Saturday, 19 August 2017

CLIVE WILMER'S THOM GUNN SELECTED POEMS IS A MUST-READ

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 Atlantic to Pacific,

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.

 

 

London, April 28, 2004

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