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This article is taken from PN Review 233, Volume 43 Number 3, January - February 2017.

Poetry for the Future: Thom Gunn & the Legacy of Poetry Andrew Latimer
HOW CAN A POEM be like a novel? Or perhaps a better question would be, why should a poem be like a novel? These were questions that Thom Gunn posited whilst writing his seventeen-part mini-epic, Misanthropos. The poem, in Gunn’s own words, is:

the account of a man on his own. It is divided into four parts. In the first, he has escaped out of battle into a distant part of the world; on his journey he sees nobody, and concludes that he is the only human being left alive on earth.1

You would be forgiven for thinking this the blurb for a sci-fi novel, in the manner of Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night. Misanthropos’s pre-publication names (‘The Last Man’, ‘The Book for the Last Survivor’, ‘For the Survivor’) would only support this preconception. Yet, with its highly formal style and its measured appearance – fourteen out of seventeen sections fit perfectly onto one page – there is no mistaking it for anything but a poem. In fact, Gunn’s poem seems obsessively concerned with poetry’s formality. In the second part of Misanthropos, Gunn plays a clever trick of verse, utilising the highly artificial Renaissance echo-poem to depict his protagonist’s first encounter with a post-apocalyptic human:

At last my shout is answered! Are you near,
Man whom I cannot see but can hear?

Here.


(Misanthropos II)

Creeping in from the right-hand margin, a space not often occupied by poetry, comes the soft sound of another voice. Or, ...


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