I discovered Thom Gunn’s poetry at university. Amid periodic bouts of study I found my college library to be an excellent resource for literature, and when, sequestered upstairs at 2 in the morning and making slow progress on whatever Berlioz essay I was supposed to be writing, I decided I needed a break, I would turn to the poetry shelves and pick out a volume of Apollinaire, say, and, if I happened to be alone, would read something out loud, just to give my mind something other to do than work. And it was on these shelves that I found the Faber edition of Gunn’s Collected Poems.
What was it that immediately appealed to me about Thom Gunn’s poetry, I wonder now. Because it’s not straightforward. Much of his poetry is oblique and requires repeated readings before it begins to yield rewards – and I was then, as I am now, a superficial reader, in spite of my continuous if feeble efforts to reform myself. But I was attracted by the obvious sensuality of his writing, which is present in his earliest poems, though it is only in the later ones that his own sexuality becomes overt.
Since the publication of perhaps his most celebrated collection in 1992, The Man With Night Sweats, the following poem, the first in the book, has been widely anthologised.
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.
I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
The fluency of this poem is tremendous, I think, its nimble fleet-footedness, the spacing of the pauses, the way it trips off the tongue when read aloud, its clever and sometimes unexpected, half-hidden rhymes. Perhaps one of the reasons for its popularity is that, unlike a lot of his poems, its meaning is very clear.
I quote it here because I recently came by chance across an American first edition of the book in our library, formerly the property of the literary scholar Tony Tanner, who was a close friend of Gunn’s. At the front, in Gunn’s hand, is written the following:
“old friend” of the 2nd line
in this book —
now in the charmed empire
of your own attainment —
with the tenth degree
of love (that’s the
July 1992, Cambridge
I was exhilarated to discover this for the glimpse it provides of the life that lies behind the work. To those interested in a more in-depth look at Thom Gunn I recommend this feature from the Guardian, written around the same time I first read his poems, just a few months before his death.