas of mania and incarceration, they put the primacy of individual vision before such stable observations of the social world as Gunn's unfevered and unsentimental poetry shows. His work provides, then, a brave alternative to some of twentieth-century poetry's muddy experiments in “personhood.” (pages 257 - 268)
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- Paul Muldoon
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0015
[Considering the Snail, My Sad Captains, unpredictable rhythms, deliberate progress, Duncan]
Paul Muldoon and Wendy Lesser write about two underrecognized poems of central interest to Gunn's body of work: Muldoon on “Considering the Snail,” from the second, experimental section of My Sad Captains (1961), which vividly indicates Gunn's growing feel for unpredictable rhythms, his own “deliberate progress”—sexual, social, formal—as poet and person; and Lesser on the elegy, “Duncan” that opens Gunn's last book, Boss Cupid (2000), and which enacts the tension of that very same progress. Gunn considered this poem his best. (pages 269 - 276)
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- Wendy Lesser
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0016
[Robert Duncan, dead, Thom Gunn, poe, death]
The specificity of the dead was very important to Gunn, and this is why he was a great poet about death. Death, as he knew, is not an impersonal entity that exists in the world, like air or dirt, but a very particular experience that happens to each person in a different way. One does not get used to it. One does not get over it. It is always a shock, even when it is expected. “Lament” may be his greatest poem in this vein, but “Duncan” is surely one of the runner-ups, and they share a number of qualities, including the strictness of their rhyme schemes and their casual use of medical phrases such as “home dialysis.” (His rhyme for that, in “Duncan,” is “his responsiveness.”) . “Duncan”—a poem, it turned out, about his friend and fellow poet Robert Duncan, who had died earlier that year—was marked in a few places with his handwritten emendations. (pages 277 - 286)
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- Robert Pinsky
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226890371.003.0017
[Thom Gunn, doubleness, prosody, sexuality, hedonism]
Robert Pinsky's deft and illuminating portrait of Gunn “inside and outside,” “at the barriers,” captures the essential “all-of-the-above” paradox of Gunn's shrewd genius. Inside and outside, prudent and crazy—this doubleness is more than a matter of personality, and beyond gossip, more than simply psychological or social: because as an artist, too, Thom Gunn is all-of-the-above. To see only the meticulous prosody or only the flamboyant sexuality, only the scholarship or only the hedonism, only England or San Francisco, only literature or only gay life—or to see only stereotypes of these categories—is to misperceive his genius. (pages 287 - 292)
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Notes

List of Contributors

Index of Names