Thom Gunn: holding back the avalanche

Douglas Murray
5 May 2004

Thom Gunn
Thom Gunn (1929-2004)

The late Graham Chapman used to tell a (probably) true story about visiting the writer J.B. Priestley during his student days. With a group of fellow medics he invited himself to tea, had a pleasant time with Mrs Priestley and a somewhat stilted, reverential meeting with the great man himself. Shaking hands on the way out, Chapman realised there was something he’d meant to ask. Only once they were driving away did he remember what it was: “By the way, Sir, what’s the meaning of life?”

I thought of Chapman when the news was announced on 25 April of the death of the British-born poet, Thom Gunn. For those of us who followed his work, and were rewarded by reading and thinking about it often, Gunn seemed to hold no small number of life’s mysteries and meanings within his grasp.

The poet Thom Gunn, who has died at 74, was the recipient of many awards including the first Forward Prize for poetry, and, in 1994, a Lambda award for his Collected Poems. Douglas Murray, the author of this tribute, received a Lambda award for biography in 2000.

Although he came from a generation which produced several great poets, none stand higher than Gunn: if Ted Hughes got the fame and Philip Larkin the devotion, Gunn had equal claim to both.

At the time of his death, it seems appropriate to consider that though Gunn was firstly a great poet, he was without doubt one of literature’s finest elegists. His last two full books of poetry have a right to be cited with Tennyson’s In Memoriam for sheer heart-ripping profundity. The subject of much of this late flowering of work was Aids.

Gunn taught at Berkeley, having left England for California in 1954. Turning from formal verse forms during the 1960s and 1970s, he returned to them in time to deal with a theme for which no one was more thoughtfully qualified. For a writer for whom the body – its failings as well as its joys – had always been of over-riding fascination, Aids brought his subject out to be dealt with in extremis.

The book I regard as his masterpiece, The Man with Night Sweats (1992), is a harrowing, tearing but oddly consoling work charting the progress of ‘the plague’ as it takes away students and friends. In the earlier “Elegy” (from The Passages of Joy, 1982) Gunn had written of a friend’s suicide:

They keep leaving me
and they don’t
tell me they don’t
warn me that this is
the last time I’ll be seeing them By the time of Night Sweats, they were leaving in droves, but Gunn’s deal with death changed. The 1982 “Elegy” had finished: There will be no turn of the river
where we are all reunited
in a wonderful party
the picnic spread
all the lost found
as in hide and seek

An odd comfort
that the way we are always
most in agreement
is in playing the same game
where everyone always gets lost

At the beginning of Night Sweats, Gunn, with an ear for half-rhyme matched only by John Keats and Wilfred Owen, captures himself braced for the new pain ahead: Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,

As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.

Nothing could hold the avalanche off; but a new understanding of death, a new perception – not so unremittingly hopeless, as before – creeps through. The succeeding poems rise and fall from the eloquent simplicity of To the Dead Owner of a Gym (its final couplet: “Alas / Lacks class”) to The J Car, a description of taking his ex-student, Charlie Hinkle, out to dinner during his final illness. Hinkle, a promising poet, provides the epigraph to the volume, and the unremitting descriptions of the younger man’s body’s failure raise these lines from Gunn:                                Of course I simplify.
Of course. It tears me still that he should die
As only an apprentice to his trade,
The ultimate engagements not yet made.
His gifts had been withdrawing one by one
Even before their usefulness was done:
This optic nerve would never be relit;
The other flickered, soon to be with it.
Unready, disappointed, unachieved,
He knew he would not write the much-conceived
Much-hoped-for work now, nor yet help create
A love he might in full reciprocate. Loss of work and love as well as life devastates the elegist, but his vital driving-force is the stand against forgetfulness, the need to record the traces left by a life – to capture the footprints before they blow away. It is a sentiment which catches its perfect expression in a quatrain in what has turned out to be Gunn’s last book, Boss Cupid (2000). It is an epitaph carved in the Aids Memorial Grove, Golden Gate Park – an epitaph which could stand for forgotten millions: Walker within this circle, pause.
Although they all died of one cause,
Remember how their lives were dense
With fine, compacted difference. Gunn’s need to record and approach with honesty did lead him into some strange places. Strangest of all were his poems published privately and then included in Boss Cupid, “Troubadour: songs for Jeffrey Dahmer”.

The necrophilic, mass-murderer, gay Dahmer is almost unequalled in the appalling-ness of his crimes, and the loathing he provoked. Gunn, ever equal to the greatest challenge, writes his poems from Dahmer’s point of view, and you can see why certain aspects of Dahmer’s crimes were suggestive to him. For Dahmer, “a face stared from a shelf / unreadable on guard / connection disconnection / between headcheese and lard,” gives a terrible twist to Gunn’s own predicament of living with his dead. Gunn gives as much insight as anyone could when he says:

          Yet nothing lasts, you know.
I tell you what, there is a place divides
The house’s structure, hidden at the center.
If I show you that crawl-space, you must show
The inmost secrets to me that skin hides.
           Here, I will help you enter. Dahmer threw up nothing but misery and death, but in Gunn, exploration of the human body in all its pathetic glory affirms the value of life and love, as well as sincere human understanding.

If Gunn comes across here as a morbid poet, I should point readers to the exuberant Moly (1971) and other works of the pre-plague period celebrating the rewards of life. All this poet’s work, so much of which combines unstinting honesty with generosity of observation, contains casual moments of brilliance and humour – as in his late observation of a waiter “deeply charming you, / as if charm could be deep”.

For a man who wrote so eloquently of life and death, and knew so much about both, his own words stand as the only appropriate epitaph: “Words for Some Ash”. That his words have stopped is a terrible loss, but the words will continue to resound, and return afresh even while we observe with sorrow the passing of a great man.

Now you are a bag of ash
Scattered on a coastal ridge,
Where you watched the distant crash,
Ocean on a broken edge.

Death has wiped away each sense;
Fire took muscle, bone, and brains;
Next may rain leach discontents
From your dust, wash what remains

Deeper into damper ground
Till the granules work their way
Down to unseen streams, and bound
Briskly in the water’s play;

May you lastly reach the shore,
Joining tide without intent,
Only worried any more
By the current’s argument.

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