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This interview is taken from PN Review 70, Volume 16 Number 2, November - December 1989.An Interview with Thom Gunn
Do you have a sense of an English audience for your work, or a sense of two audiences, English and American?
Audience has always been a difficult question for me. It's the last thing I think about. People used to ask did I feel I was an English poet or an American poet and I would always be wishy-washy about it. Then a few years ago I came across a reference to myself as an Anglo-American poet and I thought, "Yes, that's what I am. I'm an Anglo-American poet." So that resolves that question! I don't think of the audiences as being that different. What people say about me, and it's probably true, is that in many of my poems I write about an American subject matter in an English way, by which they mean metrical and in rhyme - which may be an English way, though it's been used by some Americans. Of course free verse is not particularly English; very few English people have written decent free verse. One of the few is Lawrence.
Bunting, if you call that free verse. But it's such a tightly disciplined free verse, it keeps on moving into something very like metre.
Can you give us a history of your relation with the possibilities of form? I know you started out working in traditional metres.
I started out writing in metre because that was the way everybody around me was writing. In the late 1940s the poets I admired wrote in metre; there were a few English people who were writing sloppy free verse but I didn't pay much mind to them. And then when I started publishing I found myself identified with some people who eventually became classed as the Movement. However, my contention is that the Movement didn't really exist: what we had in common was a period style. I'm pretty sure I'm right because people not included in the Movement wrote in the same style. Then in 1954 I came to America and was able to read many of the modernists I'd never come across before - people like Stevens and Williams. And I read Pound for the first time with understanding. I immediately saw a great deal of potential in free verse but I wasn't able to write it at once because after you've been writing metrically for some years, you have that tune going in your head and you can't get rid of it or when you try you write chopped up prose. My way of teaching myself to write free verse was to work with syllabics. They aren't very interesting in themselves. They're really there for the sake of the writer rather than the reader. But they were a way of getting iambics out of my ears. Around the time of My Sad Captains I wrote about 30 poems in syllabics but I haven't worked with them since about 1964. I bother to say this because some people are under the impression that I am still writing them because they don't count and they don't know the difference between free verse and syllabics. But as a discipline syllabics did succeed in teaching me what free verse I'm able to write, which the English don't think is very good.
I don't think they can hear free verse, actually.
I don't think they can hear it either. But that's something else again, isn't it. Now I write a mixture of the two. I have a phase writing free verse, then a phase writing metrical verse, rather than both at once. As you know, I've been writing metrical verse pretty much exclusively in the last few years - though the poems I published in a pamphlet called Undesirables1 are in free verse. I chose to publish that booklet in England.
Just to irritate them?
Just to irritate them! And it did irritate some of them very much, I must say! There was one person who thought I was imitating Williams! [laughter] Whatever else I was doing wrong, I wasn't imitating Williams. I always hoped that my experiences with free verse would enrich my metrical verse as well. And vice versa, of course. At one time I hoped that I could combine the virtues of free verse with those of metric - which is a little like the alchemists' search for the philosophers' stone. I don't think it's possible, though Bunting comes as close as anybody. I'm not able to do it anyway. I've always counted on having a modern life span - unlike people who died in their twenties or thirties in Elizabethan times -
Marlowe knifed in a bar fight...
- or like the Romantics who drowned or had tuberculosis. Luckily I was right. I'm going to be sixty this year. And I didn't want to be one of those poets who do their best work when they're younger. I counted on learning things as I went along. I always figured that there was going to be time for everything, that I had time to try something like syllabics even though it might turn out to be a dead end, because I might still learn things from it.
Bunting says somewhere that Yeats would often have a poem on his desk for nine months (though he might also be working on a half dozen at once).
Writing a poem can take any length of time at all. It's happened to me very occasionally that I've written a poem almost in one draft. And sometimes I have worked on poems for a year or so - I don't mean continuously, but you know, you try again. One of the poems that is going to be printed with this interview, a very simple poem called 'Nasturtium', I wrote in one version that I didn't like at all and I just kept a few lines of it and wrote a completely different poem. I'm pleased with it now but it took me, for such a simple, small poem, it took me a hell of a long time - something like three years, off and on.
