Thom Gunn is one of the most outstanding English poets living in the 20th century whose creative work was quite original and unique. He obviously was among the most significant poets of his time, but he did not strive for world acclaim, popularity and recognition, instead he rather attempted to convey to the wide audience his basic ideas concerning life, human society, and its problems. In such a situation, it is very important to trace his development as a poet and realize what his particular artistic features were. Apparently, it is also necessary to discuss the main themes he discussed in his poems because it will help better understand his original views on the contemporary world and modernity.
Apparently, it is also necessary to discuss the main themes he discussed in his poems because it will help better understand his original views on the contemporary world and modernity.
It is an undeniable fact that it is basically due to his original views on some traditional themes that made him so popular. And he remains popular nowadays, and his fascination with the anti-social, the rebellious, the unnatural, and, above all, with violence, still attracts many people, including not only ordinary readers but also connoisseurs and literary critics. This is why it is extremely important to analyze what his views are and why his fascination with the things that are traditionally severely criticised are so interesting for readers. Obviously, the answering of this questions will need the profound understanding of the origin of Thom Gunn’s views, his style and the discussion of the main themes of his most popular poems.
Thom Gunn’s life and its impact on his creative work
Naturally, it is impossible to understand the literary work of any poet, or writer without at least a brief discussion of his life. The main reason is that the work of any poet is very creative and can be easily affected by different factors, which are not directly linked to his work. In such a situation the poet’s personal life may be very important for understanding his motives and the main themes that disturbed his mind.
This is particularly true for Thom Gunn, who lived at the epoch of great changes, when traditional values, moral norms, and regulations gave in facing a new changing reality. His life, especially early years and his youth, produced a significant impact on his literary career because the main events that took place in the middle and later in 1960-1970s had changed the world.
Naturally, the epoch when Thom Gunn matured as a poet produced a significant impact on his creative work. Nonetheless, his personal life was also of paramount importance for his poetry. Notably, it should be pointed out that, being born in the UK, the poet lived a great part of his life in the US that naturally influenced his literary work. As Stephen Burt points out “Thom Gunn declared in 1978 that his life insists on continuities – between America and England, between free verse and meter, between vision and everyday consciousness” (1999, p.384). In such a way, the poet himself that his intercontinental life, the life in between characterizes his poetry at large.
Furthermore, it should also be said that some details of his personal life are also quite noteworthy in the analysis of his literary work because some of the themes, which are central in his poems, are the result of his personal experience. In this respect it worth to mention that Thom Gunn was a ‘child’ of his epoch. Notably, Forester remarks that the poet used drugs, and reminds about the poet’s recognition of attraction to men. By the way, Woodcock also refers to Thom Gunn’s homosexual experience that played an important role in his literary work.
In such a way, the influence of the personal life of the poet on his literary work is obvious and undeniable. This is why it is possible to say that the problems he raises in his works and themes he widely discusses are closely related to his personal experience. To put it more precisely, it should be said that in many aspects, for instance, the use of the drug, the life of Thom Gunn was characterized as anti-social and even rebellious and unnatural, for example, if one refers to his homosexual experience and poems related to this theme. Furthermore, the theme of violence seems to be also not occasional because it may also be the result of his personal experience. For instance, it is hardly possible to argue that often drug use is closely related to violence.
Furthermore, the theme of violence seems to be also not occasional because it may also be the result of his personal experience. For instance, it is hardly possible to argue that often drug use is closely related to violence.
Thus, it is possible to estimate that Thom Gunn literary work is a logical continuation or reflection of his personal life.
Thus, it is possible to estimate that Thom Gunn literary work is a logical continuation or reflection of his personal life.
Thom Gunn’s style
Naturally, the development of Thom Gunn as a poet coincided with the development of his particular style, which many specialists consider to be quite interesting and noteworthy for the research. In fact, the poet’s style contributes to his expressiveness, and often it helps better understand what the poet intends to say in his poems.
Speaking about his style it worth to note that Thom Gunn was a poet belonging to the Movement though Stephen Burt considers the latter fact practically accidental. In this respect, it is hardly possible to agree with the critic because the poet’s style from the beginning of his literary career revealed that Thom Gunn is rather close to the ideology and philosophy of the Movement.
