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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Book Review: Selected Poems of Thom Gunn

David Orr writes:

All poets, if they are any good,” Charles Simic has said, “tend to stand apart from their literary age.” The key phrase here, of course, is “if they are any good”; average poets don’t just stand within their age, they compose it. But we sometimes talk as if ­poets are exceptions not simply when they write well, but because they write at all. According to this way of thinking, the art form demands such devotion to one’s individuality that every poet, no matter how lowly, is a kind of outsider — a Cheese Who Stands Alone. This perception frequently finds its way into depictions of poets in popular culture; it also emerges in the vehemence with which poets themselves regularly declare their opposition to labels, categories, schools, allegiances, booster clubs, car pools, intramural softball teams and so on. Yet when everyone is busy standing apart, how is it possible to stand out? What does real independence look like?

Possibly something like the work of Thom Gunn, whose new Selected ­Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, paper, $14) is edited by August Kleinzahler. Gunn, who died in 2004, began his career as a hot young poet in England (he published his first book, “Fighting Terms,” when he was only 25) and was generally associated with the taut, plainspoken aesthetic favored by writers like Philip Larkin and Donald Davie. In 1954, he left England for San Francisco, where he eventually settled after studying with Yvor Winters at Stanford. Gunn embraced the city’s bohemian lifestyle — Edmund White called him “the last of the commune dwellers . . . serious and intellectual by day and druggy and sexual by night” — and he grew increasingly interested in syllabics and free verse even as he continued to hone the metrical forms that distinguished his early career. He’s possibly the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD, and he’s certainly one of the few to profess genuine admiration for both Winters (the archformalist) and Allen Ginsberg (the arch . . . well, Allen Ginsberg). This is, even for the poetry world, a pretty odd ­background.

link: On Poetry - Thom Gunn’s ‘Selected Poems’ -


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