The first of the poems in Thom Gunn’s Collected to really knock me out appears half way through his second book, The Sense of Movement (1957). In the poem, “To Yvor Winters, 1955,” Gunn pays homage to his former teacher with a portrait of the Stanford professor that compares his training of Airedale terriers—an activity that requires “boxer’s vigilance and poet’s rigour”—to his life as a scholar who must…keep both Rule and Energy in view,Much power in each, most in the balanced two:Ferocity existing in the fenceBuilt by an exercised intelligence.The poem is Augustan in its form, Latinate in its diction, and philosophic in its argument, yet it feels warm and humane throughout. In this respect, the poem reminds me of Auden’s “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”—another homage to a public intellectual. Like Auden’s, Gunn’s poem is elegiac. Though Winters would not die for another thirteen years, Gunn is already aware that “night is always close, complete negation/ Ready to drop on wisdom and emotion.” The poem knows that the mind is as mortal as the body and so turns for its consolation to teaching: the dissatisfied urge to “raise from the excellent the better still.”It is all the more moving to me then that some of the last great poems of the collection are elegies to Charlie Hinkle, one of Gunn’s graduate students, who died of AIDS in the late 1980’s. Written in the same iambic pentameter couplets in which he wrote “To Yvor Winters, 1955”—and so many of his other long meditations—“The J Car” also mourns the loss of a great mind, one that must suffer the knowledge that “he would not write the much-conceived/ Much-hoped-for work now.” But the bulk of the poem’s attention is on the body, on the life of sensations that dissipates slowly with the body’s diminishment. Gunn describes meals he shared with his friend in the last year of his life, meals during which “the connection between life and food/ Had briefly seemed so obvious if so crude.” He notes the painful contrast between his friend’s sickness and his own health, including such details as “I’d eat his dessert” as if shy of presenting his visits in a saintly light, yet he doesn’t let the narrative tip into self-indulgent assertions of guilt either. In a similar display of tact, he steers away from the emotional traps inherent in elegy, mourning his friend without idealizing him, achieving a tone to match his friend’s taste for food like Sauerbraten “In which a sourness and dark richness meet.”[click on the first comment on this review for the last paragraph]Xavier
I like Tom Gunn, he's a local San Franciscan poet. If you want to read up on his work, this volume would be a good buy. I'm not sure if it's in here, but his poem The Man With the Night Sweats is touching as it is frightening.Amy
I wanted to like these poems more than I did...maybe I read them at a point in my life when I wasn't quite ready for their more formal aspects. Gunn is heavy on meter & rhyme. I might give these a re-read sometime and see how they sit now.Jim Coughenour
Gunn is my favorite San Francisco poet (originally from Kent, England), who died a couple years ago. I met him a few times: he was unfailing courteous, without a speck of condescension, as roguish and charming as his poetry. He loved San Francisco, but you sensed he'd have been equally at home in a tavern with Marlowe or at a court entertainment with Greville.Biography aside — even his darkest poems (as in The Man with Night Sweats from the early 90s when AIDS was killing his friends) exhibit a love of the form itself, a playfulness at the peak of craft.