The latter is formed by poets, which were unmodernist and tended to use plainspoken English. In such a situation, the extremely formal style of Thom Gunn, especially in his early works seem to be quite appropriate especially compared to the sophisticated and advanced style of modernists.
Nonetheless, such a style has not prevented the poet from his fascination with the anti-social, the rebellious, the unnatural and, especially, with violence. Moreover, Thom Gunn often used classic verse forms, in which he successfully explored and criticised the anxieties of the society as for what was considered to be socially unacceptable, such as violence, use of drugs, homosexuality, and others. In fact, he is very skeptical about these modern anxieties, and it even seems that he is mocking them:
It is despair that nothing cannot be
Flares in the mind and leaves a smoky mark
Look upward. Neither firm nor free
Purposeless matter hovers in the dark.
(The Annihilation of Nothing)
As a rule, the poet’s works are characterized by his discipline of writing to a specific set of visual images and the liberation of free verse. Not surprisingly that, according to Stephen Burt, many considered Thom Gunn to be a strict craftsman who amply used quatrains, sonnets and heroic couplets significantly influenced by Ben Johnson and Thomas Hardy. This is why it is possible to say that the poet’s style incorporated traditional, formal approach and his particular, individual characteristics.
However, some specialists severely criticise such devotedness of Thom Gunn to traditional style. For instance, David Caplan is very skeptical about Thom Gunn’s use of heroic couplets. Notably, he states that “mastery of heroic couplets gives the lie to contemporary scorn for highly formal genres” (1999:221).
Obviously, it is a direct hint at Thom Gunn’s highly formal style, but this skepticism seems to be not supported by the persuasive evidence because, about the poet’s works, it is hardly possible to say that his formal style makes his poems any worse. On the contrary, Thom Gunn uses the highly precise style to discuss themes which are traditionally considered to be a kind of ‘taboo’, or at least they often were left aside, especially by the poets preferring the formal style of writing. For instance, his poems, even being written in the formal style, which is considered by many as highly conservative, tend to underline the author’s fascination with the anti-social, violence and other themes.
For instance, Paul Dean underlines the poet’s successful use of extreme formality combined with abstraction in the poem “On the Move”. Moreover, the critic underlines that many of Thom Gunn’s poems are “ironically in strict meter because he wrote them under the influence of drugs that gave him the courage to use associative imagery, to be more formally experimental, and move from meter to syllabics to free verse with new confidence” (2004:78). Consequently, it should be said that Paul Dean’s opinion only supports the idea mentioned above concerning the influence of the poet’s personal experience on his creative work.
At the same time, it should be said that the way the author wrote his poems only underlines the extent to which they were anti-social and rebellious because so was the process of their creation. In other words, it is obviously socially unacceptable to use drugs, while Thom Gunn wrote some of his poems in an intoxicating state. Naturally, it affected dramatically the thematic contents of his works, which seemed to absorb the author’s fascination with the anti-social.
However, Paul Dean also underlines that “Gunn never understood why he was seen as a celebrant of violence and remained grateful to Ted Hughes for insisting that Thom Gunn’s is the poetry of tenderness” (2004:79). Obviously, this fact emphasize the poet’s attempts to remain socially acceptable and, in such a situation, his works characterized by the author’s admiration with violence, the anti-social and the rebellious, probably indicate at the unconscious trends of Thom Gunn’s preferences. At the same time, it is also possible to explain such a paradoxical contradiction by way of writing of the poems, especially when the poet took drugs.
Nonetheless, to better understand the poet’s style, it is necessary to discuss some of his poems regarding example briefly. In this respect, the research of Paul Dean seems to be very noteworthy because Thom Gunn’s particular style made his poems particularly exciting and consequently successful. For instance, on analyzing the poem “From the Wave” the critic states that “rhythmically, the poem “From the Wave” is more subtle than the somewhat over-emphatic pentameter of “one wakes/ Afloat on the movement that divides and breaks” (Dean 2004:79). Furthermore, Paul Dean pays a particular attention to Thom Gunn’s use of syntax. For instance, referring to the same poem “From the Wave” he underlines that “the syntax here mimics the swell and dispersal of the water, and the alternating eight and four-syllable lines allow great variety” (Dean 2004:80). In such a way, it is necessary to point out that the syntax also played an extremely important role in the poet’s works. This fact is particularly noteworthy because the syntax can be used to emphasize certain ideas, emotions or feelings that overwhelm the poet.
