Thom Gunn has been one of the happy discoveries wrought by my self imposed regime to read more poetry and to read more widely. I can’t remember how I stumbled across the name but I am glad that I did.
I am very glad to have picked up this particular Selected Poems edited by August Kleinzahler, because I think, in my limited knowledge of the poet, that Kleinzahler has done a very good job of presenting a cross section of Gunn’s work. I also found the introduction by Kleinzahler to be one of the best I have read in a book of selected poetry in recent times. I was left with a very well rounded sense of the poet. While that in itself was not necessary for enjoyment, I felt it beneficial nonetheless.
I am a fan of form poetry, of rhythm and rhyme. I like writing and reading it and although I write free verse as well, I never seem quite so happy as when I discover a well wrought form poem or manage to crank out one myself.
Gunn, writing from the mid 19,50’sright up to the turn of the century begins as a formalist, transitions through syllabic poetry and ends up writing free verse. And looking at the whole of his work (as presented here) I can gain an appreciation for all of it. An appreciation for what’s possible along that continuum.
This collection spans some 50 plus years but I did feel as though I was reading a very contemporary poet, much of this is owed, I think to the content. With my penchant for nostalgia I really enjoyed Last Days at Teddington (which sadly doesn’t appear online anywhere) and likewise Hug, although Hug is as much a love poem.
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who'd showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.
Gunn covers the big topics, like love and death. There’s also a strong vein of poems that focus on nature or a simpler life. Indeed, a poem like The Night Piece reminds me very much of Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Here are the last few streets to climb
Galleries, run through veins of time,
Almost familiar where I creep
Toward sleep like fog, through fog like sleep
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The collection is broad enough to have something for all readers. What I like in particular though is his consistent use of rhythm and rhyme. The content and the language changes from earlier to later poems but to me shows what’s still possible with form poetry as we edge into the 21st century. If you like poetry that sounds like poetry, that plucks at emotions and that doesn’t shy away from topics like sex, suicide and illness, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.