“I love streets,” he once stated in an interview. “I could stand on the street and look at people all day, in the same way that Wordsworth could walk around the lakes and look at those things all day.”
I am too young to grow a beard But yes man it was me you heard In dirty denim and dark glasses. I look through everyone who passes But ask him clear, I do not plead, Keys lids acid and speed.
—from “Street Song”
If, by the late 1950s, Gunn was already beginning to sound exotic to his countrymen back in England, the 1960s â and ’70s would render him almost unrecognizable. Glyn Maxwell, one of England’s best young poets, summed it up when he described Gunn as “a man of decorous, skillful, metrical verse who had for his own reasons become absorbed into an alien culture that gave him alien subjects (like sex), alien backdrops (like sunshine) and, most vexing of all, made his strict forms melt on the page. No longer could he be Our Man Out There like, say, Auden in New York or James Fenton in the Far East, because he seemed to have become Their Man Out There.”
Of course, Maxwell (now in America himself) was not being entirely serious. He was a fan of Gunn, as were many of the English. Nonetheless, a transformation had definitely taken place. Moly, the book Gunn published in 1971, was all about transformation. Gunn took his title from Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus is saved from Circe’s ability to turn men into pigs when Hermes gives him a magic herb: moly. For “moly,” read LSD. Gunn was taking a lot of it. In an essay written in 1977, he gave a sense of what his acid years were like.
We tripped . . . at home, on rooftops, at beaches and ranches, some went to the opera loaded on acid, others tried it as passengers on gliders, every experience was illuminated by the drug . . . these were the fullest years of my life, crowded with discovery both inner and outer, as we moved between ecstasy and understanding. It is no longer fashionable to praise LSD, but I have no doubt at all that it has been of the utmost importance to me, both as a man and a poet.
Perversely, having just got the hang of writing free verse, Gunn turned around and wrote most of Molyin meter. It was the only way, he has said, of giving form to the essentially formless experience of acid. In many ways, it’s his most traditional book, marred by an occasional stiffness — his most serious flaw as a poet, — and an overemphasis on detail. (“Well, yes, because when you were on acid you really looked at things,” Gunn explained to me.) Still, the book does contain some superb poems, particularly the closing “Sunlight,” a meditation on the giant star (“Great seedbed, yellow centre of the flower/Flower on its own, without a root or stem”) that gives life to our planet, and is slowly sputtering to an end:
But angry flaws are swallowed by the distance; It varies, moves, its concentrated fires Are slowly dying — the image of persistence Is an image, only, of our own desires . . .
Already 38 when the Summer of Love came around, Gunn didn’t make the most convincing hippie — at least not on the page. But in Jack Straw’s Castle(1976), his next book (and the first in which he came out in print as gay), he loosened up considerably. Here, for the first time, he struck his characteristic balance between free and metrical verse. He began to write about himself more, and, for the first time, perhaps, his poetry locates its sense of humor and begins to feel truly relaxed:
Birds whistled, all Nature was doing something while Leather Kid and Fleshly lay on a bank and gleamingly discoursed like this: “You are so strong,” she said, “such a firm defence of hide against the ripple of skin, it excites me, all those reserves suggested, though I do hope that isn’t a prosthetic device under your glove is it?”
“Let’s fuck,” he said.
(from “An Amorous Debate”)
Poets, like most artists, frequently do their best work young. Gunn did some of his best work young; fortunately, he saved a lot for the second half of his career. But then, Gunn seems always to have taken life at a pretty leisurely pace. (“I think I’m somebody who needs to work slowly,” he told me. “Sometimes poems come fast, but mostly they don’t. And I’m a slow reader too. I’m glad I’m a slow reader. I’ve never wanted to speed-read. I re-read a lot.”) Here is a writer, you think, who has struck the ideal balance between art and life, between work and play. In the ’60s, he gave up a tenured position at Berkeley because he couldn’t stand going to department meetings. He was allowed to continue as a part-time lecturer, leaving him, for much of his career, without health insurance or a retirement plan, and with an income “about half that of a local bus driver or street sweeper.”