In his introduction to the new selected edition of Thom Gunn's poetry, August Kleinzahler tries to debunk the popular narrative of Gunn's career: off to a good start with Larkin and others of The Movement, he loses his grip in the hippie-dippie LSD era and then regains his power and importance with the AIDS epidemic. I've heard this story before; not in the arc presented here, exactly, but implied in the way Gunn is now pigeonholed as a poet of homosexuality and AIDS who also happens to utilize form and allusion.
The alternative, presented in the introduction, is one in which Gunn's work develops steadily, growing from one collection to the next with a patient insistence on renewing Elizabethan verse, itself characterized by formal ingenuity, wit, and 'the disinterested "I".' There is an element of truth to Kleinzahler's revision. Writing in mid-career at the peak of the confessional moment, Gunn's work must have been read as formally old-fashioned or generally affected by those drawn to his psychadelic themes. Gunn was also derided in Britain in the middle of his career for being, it seems to me, too little an existentialist like Larkin and too much of an American. His early work attracted the attention of relatively conservative critics and readers who were least likely to accept poems of drug-induced hallucinations and urban life. From either extreme, the poet received no quarter. Fatefully Gunn found a suitable mentor in maverick outcast Yvor Winters, who had a similar Elizabethan kink.
Kleinzahler quotes Gunn from an undated interview, 'I want to be an Elizabethan poet. . . . I want to move around between forms in the same way somebody like Ben Jonson did. At the same time I want to write in my own century.' Beyond critical and popular reception, this is a complicated proposition. It creates a difficult set of constraints under which to succeed, even by his own standard: he stands in the shadow of poets whose formulations and syntax still define the English language. His rhetoric would need to be brilliant, his turns genius, his arguments taught. It may be that a true revitalization of such verse is impossible, and that the best Gunn could achieve was an admirable likeness of style and quality. If that is so, then he did.
There is no doubt that Gunn was a master of the language. Though he may not have joined ranks with the likes of Donne, Jonson, and Greville, his work was largely successful. The quality of his verse ought to be evaluated on its own terms, and its content thereafter separately — in the former regard, Gunn excelled, faltering no more than any poet does as they mature and far less than most. There seems to be an unfair bias in favor of the very early and very late work. However, his 1971 poem 'The Rooftop' does not pale in formal comparison to 'Tamer and Hawk' from his debut in 1954; feelings of preference aside, the two pieces are equally well-executed works of formal verse. His gift with language sustained, unabated.
In the middle of his career, though, his virtuoso control does not atone (to use the language of Geoffrey Hill) for the often narrow or oblique content. His themes in this period often do not challenge, but explicate; they do not feel tensed against his formal techniques. Epigrams to Jefferson Airplane, poems that describe the experience of surfing, LSD-fueled reflections that verge on pastiche: it too much relies on Jonson's lighter mode perhaps, or is too contented in the impersonal voice (which itself relies on the power of the content to move). Gunn's middle work is beautiful and accomplished, but the themes are mostly without.
The quality that makes Gunn's later work so moving (and beloved, able to force an honest reconsideration of his whole oeuvre) is the chaos of deeply-felt grief, powerfully constrained by language: 'skill and pride and hope / strangled against each other in the rope? // I think it is a tangle of despair', as Gunn writes in 'Arachnae'. Kleinzahler scoffs at the notion that Gunn won favor because he 'became a feeling poet at last'. Yet readers and critics (and other poets especially) rediscovered Gunn exactly because, in his last two decades, the poet finally found a theme that was equal to his verse. It was not the particular feeling that mattered (nor even the fact of it being an emotion); rather, it was the poet's having found content with enough energy to no longer wilt under the heat of his control. This tension is what makes poems such as 'The Man with Night Sweats' or 'Still Life' so moving. It could have been any theme, but it happened to be grief; and what is more universal than grief, besides?
We read Gunn's middle career more seriously now for the fact of his artful prosody being illuminated by that later work; it is read with wider sympathy for the deeply human themes. Kleinzahler has gifted us with this slim selected volume, which begs for easy comparison of work across the decades. What one realizes is the consistent poetic achievement, regardless of content. This is a brief but crafted edition, as it ought to be; an Elizabethan sonnet of a book rightly in favor of Gunn's greater appreciation.