At the same time, it is also noteworthy that Thom Gunn uses the highly formal style in a quite ironic form, as it has been mentioned above. Consequently, it is possible to characterize Thom Gunn’s style as controversial that may be a result of the anti-social and rebellious character of his poems because it is very difficult to resist to the traditional social stereotypes, what the poet actually did. Not surprisingly that he took drugs for the encouragement of his writing abilities.
In this respect, it is quite noteworthy to refer to critical works of Clive Wilmer who argues that “Gunn is quite consciously a writer of contrast, who has drawn on a wide range of influences and modes. But his work none the less impresses the careful reader with its underlying consistency. He made his name, after all, as a master of vigorously traditional verse forms. His approach at root is too impersonal” (1982:11). This is why it is necessary to say that Thom Gunn, in all probability, used the traditional style and impersonality of his poems to be more persuasive that is quite natural in the situation when he fascinated with the themes which were traditionally socially unacceptable.
Nonetheless, it is also necessary to point out that “the most interesting contrast of all, perhaps is connected with his sense of the past. What strikes us most immediately in Gunn’s poems – what made him famous in fact – is their contained energy” (1982:12). In this respect, it is possible to say that Gunn’s ‘sense of the past’ is closely related to his highly formal style and reflects the poet’s intention to reveal his fascination with anti-social, the rebellious, the unnatural and violence in his works in contrast to the past conservatism. In other words, his conservative style is contrasting to his advanced and modernist ideas, which produce a striking effect on a reader and make his views particularly noteworthy.
Thus, it is hardly possible to argue with Clive Wilmer when he claims that “the process of understanding amounts to something more than the business of comprehending the text” Understanding means taking the poems to heart, means ultimately acting on them” (1982:16). Concerning Thom Gunn’s poems, it means that the skillful use of contrast, a particular author’s style make his poems particularly easy to understand and accept, as well as ideas conveyed by the poet to readers.
Thom Gunn’s main themes
In fact, it has been already said that the main themes Thom Gunn discusses in his works are the anti-social, the rebellious, the unnatural. However, probably the most important theme the poet attempted to depict in his works is the theme of violence. Obviously, such a thematic consistency of his works is the result of his personal experience and was successfully presented with the help of his style.
Nonetheless, it is necessary to dwell upon some of his poems to better understand the extent, to which Thom Gunn emphasized his central themes mentioned above. For instance, one of the leading ideas of his works is a theme of violence may be found in many poems, one of which is the poem “Uncertain Violence”. In fact, the author was often criticised for this poem since, as Dyson points out that Gunn has been accused of lacking poetic personality, notably “Gunn has not enough of a poetic personality to be parodied, even by himself” (1990:37). At the same time, it should be said that “Uncertain Violence” seems to be a very symbolic and interesting work. Even the title of the poem reveals a paradoxical contradiction – uncertainty and violence. In fact, it is hardly possible to combine this two notions because violence originally implies self-assurance, or else a desire to increase one’s self-esteem with the help of violence. On the other hand, such uncertainty, emphasized by Thom Gunn, may indicate at his intention to underline the importance of the problem.
Probably, he wants to realize the cause of violence, and he rejects the traditional view on violence. He contradicts to stereotypes and argues with the traditional view on violence and, instead, he fascinates with it, especially with its power, unclear origin and difficulty of its solution. In this respect, a particular degree of the impersonality of the poet seems to be used intentionally to emphasize the mysteriousness of the problem of violence. In such interpretation of the poem and theme of violence makes criticism practically irrelevant. This is why it is hardly possible to agree with Dyson who states that “it is not surprising if Gunn sometimes disappoints the critics who require an ‘identifiable’ voice or ‘personality’ in what they read” (1990:37).
Furthermore, Thom Gunn also paid a lot of attention to the problem of the anti-social, rebellious and unnatural. These themes are particularly obvious in his poems concerning the problem of homosexuality and drugs. It should be said that these problems are really important since the poet amply discusses the problem of homosexuality in his poems, for instance, which is obviously quite critically perceived by the wide audience and the society. This is why his poems may be treated as rather provocative that underlines that certain degree of uncertainty and impersonality of his works is probably just another artistic device used to attract the higher attention of readers to the theme of his poems.
