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This article is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.

on Thom Gunn
Thom Gunn The Young Existentialist Conqueror
M.C. Caseley

IN HIS ESSAY ‘Cambridge in the Fifties’,1 Thom Gunn wrote autobiographically about his time as an undergraduate. He self-deprecatingly presented both his Forsterian illusions about the place and gave valuable glimpses of his early encounters with the likes of Karl Miller and Ted Hughes. Very early poems such as ‘The Secret Sharer’ appeared whilst he was still a student there, and his essay in fact locates the setting for this piece precisely, at the corner of Jesus Lane and Sidney Street. Already, in this poem, typical Gunn ideas of doubleness allied to a slightly outmoded Elizabethan diction (‘O’) appear, and although Gunn himself later tended to underplay the poems eventually published in Fighting Terms in 1954, their energy and youthful ambition are still impressive. Important early exercises such as ‘Carnal Knowledge’ and ‘Tamer and Hawk’ evince a tough sense of balance and form whilst withdrawing, at times, from indulgent, overt displays of emotion.

In another of the Occasions of Poetry essays, ‘My Life up to Now’, Gunn outlined his debt to Donne and Shakespeare, describing his poetry of the time as ‘the act of an existentialist conqueror, excited and aggressive’,2 and the sexual negotiations in ‘The Wound’ and ‘Lofty in the Palais de Danse’ certainly fit this description. The swaggering boasting of Lofty, in the latter, makes it a divisive poem to teach to a mixed-sex group of sixth-formers: Gunn’s distancing irony must be carefully explored if any sympathy at all is to be extended to him. However, there is finely-judged ambiguity ...

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