|Thom Gunn's poetry - study guide|
I have written this study guide for students taking GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) courses in English literature, and other comparable literature courses. It is suitable for undergraduates and the general reader who is interested in the study of poetry. This guide was originally written to cover a selection of poems prescribed as a set text for exam, but can be used as a way in to the study of Thom Gunn's poems generally. The poems considered explicitly here are these:
All these collections are currently out of print, but they are available in Thom Gunn's Collected Poems pub. Noonday, 1995; ISBN 0374524335. On an Advanced level course you should study your chosen text (here a range of poems) in very close detail. In preparing for an exam you need to learn to see the whole wood, as well as look at individual trees.
In this tutorial you will study a selection of poems from a number of collections by Thom Gunn. While you are expected to show an individual and personal response to the poems, this does not mean that any view is as good as another. You should be aware of the critical consensus (i.e. generally-held views) in regard to Gunn's work. In the first place, this will come from your teacher's informed exposition of the texts, but you must feel free to question anything which is not clear. If you have insights of your own, please contribute these to discussion: it is quite usual for students to discover things of interest which may have been overlooked. You may also wish to read commentaries by professional critics. The most accessible guide for students is Alan Bold's Thom Gunn & Ted Hughes (pub. Oliver & Boyd, 1976; ISBN 0050028545). This contains a good bibliography. The book is currently out of print but may be available.
About Thom Gunn
You may like to read a short tribute by Tom Martin, of Florida, which mimics Gunn's early style. Click on the link below to read Tom's poem:
Thom Gunn enjoyed a renaissance in his later years, following his publication in 1992 of The Man with Night Sweats, a collection inspired by the deaths of friends from AIDS: this was greeted with great critical acclaim, not just (it is to be hoped) for the topicality of its subject matter.
Thom Gunn's first two collections, Fighting Terms (1954) and The Sense of Movement (1957) were greeted with great interest: Gunn was a poet who used rhyme and metre in a highly formal manner, but the work disturbed many because of the poet's fascination with the anti-social, the rebellious and the unnatural, and, above all, with violence.
It is clear that Gunn examined these things with an almost scientific interest; here were people who had rejected conventional ways of living, finding them empty or inadequate, while searching for some alternative way to live. If sympathetic to his characters' disgust at social convention, Gunn is also critical of the inadequacy of their protest. Among the tough-minded characters we meet in these poems are soldiers, saints, revolutionaries, motorcycle gangs, sado-masochists, a voyeur and, even, a werewolf; a Roman emperor, Paris, Merlin and Elvis Presley. Time and again, we see how actual or intended violence is the expression of revolt. In My Sad Captains, Gunn begins to develop a more subtle view of the problems of existence; the tough stance is left behind, and Gunn moves towards a positive affirming of more humane qualities in Touch, a process which culminates in the exuberant celebrations of life, of innocent social and sexual pleasure, and, above all, of love, in Moly.
Writing about Thom Gunn's poetry
The poems this tutorial examines in detail are taken from four collections, as follows:
The poems for study in some ways typify the collections from which they come and explore the chief concerns of the four volumes. You should look at other poems by Gunn, both in these volumes and elsewhere, to see whether these also deal with the same preoccupations. You cannot write all that you know about all the poems. In most exams or assessed work you have a limit in terms of time or a word-count. Detailed study of some parts of some poems is important, as is briefer reference to the others. Although the task you undertake may oblige you to treat the poems chronologically, you should not simply discuss them, in terms of your essay title or question, in isolation from each other. You should compare one poem to another, wherever possible, to show similarity or contrast, in content (what is said) and technique (how it is said).
In summary, then, as you discuss a poem, show how it presents or develops a central idea or question (such as how to live with dignity in a valueless world) and where it fits in the development of the poet's thought (if you accept that there is such development), by comparison with earlier or later pieces.
