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This article is taken from PN Review 70, Volume 16 Number 2, November - December 1989.

Thom Gunn Douglas Chambers

In 1980, speaking of his collection Jack Straw's Castle, Thom Gunn said: "I think my mind is looking after itself pretty well, and I can give myself up as much as possible to the sensory life at the same time." What he noted there was something that a number of critics had already observed in his work: a movement away from rhetoric and ratiocination towards (in George Woodcock's phrase) "imaginative naturalness and greater openness of feeling". This change can be traced to the collection My Sad Captains, and to the poem, 'In Santa Maria del Popolo' in particular, a poem where the insistent argumentation and Yeatsian heroics of his two earlier collections are modified as the eye travels from the heroic figure of Caravaggio's St Paul to the ordinary human congregation with its "heads closeted in tiny fists". Here nothingness is resisted not by heroic gestures but by embracing. What Gunn discovers is a true fiction, not a transcendent one that comes from outside and is applied to experience, but one (in Wordsworth's phrase) "felt in the mind and felt along the blood".

"The essence of a risk," Martin Dodsworth has observed, "is that it is a voluntary commitment to the irrational." That is the commitment that Thom Gunn learned to make in Touch and Moly and carried to its fulfillment in the persona of his poem, 'Jack Straw's Castle'. The poem, arguably the best that Gunn has written, enacts a chosen descent into the pit.

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