The Sunday Poem No 35: Thom Gunn

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 35 Thom Gunn
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Seventy next year, a major figure in 20th-century poetry. His magical formal skill is balanced by profound responsible emotion and supple, sexy intelligence: poetry as a dark gleaming well with a deep wry smile at the bottom. He used to be paired with Ted Hughes (they overlapped at Cambridge), but followed a more unconventional route. He moved to California in 1954 and teaches at Berkeley University. Nine collections and a Collected. The Man with Night Sweats won the first Forward Prize. I heard him read from it at the Lighthouse in 1992: the most powerful, moving reading I've ever been to. If there's a reading here for his 70th birthday, move heaven and earth to go.

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.

There are not many well-known gay male (there are more gay women) British poets. It was an important factor in Gunn's move to California. In the 1930s, Auden wrote love poems readers could take as heterosexual; by the 1950s, society and what it wanted poetry to do had changed. High- profile male gay writing here seems to run to prose just now. Apart from The Man with Night Sweats, the other great Aids-related collection - Mark Doty's My Alexandria - was American. Gunn is a major star anyway; as a gay poet he is a trailblazing one, and the most dignified, intelligent and moving we could have.

Rhythmically, this poem is all about stopping: about where and how you do it. It has a short, three-beat line. The first three are "enjambed" (the line runs on to the next), which sets up an expectation of flow. Lids tight, followed by a deafening caesura (the "cut" in the line) and a new rhythm in nothing of his (stressing noth- and his), brings you up short; the next lines are end-stopped. This stop-start rhythm is the message: the poem itself is about stopping breathing, till there really is nothing of his. It opens with I (echoed by tight - I kept out, from contact with the inside, by tight lids) facing a skin and face introduced by the, not his, as if the man is already an object, a still life. But the man they belong to is both still and (as in the title) still alive inside. Nothing on surfaces: but in the second stanza he is there in that central act, found breath.

But immediately you get a check (that comma); then the effect of stopping is cancelled by enjambement after the qualification and yet. Paradoxically, what runs on into the next line is a denial of continued breath. Obscure knack makes you think of breathing as a skill, something that can be acquired; and lost. Then you start again (as the breathing starts and stops) with the repeated first line and a flow of lines lightly end-stopped, with commas; yet the head arrested and reared (like a reined-in horse, still subtly around in the next line's field) ends with back, which also opens the last verse (echoed in the first syllable of accept) in lines whose rhythm is all start and stop (with breaks at accept, opposed, nor, breather). This jerky-breath effect lasts until the words consentingly let go. Only after that concept has been aired do you regain the easy enjambement flow, describing the object: (the tube) which what (in the last stanza's first line) referred to. This tube is his last to-and-fro-channel to the world. O, the shape of his lips, comes over soundwise as his final sigh. Back to the title's double meaning: there is still life here, just; but still life painting is also nature morte. Like holocaust narratives, Aids poems have a known ending. By presenting the dying man as a life-long breather who finds it hard to give up this obscure knack, the poem keeps emotionally as still as any still life. The short lines say this is not about rousing emotion but reining it in: like that invisible horse and difficult breath.

In the original collection (and Collected Poems), this poem faces another, "The Reassurance". The guy has died; he comes back in a dream. "I'm all right now", he says. "How like you to be kind", thinks the poet; but then, acknowledging that the dream is his own imagination, "And, yes, how like my mind/To make itself secure." He is comforting himself; and that is something this poem does, too - in its music, the stable relating of rhyme (each stanza follows the same pattern abacbc), in the way it shares both the watching and the doing of death. Iris Murdoch argued in a famous essay that "Art should not console". That always (since I admired her) upset me; it seems to me that art (whether you are making it or taking it in) is one of the few things which can help us find a shape for sympathy and grief. In the quietly arrested relationship here, in the movement from I (the poem's first letter) to O (its last letter, his friend's last sigh), Gunn created a shareable form, even if only one of imagination, for the last astonished communication between one person and a dying other.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`Still Life' is taken from `The Man with Night Sweats' (Faber)