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

On Two Stanzas by Thom Gunn John Peck

Thom Gunn has characterized his work in syllabic verse as transitional, "a way of teaching myself about unpatterned rhythms - that is, about free verse" ('My Life Up to Now', 1979).

His own reflections on what interests me in one of his syllabic poems occur in his charming essay about the composition of 'Three' ('Writing a Poem', 1973), the metred poem about a naked family at the beach. His account there of the quasi-magical exploration of mind in search of "the correct incantations" lends emphasis to understanding but also to talismanic power, and so to combinations "of both rational power and irrational". The judiciousness and temperamental balance of his formulation are attractive: the writing of poetry ventures into "unexplained areas of the mind, in which the air is too thickly primitive or too fine for us to live continually".

'Berlin in Ruins: Anhalter Bahnhof' was included in Touch in the late 1960s. The slant-rhymed tercets, in syllabic nines, match those of Geoffrey Hill in the second of his 'Three Baroque Meditations', from King Log published in the same years. This stanza evokes two ghostly others in metre - one in pentameter, another in tetrameter - while also evading them. Gunn's choice of this stanza for his reflections on Nazism seemed to me then, and still seems now, fitting not only for that historically ghost-ridden theme but also for the atmosphere of renewed political excitement in the American 1960s. That brief climate of ours hovered between ...


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