The Sense of Movement
On the Move
This poem, from Gunn's second collection, is his most famous piece, and among the best-known of all post-war poems. In it, the aimless but threatening movement of a motorcycle gang becomes a metaphor for modern man's sense of alienation and lack of purpose. The image is very much of its time but illustrates a more lasting problem, not knowing one's destination and, so, joining the movement which offers the illusion of purpose, as a part-solution. When you have read the poem, try to discover what Gunn is arguing in it. Then see if you can follow the way in which Gunn uses the analogy (parallel) of the actions of the motorcyclists to show how modern man in general (in the poem, referred to as one) lacks a clear sense of purpose and thus follows others, even if their activity, too, is ultimately purposeless.
In the first stanza, Gunn briefly introduces the general premiss of the poem, which is fully developed in the fourth stanza. Try to understand what Gunn means by uncertain violence and the dull thunder of approximate words. How does Gunn justify this kind of movement (albeit equivocally) with his theory of the part solution later in the poem?
Kelly, from the University of Florida, sent me an interesting quotation from Thom Gunn, in which he writes critically about On the Move:
There are many things to dislike about On the Move. To begin with, there's the constant use of the word one, which I find very stilted now. Now I would use the word you rather than one. Then again, it's such a period piece. I say that, not because it's based on a short book by Sartre, or because it's also based on The Wild One, but because of its tremendous formality, which I really dislike. I'm also not sure that the last line (One is always nearer by not keeping still) means anything.
This is a far less ambitious poem than On the Move. Its interest lies in the fact that it shows a man who seeks contentment by placing himself outside of social and sexual pleasures, in order to enjoy them vicariously (that is, through others), as a voyeur (Pleasure was simple thus...) A chance discovery shows him that this is a delusion, (No man is an island...) and he goes off to meet a friend. The poem's argument is clear, but too schematic for comfort.
My Sad Captains
In Santa Maria del Popolo
This poem comes from Gunn's third collection, My Sad Captains (1961). It is a complex work, as it examines another work of art, the painting of the conversion of St. Paul by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It is not necessary to see this painting, to understand the poem, but it helps. Gunn appears to think that this (very well-known) painting will be familiar to his reader. He tries to show how Caravaggio deliberately made his work ambiguous: there is a simple surface meaning, beneath which the artist has concealed (but Gunn thinks we can uncover it readily) his own vision.
In this poem, Gunn suggests that the famous painting seems to show St. Paul, fallen from his horse and struck blind by his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. In reality, Gunn argues, the painting shows the saint having a rather different experience. While simple people, who come to the church to pray, will be comforted by the conventional religious meaning, those who are more perceptive will see what the painter really intended.
In On the Move Gunn uses a series of connected metaphors, all deriving from the key image of movement. In this (later) poem there is a similar use of metaphor; here, images of light and of darkness are used to explore the ideas of understanding and of ignorance.
In the first stanza, Gunn describes his waiting for the time of day when the sunlight falls on the painting, so he can view it. He notes how real shadow falls on the painted shadow. (The artist is celebrated for his use of light and shade). This means the very subject is in doubt. One can barely see (literally) what is in the painting. But what Gunn perhaps means (or suggests) by this phrase is that there is doubt as to the interpretation (or meaning) of the painting.
The second stanza describes the painting's content. The artist has tried to show Saul (the Pharisee) becoming St. Paul (the Christian). But Gunn notes how Caravaggio's technique draws the viewer's eye to Paul's convulsive gesture, lifting his open arms. In asking what is it you mean?, Gunn implies that the orthodox (conventional) interpretation (Paul's accepting Christ) may not be what is intended. The painter, Gunn argues (third stanza) saw what was, both the open and the hidden. Caravaggio's eye for the truth of human frailty is shown in his other works, to which Gunn here refers.
