Interviews

Thom Gunn, The Art of Poetry No. 72

Interviewed by Clive Wilmer

Thom Gunn was born in Gravesend, on the southern bank of the Thames estuary, in 1929. His childhood was spent mostly in that county, Kent, and in the affluent suburb of Hampstead in northwest London. A relatively happy boyhood was overshadowed first by his parents’ divorce when he was ten and then by his mother’s suicide when he was fifteen. In 1950, after two years’ national service in the army, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study English. This was during the heyday of F. R. Leavis, whose lectures had a profound effect on Gunn’s early poetry.

It was in Cambridge that he discovered his homosexuality, falling in love with his lifelong partner, an American student named Mike Kitay. The wish to stay with Kitay led him to apply for American scholarships, and in 1954 he took up a creative writing fellowship at Stanford, where he studied with Yvor Winters. In 1960 he settled with Kitay in San Francisco and has lived there ever since, though longish spells have been passed in other places, notably London, where he lived on a travel grant from 1964 to 1965. For most of his time in California he has earned at least part of his income from the English Department at Berkeley, where he now teaches one semester a year.

His first book of poetry, Fighting Terms, written while he was at Cambridge, was published in 1954. Seven major collections have followed: The Sense of Movement (1957), My Sad Captains (1961), Touch (1967), Moly (1971), Jack Straw’s Castle (1976), The Passages of Joy (1982), and The Man with Night Sweats (1992). Other publications have included Positives (1967), a collection of verse captions to photographs by his brother Ander; editions of the work of Fulke Greville (1968) and Ben Jonson (1974); and a volume of critical and autobiographical prose, The Occasions of Poetry (1982). At the time of this interview he was assembling his Collected Poems (1994) and another volume of prose, Shelf Life (1993).

As a poet who lives in the United States yet is still thought of as an Englishman, Gunn is probably less widely read and discussed than his striking talent deserves. Nevertheless, he is much anthologized and has been the recipient of several literary prizes, the most recent being, in Britain, the first Forward Prize for Poetry (1992) and, in the U.S., a fellowship or “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation (1993).

There has always been a heroic edge to Thom Gunn’s poetry. That being the case, his appearance does not disappoint. He is tall and, for a man in his early sixties, remarkably lean and youthful. Tattooed arms and a single earring give him a faintly piratical air. In one of his poems he confesses to a liking for “loud music, bars, and boisterous men,” and a certain boisterous charm is one of his own most pleasing characteristics: as we talk, he laughs a great deal, very loudly, with rambunctious pleasure. He enjoys any hint of the vulgar or the tasteless, yet he is also a man of considerable refinement. Modest, considerate, and softly spoken, he was once described to me by one of his American friends as “the perfect English gentleman.”

Such complexities, even ambiguities, run deep. One of the most deeply erotic poets of our time, his style has often been praised for “chastity.” A celebrator of “the sense of movement,” he is strongly attached to his home and his routine. The occasion of this interview, for instance, is his first visit to his native country in thirteen years.

He was staying in his old university city of Cambridge and he visited my house every morning for three days. In all, we recorded three hours of conversation: we chatted with the tape on and stopped when we felt the talk beginning to flag. He was a relaxed interviewee, amusing and informative. He didn’t mind talking about personal matters, but he stopped well short of narcissism. What he said came across as spontaneous and yet one felt he was also well prepared. One was left with a sense of experience not easily translated into words.

 

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if we could begin with a brief description of how you live. I get the feeling, for instance, that you’re quite fond of routine.

THOM GUNN

Well, if you haven’t got a routine in your life by the age of sixty-two, you’re never going to get it. I spend half the year teaching and half the year on my own. I like the idea of scheduling my own life for half the year, but by the end of that time I’m really ready to teach again and have somebody else’s timetable imposed on me, because I’m chaotic enough that I just couldn’t be master of myself for the entire year. It would leave me too loose and unregulated. As I say, I’m eager to teach again in January and then, during the term, very often I’ll think of ideas for writing on but I usually don’t have time to work them out. By the time I can work them out at the end of the term, I’ve either lost them or else I’ve got them much more complex and intense, so that’s good too. I like the way my life has worked out very well. I live with some other men in a house in San Francisco. Somebody once said, Oh, you’ve got a gay commune. I said, No, it’s a queer household!—which I think was a satisfactory answer. Right now there’s only three of us there. There were five—one of them left and one of them died of AIDS. But we really fit in well together. We really do work as a family; we cook in turn, stuff like that. We do a lot of things together.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a writing routine?

GUNN

When anybody says, Do you have a routine, I always say piously it’s very important to have one, but in fact I don’t. I write poetry when I can and when I can’t, I write reviews, which I figure at least is keeping my hand in, doing some kind of writing. Finally, however difficult it is, it does make me happy in some weird way to do the writing. It’s hard labor but it does satisfy something in me very deeply. Sometimes when I haven’t written in some time, I really decide I’m going to work toward getting the requisite fever, and this would involve, oh, reading a few favorite poets intensively: Hardy, for example, John Donne, Herbert, Basil Bunting—any one of a number of my favorites. I try to get their tunes going in my head so I get a tune of my own. Then I write lots of notes on possible subjects for poetry. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s been my experience that sometimes about ten poems will all come in about two months; other times it will be that one poem will take ages and ages to write.

INTERVIEWER

Do you tend to work very hard on poems—revising and so on?

GUNN

It depends on the poem. Some poems come out almost right on the first draft—you really have to make very few small alterations. Others you have to pull to pieces and put together again. Those are two extremes—it might be anything between them. For instance, I have a poem called “Nasturtium.” I worked at it for ages and then decided it was just terrible. I only kept about one line, but then I rewrote the poem from a slightly different idea—I don’t remember the difference between the two, but it was a completely different poem from the first draft, and I think it only has about one or two lines in common with it. Only the last two lines, I think.

INTERVIEWER

When you start writing a poem, do you ever have a form in your head before you write, or do you always discover the form in writing?

GUNN

Again, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. For example, a poem called “Street Song.” Part of the idea of that poem was to write a modern version of an Elizabethan or Jacobean street song. So of course I knew it was going to rhyme, that it might have some kind of refrain—it was going to be a particular kind of poem. Other poems I don’t really know what they’re going to be like and I will jot down my notes for them kind of higgledy-piggledy all over the page, so that when I look at what I’ve got maybe the form will be suggested by what I have there. That’s mostly what happens with me. I don’t start by writing a couplet or something, knowing the whole thing’s going to be in couplets—though even that has happened.

INTERVIEWER

I know that you quite consciously and deliberately draw on other writers and writings in your poems. Could you describe that process a little? Do you quite ruthlessly plagiarize or pilfer?

GUNN

Yes, yes, yes. Well, T. S. Eliot gave us a pleasing example, didn’t he, quoting from people without acknowledgment? I remember a line in Ash Wednesday that was an adaptation of “Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” When I was twenty, I thought that was the most terrific line I’d read in Eliot! I didn’t know that it was a line from Shakespeare’s sonnets. I don’t resent that in Eliot and I hope people don’t resent it in me. I don’t make such extensive use of unacknowledged quotation as Eliot does, but every now and again I’ll make a little reference. This is the kind of thing that poets have always done. On the first page of The Prelude, Wordsworth slightly rewrites a line from the end of Paradise Lost: “The earth is all before me” instead of “The world was all before them.” He was aware that many an educated reader would recognize that as being both a theft and an adaptation. He was also aware, I’m sure, that a great many of his readers wouldn’t know it was and would just think it was original. That’s part of the process of reading—you read a poem for what you can get out of it.

INTERVIEWER

Actually, though, what you do much more often is model your poems on other poems.

GUNN

Well, I grew up when New Criticism was at its height and I took some of the things the New Critics said very literally. When I read, let’s say, George Herbert, I really do think of him as being a kind of contemporary of mine. I don’t think of him as being separated from me by an impossible four hundred years of history. I feel that in an essential way this is a man with a very different mind-cast from mine, but I don’t feel myself badly separated from him. I feel that we’re like totally different people with different interests writing in the same room. And I feel that way of all the poets I like.

