Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reading Thom Gunn

I've spent the past weekend reading Thom Gunn's Selected Poems edited by August Kleinzahler. Before reading this book, I knew little about Gunn or his work. I'd read a handful of his poems, but had never given him full attention.

I began this book by reading the introduction by Kleinzahler. I have to say it almost turned me off from the book. Kleinzahler's introduction is a little sloppy and all over the place, but he does give an overview of Gunn's life and work. Kleinzahler's main focus is on the transformation Gunn made in his work from the 1950s to his last book published in 2000. The poems Kleinzahler selected showcase that shift and change.

Gunn's early work is very clean and direct. He is often very removed from the poems even when an "I" is present. Gunn loved Elizabethan poetry and often used it as inspiration, but always with a slight modern twist. This makes many of his early poems feel a bit detached, yet, somehow, in the moment. While these early poems are far from anything I would write myself, they were enjoyable and I admired the sharpness in them. To some, these are considered Gunn's best poems (according to the introduction, the British hate his later work).

When I got to the poems selected from his third book, My Sad Captains, I began to fall for Mr. Gunn and his poems. My favorite from this section is called "The Feel of Hands." It was here that I saw more of a glimpse inside the speaker, and I felt a transformation taking place. This feeling continued through the next few sections.

The book then hits a high note, for me, when it gets to the poems taken from Gunn's 1992 book The Man With Night Sweats. These poems are personal and intimate in a way that Gunn's other work is not. Gunn was gay and living in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, and this book is a reflection of that. In many ways, it was the AIDS crisis that brought a very real "I" to Gunn's poems. These poems are beautifully crafted and contain the fears and sadness of a generation of gay men. As I've written before, I'm very interested in poets' reaction to the AIDS crisis. Gunn's work was greatly changed by it, and I say for the better.

One of my favorite poems from this section is called "The Hug," and it contains these relatable lines: "It was not sex, but I could feel / The whole strength of your body set, / Or braced, to mine, / And locking me to you / As if we were still twenty-two / When our grand passion had not yet / become familial." I fell in love with these lines because of everything I wrote in my last blog post. I've been with my partner for almost seven years and I can still remember those first embraces, those first moments of passion and sex, and that is the power of this poem. It brings me into it. There are other wonderful poems in this section including "Lament" and "Still Life."

I enjoyed the poems from his last book, Boss Cupid, as well. It seemed through tragedy Gunn found a way into his poems even if he didn't want to be there. In his last book, he writes about his mother's suicide, which took place 48 years before. Sometimes we set out to be one kind of writer and end up a completely different one. To me this is the sign of a good writer. I hope to be a poet that changes, grows, and moves in new directions. I'm glad to have had these two days with Gunn, and I'm sure I'll read more of him in the future.

-Stephen (Not Gunn Shy)

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