Still, your poems in traditional forms, the poems in cross-rhymed pentameter quatrains and in pentameter couplets in your forthcoming book, The Man With Night Sweats, for instance, often convince me that you can think in rhyme, that you are completely at home there and can move naturally inside those forms.
I suppose there are times when it's easy and so you could say that I'm moving comfortably within the form, but those times are extremely rare. What I find more to the point is that in looking for a rhyme, or in trying to get a metre right, you are often having to go deeper into your subject so that you discover things about it, and about your reaction to it, that you didn't know before. You are digging in - because you have to. In looking for a rhyme, even just in mechanically trying all the consonants in turn on your suffix, you are exploring possibilities in your subject: how can this word be applied to my subject, how can that one? As you get more desperate, you actually start to think more deeply about the subject in hand, so that rhyme turns out to be a method of thematic exploration.
Who were your poetic heroes as a teenager? Who were you mad about at fourteen?
Oh, I was mad about Keats and Marlowe when I was fourteen.
The plays. It wasn't until much later that I read 'Hero and Leander', which I now find as good as anything by Marlowe, possibly better than the plays. It seems to me exquisitely funny, and vigorous. It has a kind of freshness that reminds me of Spenser, but Spenser never gets it quite so well. He is so intensely decorative that he doesn't have quite the guts that Marlowe has. It's immensely erotic but in a very unsmutty way. It's delightful. It's what Keats was trying for, but Keats never quite got it, I think because he never had the erotic experience to back it up. But 'Hero and Leander' is one of the top poems for me. Even Shakespeare didn't get quite that quality. He did better in many ways of course but I don't think that he got that particular erotic delight in things that Marlowe has. It's a delight so great that he can laugh at it in the middle of it. He kind of giggles with pleasure. It's so wonderfully heterosexual. It strikes me he's not making any distinctions between the heterosexual and the homosexual in the poem. That's another thing I find very pleasant.
In my teens, I wanted to be a novelist. I read so many Victorian novels that later when I did my undergraduate work I didn't need to read any more to answer the novel questions on the exams. I wanted to be a novelist very much in the Victorian sense: I've always been interested in characters. In my last book I did actually start a series of character studies - it's called 'Transients and Residents'. At one time I envisaged this as being rather ambitious, maybe as many as twenty poems, each one dealing with somebody I know. There's one poem in the new book, 'Looks', that could well be a part of it.
Then toward the end of my teens I really started to admire Auden a great deal. Early Auden. Anne Ridler said that reading Auden made her want to write poetry in the first place. He had an idiom that seemed to be adapted to anything he did and to be able to link the ancient craft of poetry with modern experience. You must remember that I was young and ignorant and I didn't know about the modernists, and I didn't know much about Eliot then and I hadn't read Baudelaire, or I would have known that other people had written about modern experience. But Auden seemed so available. He made writing seem easy. I am very grateful to him for having, in one sense, started me off. I did feel a great need to disown him, as one does with one's earliest influences, as soon as I started to write a little more seriously. You know, it's called castrating one's father.
Once I got to Cambridge around about the end of my first year I and my friends discovered Yeats together for ourselves. The most extraordinary thing about Yeats is that he was not in the curriculum. His last Collected Poems had not yet come out; he'd been out of print the whole of the war and after the war and it was about 1952 that the Collected Poems finally came out and we all bought copies. It was extraordinary because we'd always understood that Eliot was the king of the world, that Eliot was the modern poet. There was no possible rival, and suddenly here was somebody as good or better, it seemed to us, someone with a lot more vigour, a bigger range, and more exciting. And we discovered him for ourselves, which was a wonderful thing to be able to do with a major poet, because every other major poet by that time has been presented to you as part of a curriculum.
When did you start reading Baudelaire?