INTERVIEWER

Donald Davie says of you in Under Briggflatts that you don’t use literary reference, as Eliot does, “to judge the tawdry present.” He finds that refreshing.

GUNN

I don’t regret the present. I don’t feel it’s cheap and tawdry compared with the past. I think the past was cheap and tawdry too. One of the things I noticed very early on—and I probably got it from an essay by Eliot—was that the beginning of Pope’s “Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” is virtually taken from the beginning of the “Elegie on the Lady Jane Pawlet” by Ben Jonson. Now I don’t think most of Pope’s readers would have realized that. I don’t think Jonson was that much read in Pope’s time. I may be wrong . . . So I figured that was a very interesting thing to be able to do. But no, I don’t do it in the way Eliot and Pound do—to show up the present. I do it much more in the way I’ve described Wordsworth or Pope as doing it.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any particular influences that have been consistently—or intermittently—important for you?

GUNN

The first poet who influenced me in a big way—in poems that never got into print—was W. H. Auden. I’m speaking about when I was about nineteen or twenty. He’s someone I’m profoundly grateful to for giving me by his example the feeling that I could write about my experience. Anne Ridler, I think, said this many years ago—that his example enabled her to write. That’s what his example did for me—it made things seem easy, and the poetry I wrote then—I doubt if any of it exists any longer—was riddled with Audenesque mannerisms. But he was tremendously helpful to me. He’s not been an influence I’ve gone back to, however. The biggest two influences after him were, in my first year as an undergraduate, John Donne and Shakespeare. I read Donne en masse and understood him for the first time. I had tried reading him in my teens and I guess I just wasn’t mature enough to know what to do with it. Suddenly I could see and it was tremendously exciting. Then, that summer vacation, I read all of Shakespeare. I read everything by Shakespeare and doing that adds a cubit to your stature. He’s so inventive with language. It’s the idea of concepts and experience going into language, and going into exciting language—of creating the language for your poem as you’re writing it. Of course, both of those influences have returned. Who has not been influenced by Shakespeare? Even somebody who doesn’t like the influence, somebody like Pound, is influenced ultimately. Then, of course, Yeats was an influence . . .

INTERVIEWER

Let me put a more specific question. Could you name anybody who has extended your sensibility—opened you up to things in experience that you were not sufficiently aware of?

GUNN

Anybody I enjoy reading has always done this. A literary influence is never just a literary influence. It’s also an influence in the way you see everything—in the way you feel your life. I’m not sure that this affected my poetry, but I read Proust when I was about twenty, just before I went to Cambridge. (We went to university rather late in those days. We had to do national service first, you should remember.) Of course, when you read all of Proust, you live in a Proustian world for a moment. You know, that bus conductor may be homosexual! So may your grandfather—or anybody maybe! I remember when I went to Chartres for the first time, I was all set to have a Proustian disappointment and I didn’t! Instead I had absolute delight; it was even better than I expected it to be. But every writer does this to you to some extent. Auden, Donne, Shakespeare, Yeats—I was about to say Yvor Winters—all of these modified the way in which I see the whole of my experience. I don’t think there’s any one person more than others. And I don’t lose them: I never lost Donne, I never lost Yeats really. William Carlos Williams came later on.

INTERVIEWER

Can we take Williams as an example? You got interested in his work in—what?—the late fifties. Shortly afterwards your poetry began changing a lot and started including things from the world which it hadn’t included before.

GUNN

It’s very interesting you should say “things from the world.” Up to about halfway through My Sad Captains—that is, my first two-and-a-half books—I was trying to write heroic poetry. There are interesting reasons for this. When I was at Cambridge, as I’ve said, I was very much influenced by Shakespeare and of course much of Shakespeare deals with the heroic of a certain kind. This was emphasized by the fact that I was at Cambridge with a particular generation of talented actors and directors. Some of them went on to become famous—people like Peter Wood, Peter Hall, and John Barton, who directed remarkable productions of Coriolanus, of The Alchemist, of Love’s Labour’s Lost, of Edward II—all sorts of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. My great friend Tony White was an actor in many of those. I was in some sense trying to write, with Sartre’s help, a modern equivalent to heroic poetry. The influence of Williams altered everything. I’d been reading him a bit, but I couldn’t incorporate that influence until I started to write in syllabics and that was about 1959 perhaps—the poems from the second half of My Sad Captains. There I found a way, with Williams’s help, of incorporating the more casual aspects of life, the nonheroic things in life that are of course a part of daily experience and infinitely valuable. I suppose I could have learned that from Hardy too but I wasn’t very influenced by him at that time. I’d read and liked some Hardy, but you can’t always incorporate your learning from a poet at the time when you first start admiring that poet. Then I got into rather a mess with my next book, Touch, and some of that book seems to me distinctly inferior in that I really wasn’t quite sure how to connect the poetry of everyday life and the heroic poetry—which is greatly to oversimplify the two kinds. But I wanted to make some kind of connection. I maybe started to do so when I wrote a longish poem called “Misanthropos,” which is included in that book.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you first realize that this business of writing poetry was going to be the main activity of your life?

GUNN

I started writing poetry, as many people do, in my teens. I was also trying to write novels, none of which I ever finished. I also wrote short stories and plays. I wanted to be a writer and, if I had succeeded in any of these, that might have shaped my future. However, I only succeeded in poetry. The first poem I published was at the end of my first year at Cambridge. A graduate student editing The Cambridge Review whom I did not personally know said something very nice about it in print—a man called Peter Green, who’s now famous for his books about Greece, Macedonia, and Alexander the Great. That gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. I don’t know whether I said I was going to be a poet but I wanted to write a lot of poetry. During that summer, when I read all of Shakespeare, I also set myself to write a poem a week, and I carried on doing that for the next two years. Of course a lot of them were really worthless, imitative junk, but it was wonderful the way that a poem turned up just about every week. Then of course it all slackened, but I suppose that happens when a lot of people start. You have everything to try out; you have to find out who you are. Your poetry has no identity at first. You don’t have much identity at that age—I was twenty-one to twenty-two.

INTERVIEWER

Your first two books seem very unhappy in comparison with the later ones . . .

GUNN

All young men are unhappy. That’s why they identify so strongly with Hamlet. They’re unhappy in a formless kind of way, partly because they don’t have an identity—they don’t know where they’re going; they don’t know who they are. You’re a pretty unusual person—something slightly sinister—if at the age of twenty or twenty-two you really know exactly who you are and what you’re going to do. More likely you’re undefined, and being undefined is rather painful. I don’t know that I was more sorry for myself than anybody else was. I was trying to be brave about it too. Of course, I was striking postures—it was also sexual identity. There was such duplicity in my mind about the whole sexual question; I was not terribly willing to be a homosexual but it did seem that I was. I really can’t trace the convolutions in my mind until in fact I fell in love. That made up my mind and that, I should think, made me a good deal happier, though the whole of my second book was written after that . . . so maybe it didn’t make my poetry that much happier! It certainly made me happier as a person. I guess I was so used to writing unhappy poetry that I just went on writing it!

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the problems of your own childhood contributed to the need to write? The compensation theory . . .

GUNN

Quite possibly, but I don’t know. How is one to find out? I had, I think, a very happy childhood until about the age of fifteen, perhaps, when my mother killed herself. Then I was devastated for about four years. I very much retired into myself. I read an enormous number of Victorian novels and eighteenth-century ones too. I read them very much as an escape, and it was an escape into another time when I didn’t have to face this problem of a suicided mother. I gradually came out of it, but it was a difficult four years or so. I don’t think I knew how difficult they were at the time—luckily—so maybe originally I wrote as a way of getting out of that, but I can’t tell.

INTERVIEWER

This aspiration towards the heroic in the early books—was it part of the escape or part of the opening up?

