I spent years ignoring, or dismissing, Thom Gunn. As a young idiot poseur at Cambridge, I naturally dismissed him as (a) a representative of an earlier Cambridge generation, (b) a one-time associate of Ted Hughes, and (c) a formalist whose work was insufficiently free-form and obscure to be taken seriously.
As the years went by, I shed my juvenile prejudices, came to value formalism very highly, and, when I came across the odd Thom Gunn poem, I began to warm to him (I've even put a couple up on this blog). Then, in the TLS anthology, A Century of Poems, which I've written about here more than once, I came across this fine, bleak poem that reimagines in modern terms the grey tedium and unease of the afterlife described by Homer:
Of course the dead outnumber us
- How their recruiting armies grow!
My mother archaic now as Minos,
She who died forty years ago
After their processing, the dead
Sit down in groups and watch TV,
In which they must be interested,
For on it they watch you and me.
These four, who though they never met
Died in one month, sit side by side
Together in front of the same set
And all without a TV Guide.
Arms round each other's shoulders loosely,
Although they can feel nothing, who
When they unlearned their pain so sprucely
Let go of all sensation too.
Thus they watch friend and relative
And life here as they think it is
- In black and white, repetitive
As situation comedies.
With both delight and tears at first
They greet each programme on death's stations.
But in the end lose interest,
Their boredom turning to impatience.
'He misses me? He must be kidding
- This week he's sleeping with a cop.'
'All she reads now is Little Gidding.'
'They're getting old. I wish they'd stop.'
The habit of companionship
Lapses - they break themselves of touch:
Edging apart at arm and hip
Till separated on the couch.
They woo amnesia, look away
As if they were not yet elsewhere,
But when snow blurs the picture they,
Turned, give it a belonging stare.
Snow blows out toward them, till their seat
Filling with flakes becomes instead
Snow-bank, snow-landscape, and in that
They find themselves with all the dead,
Where passive light from snow-crust shows them
Both Minos circling and my mother.
Yet none of the recruits now knows them,
Nor do they recognise each other.
They have been so superbly trained
Into the perfect discipline
Of an archaic host, and weaned
From memory briefly barracked in.
Reading this led me to buy Gunn's late collection The Man with Night Sweats, in which it is the penultimate poem. The best part of the collection, written during the plague years of the Aids epidemic, is suffused with death and mourning, and includes such beautifully controlled, intensely moving poems as Lament and Still Life. Here Gunn's formalism finds an occasion worthy of it - worthier than the hard-core gay sex and drugs that were so often his theme.
The best poems in The Man with Night Sweats prove yet again that, far from falsifying or constraining emotion, strict form skilfully handled can enrich and intensify it - and never more so than when the subject is death. (Consider Bishop King's Exequy - and Peter Porter's, Ben Jonson's On My First Son, Gray's sonnet on the death of Richard West, Tennyson's In Memoriam... )
I'm glad I've finally discovered how good Thom Gunn could be, when the occasion found him.