The Poet as a Young Critic

In Thom Gunn’s early work for The Yale Review, he valued style above all else

Langdon Hammer

Thom Gunn, Hyde Park, London, 1957. © The Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation, Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona Foundation

Thom Gunn was the laureate of West Coast surfers and leather-clad motorcyclists, of the acid trip, the bathhouse, and the gay bar. The Man with Night Sweats (1992), in which he elegized friends and lovers who died of AIDS, remains for me one of the best books of lyric poetry anyone published in the twentieth century. As a poet, Gunn was Whitmanian in his appetite for experience and his expansive, intimate sympathies. As a critic, by contrast, he was highly discriminating, and as a young man just a little superior.

Starting in 1958, Gunn wrote ten poetry reviews for The Yale Review. John Palmer, the editor, asked Gunn to be the magazine’s regular poetry critic, and Gunn accepted immediately, writing to Palmer he was “most flattered,” as well he might be, being a twenty-nine-year-old poet with little track record as a published critic. Appearing twice a year, Gunn’s reviews for The Yale Review were “omnibus” affairs in which he commented on five to nine volumes of poetry—a once-familiar format for criticism. Gunn was developing his own views and values in dialogue with new collections of poetry. In total, he formed considered opinions of an impressive sixty-nine titles. After four years, however, the charm had worn off. Gunn wrote to Palmer he had become “suspicious of reviewing as a function” and as he wrote in a memoir, he was “dissatisfied with the business of making comparatively fast judgments on contemporary poets.” Worse, as he told Palmer, “Much of my reviewing seems rather mean in spirit, . . . whatever I set out to make it,” and he gave up this work for The Yale Review as a result.

Gunn went on to write more reviews, but usually of no more than a book or two at a time and always by “poets I liked.” He wrote extended essays on recondite English Renaissance poets (when was the last time you read Fulke Greville?) as well as Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Gary Snyder, and Robert Duncan, all of them influential for his own poetry and poetics. Gunn gathered these essays along with a few short autobiographical pieces in The Occasions of Poetry, in 1982, as well as a second collection of critical prose, titled Shelf Life, in 1993. Shelf Life included several essays on women poets a generation or two older than he was: H.D., Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Janet Lewis, Lorine Niedecker, and Elizabeth Bishop.

The vast majority of poetry from any period is bound for oblivion, however glamorous, controversial, or important.

Gunn never reprinted his pieces for The Yale Review, perhaps because he changed his mind about some of the poetry he had commented on there. In The Occasions of Poetry, he wrote that he regretted having “sneered” at Book Five of Williams’s Paterson in The Yale Review, but in retrospect he would “revere it as the great epilogue to a great work.” He was equally “haunted” by his praise of a poem by Howard Nemerov, which appeared on subsequent dust jackets out of context as a comment on Nemerov’s poetry as a whole, not just the one superlative poem. Gunn likely would have had mixed feelings at best to see The Yale Review shine a light on his early criticism today.

But those reviews are worth revisiting. They show us Gunn’s motives and values in formation. The young critic had no patience for self-absorption, mere virtuosity, or rhetorical extravagance, and he policed his own work for these “vices” (his word).

Gunn’s idea of what constitutes a good poem in these reviews may strike readers today as narrow, prescriptive, and foreign. His easy confidence in the objective authority of his preferences might seem presumptuous. But turn the perspective around and poetry reviewers in our day seem strikingly mild and undiscriminating. The pluralism of the current poetry scene and the manners it encourages stand in a contrast to the period in which Gunn was writing for The Yale Review, when battle lines were drawn between experimentalists and academics with their “open” and “closed” forms, and critics like Gunn had no trouble saying what was right and what was wrong.

The omnibus review is interesting as a genre of criticism. It encourages a critic to read poets in relation to each other and to note tendencies and choices—in short, to describe a field of writing as it is coming into view, before it has been comfortably labeled. The fact that Gunn changed his mind about some volumes speaks to the risk and freshness of the position-taking this type of reviewing demands. To engage with a batch of new books while writing under a deadline is to expose one’s own more or less snap reactions to review. Reading poetry in real time and in public may go wrong in one way or another, but there is something authentic—an important word for Gunn—about such an encounter.

The writing of criticism was part of Gunn’s education as a poet. He read English at Cambridge when F. R. Leavis was the reigning authority there. He moved on to Stanford, first as a Stegner fellow in writing, then as a graduate student, under the supervision of Yvor Winters. Gunn was confirmed in some of his poetic instincts and prejudices by the intemperate Winters. The idea of the poem as a moral drama wrapped up in questions of style is key for both Leavis and Winters, as well as for the young Gunn writing in The Yale Review.