GUNN

Part of the opening up. That was a way of asserting my strength. One of my favorite words was energy—in my conversation and probably in my poetry as well. When I felt really good, there was a wonderful feeling of the physical energy of the body and the energy of the mind too. They went in tandem. Sometimes I felt physically an almost unlimited energy. It was extraordinary. Like a young tree feeling the sap going through its branches. That was a great cause for rejoicing and that comes into my early poetry. It was probably why I harnessed so much onto a Sartrean idea of the will, because the will for me seemed to be a way of channeling the energy. I obviously use that word far too much in those early poems—it becomes monotonous.

INTERVIEWER

How conscious were you when you used the word will that it also means the penis?

GUNN

Not at all. I didn’t find out till years later that when Shakespeare uses the word will it means the penis. I don’t think we had very adequately footnoted editions of the sonnets in those days, because I read through all the footnotes in my edition—I had to study it for my exams. But I never came across it!

INTERVIEWER

But do you think it’s significant nonetheless?

GUNN

Yes, I do. So I was getting it unconsciously. But I don’t think I found out until my thirties. I was astonished when I did!

INTERVIEWER

In those early books you establish almost a kind of map of terms and conceptions that stay with you all through, though they get more ghostly and more complex later on. They’re things like the will and energy, and the figure of the soldier, and the concept of self, and posing, and this whole idea of risk as something which helps to define the self. Is that something that you’re conscious of as you work—that you have this structure, almost, that you build on?

GUNN

Well, I don’t think conceptually about my poetry very much. I try not to think as a critic. I try not to think of key words; otherwise I would start being overly self-conscious about using them. But some of them I just can’t avoid noticing, and of course they’re also life-images. Now the idea of the soldier: my childhood was full of soldiers. I tried to write about this in a poem called “The Corporal.” I was ten at the beginning of World War Two and sixteen when it ended, so my visual landscape was full of soldiers. Of course, I became a soldier for two years of national service and so that was another kind of soldier. It was a strange kind of role I had to measure myself against. And the idea of the will: there’s a poem in The Man with Night Sweats called “The Differences” and in the last two lines I say that I “think back on that night in January, / When casually distinct we shared the most / And lay upon a bed of clarity / In luminous half-sleep where the will was lost.” So that is not willed love at all. This was a very conscious reference back to my overuse of the word will in my early books. I’m saying in a sense that I’m no longer the same person as I was then and I’m pleased that I’m not the same person. So there is a certain consciousness of themes but, at the same time, there’s a certain blessed unconsciousness. There was a review for which I was profoundly grateful in the Times Literary Supplement by Hugh Haughton: he was reviewing my recent book, The Man with Night Sweats, and he traced the imagery of embracing and touching and holding hands—and even embracing oneself at one point. That was extraordinary; it was all there. That was not planned, it was due to the consistency of my own mind. We all have that kind of consistency of course. It’s a question of opening yourself up to what you really want to say, to what for you is the truth, and you come out with consistent images in that way. I’ve not been aware of that, I’ve really not been aware of that, and of course the embrace is in half the poems in the book. I was glad I didn’t find that out till the book was finished! So one does not operate in complete rational awareness of what one’s doing all the time, and I don’t want to. I seem to write awfully rational poetry, but I want there to be a considerable amount of strength given from what is not conscious into the consciousness there—that kind of energy. (I won’t talk about the unconscious.) I’ve noticed recently I’ve been particularly attracted by various things in visual art or in poetry that I explain to myself as being a mixture of the extremely sophisticated and the primitive. I was just pointing out this morning some lines from Spenser’s “Epithalamion.” They’re the ones about who is it “which at my window peeps.” It is the moon, who “walks about high heaven all the night.” It’s a wonderfully sophisticated and ornate kind of poetry, and suddenly this tremendously physical, almost anthropomorphic image of the moon walking around the sky. It’s so magnificent! I find them wonderfully beautiful lines! I think that kind of thing happens in some way in all the art I like. I’d like that to happen in my poetry. I think that sometimes when my poetry comes off—anybody’s poetry when it comes off—it’s making use of two strengths at once: a very conscious arranging strength, keeping things in schematic form, but also the stuff you can call primitive or unconscious.

INTERVIEWER

So you have the controlling mind or intellect, but it’s a control that’s prepared to allow things to slip in . . .

GUNN

Yes, allowing, very good word, yes. It’s a control that will still allow things to slip under. Welcomes them in fact.

INTERVIEWER

Going back to the soldier for a minute, one rather striking thing about that figure is the way it establishes an atmosphere for those early books. At the time there was a lot of talk, much of it rather vacuous, about violence in those poems. I remember Ted Hughes saying somewhere that he thought this emphasis on violence superficial and what was much more important in your work was tenderness. Don’t the two things go together?

GUNN

Of course, of course. I can quote from “The Missing,” a passage in which I’m speaking about a sense of “the gay community”—a phrase I always thought was bullshit, until the thing was vanishing. In “The Missing” I speak about the “Image of an unlimited embrace,” and I mean partly friends, partly sexual partners, partly even the vaguest of acquaintances, with the sense of being in some way part of a community. “I did not just feel ease, though comfortable: / Aggressive as in some ideal of sport, / With ceaseless movement thrilling through the whole, / Their push kept me as firm as their support.” Take that image of sport. (Somebody pointed out that I constantly use the word play in The Man with Night Sweats, which is, again, something I wasn’t completely aware of.) If you use the idea of sport, you think of the violence of the push, yes, but there’s an ambiguity: an embrace can be a wrestler’s embrace or it can be the embrace of love. There’s tremendous doubleness in that image—which I have used elsewhere, in fact—the idea of the embrace that can be violent or tender. But if you look at it at any one moment, if it’s frozen, it could be either, and maybe the two figures swaying in that embrace are not even quite sure which it is. Like Aufidius and Coriolanus: they embrace, they’re enemies. They embrace in admiration at one point. It’s ambiguous because the two things are connected. It could turn at any moment from the one to the other, I suppose.

INTERVIEWER

When you first went to America, you studied at Stanford under Yvor Winters. What you’re saying at the moment reminds me of Winters’s emphasis on rigor and discipline. So the idea that when you’re writing you’re up against some sort of resistance all the time—there’s an element of masculine struggle in it.

GUNN

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

Was Winters very important to you?

GUNN

Tremendously important, yes. I underplayed his importance for many years because I was afraid of it—because he was such a strong person. I was afraid he might suck me into his own personality and I would simply be a disciple. I now feel I’m a strong enough son to be able to acknowledge my father figure fully! He was important to me in ways I’m not even sure I can completely identify or speak about. I mean, I can speak about things that have some importance but are obviously not the whole story, like matters of meter. I do think, as he did, that a meter should be correct. I don’t like a sloppy meter, which is what most people write nowadays. But the extent of Winters’s influence on me I find myself unable to assess. He would have been appalled at the idea that I was queer. But he was a friend and was very good to me. I liked him very much—I loved him. And I feel a huge debt of gratitude towards him. I’m not sure I would have been able to admit this twenty years ago, but I think it would be fair enough to say that his definition of a poem is essentially my definition of a poem: “a statement in words about a human experience”—which is rather large, but he meant “with moral import.” Well, I once showed a poem of mine to a friend to see what he thought of it and I said, Do you think it’s too didactic? And he said—giving me a pitying look—Thom, your poetry is always didactic! And it’s true! It is! So I certainly take morality as part of my poetry, as in that poem “The Missing” for example. I make moral evaluations of a life that many people would consider totally immoral.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t quite finish what you were saying about meter. You said sloppy meter is what most people write nowadays . . .

