‘Each takes a turn, as one does, south of the Market’
Selected Poems, Thom Gunn, Faber and Faber, July 2017, pp.336, £18.99 (hardcover) Proprietary, Randall Mann, Persea, July 2017, pp.80, £12.99 (paperback) Thom Gunn’s Selected Poems, introduced and edited by Clive Wilmer, significantly expands the slim volume of Gunn’s work selected by August Kleinzahler for Faber’s ‘poet-to-poet’ series in 2007. (Kleinzahler’s edition is still worth your money, I might add, for his marvellous introductory essay on Gunn and the plain style.) Wilmer’s choices include some of Gunn’s longer and more ambitious poems (‘Misanthropos’, ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’, ‘Transients and Residents’) and offer more generous selections from the early volumes Fighting Terms and The Sense of Movement. His introduction is the closest thing we have to a biography of Gunn, and his accompanying notes draw in large part from previously unpublished sources, including the repository of Gunn’s papers at UC Berkeley, and his letters to Faber & Faber, Karl Miller, Tony Tanner, and Wilmer himself. The accompanying material provides a wealth of new perspectives on Gunn’s life and work.
Gunn remains something of an unknown quantity for a British audience, especially when compared to those poets of a similar generation who stuck around in England. There is no biography, no collected letters, no ‘Gunn Industry’. The fact you can do a fairly comprehensive Gunn literature survey in a few sentences tells its own story. Wilmer’s introduction and notes are such that we begin to receive the kinds of deep background we have long enjoyed for Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin. The letters to Tanner are especially rich, and fill out some of the apparent grey area around Gunn that has made him seem somewhat isolated and out on his own in San Francisco. Friendship, Gunn remarks, ‘must be the greatest value in my life. … I write about love, I write about friendship. Unlike Proust, I think
that love and friendship are part of the same spectrum. Proust says that they are absolutely incompatible. I find that they are absolutely intertwined’. Time to find out about the boys.
Tanner and Gunn met at UC Berkeley in 1959-60, where Gunn was an associate lecturer and Tanner was doing graduate work. At first Gunn saw himself in the role of mentor to Tanner, six years his junior, but their friendship developed along a more equal footing and Tanner became one of Gunn’s most trusted counsellors. Wilmer quotes a long letter from Gunn to Tanner (c.29 Nov 1960) about Gunn’s poem ‘Innocence’: ‘I’m trying to deal with a problem I’ve never before fully faced in a poem,’ Gunn writes, ‘the problem of the consequences of energy (which I admire) without moral sanction.’ The poem describes a young boy in the SS, ‘harden[ed] to an instrument’, his innocence ‘childlike and clear’, who watches an enemy soldier burn alive and ‘feel[s] disgusted only at the smell’. Gunn was much preoccupied with ideas of innocence. A more positive account can be found in ‘Three’, a Lawrentian poem based on his encounter with a naked family on a beach at Lands End, SF. When Donald Hall asked Gunn for a ‘poetics’ for a book in 1978, Gunn sent him an essay called ‘A Procedure’, an account of the scene that inspired ‘Three’ and his experience writing the poem. In the essay, Gunn mentions ‘a familiar enough association of ideas, it’s true – trust, openness, acceptance, innocence’, what he and his best friend and Cambridge companion Tony White had called ‘the Values’ back in the 1950s. In writing the poem, Gunn remarks, ‘I realized I had among other things found an embodiment for my haunting cluster of concepts’.
Bringing together extracts from Gunn’s lesser known prose, as well as from unpublished letters, Wilmer’s edition provides an excellent foundation for readers and scholars to engage anew with Gunn’s poems. But as much as these insights and glosses will enhance our understanding of Gunn’s life and work, his reputation remains curiously suspended between his British roots and American home. Andrew McMillan has remarked that Gunn ‘is oddly forgotten, half-forgotten at least; too American in style for the English establishment, too English and reserved for the American tradition.’ McMillan has done a lot for Gunn’s reputation in the last few
years, speaking and writing at length of Gunn’s profound influence on his debut collection physical.
But what of America? Of contemporary US poets, who may we count among Gunn’s spearholders? In 2013, The Kansas City Star called San Francisco-based poet Randall Mann ‘an essential heir to … Thom Gunn’. Born in Provo, Utah, Mann grew up in Kentucky and Florida before moving to San Francisco in 1998. His previous collections are Complaint in the Garden, for which he won the Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry; Breakfast with Thom Gunn; and Straight Razor. Like Gunn, Mann thrives on the demands of constraint, the challenge of needing to go deep into a subject to find the rhyme, to maintain the integrity of the line, to render an experience with clarity, control, and concision. His work demonstrates a formal rigour not often seen in contemporary poetry, even in his free verse which, as Mann reminds us, is a formal choice.
Interviewed for the website 48 Hills, Mann states that his new collection, Proprietary (Persea, 2017), ‘is a book about gentrification and ownership, that’s why I called it that. It involves the gentrification of language and this fatuous idea of ownership, of a house, of a relationship.’ We can trace the connection(s) between language and ownership back to Mann’s earliest poems. In the marvellous ‘Pantoum’ from Complaint, Mann explores the words used by ‘men who fall in love with men’ to describe themselves, in the absence of ‘the perfect word’. Its first stanza reads:
If there is a word in the lexicon of love, it will not declare itself. The nature of words is to fail men who fall in love with men.