I started reading Baudelaire actually just after I finished national service and before I went to Cambridge as an undergraduate. Baudelaire has meant a tremendous amount to me over the years as somebody to be learned from - as much as anybody apart from Shakespeare, perhaps. I re-read him last year and realized that a lot of the poems I'd been writing were aspiring, though not consciously, to something he achieves in many of his late poems - poems like 'Les Sept Vieillards' and 'Les Petites Vieilles' and 'Le Cygne'. That's the kind of poem I most want to write.
Clive Wilmer gives me the impression that for many readers in Britain right now you are a California poet - something at least as exotic as Baudelaire. [laughter]
The English think of California as being a good deal more exotic than it really is. The English by and large don't seem to think that people lead regular, normal lives in California. I lead a very mundane, ordinary life here. It's true I'm queer, but you can be queer in England, too, you know. But I don't lead an exotic life and the kind of experience that I write about is not exotic. I've written a lot recently about people dying of AIDS but they're doing that in huge numbers in Europe now also. And death has always been quite prevalent. But I detect a feeling of resentment in such comments. There were several resentments apparent in England against my last book. One was that much of it was in free verse. Another was that much of it was about gay life. But there was an underlying and implicit resentment that I was a Californian now, so I was altogether a creature of artifice.
When we were talking about doing this interview you said you weren't sure you wanted to examine your processes of composition too closely. Why?
Superstition? I'm always amazed that I can write a poem. I've been writing them since I was 18 or so but I'm always amazed that I can write a poem I can read through and think it's ok and worth publishing. There are times when I can versify and versify very boringly and I don't know why that isn't so all the time. I don't know what gives it that extra energy or where it comes from when it comes. Someone who was interviewing me the other day for Gay Times in England, Alan Sinfield, was saying that he views me as a traditional poet - and he didn't mean anything bad by it! [laughter] - a traditional poet because what I seem to be doing in the structure of the poem is bringing new experience to something I know already and putting the two in combination. This is what one does in the traditional poem. One brings the new experience to the traditional form. This in turn makes me wonder what connection all this has with the structure of the Horatian ode. The really noticeable thing I've found in my reading of Horace's poems has been that so often what he seems to be doing is putting together two brilliant, unfinished poems, on the same or similar themes, but coming from different directions and somehow resolving them by bringing them together - or not resolving, quite, but he brings about an ending by combining the two. Horace is wonderfully experimental in the structure of his poems and that excites me a good deal - experimental in a way that Baudelaire isn't, that Donne isn't. Baudelaire sticks to the subject, usually, and Donne always sticks to the subject, or goes deeper into it or finds analogies for it. He doesn't change the subject as Horace does. So comparatively speaking Horace is extraordinarily bold.
Who do you read with interest among more recent poets?
Bunting seems to me the most interesting poet in Britain since the death of Yeats. That's not such an odd statement to make. A lot of people agree with it. The trouble is the English are hung up on Larkin. Larkin was a poet of minute ambitions who carried them out exquisitely. But he really isn't a very important poet and right now he exercises a terrible influence on English poetry because if you admire somebody like that so much it means you're not going to be aiming very high. His distrust of rhetoric was also a distrust of feeling, a distrust of daring. Certainly he was right to be distrustful of rhetoric, but on the other hand I would sooner read poets who are able to take those risks. He himself was a very good poet, though a very bad tempered one, I think. I like Robert Pinsky's word for him: "sour". And this has got in the way of Bunting's achievement, which is insufficiently admired in Britain and certainly insufficiently admired here. Bunting seems to me one of the great poets of the century in the English language. He's difficult, but then lots of people are difficult, and working through the difficulties is in itself rewarding. He's the most rewarding poet that I've come across in the last ten years. Bunting is able to use modernism in a way that should be exemplary for all of us. He's able to use it in relation to his origins, in relation to tradition. He is able to combine the influence of Pound and Wordsworth - something that Pound never envisaged. Somebody who's able to do that is able to do the whole thing, and Briggflatts is one of the great poems of the century. I wouldn't qualify that at all. It is one of the few great poems of the century. It seems to me greater every time I read it.