GUNN

Well, it is. If you look at most of my contemporaries and most new poems, they write something that’s not quite free verse and not quite meter. I would say that it comes ultimately from the example of Eliot and because The Waste Land was so wonderful (and I must say it’s a poem I find more wonderful as I get older) they have an example of how it can be treated at its best. By it I mean basically an iambic pentameter kind of broken up, made uneven. We know that he made it uneven on Jacobean precedents: people like Webster and Tourneur. There is a little genuine free verse in The Waste Land. On the whole it can be scanned iambically and mostly it’s iambic pentameter. There are whole passages of perfect iambic pentameter; there are also passages of very much broken-up pentameter. Many of the people who write in this way do so with a sense that it’s OK to bring in a few extra syllables—you’re just making things more casual. Actually, I think you’re making things more indefinite and sloppier and less memorable. Metrical poetry is ultimately allied to song, and I like the connection. Free verse is ultimately allied to conversation, and I like that connection too. Not many people can mix the two. Eliot could, obviously, and the great shining modern example of somebody who could, too, is Basil Bunting. If you go through “Briggflatts,” for example, it is very difficult to define what is happening metrically, but whatever is is happening wonderfully. He would have used a musical analogy. If you just take that first part of “Briggflatts,” you can’t scan it. There is obviously some kind of meter at work there—it’s not free verse—but you don’t really know when it’s trimeter, when it’s tetrameter, or when it’s varying between the two. Certain lines could be read either as trimeter or tetrameter in light of what went before. The first line is

   Brag, sweet ten-or bull,

which one would be inclined to read as a trimeter, but the next line is

   Descant on Raw-they's mad-rigal,

which is clearly a tetrameter. In that case, going back, you might choose to read the first line as a tetrameter too:

   Brag, sweet ten-or bull.

That’s the kind of ambiguity I’m speaking about. It occurs constantly. It’s not a particularly modernist ambiguity in the meter of a single line. For years, for example, I read Shakespeare’s line

   When ic-icles hang by the wall

as

   When ic-icles hang by the wall

as a three-foot line. But it’s not; it’s a tetrameter line because the rest of the poem is in tetrameter. You can go back to Shakespeare’s line because you know the whole of the rest of the poem is in tetrameter, so you just read it incorrectly. There’s much greater ambiguity in Bunting because you don’t know what the basic norm is. This is possibly a pedantic question, because it works so well that it’s just a question of analysis. But it’s something very few people are able to do.

INTERVIEWER

You once said to me that free verse and metrical verse are different in kind. Did you mean by that that, from your point of view as a writer, to write in free verse is almost as different from writing in meter as it is again from writing in prose?

GUNN

Yes, as a form, given the essential difference that prose is enormously expansive and that most good poetry tends to be condensed. That makes for the major difference. But otherwise, yes, I think there is as much difference. You know, I’ve been reading for the first time a bit of Glyn Maxwell, whom I like very much. I originally got his book because I read a terrific poem of his called “Dream but a Door.” That poem and a great many of the other poems I’ve read so far seem to be in what I would call proper meter as opposed to sloppy meter.

INTERVIEWER

In 1961 you published a book, My Sad Captains, in which this difference in kind was acknowledged by the structure of the book and, except for your last collection, you’ve followed that pattern ever since. However, in My Sad Captains the nonmetrical section is in syllabics, not free verse. How did you start writing in syllabics?

GUNN

I admired a lot of American poetry in free verse, but I couldn’t write free verse. The free verse I tried to write was chopped-up prose, and I could see that was no good. Then I thought of ways in which I could learn how to write in something that was not metrical, that did not have the tune of meter going through it. Once you’ve got the tune in your head it’s very difficult to get it out. Then somehow or other I heard about syllabics and discussed them a bit with Winters, and I found a terrific example in some poems by Donald Hall about Charlotte Corday. Donald Hall, as opposed to, let’s say, Robert Bridges or Marianne Moore, was not using a long syllabic line. His was a short line and the great virtue of this for me was that it was not in what we understand as a meter, which involves combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables. It was virtually in free verse or prose, arranged in lines, but each line simply depended on a mechanical count. I found the short line adaptable and interesting. After a while, when I was writing in, for example, the seven-syllable line, which was my favorite, I found that I could recognize or could think up a line of that length without counting the number of syllables. I’d check on it—yes, there were seven—but it had a kind of tune of its own. This was interesting. Anyway, I was halfway to writing in free verse and then I did, later on, in my next book, go into free verse itself. I don’t think I have written any syllabics since the poems in “Misanthropos” in Touch.

INTERVIEWER

Was there anything you could do in syllabics that you can’t do in free verse?

GUNN

I’m not sure. I must say I’m quite pleased with the poem called “My Sad Captains.” I think I hit on something there but it’s not something I’ve been able to repeat. There’s something going on there with the sounds that I’m amazed I was able to achieve. I don’t think I’ve ever done that in free verse. I don’t think I could do it in syllabics again. I certainly couldn’t do it in meter—it’s not a metrical effect.

INTERVIEWER

It’s sometimes struck me that, in syllabic verse, you get closer to prose than you do in free verse.

GUNN

I don’t know. It seems to me that a good deal of D. H. Lawrence’s free verse is very close to prose. I like it for that. Some is more incantatory, some is more biblical, but some of it is not. It depends which poet you’re speaking about; there are so many different kinds of free verse. There’s a different kind for every poet using it in fact.

INTERVIEWER

As if each writer had to invent his or her own?

GUNN

Yes, though of course Pound invented several kinds. Williams invented one kind in his youth and another kind—I don’t think so good—in his old age. Stevens invented one amazingly subtle kind. Winters invented a kind all of his own.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think yours is a different kind again?

GUNN

I try to make it so. I hope it is.

INTERVIEWER

But is there a principle that you follow?

GUNN

No, it just depends on my ear.

INTERVIEWER

We’re about to touch on the point where form and content relate to one another. When you look at My Sad Captains, it’s not just a formal difference between the first and second halves of the book but a difference in the kind of content.

GUNN

It seems to me that the freer forms—and that includes syllabics—are hospitable to improvisation or the feel of improvisation. Lawrence puts this wonderfully in his famous essay “Poetry of the Present.” He speaks of free verse as poetry of the present—that is, it grabs in the details and these are probably very casual details of the present, of whatever is floating through the air, whatever is on the table at the time, whatever is underfoot, however trivial—trivial but meaningful. Whereas metrical verse, he says—I think rightly—metrical verse has the greater finish, because in a sense it deals with events or experience or thinking that are more finished. Finished in both senses: in a punning sense, it’s also more over and done with. He calls it “poetry of the past.” (He also calls it “poetry of the future” but I’ve never understood what he means by that.) But there is the idea of the completed thought; there is what we nowadays call the idea of closure. So the freer forms invite improvisation and are hospitable to the fragmentary details of one’s life, as opposed to the important completed thoughts and experiences of one’s life. The freer forms are less dramatic, I think, and more casual.

INTERVIEWER

Taking My Sad Captains as a whole, it’s a much more humanistic book than the previous two.

GUNN

I was less of a fascist. I had been a Shakespearean, Sartrean fascist! I was growing up a little; I wasn’t quite so juvenile. I was very much influenced by Sartre, as everybody realized and as I was not sorry for everybody to realize. I was in quest of the heroic in the modern world—whether I succeeded or not—and that was a slightly fascistic quest because the heroic is so often a martial kind of virtue. Well, by the time I got to My Sad Captains I was growing up a bit . . . I suppose I acknowledge other kinds of life in the first poem in the book, “In Santa Maria del Popolo,” in that I’m speaking about the old women as well as the heroic gesture that’s “Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.”

INTERVIEWER

I become very conscious in that book that religion is an option not open to you.

GUNN

I’m not very spiritual!

INTERVIEWER

Yes, but I’m asking you about a quality of language, I think. There are certain poems in the first part of My Sad Captains that ARE metaphysical in content. They seem to invite inquiry into purpose and meaning in experience, yet the possibility of purpose and meaning seems closed off for you. You know, “Purposeless matter hovers in the dark” and so on.

