BOOK REVIEW / Leather kids in love: Lachlan Mackinnon on the poetry of Thom Gunn: Collected Poems - Thom Gunn: Faber, pounds 20

Thom Gunn has told us that, as an undergraduate in the Fifties, walking 'along a long narrow dusty road in France', he 'experienced a 'revelation of physical and spiritual freedom that I still refer to in my thoughts as the Revelation'. The central concern of his poetry has been with how life might be lived in the light of such a revelation, and the publication of his Collected Poems shows us how painstaking and assiduous his imagimative thinking has been.

Faber treated Gunn as a twin of Ted Hughes at first, suggesting that the violence implicit in Gunn's fascination with the leatherclad motorcycling world of youth culture was related to the feral savagery of Hughes' vision of nature. Gunn left Britain for California in 1954, where he still lives, and as his vision unfolded in a context of self-risking hedonism, LSD and low life, it became clear that relations between people, rather than the natural world, were at the heart of his moral questioning. California also enabled him to accept and to trust his own homosexuality as a potential focus of decency. The occasional appearance of slim volumes during the long period when he was out of fashion did not prevent his slipping from general view, but the award of the 1992 Forward Prize to The Man with Night Sweats, a book dominated by Aids, was important because it recognised the measure of his artistry.

The much-anthologised 'On the Move' typifies Gunn's early work as 'On motorcycles, up the road, they come: / Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys', putting birds to flight and causing the poet to reflect that 'Much that is natural, to the will must yield'. Gunn admires the bikers' 'self-defined' restlessness because 'at best, /Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One as always nearer by not keeping still'. The philosophical vocabulary of the poem shows Gunn's indebtedness to French existentialism, particularly that of Jean-Paul Sartre, but what makes it remarkable is the ease with which the poet integrates it into his descriptive writing and the strength of what feels like erotic fascination. Here Gunn uses rhyme and a strict metre, as he has continued to do in tandem with looser forms influenced by American models. Occasionally, he falls into the padding clumsiness all too common among today's strict metrists, but usually his work is characterised by a clarity of language which reflects his admiration for Ben Jonson.

Gunn's clarity contributes to some of his most moving effects, as in 'An Amorous Debate', which begins:

'Birds whistled, all

Nature was doing something while

Leather Kid and Fleshly

lay on a bank and

gleamingly discoursed. . .'

What they talk about is straightforward: ' 'Let's fuck]', he said.' As they do, Leather Kid feels as if his body has 'rolled back its own foreskin'. The poem's brute colloquialism picks up some of the language and imagery of pornography, leaving us unprepared for the end:

'And they melted one

into the other

forthwith

like the way the Saone

joins the Rhone at Lyon.'

The way in which Gunn suggests a troubadour lyricism has here a tender gravity which is disarming. The space between sex and love is one Gunn continually traverses, as in 'The Pissing'. 'Now as I watch the progress of the plague', Gunn meditates on how an erotically various past gave him 'an involved increasing family'.

'Contact of friend led to another friend,

Supple entwinement through the living mass

Which for all that I know might have no end,

Image of an unlimited embrace.'

The coming of Aids and the deaths of friends cut him off from 'the play of constant give and change', but in this elegiac vision of what was and what might have been Gunn finds a continuum between promiscuity and Utopia which challenges conventional morality through the poet's lyric poise.

'Still Life' (see box) typifies many of Gunn's strengths, which are better shown in short than in long poems. The tough understatement of 'I shall not soon forget' and the precision of 'set' make us credit his truthfulness. The slightly knotty phrasing of 'an obscure knack' suggests a long study of seventeenth-century models - exactness of meaning combined with a momentary condensation of the colloquial tone. The 'astonished O' with which he ends, a gagging bewilderment, is arresting and speaks directly to our senses. The paradoxical title - though frozen in a work of art, there is still life in the dying man - both calls our attention to and rebukes the aesthetic joy the poem is helpless to deny us.

Unconcerned with notions of a literary career, faithful to experience and the thought which is part of experience, Thom Gunn's Collected Poems are more moving as a whole than when they first appeared. Their integrity makes us consider what that virtue is.

Still Life

I shall not soon forget

The greyish-yellow skin

To which the face had set:

Lids tight: nothing of his,

No tremor from within,

Played on the surfaces.

He still found breath, and yet

It was an obscure knack

I shall not soon forget

The angle of his head

Arrested and reared back

On the crisp field of bed

Back from what he could neither

Accept, as one opposed,

Nor, as a life-long breather,

Consentingly let go

The tube his mouth enclosed

In an astonished O.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz