The collection New Selected Poems: Thom Gunn draws from the poet’s canon to commemorate one of the most profound members of a generation of English poets who came of age during and after World War II. An AIDS-era eulogist. A renegade Cambridge-cowboy. A devilish Brit writing from both the epicenter and the lava-outskirts of a shifting American landscape. In his lifetime, Gunn was often positioned as an incongruent peer to Ted Hughes and The Confessionals. Yet Gunn, by his own rhetoric, was not a confessional poet. As an expatriate, his work evokes an oozing liminality that is addressed in an interest in the body and masculinity—ranging from cowboys to Elvis. Poems set in iambic pentameter and formal rhyme schemes speak about motorcycle-clad emblems of a brazen American masculinity and layered with double-entendres on gay male sexuality. The most interesting moments in Gunn’s poetry occur with a metaphorical preoccupation with the intimacies between the interior and exterior self.
In the first poem in New Selected Poems, “The Wound,” from the collection Fighting Terms (1954), the speaker’s wound “in my head,” as opposed to head wound, is then likened to “valleys darkened, its villages became still.” Gunn goes onto then talk about the wound as something “doctors could not cure it.” These visions of the wound implicate that the wound is metaphorical, and the travel of this conceit continues into the next stanza where the “mind,” as opposed to the head, “returned to Troy.” The “dirty denim and dark glasses” paired with a phantasmagoria of drugs: weed, methedrine, hash, and acid. The speaker promises, “Pure acid- it will scrape your brain/And make it something else again.” This making and unmaking of the head, and subsequently self, is a larger motif in Gunn’s work. In “Street Song,” the word “head” is again present in relationship to Gunn’s interest in Elizabethan poetry, in which he positions America as a new paradise in rejection of Europe and the Old World. “Street Song” begins with this evocation of America “Call it heaven, call it hell,/ Join me and see the world I sell.” In the next stanza, Gunn’s speaker offers themselves as a guide, “Join me, and I will take you there, / Your head will cut out from your hair/ Into whichever self you choose.”
Present in this collection are some his most often anthologized poems, such as “The Man with Night Sweats.” Yet, where this collection succeeds is to show the breadth of poetic capability beyond an “AIDS-era eulogist,” which has become a predominant classification. From poems about Alexander the Great to the homeless of San Francisco, each sword of humanity is both illustrated as serrated and held with regard. Some of the most emotive poems are express desire for the rootless, queer young men of San Francisco or at this most sentimental, were written for his partner Mike Kittay. “The Hug,” the opening poem in The Man with Night Sweats (1992), describes a tender relationship between two men, that can be inferred to be his relationship to his lifelong partner Mike Kittay, through the use of monosyllabic irregular rhymes. Gunn writes: “When our grand passion had not yet/ become familial./ My quick sleep had deleted all/ Of intervening time and pace./ I only knew/ The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.” The embrace becomes a space between the speaker and a lover who has now become more akin to family is both a geographic and metaphorical space of witness and comfort. Further, the word “know” comes into relationship with a sense of safety in a time of the AIDS epidemic.
New Selected Poems does not participate in an aesthetic redaction. Rather, the powers of this selected works magnifies how Gunn’s work can inform the contemporary with how traditional forms of verse can and ought to be used to inscribe new sensibilities of meaning. In the eponymous “Touch” from the 1967 collection, Gunn relates sleeping next to a lover, a similar image used in “The Hug” as a way of comprehending the self through the contemplation of someone else existing as an other. He writes, “What I, now loosened/ sink into is an old/big place, it is/ there already, for/ you are already/ there, and the cat/ got there before you, yet/ it is hard to locate.” The poem ends with: “ourselves alone, dark/ wide realm where we/ walk with everyone.” If this is not an Ars Poetica, then what is?