GUNN

Oh I agree. Of course, this was somewhat different when I came to write Moly, when I took LSD. LSD certainly extends your awareness into other areas. It’s chemical—it may be simply that you’re not seeing round corners but you just think you are. You tend to think that these other areas are spiritual—and they may be. There’s at least one poem, “The Messenger,” in which I speak about angels: “Is this man turning angel as he stares / At one red flower . . .?” I was playing with the idea. I don’t think I was being irresponsible. It is still a question, and it’s not a question that I answer in the poem. The poem where I most overtly take up religious terms—spiritual terms would be better—is a poem called “At the Centre,” which I now think is rather a pompous poem. This came out of my biggest acid trip. I took a colossal amount and stood with my friend Don Doody on a roof from which you could see the sign of a brewery that had on the top of it a magnificent image in neon lights, even during the day, of a huge glass. The outline was permanently there, but it would fill up and drain with yellow lights, as if it were a filling-up glass of beer that would suddenly vanish and then fill up again from the bottom. This of course became a fantastic image for . . . existence itself! I think it comes into the poem with all the talk of flowing and stuff. And there I was indeed having, in that experience, a rather defiant conversation with a God who I did not believe existed! There was one very funny thing that happened during that day. I’ve only been able to admit it in recent years. (This was about 1968.) At one point, in this grandiloquent way that I had, I said to God, What does it all mean? Suddenly—this was a genuine hallucination—what seemed like a plastic bubble of shit crossed the sky. I did not admit this to my companion but I do remember saying, No, oh no, not that. I do not want to believe that life is shit! And I rejected that hallucination. But of course, the hallucination came from me in the first place. I’m not saying that the experiences in Moly were not genuine and I wouldn’t disown anything in Moly. In fact, I still think of it as my best book, though few others have thought so. I think these experiences elicited my best poetry from me.

INTERVIEWER

The last poem in Moly, “Sunlight,” is in form a kind of religious poem—in a way that “At the Centre” isn’t. I mean, it’s a sort of hymn.

GUNN

And the sun is like a god. At the same time, I do say in the poem that it has flaws and it’s all going to burn out one day. So I’m qualifying it there.

INTERVIEWER

So it’s finite.

GUNN

It’s finite, yes, but to take a line of Stevens’s from “Sunday Morning”: “Not as a god, but as a god might be.”

INTERVIEWER

The other thing in Moly, of course, is metamorphosis, and that reminds one of paganism.

GUNN

Yes, well the whole theme of the book is metamorphosis. Almost every poem I think. That was LSD, of course. It did make you into a different person. The myths of metamorphosis had much more literal meaning for me: the idea that somebody could grow horns, that somebody could turn into a laurel tree, or that somebody could be a centaur (in the “Tom-Dobbin” poems—Tom is me of course), or turn into an angel. In the hallucinations—or more likely, distortions—that you saw under the influence of LSD, things did change their shape. You know, you could see bumps on somebody’s forehead perhaps—I never did—but that’s the kind of thing you could see that might resemble horns. You saw other possibilities.

INTERVIEWER

Was there also a literary source? Were you thinking of Ovid?

GUNN

Of course, yes. But I don’t know if I’d read Ovid yet. Where I first got the myths was from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s two retellings of them in Tanglewood Tales and A Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls. Often when people think I’m deriving from Ovid, I’m actually deriving from those books, which I read in my childhood. But he got them from Ovid.

INTERVIEWER

We’ve skated over your previous book, Touch. A lot of that was written during a year’s visit to London, wasn’t it?

GUNN

It wasn’t actually. I’ll tell you what I wrote on that year’s visit. I wrote a good deal of “Misanthropos,” but it was about half written before I came. It was certainly all sketched out, so I was in a sense filling in blanks. I also wrote “Confessions of the Life Artist” and all of Positives—but those are just captions; those were easy.

INTERVIEWER

They’re quite important though, aren’t they? Weren’t they your first poems in free verse?

GUNN

I think they probably were, yes. I remember thinking to myself rather pompously at the time that I was trying to adapt William Carlos Williams for the English—as if Charles Tomlinson had not been doing that for some years before me! I had very great difficulty in the years when I was writing the poems that went into Touch. There was a lot of time that went by when I just wasn’t able to write . . . I either couldn’t write anything or I was writing poetry that got printed but didn’t ultimately seem good enough to put in the book. I still wouldn’t want to reprint them. They seem melodramatic or phony or something.

INTERVIEWER

The book strikes me as transitional. Would you say it was because around that time—possibly through coming to London—you were becoming more decisively American than British? You lay yourself open to American influences . . .

GUNN

I suppose that’s right. How interesting! Yes. You know, people don’t always think of themselves that clearly, so I need someone like you to tell me this kind of thing and I can assent to it. I’m not being ironic when I say this. It’s just that we all know how difficult it is to stand back from ourselves and to perceive the pattern in our own lives, which may be perfectly obvious to other people. I do indeed think that’s true. Yes.

INTERVIEWER

Was it difficult to accept that you could write that sort of “open” poetry?

GUNN

No, though change is always difficult. It’s so true what you’re saying. While I was in England I wrote an essay about William Carlos Williams that later got into my prose book The Occasions of Poetry. So I did a lot of reading of Williams for that. And I discovered Snyder while I was here in England. I read Riprap, which I found in Foyle’s bookshop in London. It had been out for four or five years but I hadn’t yet read it. Creeley I didn’t like at that time. I had to read more of him and eventually came to like him a very great deal. But he didn’t make sense for me somehow until I’d read him more thoroughly.

INTERVIEWER

And Robert Duncan?

GUNN

Oh yes, and Duncan was all mixed up with my acquaintance with him of course. The three writers who have influenced me personally—in a combination of their work and their character, in other words through friendship—have been Yvor Winters, Christopher Isherwood, and Robert Duncan. With two of those, Winters and Duncan, I was really just a listener. I call myself a friend but I wasn’t a friend in that there wasn’t much reciprocation between us. I don’t think Winters or Duncan knew me very well. Partly with Duncan because he talked so much! He talked all the time—fascinatingly—and didn’t give you much time to answer. Or when you did have a chance to answer it was about ten minutes too late. Duncan was aware of this and was always making jokes against himself because of it. He had one very funny story about Olson. He said, When I first met Olson, we found there was an immediate problem, because he liked to talk all the time and I liked to talk all the time, but we solved it at once by talking simultaneously! But I don’t think Duncan knew me very well. I was perfectly happy—I learned from him. Having lunch with him or spending an afternoon with him was such an extraordinary experience. I would go away with my head teeming with ideas and images and I’d write them down in my notebook and feel like writing poetry. I usually didn’t and I didn’t write Duncan-type poetry in fact, but he was a tremendously fertilizing influence. He was that kind of influence on everybody.

INTERVIEWER

Winters and Duncan, though, seems an extraordinary contrast.

GUNN

I have sometimes said to myself, I am the only person in the world ever to have dedicated poems to both Winters and Duncan. They hated each other. They didn’t meet but they hated each other. When they referred to each other it was with contempt, though I must say Duncan was a little more respectful at times of Winters for his sheer consistency. Of course, as I said before, Winters was what we would nowadays call homophobic.

INTERVIEWER

That seems not to have bothered you, though.

GUNN

Well, most people were homophobic; whole departments of English were! You couldn’t be honest then. Sometimes young people say to me, Why were you in the closet in those days? I was in the closet because I would not only have lost my job, I’d have been kicked out of America and consequently would not have been able to live with my lover. That was a very practical reason for my behavior, dishonest though it may have been. I suppose there was even a danger of going to prison at certain times, because the act of having sex with another man was illegal in many states. So there was no question of my being frank with Winters, though I think latterly he must have realized. He certainly didn’t at the period of our greatest contact. I didn’t see that much of him once I had left Stanford.

INTERVIEWER

Can we return to the contrast with Duncan?

GUNN

Yes. Winters tried to be a complete rationalist, though he was in fact a tremendous romantic. Nobody would be that much of a rationalist unless they were really romantic. Duncan was a joyful irrationalist, even liking to write nonsyntactical sentences that could be looked at from each end! It could be very irritating—looked at from each end they’d have different meanings. Suddenly the syntax can change . . .