Many if not most of the books Gunn reviewed will be recognizable only to historians of poetry and rare-book dealers. That says something about the years in which Gunn was writing these reviews, which was an interregnum in English poetry, an unsettled era. Modernist giants like Pound, Williams, and Auden (Gunn reviews them all) were late in their careers and prone to imitations of their better selves—as Gunn does not hesitate to point out—and the postwar poets under review who remain in print today had only recently found their mature styles (e.g., Robert Lowell) or had not quite yet (e.g., Adrienne Rich, who was then under the sway of Life Studies, as Gunn remarks, calling her early-1960s poetry an “undeliberate parody” of Lowell).

That so many of the books Gunn commented on have been forgotten also says something about the parochialism of midcentury American literary magazines and the biases—including the entrenched racism and sexism—of a publication like The Yale Review circa 1960. All the poets Gunn wrote about were white, and most of them were men writing in rhyme and meter, as Gunn was doing at the time. What would he have said about The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks (1960) or Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note by LeRoi Jones (1961)? Yet the primary lesson of a return to those reviews may be just this: the vast majority of poetry from any period is bound for oblivion, however glamorous, controversial, or important a poet may seem at the time.

After four years of writing poetry criticism for The Yale Review, Thom Gunn sent this letter to John Palmer, the editor, explaining that he was “suspicious of reviewing as a function” and “dissatisfied with the business of making comparatively fast judgments on contemporary poets.”

Gunn would not have been disturbed by this idea because he understood poetry not as an opportunity for the expression of individual genius but as a craft that could be practiced well or less well according to general principles established by collective endeavor over time. He was against eccentricity and for anonymity. The greatest poetic successes, he felt, are not instances of personal triumph—of avant-garde innovation or Bloomian originality—but moments when a poet disappears into age-old traditions of making, with the intention of representing a common world.

The first of his Yale Review essays, “Poetry as Written,” establishes a principle Gunn kept coming back to. Referring to Pound’s dictum “Poetry should be as well written as prose,” Gunn declares this is “an epigram that every poet should write at the start of every new notebook. What it suggests is that we should apply to poetry the same rigorous standards of clear English as to good prose, e.g. that we should refrain from irrelevance and support all our general statements.” But wait: Irrelevance? Support all our general statements? Really? Here Gunn seems hostile to poetry itself, or at least to those features that distinguish it from expository prose in most people’s minds. So much for poetic license!

Yet Gunn regarded poetry as “potentially the greatest of the written arts,” and it was diminished for him when it made room for “vagueness and cliché” that a copy editor would not tolerate in a routine piece of prose. But it is not easy to avoid “vagueness and cliché.” Doing so requires, Gunn maintained, disciplined observation of the physical world and “honesty” about what one is seeing and feeling, all of which implies self-knowledge and emotional control.

“This is calm and straightforward writing,” Gunn says about the English poet Elizabeth Jennings, and bland as those adjectives may seem, “calm” and “straightforward” count as high praise for Gunn. They describe the tone of his criticism, too. “Modest” and “firm” and “literal”—these are positive terms as well. They fit the poets Gunn approves of in these reviews. Held up for special admiration are the spare, hard-edged Donald Davie—a Leavisite who wrote, in addition to poetry, the classic works of criticism Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) and Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (1955)— and the bone-dry modern master of the epigram, J. V. Cunningham, who like Gunn had been a student of Winters.

Gunn was enthusiastic about the Lowell of Life Studies (1959) and the Richard Wilbur of Advice to a Prophet (1961), but not the Wilbur of earlier books, which Gunn thought “at times too smart and facile.” Gunn could be expected to like the chaste, elegiac craft of Donald Justice, and so he did, but his appreciation of early-1960s James Wright and Denise Levertov show a broadening of taste, pointing to the ways his own poetry was loosening up. That loosening up affected his criticism, enlarging the range of his sympathies. In The Yale Review, Gunn makes only passing remarks about Allen Ginsberg, and those are smirking. Three decades later, he devoted a long essay to Ginsberg, praising him for, among other things, writing “the best political poetry in English of the last thirty years.”

The opposite of Davie and Cunningham in Gunn’s Yale Review essays is poor Delmore Schwartz. Schwartz was hailed as a prodigy and the bearer of a new romanticism in the 1940s. In “Excellence and Variety,” Gunn says Schwartz’s work illustrates the “cardinal sin for a poet”: “verbosity.” And not far behind that are “social portentousness” and simple “sloppiness”; both are hallmarks of Schwartz’s poetry, Gunn claims. The work of Charles Olson, a very different poet, elicits related complaints. Olson, Gunn objects, “has little interest in the sensible world except as a handle on which to hang bits of poetry”—that is, “poetry” in the pejorative sense, contrasted with clear Poundian prose. Summarizing Olson’s now canonical manifesto, “Projective Verse,” Gunn sniffs, “‘Put down anything so long as you keep writing’ would be a fair enough paraphrase.” Choice and discrimination—these drop out of the equation for Olson, according to Gunn.

