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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 didnt make the most convincing hippie at least not on the page. But in Jack Straws 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 isnt a prosthetic device under your glove is it?
Lets 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 Im somebody who needs to work slowly, he told me. Sometimes poems come fast, but mostly they dont. And Im a slow reader too. Im glad Im a slow reader. Ive 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 couldnt 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.
It doesnt seem to have bothered him: Gunn the hedonist liked his free time, and several of his poems suggest that he enjoyed it to the full. Another all-night party over, he writes in one poem from the 1980s, when he was already well into middle age. Another night of passages,/Stairs, and angelic messages:
The drugs wear off, my friend and I Head for the sidewalks of the day. Fifth Street at 7 a.m. in May. So this is where the night-stream led: Pavements as empty as my head, Stone city under pale blue sky. . . .
I stretch, almost too tired to think, Cool as a hand freed from a glove That it began to feel part of, It had been on so long. We greet Two other guests on Market Street And hit the Balcony for a drink.
In the last decade, Gunns income has increased considerably, thanks to the $105,000 Lila WallaceReaders Digest Writers Award he won in 1990, the $10,000 Forward Prize he won in Britain in 1992, the $10,000 Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize he won in 1993, and the $369,000 MacArthur genius fellowship he received in 1993. (Who says poetry doesnt pay?) He owns the house (purchased with a $3,300 down payment in 1971) and is still together with Kitay, 45 years after they left England. In short, hes the picture of domestic, geographic and economic stability. Its a sign of how much the world has changed in those 45 years that Gunn frequenter of leather bars, aficionado of orgies, poet of motorcycle gangs and LSD can now be looked upon almost as an exemplary figure, a man who has led a good, adventurous, thoughtful life. Whereas the reputations of the two British poets of his generation who went on to become honored members of the Establishment Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin have been sullied by respective charges of misogyny and racism.
Gunns reputation in the U.S. really took off with the publication, in 1992, of The Man With Night Sweats, a book that included 17 poems about friends who had died of AIDS. They are reprinted at the very end of his Collected Poems, tucked away in a corner like a kind of graveyard. As he did when he wrote about LSD, Gunn wrote about AIDS almost exclusively in meter. Despite the heart-breaking subject matter, these are in many ways the most austere of his poems, written as if each word were chiseled in stone. (Even when it has the power to make a reader weep, the writing itself is not dabbing righteously at its eyes, wrote Robert Pinsky in the Nation.) Some time later, Gunn was asked to write a short poem that literally would be chiseled in stone at the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. The moving result, reprinted in Boss Cupid, is Epitaph: