Which isn’t to say he’s entirely nonjudgmental. In Boss Cupidthere is a memorably cruel little poem, entitled “To Another Poet,” that goes like this:
You scratch my back, I like your taste it’s true, But, Mister, I won’t do the same for you, Though you have asked me twice. I have taste too.
In other words, seek your blurb writer elsewhere. Gunn is a man with populist leanings and elitist standards. He is a big fan of movies such as The Matrix and Three Kings(“the best movie of last year,” he says), and he loves the T.V. show Will and Gracefor its “campy humor,” but when I ask him about stand-up poetry — the only kind with much popular appeal right now, unless you count rap — his Lit Crit side clicks into gear.
“I feel I’m much too old for this sort of thing,” he says, out of politeness, presumably, since he obviously doesn’t feel too old for movies from David O. Russell and the Wachowsky brothers. “I’ve been to a couple of these things. One was an open reading, the other mainly competitive, and they were both terribly low-standard. At one of them, some guy was pretending that he had written Allen Ginsberg’s ‘America’ — very weird.
“The other one, which was a little more respectable, was over at the Paradise, which is a bar here that has regular open readings. Stand-up poetry, performance poetry, seemed to be mainly people complaining about their parents, long past childhood. It seemed to me a boring subject, and it seemed to me they had nothing new to report about their parents that you couldn’t have heard from most people. ‘You didn’t appreciate me enough!’ That kind of thing.”
In the 1960s, when he was deep into San Francisco’s hippie scene, Gunn did get into that era’s other form of popular poetry, songwriting. The results, he says, were not very good. I ask him if he didn’t ever feel threatened by the prominence of the poet-songwriters he admired — Dylan, Morrison, Lennon, et al.
“Oh no, no, no. It was wonderful, poetry becoming popular. I thought it was great, I didn’t feel threatened.”
“But the fact . . . ”
“ . . . that they had huge audiences and I didn’t,” Gunn says, taking the words out of my mouth. “I don’t know. I never expected to have a large audience. I never set out to be famous. I was very pure-mindedly for art.”
Pure-minded, perhaps, but not a purist. As the poet Timothy Steele pointed out to me, Gunn is one of the few poets of the past century who has managed to write at a high level both in meter andfree verse, combining the best of two rival schools. In the 1950s, lots of poets who started out as formalists switched to free verse and never touched rhyme or meter again. As for their followers, most never learned how to write in meter at all. What makes Gunn unusual is that after starting to write free verse, he continued to write in meter as well. One did not replace the other. Instead, he coaxed the two forms into complementing each other. Turn to one page of Boss Cupidand you’ll find a poem (a satirical riff on a personal ad) that begins:
Lookin to hook up with a younger guy from E Bay. You: cab driver’s build, lots of attitude. Me: hi self esteem, lo tolerance for anything not me.
Turn to another, and you might find a poem (about a man and a woman kissing in a coffee shop) that starts out this way:
I recognize them in the booth, Weak, greedy, lovely in their greed, Shakily locking mouth to mouth, Where mutually they start to feed.
“It’s much more difficult to write decent free verse than it is to write decent metrical verse,” Gunn insists. “I just say that categorically. I mean competent, interesting rhythms. One thing that was obvious from the start is that you don’t write even faintly interesting free verse simply by writing chopped-up prose. That is not verse, that is not free verse, that is of no interest, though quite a few people do it. Meter is closer to song than it is to speech. Free verse is closer to conversation. This carries various corollaries, I guess. If it’s conversational, then it sounds more improvised and probably is. Probably the vocabulary is more casual as well.”
Gunn’s adherence to writing in meter as well as free verse has probably cost him a fair number of readers. For a lot of people in the poetry world (both readers and writers), composing a single line in iambic pentameter is tantamount to declaring yourself a Republican, no matter how many free-verse poems you write. But then, the poetry world can be very small-minded. It’s astonishing, for instance, that there’s no sign of Gunn in the recent anthology The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place, a doorstop of a book whose editors could surely have ceded a few pages to the man who is arguably the greatest poet in the state. (“You know who you should get to speak? Thom Gunn. He’s one of the two or three best poets writing anywhere in America right now,” Susan Sontag told an arts organization in San Francisco a few years back.) Gunn’s work is extraordinarily rich in place-based poems, from “Flying Above California,” to “The Discovery of the Pacific,” to “San Francisco Streets,” to “Saturday Night,” his great elegy for the Barracks, a gay bathhouse in the Castro district, published this year in Boss Cupid. One of his best early poems was called “In Praise of Cities,” and he is, above all, an urban poet such as few cities are fortunate enough to possess.