But the point of the poem only appears in the final stanza. Having seen the picture, Gunn is hardly enlightened. He has found understanding neither of the religious experience Caravaggio was commissioned to paint, nor, with certainty, of what the artist really meant to show. This he contrasts with the others who have come to the church (mostly old women). They take comfort from the painting, which they interpret conventionally, as showing a religious conversion. They are too tired - too exhausted by the harshness of their lives - to manage the large gesture. This is, to resist nothingness, by embracing it.
Gunn suggests in this concluding line, that there is no real meaning in life, that beyond it there is oblivion - nothingness. The only way truly to resist this, to face up to it, is by embracing it, that is accepting it with no fear. This, of course, is a difficult thing to do. It is for this reason, that few will have the courage for this. This explains why it is solitary man who does so. Gunn does not begrudge the simple masses the conventional succour of religious belief. Though he does not state it, he suggests that Caravaggio showed how this embracing of nothingness was St. Paul's real experience; Gunn may also imply that, finding no enlightenment in religion, he, too, may be ready for this large gesture.
The poem clearly articulates how modern man, discovering no meaning in religious belief, is forced to confront his own mortality. There is a certain arrogance in Gunn's idea that religious faith (shown to be the religion of simple and aged Italian peasant women) is for the weak, as there is in the implied commendation of the heroic large gesture of Paul/the artist/Gunn himself. However, you may compare the poem favourably with On the Move. There, Gunn examines others' search for purpose while remaining aloof from the human dilemma, as if it has nothing to do with him. In this poem, he has the courage (even if he makes a show of it) to face the bleakness of his own view of human life. The poem is characterized by a lofty stoicism.
Technically, the poem is very pleasing: the argument moves from apparently innocent comments about seeing a painting, to profound observations on human existence. By his use of the metaphor of light (enlightenment) and by exploring the nature of art, in his own work of art, Gunn makes his argument coherent and intellectually stimulating, while the final line concludes the debate with an apparently unanswerable flourish. The language of the poem is more varied, less formal, than that of On the Move, and the iambic line is used more fluently and with greater vigour.
Claus von Stauffenberg
My Sad Captains is in two sections. In the first of these, Gunn uses the formal iambic verse form of the previous two collections: this part begins with In Santa Maria del Popolo and ends with Claus von Stauffenberg. In the second part, Gunn writes in syllabic verse; the last piece in the collection is the title poem.
Claus von Stauffenberg takes its name from its subject. He was an aristocratic army officer who was one of the principal members of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July of 1944. Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb in Hitler's hut, leaving before it exploded. Hitler survived the blast, and von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators were arrested and executed.
In the poem Gunn contrasts the illogic of Hitler with the rational man, von Stauffenberg. The two are literally but also symbolically face to face across the table. Although von Stauffenberg fails in his purpose, he is to be admired, both as honour personified and for his act of will, in opposing Hitler. It is fitting that the last poem Gunn writes in this form should depict such a character: like many of the people we meet in The Sense of Movement, von Stauffenberg is tough-minded, a man in whom the will leads to action; he chooses not to conform to the current orthodoxy and achieves a kind of freedom in his rebellion.
My Sad Captains
In Claus von Stauffenberg Gunn takes a kind of leave (says goodbye)of his earlier verse by writing for the last time in a certain form about a subject (a tough-minded but rational man in uniform) which we have often found in his writing hitherto. Now, Gunn writes in a new form about his earlier concerns. The poem's title comes from Mark Antony in Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra: Antony (another tough-minded soldier) is planning a last celebration with his faithful officers before his death. (Defeated by Octavian/Augustus he will die in the Roman manner, taking his own life).
The title of Gunn's poem indicates the poet's reviewing the characters of his own earlier writing (some friends, some historical names). Now they are seen as distant: they are no longer Gunn's immediate concern (the other poems in this part of the collection indicate new kinds of subject and areas of interest) but withdraw to an orbit and are like the stars. That is, though seen as far away now, yet they become a point of reference for the writer. Stars may be remote, but it is by them that we navigate.
