BOOK REVIEW / The clean bright light of a lifetime's learning: 'Shelf Life' - Thom Gunn: Faber, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
NO ONE grows up at the right time, in the right place. For Thom Gunn, it was Cambridge at the turn of the 1950s, a prim, stultifying climate of opinion that drove his sexual impulses underground and forced his intellect to write in an encoded language. Luckily for him, there was the alternative reality of America.

Gunn went there in 1954, as a graduate student of Yvor Winters, and there he has remained, growing into a first-rate Anglo-American poet, metrically exact, spiritually free.

At the beginning of his writing life his name was coupled with that of Ted Hughes. They were the two Cambridge bright sparks of their generation. To compare their two new collections of occasional prose, Winter Pollen and Shelf Life, however, is to be reminded how utterly different they have always been: the deep, dark, peaty, mythopoeic Hughes of the obsessive themes; the clean, rational, celebratory, outdoors light of Gunn's occasional criticism.

Two years ago Gunn published The Man with the Night Sweats, a book of poems about the difficult, tedious, painful enterprise of dying from Aids. When he appeared at the Purcell Room to read from it, in crumpled Levis and T-shirt, hair all spiked up, the silver buckle of his tough-guy belt winking back at the footlights, he positively brimmed with the aura of youthfulness (he was 62 at the time). You immediately recognised him for what he was: an ordinary man of small, pleasing vanities in the grip of an extraordinary talent.

Gunn's new book, his first collection of critical prose in 10 years, and only the second that he has ever published - he has never regarded himself as a professional literary critic ('I'm interested in writing poetry and not in the theory of poetry') - is mainly a kind of secular hymn in praise of the virtues of some of America's finest poets, male and female: the generous democratic impulses

of Whitman; the gutsy intellect of Mina Loy;

the cat-like daredevilry of Robert Duncan, that unfashionable West Coast figure who succeeded in his poetry in marrying the example of Ezra Pound with the impulses of Romanticism.

What is enjoyable about Gunn's agile, humane prose is the way he so often draws analogies not from other writers but from everyday life; 'And, paradoxically,' he tells us during one of the two long reappraisals of Duncan's achievements, 'the two bodies 'yield out of strength', as we all do while making love.' How marvellously carnal that sounds; and what a lifetime of life-learning it seems to encompass.

Like Larkin (whose small-minded influence Gunn deplores), he began with ambitions to be a novelist, and one of the best parts of this book is a memoir of his friendship with another voluntary exile, Christopher Isherwood. One day Gunn confided to Isherwood a dreadful, irrational fear that he could never shake off - that on some visit back to England he would become terribly ill, and get stuck there, and die there, without ever being able to return to America. It was absurd, of course: he was in sturdy good health. Nevertheless, the fear was ever present - that 'by dying there he would get wedged forever inside a purgatory of dissatisfied adolescence'. Isherwood knew exactly what he meant by that. 'Oh yes,' he replied, 'then my mother would have won]'

This is a sane, generous and highly readable book, full of an appetite for everything that seems to lie outside the usual notions of literary and familial decorum.