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This article is taken from PN Review 183, Volume 35 Number 1, September - October 2008.

Summation and Chthonic Power: Part I John Peck

'It is our main meaning...'
Thom Gunn on eros, not agape, in 'A Wood near Athens'

1. Power from force, feeling from impulse

Summation is powerful and mature statement, but as an organising principle for poetry in English it has regained, long after the modernist detours around it, at best an intricately defended, half-confident status. To modify a phrase from a late poem by Wallace Stevens, 'The Course of a Particular', there is a resistance involved. Thom Gunn excelled in skilfully neutralising that resistance from the outset of his career. As for chthonic power, that phrase represents something common in literary thinking since writers began to reassess Romanticism in the wake of the depth psychologies and the ongoing demolition of traditional metaphysics. Gunn hardly walked in fear of the category, though he never employed it, as far as I know. His flexible style is one of the most conceptually discerning in the century just past, and also one of the most mature in exploring the adventures of instinct ('adventure' as a term he takes from Robert Duncan). The two terms in my title, especially given Gunn's experience with hallucinogens, point to several dimensions. Consensus reality, though it has long runs and regular showings, hardly has a corner on the way things are. Also, a price is to be paid for abiding by that consensus, and another for stepping outside for a look around. Both prices are real, and each ...

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