INTERVIEWER

How do you think it is that you absorb such contrasts into your personality without losing the coherence of your writing?

GUNN

I’ve never had any trouble with that. When I was reading what they nowadays call the canon of English literature to get a degree here at Cambridge, I had no difficulty in reading Pope with appreciation and Keats with appreciation, though they stood for completely different things. I, in a sense, read them as living writers. They were living in that they were speaking directly to me. I’m aware of all that’s wrong with reading unhistorically. Nevertheless, one does read unhistorically. Primarily it’s Pope or Keats speaking to me, Thom Gunn. I was aware that they would not have wanted to have anything to do with each other, but I never had difficulty in reconciling people who were in themselves irreconcilable. I’m a very unprincipled person. People like to talk so much about poetics now and theory. I don’t have theory. I expect my practice could be brought down to theory but I’m not interested in doing that. Maybe if I ever get famous enough somebody will do it for me!

INTERVIEWER

Can you summarize what you learned from Duncan? There’s a poem dedicated to him in your next book, Jack Straw’s Castle.

GUNN

It’s not the best example though. I think the poem where I used Duncan most was “The Menace.” I put on different voices, I am somewhat dislocated . . . His greatest poem he speaks of as a mosaic, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar.” Actually it’s something like Pound’s way of writing—by juxtaposition of fragments. “The Menace” is written in this way; there is free verse, there is even kind of nursery-rhyme regular verse, there is prose, and there is a freedom of form that I learned from him. It’s deeper than just form, of course. Put it this way: the main difference between Winters and Duncan was that Winters was deliberately a poet of closure and Duncan deliberately a poet of process. Duncan spoke of writing as a process in which, if you were a good boy, things would come to you during the writing. The most interesting parts. Of course they’re both right to some extent, but they were making different emphases. I think in my practice I have become more interested in this idea of writing as a process and being open to things happening to you while you’re writing—I mean things coming out of your imagination.

INTERVIEWER

In the second half of your career you seem to have become preoccupied with those ideas of openness and closure. Somewhere, talking about Moly, you refer to “definition” and “flow,” which are analogous to closure and openness.

GUNN

They are analogous. I play with these notions particularly in a poem called “Duncan,” which is about his death. The last lines of the poem recapitulate the Venerable Bede’s famous story about the sparrow flying through the feasting hall. I see the hall as some barns are nowadays, with open gables at each end—that is, both open and closed. It depends whether you’re inside or outside. They’re inside a building, and Bede’s analogy is that this is a man’s life. But if you see it under the aspects of eternity—of the whole sky as being what you’re in—then you’re never inside. I’m playing with the notion of insideness and outsideness.

INTERVIEWER

The subject of that poem, “Duncan,” is a writer who takes the view from the outside, but the poem itself is in a strict traditional stanza form. Is that also important, that not only are you preoccupied with openness and closure but that you marry the two in different ways?

GUNN

I’ve always been trying to, yes. Donald Davie once said that he wanted to combine the influences in himself of Pound and Winters. I remember rather sarcastically remarking in print that this was like trying to abide by the principles of Hitler and Gandhi at the same time. But Donald was right! One can do this kind of thing; if one believes in the validity of the different poetries, then one can in some way marry or digest whatever is in them. Yes, I feel very much at ease in metrical and rhyming forms. I feel a certain freedom in them. I don’t feel that they are constricting. I feel I can play tricks with them that open them up.

INTERVIEWER

There are two moments in your relatively recent writing when you seem to fall back on closure and on meter. One is in Moly and the other is in The Man with Night Sweats, the elegiac poems about AIDS victims . . .

GUNN

I know why I did that in Moly. I’ve spoken about it so often that I’ll simply summarize it by saying that I was trying to deal with what seemed like the experience of the infinite, deliberately using a finite form in dealing with it because I was afraid that it would not be dealt with at all in a form that also partook of the nonfinite. I don’t know why I’ve been attracted to it recently. It’s not just with the AIDS poems. It’s in the poems I was writing for about four years before I started on any of those. The first of the AIDS poems was “Lament” and that’s in couplets. It just came to hand—it just seemed to me a useful form—but it was also that because I’d been writing in rhyme and meter so much, so concentratedly, for the previous four years.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that writing “Lament” in couplets established that as the kind of form you would use for the rest of them?

GUNN

That’s probably right.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s go back to Jack Straw’s Castle. A lot of that book, particularly the title poem, seems to me to represent the bad face of the Moly experience.

GUNN

That was deliberate. Much of Moly was about dreams; this was about nightmares. Maybe I should explain who Jack Straw is. There’s one of many songs that I like from the Grateful Dead called “Jack Straw” and I used to wonder what an American could make of the phrase “Jack Straw.” There’s an English pub called Jack Straw’s Castle and an English reader might know that Straw was one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt. But Americans couldn’t be expected to know that. So I looked “Jack Straw” up in the dictionary and found that it means a worthless person—legally “a man of straw,” a person of no account. Also I was reading Dante at the time, so lots of references to the Inferno come in. There are heaps of literary references in that poem, but it’s absolutely unnecessary for anybody to know. It was just fun doing them. The kittens changing into the furies came from Through the Looking Glass, when the kittens change into the Red Queen and the White Queen and so on. There’s a bit from Kidnapped when David Balfour’s walking up some stairs and suddenly there’s a great gap. But yes, you’re right, the drug dreams of Moly have all gone sour in Jack Straw . . .

INTERVIEWER

I suppose I was trying to say that Jack Straw’s Castle feels less optimistic than Moly. Also, Robert Wells was telling me that he’d noticed in a lot of your poems a preoccupation with sequences of rooms, with houses and cellars and so on, which have a somewhat claustrophobic effect. 

GUNN

You’d have to ask a shrink about that. It’s a common-enough metaphor for a person’s body or a person’s mind. It’s like a house and there are rooms, there are half-hidden rooms in it, there are attics where nobody ever goes . . . I expect Freud speaks about it somewhere. You might almost say it was a cultural metaphor rather than an individual one. I do dream a lot about houses and about rooms, but I’ve always assumed everybody did. 

INTERVIEWER

Two other things happen in Jack Straw’s Castle that hadn’t obviously happened in your work before. One is that there’s a series of poems which are clearly autobiographical, in which you’re looking back mainly on your childhood and adolescence. The other is that it’s the book in which you come out as a homosexual. I wondered if there was any connection between that and the secret rooms—you know, the opening up. 

GUNN

Probably, probably. In the following book I use it as a metaphor in a poem called “Talbot Road,” where I speak about the canals that are there all over London, but you never know they’re there unless you happen to be on the top of a bus—they’re hidden behind walls and fences mostly. Yes, it’s not unconnected. Of course, I came out sexually because when everybody came out sexually it became safe enough legally for the first time. In 1974 I was in New York and there was the gay parade there. I didn’t particularly want to go on it, but I was staying with somebody who was going on it and who would really have felt considerable contempt for me if I hadn’t gone. I went on it so that he would think well of me. I was delighted by it! I was walking along in it and I kind of floated forward and backward a bit so I was sometimes walking with my friend and sometimes not, and there was this wonderful little man who looked like a bank clerk. He was wearing a suit and he said he was from Hartford, Connecticut, and I thought, Yes, that’s terrific. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? I was delighted by it. Or, as they nowadays say, “empowered.” 

INTERVIEWER

But how did it then come into the poetry? 

GUNN

I admitted it in, whereas formerly I had covered it over or disguised it or excluded it. I was now able to include it. For one thing, if I’d brought it in when I first started to publish, I don’t think periodicals or possibly even book publishers would have found my work publishable. Things were that different in 1954. It was good reasoning; it was not just cowardice. I mean, it was cowardice as well, but there was good reason not to write openly. Only a few very unusual people like Robert Duncan and Angus Wilson did write openly, and even with Angus Wilson I think it was only implicit—nobody could have been that interested in gay behavior without being gay himself. So that’s how it happened. The end of “Jack Straw’s Castle” where I’m in bed with a man—it would not have ended that way twenty years before. I’d have found some other way of dealing with it. Mind you, I never lied. I never wrote about a woman as a disguise for a man, the way Tennessee Williams in a sense did in his plays. 