‘I think a lot in pantoums,’ Mann remarks, citing Donald Justice’s ‘Pantoum of the Great Depression’ as the poem that taught him much about the form. Mann especially admires the way Justice slows down his pantoum with end-stopped lines (only two of its thirty-seven lines are run-ons), and drew from this both an elegant gravity and a ruthlessness best seen in his
‘September Elegies’, written in memory of four bullied queer boys who killed themselves. Twenty-seven of the twenty-eight lines are end-stopped. Come the end of ‘Pantoum’, ‘The nature of words is to fail’ becomes the final line, its run-on becomes end-stopped. The implication, then, is not a failure on the part of ‘men who fall in love with men’, but a failure on the part of those who have traditionally had the power to codify words: to slur, to repress, to exclude. That language fails ‘men who fall in love with men’ reflects a greater failure of our human title. The poem is a triumph of ‘men who fall in love with men’ to reclaim – to seek ownership of – words that have not always been theirs to use.
Going back to the beginning of Mann’s work, David Baker writes of Complaint that ‘part of Mann’s project is to trace the collision of natural and human cultures that has characterized his beloved Southeast, and this continent, for the past five hundred years.’ If Complaint takes Florida as backdrop, Breakfast takes San Francisco, its leather bars and streetcars, for its urban centre. ‘My San Francisco,’ Mann writes, ‘is, I hope, like Gunn’s, unashamedly sexual and slightly self-destructive, the fragile beauty of men and the cityscape a vital part of the pathos of the poetry.’ Straight Razor, meanwhile, looks to both present and past. We still see the locales of SF – Larkin Street, Civic Center – yet Mann centres on ‘a turn toward memory, a mythologized childhood, and the perils of queer adolescence’. In ‘My Subdivision’:
my fear – Smear the Queer – and after, a turn
through the boy’s locker room, the smuggled towel, the smell of come, of childhood, like dirt:
it was a myth, my kiddie pool a little Black Sea, a pool of inverts; the smell of Pall Malls,
which made my heart hurt.
The faint echo of terza rima attests to Mann’s adroitness in manipulating formal structures and conventions for new ends. ‘I think the evolution of my formal choices really centre around rhyme,’ Mann writes. ‘Overall there’s more free verse in [ Proprietary], but I’m using rhyme as the chief poetic driver, leading me from one image or through to another. I’ve found that as I’ve been writing, I love rhyme more and more – I’m completely addicted to it, that wonderful way that rhyme can push a poem forward and also turn it back on itself.’
In Proprietary, Mann apes the language of corporate biotech culture to explore the impact of such culture on San Francisco: how its language makes its mark on – cultivates an ownership of – the city. The title poem and ‘Proximity’ represent this growing trend – from corporate baby-babble such as ‘let me loop back with you’, ‘please cascade as appropriate’, and ‘ Calendar is a verb’, to the realisation of this power dynamic in the naming of sites: the anonymous, dystopian-sounding ‘Building 5’ to what might pass as a street name: ‘Double Helix Way’. As with ‘Pantoum’, there are acts of resistance: in ‘Proprietary’, the doughnut factory next door ‘won’t sell at any price’. ‘Once I figured out how to write about it,’ Mann reflects on his time at Genentech, ‘how to leach a poem out of it all, it was time to let go and move on.’ Written largely between 2011—2015, the kernel of Proprietary may, perhaps, be found in the final couplet of ‘Renewal’: ‘The famine in our eyes, / The spawn of franchise’.
This exploration of ownership jostles with other kinds of ownership, control, and possession: of memories, bodies, sexuality, not to mention formal control. Mann’s longest poem, ‘Leo and Lance’, begins with a seventeen-year-old Mann driving to the porn shop to buy the titular ‘80s classic (‘I can measure / this adventure / in increments / of shame’). It was a time, Mann recalls, when people ‘had to figure out their sexuality without access to very much information, and it was a fog.’ It was a time without internet, and the poem pivots on Mann’s use of the internet to discover what happened to Leo and Lance after their porn careers, and to tell their stories. Mann cites David Trinidad’s ‘Ode to Dick Fisk’ as a model in terms of how, through intertwining autobiography and pornography, ‘many of
us could probably tell the story of our sexuality.’ At the end of the poem, Mann focuses on a surprising image from the film. ‘Before / they formally meet,’ he writes,
they have a little snowball fight, brief, unexpectedly sweet –
like children in the street.
The innocence contrasts with the not-so-innocent porn movie yet returns the poem to the kind with which it begins: Mann ‘heading toward … where the porn was’, as if in his seventeen-year-old mind Orange Blossom Trail held a monopoly on porn VHS. The childish snowball fight echoes the kind of innocent play we see in Gunn’s ‘Three’, and those values that so preoccupied Gunn – trust, openness, acceptance, innocence – are evident across Mann’s poems, creating connections to Gunn’s work beyond acute formal control and gay subject matter. Mann’s short essay on Thom Gunn ( Kenyon Review, Summer 2009) is required reading. While ‘On the Move’ was the first Gunn poem Mann encountered, his favourite of Gunn’s books is The Passages of Joy (Faber, 1982). Its central theme is friendship, and Passages, writes Mann, is ‘a darkly humane rendering of how gay men relate, and fail to relate, to each other in San Francisco’. It is an ‘everyday chronicle of the curious, formal, free poetry that is San Francisco, of the love and the fog and the drug-fucked nights.’ Like Passages, Proprietary is a book full of other people: Mann is there – many of the poems are pretty autobiographical in foundation – but there are many ‘transients and residents’, to borrow a Gunn title, from the unnamed tricks and lovers, to porn-stars Leo and Lance, to friends and confidants such as the poets Michael Hofmann and Diann Blakely. Just as Gunn treats ‘the Values’ from a variety of perspectives, Mann takes them on, pulls no punches, and asks what it means to be trusting, open, and accepting in so fraught a moment across the US and the world.