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This review is taken from PN Review 30, Volume 9 Number 4, March - April 1983.

A PART SOLUTION Thom Gunn, The Passages of Joy (Faber) £4.00
Thom Gunn, The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (Faber) £6.95

In The Passages of Joy, Thom Gunn tries to give the impression of a man who has found his life-style and who can therefore afford to relax his literary style: his subject-matter, when not reminiscent, is a present-tense record of casual San Francisco gay life. Is this the real thing, a hard-won freedom, or another pose? In either case, one's tempted to ask, like the young man of Father William, 'Do you think, at your age, it is right?' Gunn is, after all, in his fifties, and there is something a little unnerving about this poetic persona which reverses a conventional habit and seems to feign unending youth rather than unreached age.

The pertinent question, of course, concerns the influence of life-style on literary style: the former proclaims demystification, but isn't mystery an important part of poetic effect? Certainly, Gunn himself acknowledges (in an essay on Robert Duncan and in the 'Postscript' at the end of The Occasions of Poetry) the generalising force of the genderless 'you' in homosexual love poems, a practice adopted by Auden and by the earlier Gunn but abandoned in The Passages of Joy. This wouldn't matter if the frankness didn't so often become flatness: repeatedly-in 'Bally Power Play', 'Sweet Things', 'As Expected', 'A Drive to Los Alamos' for instance-he offers a padded-out anecdote unsupported by prosodic invention and weighed down by leaden puns. Such poems seem to assert that in general these 'open' themes demand 'open' forms (the laboriously metrical 'The Miracle', ...


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