INTERVIEWER

So the women in Fighting Terms . . . 

GUNN

The women in Fighting Terms were real women, yes. But I was guilty of using the Audenesque you to cover both sexes, which is what I think Alan Sinfield means when he speaks about “universality,” which we were always taught at school was something we should be finding in our reading. Sinfield says that when you use you Auden could say it was the universal you that could be applied to anybody, but in fact we are going to think it’s a woman—and probably a white woman too! It’s something I have a great distaste for, the word universality. My attitude to it is slightly different from Alan’s—or rather, I come to a dislike of it through a different approach. Of course, this is something I was taught at school—this is something my students were taught at school. I started to have trouble with it when I would say to a student who was reading, let’s say, Othello, What value is this play to us? Why should you be interested in Othello? And they would say—a little too glibly, I thought—Oh, it’s universal! Well, one thing the situation of Othello is not is universal! In his position as the black commander of a white army or in his marriage or in his very dubious connection with Iago. That’s unique. I suppose one might say that there are sentiments voiced in the play that could be universalized. I mean, if we were in that position—though I have certainly never felt jealousy of that sort myself—we could feel “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” But it seems to me that in a larger sense the idea of universality depends on a notion of similarity. That is, people like Hamlet particularly—men like Hamlet; young men like Hamlet—because they identify with Hamlet, because they are similar to Hamlet. But in my own experience, what I get from reading is both similarity and dissimilarity, likeness and difference. I think I probably read more for difference than I do for likeness. Appealing to universality seems to obscure this, for me, rather important mixture. I reached this conclusion quite independently and now I find that it’s a very fashionable notion indeed! I find that all the critics nowadays are against universalizing. 

INTERVIEWER

There’s a review of The Passages of Joy by Donald Davie where he somewhat recants on an earlier statement he had made in which he had praised you for renouncing what he calls “the glibly deprecating ironies” of much modern British poetry and going back to “that phase of English in which the language could register without embarrassment the frankly heroic.” He’s talking about the influence of Shakespeare and Marlowe on your work. But in this particular review he suggests that something has happened to your poetry which involves your sacrificing that rhetorical force. It’s quite clear, though he doesn’t directly say so, that what he means is that by admitting to homosexuality in your poems you have somehow given up a poetic advantage. 

GUNN

Yes. I’m terrifically grateful for that essay and for everything Donald has written about me. I think it has been consistently insightful. Nevertheless, his particular point there is that coming into the open about homosexuality—not being homosexual, but speaking about it openly—has been a diminishing force in my poetry. I don’t see that at all and I don’t quite understand how it operates in his mind, as if the subject matter were so modern that there can be no influence from any poet earlier than (I think he says) Whitman. Well, there is Marlowe! There are others whom one knows were homosexual. There are also most of Shakespeare’s sonnets. We don’t know what Shakespeare’s primary sexual preferences were, but he does rather more than take up the subject. So it’s not without precedents. I don’t agree with his main assumption there. Nevertheless, he’s got a right to his evaluation of that particular book. It’s true that there’s probably more free verse in that book and, if we’re dealing with traditions, the tradition of free verse doesn’t go back very far. So when I’m writing free verse I’m writing in a comparatively modern tradition. He connects the two in a way that I think is wrong, but he does it very intelligently. I don’t think he’ll any longer be able to make that connection in light of The Man with Night Sweats. Let me say that I also respect Donald so much that something that was in my mind the whole time I was writing this new book was how can I show him that he’s wrong? 

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if I can play devil’s advocate at this point? Take an early poem of yours, “The Allegory of the Wolf Boy” from The Sense of Movement. It seems to me very clear now—though it wasn’t when I first read it—that that poem is about being a homosexual. 

GUNN

Indeed it is. 

INTERVIEWER

The poem is, to use Davie’s word, resonant. It’s almost as if the not-owning-up is precisely what makes it so resonant. I suppose this is related to what we’ve just been saying about the universal—that from the particular experience of being homosexual, it seems to establish resonances which all of us can feel as human beings. 

GUNN

There’s no real answer to this. I think you probably overvalue that poem a bit, but I’ll admit your general point that sometimes strategies of evasion—that does sound very 1990s, doesn’t it?—may contribute to what makes a poem successful. In fact, whatever you have going, including the obstacles, contribute to the making of a poem, even the obstacle of having to write with some baby yelling in the next room or something like that. That kind of very obvious difficulty is something you may have to overcome and it may end with some benefit to the poem. I’d go further and say that one of the things that makes for good writing is getting to a certain point and getting stuck in the elucidation of an idea or whatever you’re writing about—the description of a thing, some imagery, or even choosing a word—and you have to stop and think maybe for weeks. That very likely may be a strength in the poem. But it doesn’t mean that you have to invite obstacles. If you did that you could invite them so successfully that you’d never write a poem. There are always plenty of obstacles in writing, and I don’t think that being honest about one’s sexuality is something to be avoided because the need for evasion is a useful obstacle. 

INTERVIEWER

There’s a splendid phrase on the blurb of one of your books that comes from a review by Frank Kermode. He calls you “a chaste and powerful modern poet.” You said earlier on that your poems were moral evaluations of a life some people would find immoral. There’s something paradoxical here. What is it in your language that invites such a word as chaste

GUNN

I can’t really comment on that because I don’t know what the principles are that make me choose one word rather than another. I choose a word that seems to me more appropriate, more meaningful. But we all do that, don’t we? And we end up with different styles. I do know that, extremely unfashionably, I admire the qualities of somebody like Isherwood—of what I would call a “transparent” style. Now the word transparent, as you know, is much frowned on by most critics nowadays. They don’t like that at all. I love it! I think that’s what it’s all about. I certainly think that’s what I want it to be about. Obviously I want more than clarity. I’m raising questions all the way with each of these words, with each questionable abstraction! But you see what I mean? I’m aiming to get through—most of the time—on a first reading if possible. I do not want to be an obscure poet. I do not want even to be as obscure a poet as Lowell, though I may often be so. That’s in no sense a derogatory comment on Lowell; he’s just a little more difficult at times than I am. 

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean exactly by transparency? 

GUNN

Transparent to my meaning. Of course there is an implied contradiction with what I was saying before about poetry as process. There’s the whole question raised of how much meaning you have before you sit down to write and how it gets altered in the process of writing. But you do start with some knowledge of what you’re going to say after all. It may well not be what you end up saying, but it often is related to what you say. Yes, transparent . . .as though you’re looking through a glass at an object. That’s what the word implies. So the words are the glass to my mind. My mind is the fish in the tank behind the glass. 

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t it also that you want a style that allows something to come into the poem which has nothing to do with you? You want the world in the poem. You don’t want just Thom Gunn in it. 

GUNN

Oh, indeed, yes. I see what you’re saying; it’s not just the fish but it’s all behind the fish as well.

INTERVIEWER

One of the things that happens in The Passages of Joy is that there are lots of other people in the book—there, as far as I can see, for their own sake.

GUNN

I liked the idea of a populated book. I’ve always liked the idea of a book of poems as a kind of . . . if not a world, a country in a world. One of my impulses in writing is the desire to possess my experience and to possess all my experiences—my funny and trivial experiences too. I like to bring in people on the street. I was thinking that if the romantics had “effusions” and certain of the modernists had “observations”—Prufrock and Other Observations, Marianne Moore’s book Observations—what I’m trying to do is record. I’m recording the past, I’m also recording the present, and I’m recording the world around me and the things that go through my mind. One of the things I want to record is the street, because the streets that I move through are part of my life that I enjoy and want to possess. I don’t any longer think of a poem as “loot,” but I do think of it as in some sense possessing something. 

