|THAT HANDSOME MAN|
A PERSONAL BRIEF REVIEW BY TODD SWIFT
I could lie and claim Larkin, Yeats, or Dylan Thomas most excited me as a young poet, or even Pound or FT Prince - but the truth be told, it was Thom Gunn I first and most loved when I was young.
Precisely, I fell in love with his first two collections, written under a formalist, Elizabethan (Fulke Greville mainly), Yvor Winters triad of influences - uniquely fused with an interest in homerotica, pop culture (Brando, Elvis, motorcycles). His best poem 'On The Move' is oddly presented here without the quote that began it usually - Man, you gotta go - which I loved.
Gunn was - and remains - so thrilling, to me at least, because so odd. His elegance, poise, and intelligence is all about display, about surface - but the surface of a panther, who ripples with strength beneath the skin.
With Gunn, you dressed to have sex.
Or so I thought. Because I was queer (I maintain the right to lay claim to that identity, regardless of who I sleep with, when or why), was shy, and loved words, loved eloquence, and control, Gunn meant the world to me, and so I always gravitated to a sense of presentation that was formal, smart, and yet also, erotic, and aware of the real world of physical desire, music, actors, and what means something to people.
Clive Wilmer's new selection has a useful introduction, insightful notes, but is mainly invaluable in presenting handsomely most of Gunn's finest poems - his best poem was one of his last, about his mother's suicide.
Gunn was early associated, perhaps incorrectly, with the Plath generation, by Alvarez, and he made much of not liking that so much - though it did him no damage in terms of early fame.
His career had three or four stages - early meteoric success; then a disappearance and lonely years of general indifference; then a great return with the AIDs poems - and a final, valedictory sequence of solemn late poems. Few poets get to write great poems across a whole lifetime - Gunn's youthful poems are among his best, and so are his last.
Like a less vast Yeats, he rang all the changes.
When Gunn died I was sad more fuss was not made. In my world he was a poetic God. In many ways, my name, Todd Swift, was chosen (I dropped my first name in favour of my monosyllabic middle) in homage to Thom. Gunn, as the first and foremost gay poet of my lifetime (other than Ginsberg), moves me so much, allows me to be sane, in my rich imagination. But of course his work is inspiring to everyone who wants to write well, despite their desires.
One thing he gives us permission to do is to be elegant, stylish, formal, and traditional, but in non-boring, unsafe, risk-taking and surprising ways.
When I come to compile my final selection of the work I want to keep, of my poetry, I hope it will be read on the terms that Gunn's are here - as a folio of sustained excellence in individual, exceptionally-crafted but compassionate, wit-infused, tradition-drenched, body-aware, poems. Control, poise - the armature of poetic rhetoric deployed to keep us safe - is vital to my sanity. As it was to Eliot.
Gunn is a great poet, and this is a great book.
Here is the poem I wrote on his death, in April 2004:
Elegy for Thom Gunn
You moved between worlds,
As a god does to men, who
Puts on the used-clothes of
A swan, to beat about girls;
Crossed channels, a motion
In the very style you took on;
Became a pop star of form,
Reformed the common, into
Something rare. Jacketed
Muscle and passion, a uniform
Uniquely yours. Revved
Engines, made language
A throttle that could roar
With poise and sexuality
And remorse, for loss. Tossed
Love and its deadliness out
As the first ball of the game;
In and out of season, came
And then were able to write
About it, with ease, intellect,
Control, but freely, like a stone
That takes, as it rolls, moss
And other earthly bric-a-
Brac with it, to compose
A song in the movement of
Its going; hurtled most, talent
Calm, loins ruffled, Fulke
Greville like a sock in your jeans;
Tested the means, renamed
The terms, conditions, of renewal.
Became a sort of rocket fuel
For poems that, changed, from sea
To sea, from
Shone with American grandeur,
Retained British propriety – hard
To do when boss of desire’s realm;
When speeding down lines
Wearing flesh’s delicate helmet
For radical protection. Fallen,
As all captains are, sadly, last-reel
Come up on the high screen, at
The drive-in where your Wild Ones
Would have been, acting out,
Tough and languorous with beauty
Only men under twenty-five can
Display – you are, with precision,
Forever as alive as Whitman, Gray:
One of those who mastered the elegy
And the ecstasy of living, in one pose;
Like any lover in a battle who knows
Survival is a craft as well as an art;
To keep the spear and arrow off
The ever-beaten, ever-won heart.