This poem, by itself, does not make much sense but if we know a little about the poet, and that he wishes to signal a change in the direction of his work (as Gunn has confirmed by his own comments) then we can solve the puzzle. To write about one's own work as starscould be seen as bombastic navel-gazing. How far it is justified depends on the merits of this early work. Other poets ( William Wordsworth in The Prelude, W.B. Yeats in The Circus Animal's Desertion) have written about the development of their poetry. Perhaps Gunn is fit to be in such company without immodesty!
I am grateful to Elena Braito who has allowed me to publish here her teaching guide to Innocence. Click on the hyperlinks below to open or save this document.
The collection Touch (1967) is notable for the simplicity of its style and for the compassion of the poet's outlook. Writing about it, Gunn said:
I do not mean that one can simply love everybody because one wants to, but that one can try to avoid all the situations in which love is impossible
The poetry is mostly in the syllabic verse adopted in the second half of My Sad Captains, but some pieces are in rhymed iambic lines.
Proserpina was the daughter of Ceres, the goddess of vegetation; she was abducted by Pluto and unable to return freely to the upper world, after eating a pomegranate he gave her, but compelled to spend half the year with him and half with her mother. This story is an allegory of the renewal of life in the spring. In Gunn's poem, the goddess is an embodiment (representation) of fertility in nature.
The title poem of the collection is one of the simplest of all of Gunn's poems. It is in loose syllabic verse (loose, in that stressed syllables are counted, but unstressed syllables may be added freely) and explores ideas of companionship and isolation that we have met in the earlier The Corridor. But now, Gunn writes of his own ability to touch. The best part of the poem is the conclusion, in which Gunn depicts the space shared with his lover as a:
dark/ wide realm where we/ walk with everyone
which anticipates the more eloquent celebration of universal love we will find in Sunlight (from Moly).
In the Tank
In style this poem, with its tightly organized iambic pentameter quatrains could be from The Sense of Movement. As in The Corridor, Gunn observes in a detached manner an anonymous subject. But this poem shows a new compassion for the man's plight, and offers no neat solution to his problems. The tankin which the man sits serves as a metaphor for our general lack of freedom.
The Vigil of Corpus Christi
This poem also comes from Touch. A vigil is kept by one who stays awake all night, usually on a feast day of the church, to watch and meditate or pray. In mediaeval times monks, or devout people generally, would do this. Corpus Christi (the name means Body of Christ) is such a feast day. The title suggests the devotional act of a Christian in bygone days, but has a contemporary setting. It is not clear here whether Corpus Christi refers to the feast day or one of the places of this name. Gunn notes in his Collected Poems that the poem was suggested by an incident in a film.
Now read the poem thoroughly. When you have done so, try to answer these questions:
When you have (later) read all the poems set, you should try to show how this poem, which has not received much critical acclaim, forms a kind of bridge between Gunn's early work and Moly.
The Sand Man
This poem comes from Moly (1971). When Ulysses and his men (in Homer's Odyssey) are turned into swine by Circe, the magic herb Moly restores them to their human shape. It is clear that Gunn has used this as a metaphor for the power of mind-expanding drugs (chiefly LSD) to raise one's spiritual awareness. In many of the poems (including the title piece) Gunn refers to this power - this makes the work seem both controversial and a product of its time and place. It seems, however, that (whether in spite of, or because of these drugs) Gunn has achieved a clear vision of universal charity, which characterizes the best of the poems. These have no psychedelic overtones, but remain powerful proclamations of enduring human values.
The Sand Man, like The Vigil of Corpus Christi, is about a man who has dropped out of conventional society, but there the similarities end. The poem depicts a man, who, instead of seeking some way to live with dignity and purpose, has retreated from this challenge into the security of a child-like oneness with the natural world. He has almost become an animal. It is worth contrasting this poem with the excellent The Discovery of the Pacific, in which Gunn shows how one can draw close to nature without losing one's human consciousness. Gunn views the Sand Man with sympathy, but this man's drastic response to his problems is no answer for the rest of us.