The general lesson is evident: your writing should not call attention to itself; it must never matter more than what you are writing about. Gunn is focused on questions of diction and “decorum,” by which he means how well or ill words are fitted to experience. In his own poetry, that often meant a tension between style and subject matter, as when he wrote about California bikers in rhyme and meter. That choice could be described as a form of reticence, fresh and interesting because it downplays the potential excitement of the subject. In general, as a poet and a critic, Gunn’s preference was always for understatement, the contrary of which he called “rhetoric.” In “Hardy and the Ballads,” published in 1972, Gunn writes: “Rhetoric is a form of pretense, of making something appear bigger or more important than you know it is.” The “you know” in that sentence is crucial: as a poet, you have a responsibility to register not only how things are, but how you know things are. Anything else is dishonest.

By “style” Gunn means not only the whole ensemble of formal elements in a poem but the ethical stance that ensemble projects.

This emphasis on honesty gives Gunn’s reviews a sharp moral edge. What Gunn is moralizing about, however, is not the poet’s actions or beliefs, but how the poet uses language to represent his or her relation to the world. This is something different from deploring the anti-Semitism of Pound or saluting George Oppen’s Popular-Front socialism. Who wrote a poem and what that poet’s personal life and politics involve seem to register very little for Gunn. The contrast with how we tend to discuss poetry today is worth marking. To understand and value new poetry, it seems necessary to know who wrote it, and by extension what type of person wrote it, defined in terms of identity categories from which a world view can be inferred. A jacket bio like “Anne Carson lives in Canada,” unaccompanied by an author photo, illustrates the norm by coyly violating it. We understand a poem to represent—and to be fundamentally about—the poet, whether the poem is overtly self-referential or we take it to express a perspective rooted in a particular life story and its social positioning.

As a critic, Gunn speaks of style, rather than identity or biography. The difference in vocabulary is significant but not as essential as it might at first appear. That is because Gunn did not see style as a good in itself (that would be the position of a midcentury aesthete). Style, he thought, embodies “an attitude toward life.” He has little to say about the lives of the poets he discusses, but he is very interested in their attitudes toward life. Those attitudes, expressed as stylistic preferences and decisions, are the real subject of his reviews and what he took poetry to be all about.

By “style” Gunn means not only the whole ensemble of formal elements in a poem but also the ethical stance that ensemble projects. He has contempt for poets who approach style as a consumer choice, selected from the menu of currently viable options. Style is an accumulation of and reflection on the poet’s experience; it involves principled commitments and life choices, like any conscious ethics. As Gunn put it in his review, “New Books in Review: Poems and Books of Poems,” to imitate a style is “thus ultimately an attempt to annex” someone else’s history of experience: a shortcut to authority, amounting to a form of dishonesty. This is why Gunn calls out Rich for leaning on Lowell.

Readers of these reviews today may be taken aback by how much fault-finding Gunn does, even in the case of those poets he endorsed. Discounting a few exceptions like William Logan, who is known for his spectacular takedowns, we are not used to critics pointing out what is bad in a book of poetry, let alone lingering over it. The typical contemporary poetry review is full of description and enthusiasm. Even when the first is useful and the second warranted, a review that lacks the counterweight of the negative risks becoming a blurb. What is criticism without some criticism? Of course, there is no lack of negativity in the poetry world today, but it appears more in blog posts, social media, and gossip than in published criticism.

Gunn goes in for some snark in these reviews, and he is good at it. But showiness and self-regard are not the prominent notes in his reviews. The basic sobriety in his negative judgments reflects the high expectations he brings to poetry and adds depth and authenticity to his praise. Something serious is always at stake for him in the poetry he is reading—and at stake for him as a critic. The poet’s role and the critic’s role, as Gunn lived them, are nearly versions of each other. Poet and critic both work with words. Both take risks and make judgments. Both articulate “an attitude toward life.” The difference is that the critic grapples not with experience as such, but with how poetry engages and evaluates it.

It is easy to suppose that Gunn’s lack of interest in identity expresses anxiety about his homosexuality and a need to deflect attention from that aspect of his identity. As a foreign national living in the United States, where homosexuality was illegal (as it was in England, for that matter), he had every incentive to be discreet. Coming out in the 1950s would have meant constraint, not liberation. “I would never have got to America, for one thing,” Gunn reflected in an interview with the writer James Campbell. “I would never have got a teaching job, for another thing.” The author of the roundup reviews never signals his queerness, however quietly or cleverly.