Mina Loy is somebody I wasn't able to read until much later than I wanted to. I was very impressed by what Winters and Rexroth and Pound said about her, but for a long time only a small part of her work was available. Then Jargon published Roger Conover's edition2 a few years ago so I was finally able to read her complete poetry. I wrote about her recently in an essay named 'Three Hard Women' that appeared last year in a festschrift for Donald Davie called On Modern Poetry3. It fascinates me that other people obviously don't like her. Now she's available, but she's still not included in any of the anthologies of poetry, even of women's poetry where often a lot of extremely inferior poets are included. And she's got it. Her best poem is 'Der Blinde Junge' but many of her early poems are absolutely brilliant. But they are clever, and they are unkind, and they are difficult - and people don't like that. They love H.D., who for me is largely a crashingly boring poet but people love her because they see her as some kind of earth mother or because she's a lesbian. She didn't like sex and she didn't like herself, whereas Mina Loy adored men, liked sex, she's a very sexual writer in a wonderful way and she's hard, and she's unkind and she's funny. I would love to have met Mina Loy. She is one of the few poets I would really like to have met at her height. She must have been a great deal of fun to be around.
I was re-reading Robert Duncan recently because I wrote that article about him, and so I decided I was going to read all his major work again. The two volumes of Ground Work4 have hardly hit the public consciousness yet, apart from people like ourselves who were already his readers. You wouldn't know that those two books have come out, and yet they're magnificent. They're a great crown to a career. I suppose that in about fifty years time everybody will agree with us, but it's a bore waiting for posterity to catch up with one's views. We were very different poets. Duncan had a programme of being avant garde and romantic and my programme is entirely different insofar as it's a programme. He was a wonderful man to be around, and his conversation was terribly brilliant and exciting. Having lunch with him, I would go back and write down all sorts of ideas in my notebook that I'd never had before. God knows he was a learned man, probably the most learned man I've ever known. It was partly a disorganized learning, but it was not so disorganized as it seemed.
It wasn't disorganized: it just violated most of the boundaries of received organization.
He didn't believe in the canon. He thought that the canon had to be constantly violated and that is what more recent criticism has been starting to say. I have thought this for some time. I suppose I really started to think about it when I knew Winters, because Winters was constantly saying that the canon wasn't enough, that there were all these poems, and he'd specify them, that were good, and yet they weren't in the canon and people didn't read them. I'm against the idea of there being a fixed canon, though I often teach as though there were one, because there are certain good poems, famous poems that students ought to know about.
In America recently literary journalists have begun to talk about something they call New Formalism.
I have very little interest in any literary movement of the last forty years. The two current literary movements in this country are the New Formalism and the Language Poets. Neither interests me. I'm interested in individual poets, not in poetics. Poetics is such a big word nowadays, such a fashionable word. Every now and again I ask myself whether I have any poetic theory. I suppose somebody could assemble one for me simply on the basis of my practice. I think it would be full of inconsistencies - which perhaps it's just as well I keep unexamined. I'm interested in writing poetry and I'm genuinely not very interested in the theory of poetry. The New Formalism troubles me partly because, there, people might tend to identify me as one of its precursors. I'm not interested in encouraging such a school, because I think they should also be learning from people like Bunting and Pound and the other modernists.
It's a pretty narrow tradition they're committed to drawing on.
Yes, it's far too narrow a tradition. They should be reading Ginsberg. In fact, one of them wrote me and asked if I'd contribute to his magazine. I said "No, I'm not interested in reading the people that you suggest printing (he'd given me a list); I've just written an article praising Ginsberg and I think you should be reading him instead." And I do think that somebody like that should be reading Ginsberg, and someone who writes like Ginsberg should also be reading poets like Robert Herrick. It works both ways. We should all be fertilizing each other. It's not particularly profitable at this time to be separating ourselves into armed camps. There's not enough talent to go around. Maybe a tradition that's able to take account of the avant garde and of the traditional is necessary. That's what was so wonderful about Duncan. He was able to absorb all kinds of influence, even someone as foreign to the avant garde traditions he started from as Ben Jonson - in that wonderful sequence the 'Seventeenth Century Suite' in Ground Work: Before The War.