Now read the poem, and answer the questions which follow.
The Discovery of the Pacific
This is the penultimate poem in Moly and one of the very best of Gunn's pieces. Gunn habitually places at the beginning or end of a collection, poems which most strongly reflect his own outlook, which, as we have seen, changes over the years. The poem seems to be a simple narrative about a couple who drive to the ocean, using the sun as their compass. Unlike the very bombastic On the Move, this poem uses everyday vocabulary, yet in it, Gunn simultaneously creates several layers of meaning. The poem is extremely economical, and repays the reader who is prepared to re-read it.
The journey of the couple in the poem is in part a mythic recreation of the great pioneering journeys westward of the first white settlers of what is now the U.S.A. It is also a poem about the discovery of peace: the couple's inner peace, peace with each other and peace with their natural surroundings.
Now read the poem, and answer these questions:
Where The Discovery of the Pacific does rather ambitious things almost by stealth, under the cover of a simple tale, this poem deals explicitly with abstractions and generalizations, that make the argument less easy, in a superficial way, to follow. The relationship of the sun to the lesser lights and energies of our world becomes a symbol of the universal human love by which our own little lights of charity are inspired. Gunn concedes that this love will not last for ever (the solar system is both imperfect and deteriorating) but will outlast us at the heart. This is the nearest to perfection that man can draw: to see and participate in this universal love.
The poem ends with two stanzas which are a prayer to the sun to enable man to transcend his petty limitations and kindle...petals of light around the greater light (love) of the sun. Though the poem wrestles with such profound mysteries of human experience, it does so with more ease and fluency than the earlier On the Move. This is partly due to the poem's central image, and partly to the poet's argument. Sunlight, rather than the aimless movement of motorcyclists, seems a more accessible image. Gunn is novel in using the motorcyclists as a source of metaphor. With this image of sunlight he draws on a wealth of already existing associations. The poem's concluding celebration of universal charity ultimately seems more attractive than the slick but doubtful assertion in the earlier piece that one is always nearer by not keeping still.
And more persuasive, too: after Moly, Gunn did not publish any work of equal note, until the catastrophe of AIDS (for Gunn a public and private catastrophe, as the disease has claimed so many of his friends) prompted his publication of The Man with Night Sweats. It is almost as if Sunlight is a definitive and eloquent statement of the poet's outlook on which it is impossible for Gunn to improve. Equally, it is as if, in his case, this has become an absolute position in which to rest , and that not keeping still is no longer true of his poetic outlook.
In understanding the development of Gunn's thought, this is probably the most important poem set for you to study. Rather than answer a series of questions on it, you should do the following:
Reflecting on the poems together
Now that you have studied so many of Gunn's poems, you may wish to consider these general questions:
In writing about Gunn's poetry, you may wish to look at questions which span the various collections, to look more closely at his work in a given volume or to make connections with the work of other writers on subjects or themes which Gunn's poetry examines. A short list of suggested titles follows. These are not definitive and are in every case open to adaptation, by discussing with your teacher an intended approach. Of course, you may think of something wholly different, in which case you should, again, discuss this with your teacher:
Creative approaches to study
This guide can be used to study the poems in a very traditional way, leading to a piece of written work. However, there are other useful approaches, especially for developing an understanding of the poems if you are meeting them for the first time.
Using computer software
If you have the use of a computer you can use appropriate software to present your work attractively:
Speaking and listening
Varying the audience
Prepare (for reading or listening) different kinds of text which show your understanding of the poems, which are suited to a range of possible readers or audiences. Some examples include:
As an example of a creative response, you may wish to read a short tribute by Tom Martin, of Florida, which mimics Gunn's early style. Click on the link below to read Tom's poem:
© Andrew Moore, 2002, 2004; Contact me