His poetry is another matter. Gunn’s adoption of the role of Rake in his debut volume, Fighting Terms, published in 1954, allowed for ambiguity about his sexual orientation (see “To his Cynical Mistress”). But “Tamer and Hawk” in the same book would have settled the question for any Cambridge-trained close reader. “Tamer and Hawk” was written in the early days of his romance with Mike Kitay, an American, who was Gunn’s reason for moving to this country, and who would become his life partner. By the time Gunn was writing criticism for The Yale Review, poems like “Modes of Pleasure,” “A Map of the City,” and “The Feel of Hands” in his third book of poems, My Sad Captains (1961), had made queer cruising one of his signature themes.

If Gunn the fault-finding critic seems harsh, think of him as firm.

Impersonality and anonymity are central values for Gunn as both critic and poet. They are also at the center of Gunn’s experience of homosexuality, rather than a dodge or evasion of it. Gunn admired the authenticity of the calculatedly “awkward” poetry of Hardy. He saw it as an extension of the terse precision and homely details of the ballad tradition, in which lyric language has been honed to essentials by centuries of anonymous singers. These tastes seem hard to square with the psychedelic drugs and rock concerts in Moly (1971) and the hot-springs orgies in Jack Straw’s Castle (1976). But if Gunn was drawn to the dignity of the commonplace in Hardy and to the concise, unsentimental wisdom of “Sir Patrick Spens,” he was attracted to the communitarian ethos of the rock concert and the sex club’s self-dissolving ecstasies for related reasons. All of these were routes around the self, narrowly conceived.

In Gunn’s poetry of queer sex from Fighting Terms to his last collection, Boss Cupid (2000), identities mingle and merge; sexual roles are reversed and then reversed again. There is a certain mysticism in Gunn’s pre-AIDS poetry of the 1970s. Yet he never lost his allergy to “vagueness and cliché.” Even when he writes about an orgy or an acid trip, he maintains distinctions and boundaries—in effect the ability to stand apart from experience and judge it—through his emotional and rhetorical restraint. While Gunn’s poetry developed over the years, taking on ever wider and harder to assimilate categories of experience (Boss Cupid includes five “songs for Jeffrey Dahmer,” the queer serial killer and cannibal), he remained guided by the values of his youthful criticism.

Take “The Hug,” the opening poem in The Man with Night Sweats, which was first published in The Yale Review in 1985, alongside his poem “To a Friend in Time of Trouble.” Gunn’s subject in “The Hug” is time, intimacy, how intimacy changes over time, and also how it does not change. He describes celebrating the birthday of his partner of many years, heading to bed pleasantly drunk, then waking to find his partner embracing him, front to back. It was

As if we were still twenty-two

When our grand passion had not yet

     Become familial.

My quick sleep had deleted all

Of intervening time and place.

As usual in a Gunn poem, the emphasis on physical experience is reinforced and made vivid by the action of the verse form, which in this case involves metered lines of shifting length linked by rhyme at irregular intervals. The unpredictable play of variation and connection in the poem’s pattern hints at the rhythms of separation and attachment any couple might experience over time. The pattern is probably a design original to Gunn, but it feels like it was copied from a Cavalier poet of the seventeenth century (another level on which “intervening time and place” are deleted here).

The end of the poem is key. Rhyming with the lines quoted above, Gunn says: “I only knew / The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.” The tension between that first line, one of the shortest in the poem, and the second, one of the longest, is wonderfully dramatic in a characteristically subtle way. So is the crowding of stresses in “your secure firm dry embrace,” bending without breaking the iambic pentameter. The position of the two men is sexual but Gunn specifies “It was not sex.” The character of their embrace has been transposed from the erotic to a form no less bodily but more “secure,” becoming a “stay.” That somewhat formal word has poignant resonances here. As do firm and dry. To be firm does not mean being hard. It means being restrained and poised, having staying power. And “dry,” in a context where fluid exchange puts people in danger of infection by a lethal virus, is a positive, reassuring word.

These are also adjectives that aptly describe Gunn’s poetry, early and late, and the poetry he singled out for praise in his pieces for The Yale Review. If Gunn the fault-finding critic seems harsh, think of him as firm. If in his insistence on emotional restraint he seems, well, a little stiff and formal, think of him as unsentimental, as determinedly, intelligently dry. The commitments demonstrated in Gunn’s early criticism and in his poetic style, a way of meeting experience that he refined over decades, come together perfectly in “The Hug.” But then what the poet and the critic were doing in Gunn’s case was always almost one.

Langdon Hammer is the Niel Gray, Jr. Professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of James Merrill: Life and Art and, with Stephen Yenser, co-editor of A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill.
Originally published:
June 27, 2024

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