Yes, there are passages, too, where you'll hear heroic couplets embedded in his most avant-garde-appearing poems.
Or as he once pointed out you'll sometimes find lines Edna St Vincent Millay could have written - and he said "that's the kind of risk I know I'm taking". I loved that kind of defiance in him. Anyway I don't think I'm particularly against schools as such, though they have bored me during my lifetime. But I think that they are only useful when there is a central monolithic tradition that is worth opposing. And we don't have such a central tradition now. We have fashion, but that's not the same thing at all. Another problem with theory is it's simply boring.
When is your next book going to come out and why are you delaying it? I know it's basically done and has been for more than six months now.
Yes, I finished The Man With Night Sweats last August and plan to have it come out in 1992. The reason I decided to wait is quite simply that after I publish a book I have trouble starting composing poetry again. After my last book it was about two years, and after the book before that it was about two and a half years. I simply got stuck and couldn't seem to write anything. So I thought I'd play a game with this and see if it worked. Since the periods not writing seem to be connected with the idea of closing off some whole area of experience in publishing a book, I thought that perhaps this time if I simply put the book in a drawer for a few years I could perhaps go on writing. And I have, indeed, gone on writing. I don't feel I have any reputation to keep up. I don't care about that, keeping the eye of the public. I'm too old to bother about that kind of thing any longer.
Some of the strongest poems in The Man With Night Sweats are about friends you've lost to the AIDS epidemic.
Yes. It seems to me that one of my subjects is friendship, the value of friendship. It is a subject that has preoccupied me in recent years. This shows especially in The Passages of Joy, though nobody noticed it. Everybody noticed the gay poetry, but there are many poems about friendship in that book and a great many more in the new one that have to do with friendship, or imply it as a value, as indeed it is for me. And if you're a writer and you have a lot of friends who suddenly die, then you're going to want to write about it. And then, one of the oldest subjects is how you face the end. One thing I've been greatly struck by in the people I've watched die is the extraordinary bravery with which people face death. So many of one's values - for humanist atheists like myself, as opposed to religious people - arise in confrontation with death.
Are you an atheist who admits the supernatural?
Yes, that's a good description of me. It's like Bunting - Jonathan Williams refers to Bunting as "my atheist Quaker friend".
I asked Pinsky what he thought I should ask you and he said he wanted to know why you appear to be so calm at the heart of the maelstrom. [laughter]
What maelstrom? I'm a cheerful and rather superficial person most of the time. I simply don't notice things, so when I seem to be calm and stoical maybe it's because I didn't notice them.
You're just oblivious? [laughter]
I'm just oblivious, right. You know, people are so nice, they often don't credit me with a normal degree of stupidity or with a certain lack of observativeness. ... I'm such an associationist talker, I must not be a very good person to interview.
But then we get to play with the transcript.
Play with it as much as you want my friend. [laughter] Mina Loy is my mother, you'll end by having me say.
There, that's an idea.
Jim Powell interviewed Thom Gunn for PN Review in Gunn's office on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley on 8 May 1989. Special thanks to Karen Bondaruk, who transcribed the tapes, and to Reed College, Portland, Oregon.
- Published by Pig Press, 7 Cross View Terrace, Neville's Cross, Durham DH1 4JY. Price £2.50.
- The Last Lunar Baedeker (reprinted in Britain by Carcanet Press, 1985).
- Ed. Vereen Bell and Laurence Lerner, Vanderbilt University Press, 1988.
- Published by New Directions, 1988. Gunn's review appeared in TLS, 25 November 1988.
This interview is taken from PN Review 70, Volume 16 Number 2, November - December 1989.