It should be pointed out that the problem of homosexuality is still relevant today and is still severely criticised by many specialists as well as ordinary readers. This makes the works of Thom Gunn particularly important since they have been written when this theme only has got started to be discussed in public and literature. Probably, the most significant poems written by Thom Gunn, related to the theme of homosexuality, are collected in the book “The Man with Night Sweats.” Critics, including Bruce Woodcock, emphasized the challenging nature of the book and its contents. For instance, Bruce Woodcock underlines that “Thom Gunn’s new book ‘The Man with Night Sweats’ has a suitably alarming nakedness to it. The cover shows a statue of the tomb of Rene de Chalons: a human figure with skeletal form emerging through decaying flash holds up an apple and stares at it intently” (1993:60). In fact, it seems as though there is no room for uncertainty in the poet’s works anymore, on the contrary, the fascination with the anti-social within the book seems to be intentionally emphasized.
Furthermore, it should be said that this book challenges another extremely arguable theme that was also socially unaccepted, i.e. the theme of AIDS. It is not a secret that at the beginning this disease was perceived by the society as a problem of a definite category of people, which were treated by society as outcasts. This is why the fact that Thom Gunn paid a lot of attention to this problem underlines that the poet was particularly concerned and interested in it, even though this could make his poem socially unacceptable.
In this respect, it is necessary to refer to Bruce Woodcock who, on analyzing “The Man with Night Sweats”, estimates that “his book is a bold confrontation with the experience of AIDS in verse which is yet as elegant and powerful as any in his work” (1993:60). At the same time, it is very important to emphasize that this, to a certain extent anti-social, rebellious position of the poet, influenced significantly his style as well as the thematic value of his poems. Notably, Bruce Woodcock points out that “AIDS has brought Gunn to a simultaneous nakedness of content and form. These poems are not confessional” (1993:60), and this fact indicates that the poet’s works remain impersonal. Instead, he pays particular attention to the social importance of the problem since “Gunn’s position has been that of observing the impact of the disease on others, his friends, and community.
What this has brought out in him is an extension of his poetic craft… In Gunn’s case, the developments demanded have emerged from his work was already taking and tensions, which were previously present” (Woodcock 1993:60). In such a way, this book was another step in his creative work, which only emphasized the author’s particular attention to arguable themes and his fascination with them.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Thom Gunn, being a talented poet, was courageous enough to raise and discuss problems which were not always acceptable by the society. Moreover, many of his works are rather provocative since they reveal the author’s fascination with the themes of the anti-social, the rebellious, the unnatural and one of the central themes, the theme of violence. The poet has managed to attract the attention of readers remaining impersonal and often using traditional style. As a result, his works are quite persuasive the poet’s position emphasizing their pretending objectivity. This is why it is possible to estimate that Thom Gunn was very lucky in the discussion of themes that he fascinated with.
Burt, Stephen. “Kinaesthetic Aesthetics.” Southwest Review; 1999, Vol. 84 Issue 3, p384, 18p.
Caplan, David. “Why not the heroic couplet?” New Literary History; Winter99, Vol. 30 Issue 1, p221, 18p.
Dean, Paul. “Thom Gunn, 1929-2004”. New Criterion; Nov2004, Vol. 23 Issue 3, p78-80, 3p.
Dyson, A.E. Three contemporary poets: Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, & R.S. Thomas. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1990, 294p.
Forester, C.Q. “Re-experiencing Thom Gunn.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide; Sep/Oct2005, Vol. 12 Issue 5, p14-19, 6p.
Gray, Paul. “Poems of Love And Death.” Time Europe; 10/9/2000, Vol. 156 Issue 15, p74, 1/3p.
Wilmer, Clive (ed). Thom Gunn. The occasions of poetry: essays in criticism and autobiography by Thom Gunn. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.188p.
Woodcock, Bruce. “’But oh not loose’: form and sexuality in Thom Gunn’s poetry.” Critical Quarterly; Spring93, Vol. 35 Issue 1, p60, 13p.
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