INTERVIEWER

The streets are very much San Francisco streets, aren’t they—particularly in the last few books? 

GUNN

Increasingly, yes. This started with Touch, though. There are bits of San Francisco in Touch—you know, “Pierce Street,” “Taylor Street,” “The Produce District.” And probably more with each book. It thrilled me to write a litany of names in “Night Taxi,” the last poem in The Passages of Joy. There are two lines where I take four extreme points in the city: China Basin to Twin Peaks, Harrison Street to the Ocean. I loved doing that. It’s pure litany; it’s not meaningful. But it gave me a feeling of possession or achievement—to have found a place for those names. 

INTERVIEWER

This is terribly surprising for an expatriate really, but it makes you almost a regional poet, like Thomas Hardy in “Wessex Heights.” It’s almost as if you’d invented roots for yourself. 

GUNN

I have invented roots. There must be some kind of seaweed that’s rooted in one place and then floats to another place and puts down the same roots! 

INTERVIEWER

The other great theme in The Passages of Joy is friendship. 

GUNN

That was quite self-conscious too. It must be the greatest value in my life. This is not a literary influence, though I admire Ben Jonson very much and he likes to write about friendship. 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. 

INTERVIEWER

Has AIDS had a fundamental effect on your poetry? 

GUNN

Anything as big as that must have had some fundamental effect, but I can’t measure it and I’m not sure what it would be. I’ve had to attend at the deathbeds of quite a few friends. On the other hand, what I’m especially focusing on is not the kind of death they had. What most of these poems have in common as a subject is the way people face death. It’s not the only thing I’m writing about in them but it seems to be one of the main things. 

INTERVIEWER

Take “The Man with Night Sweats” itself. You have the image of the flesh as a shield in that and it reminds me of things you said when you were young and were writing about soldiers. It’s as if the invasion of this virus has called into question a lot of assumptions that your poetry had been built on up till then.

GUNN

I suspect the word shield is something of a dead metaphor as I use it there, but it certainly calls into question the whole concept of taking risks. The same is true of the following poem, “In Time of Plague.” I’m not much of a risk-taker myself but I’ve always found the taking of risks rather admirable in a wonderful and showy kind of way. And that’s exactly one of the things one can’t do any longer in one’s sexual behavior because taking risks can have mortal consequences now. The worst consequence before would have been a completely curable disease—since the invention of penicillin after all. It was a fruitful kind of risk. I’m also implying what we know about even children taking risks. Children take risks in their games that ultimately strengthen their bodies. So there’s a kind of pattern in our knowledge that active behavior is sometimes a bit physically risky. You know when you go swimming you could drown. But that is ultimately a strengthening thing and suddenly it isn’t any longer. This is something that those two poems have in common—they had to go together in the book, though I don’t think I wrote them together.

INTERVIEWER

“In Time of Plague” takes it a bit further . . .

GUNN

That poem is absolutely true. I changed the names.

INTERVIEWER

In that poem the love of risk is also a love of death, isn’t it?

GUNN

Yes, and I say “I know it, and do not know it,” and “They know it, and do not know it.” We know several things at once, and we also don’t know each of them. We also sometimes act as if we didn’t know. 

INTERVIEWER

Another theme, which seems to have grown through your work and which flourishes in a special way in The Man with Night Sweats is the theme of dereliction. There are a lot of tramps in the book . . . 

GUNN

I’ve always been interested in the life of the street. I suppose it’s always seemed to me like a kind of recklessness, a freedom after the confinement of the home or the family. This goes way, way back to my teens even. There was a poem which started with the words “Down and out,” that being (I thought romantically) a kind of freedom. In my second book there is a poem called “In Praise of Cities” where I play with this idea in a rather Baudelairean kind of way. There is the promiscuity of the streets, which can hold promise of a sexual promiscuity as well, which is exciting. I love streets. I could stand on the street and look at people all day in the same way that Wordsworth could walk around the lakes and look at those things all day. As soon as Reagan pushed the nutcases out on to the street in California, turning them back to the “community,” which means turning them out on to the streets in fact, the composition of the people on the streets began to change a good deal. So I wrote about that. There’s a funny case in my recent book where I wrote about a character I call “Old Meg”—after Keats, who was writing after Scott—and I found that at about the same time my friend August Kleinzahler, who lives a few blocks away from me, had written about (we concluded) the same person. He called her Mrs. B, which says something about the difference between him and me, I suppose. I make a rather literary antecedent and he makes up a name. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you suffer badly from writer’s block? 

GUNN

Well, everybody does, I suppose. Or there are very few writers who don’t. Even Duncan, who I thought wrote continuously and easily—there were two years when he didn’t write anything. There are certain times when you are absolutely sterile; that is, when words seem to mean nothing. The words are there, the things in the world are there, you are interested in things in the same way and theoretically you can think up subjects for poems, but you simply can’t write. You can sit down at your notebook with a good idea for a poem and nothing will come. It’s as though there is a kind of light missing from the world. It’s a wordless world and it’s somehow an empty and rather sterile world. I don’t know what causes this but it’s very painful. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that the periods of fecundity are in any way related to these dry periods? 

GUNN

It might be that you have to go through dry periods so as in a sense to store things up. Maybe it’s like a pregnancy. Sometimes I think it is and sometimes I don’t. It’d be very nice to get up every day and write a new poem. I’m sure every poet would like to do that, but it’s not possible. It may be that you’ve had some imaginative experience that’s going to become a poem and it just has to become more a part of you. It has to stew, it has to cook until it’s ready, and maybe there’s nothing else to write about in between. You’ve just got to cook away until it’s ready to be taken out of the oven. 

INTERVIEWER

T. S. Eliot, when he was interviewed for The Paris Review, was asked whether he thought his poetry belonged to the tradition of American rather than British literature. I wonder if I can put the same question to you in reverse? 

GUNN

I call myself an Anglo-American poet. If it’s a question of the poets I admire, there’s a tremendous number of both British and American poets whom I admire greatly. I think I’m a weird product of both. I’m not like the other products, but then we’re none of us like each other. Most American poets at least know all the British poets and there’s some kind of a relation there. Probably that’s a little less true of British poets, though they’re pretty well-read in the American modernists and probably Whitman and Dickinson as well. So I’m not sure that it’s any longer a particularly meaningful question. 

INTERVIEWER

What do you feel about the situation of poetry in the English language at the moment?

GUNN

There’s always a lot to be unhappy with at any time. We look back on the best of the romantics or the Elizabethans or any period. We don’t remember that there was an incredible amount of junk being written too. The Elizabethans seem so good, and there are so many good ones. There were also very many bad ones. At times it seems to me that all the giants have died, but maybe it always seems like that. People like Eliot and Pound and Stevens and Williams and even Yeats were around for part of my life—I suppose I was already reading a bit of poetry at the age of ten, which was when Yeats died. Then the following generation died early. Crane died very early and Winters didn’t exactly live into old age. People like Lowell and Berryman destroyed themselves in various ways. But there are a great many youngish poets or poets of my own generation whom I enjoy reading very much and find exciting and like to explore. If I mention a few names, these are no surprise to anybody because I’ve written about them. In America I very much admire Jim Powell and August Kleinzahler. In Britain I’d like to mention the present interviewer! And I like Robert Wells’s poetry a great deal and Tony Harrison’s and there are younger people. I mentioned Glyn Maxwell, whom I’m reading right now and who strikes me as very energetic and wonderfully crazy in a really good kind of way. And then there are surprises, of course, like W. S. Graham. I discounted him for so many years. I thought he was just an imitator of Dylan Thomas—and he probably was at first. But meanwhile he was creeping up from behind and when we all rediscovered him something like twelve years ago that was quite a revelation. Of course Basil Bunting only died the other day and he was a giant. So this isn’t altogether a bad time to be living. I’ve no idea what the time looks like—how it measures up against other times or even what it’s shaped like—who the big ones are and who the small ones. I’d just rather follow my personal interests and enthusiasms.

Author photograph by Dorothy Alexander.