Photo by Jay Blakesberg
In 1994, Spin magazine ran a short article about the expatriate British poet Thom Gunn. Pretty strange, when you think about it. At the time, Gunn was already 65 years old. And though he was gay, and wore leather, and had written poems about bikers and skateboarders and acid trips and AIDS, he had also written poems about Keats and snails and cherry trees and, um, 19th-century bird watchers. Plus he tended to write a lot of his poems in rhyme and meter, and displayed only a modest interest in reading them aloud. Nor was he “confessional.” If anything, he was reserved.
So it’s hardly surprising that Gunn’s appearance in Spin has not been followed by further appearances in the pages of Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly or Maxim. And though he has lived in the Bay Area since 1954, he is not listed as a local author of note in the guidebooks. Better known in England, where he is still one of the most famous poets of his generation, Gunn has accumulated a body of work that is not only as American as it is English, but also one of the greatest literary documents produced by anyone in California during the last 45 years. From the biker gangs of the ’50s, to the psychedelic landscapes of the ’60s and ’70s, to the plague years of the ’80s and ’90s, Gunn has captured much from each of those eras in his poetry.
Poets are so rarely written about outside academia and specialist publications that, in presenting them to a more general audience, you feel obliged to exaggerate their achievements to the point where even people who hate poetry will feel guilty for not having read them. Fortunately, there’s little need for that in Gunn’s case: His work can stand on its own. I first read his poems when I was 16, and the ones that most impressed me at the time were in a book called My Sad Captains, published in 1961, when Gunn was 32. They were about California, a place I had never been, and they were suffused with a sense of light and space that felt altogether exotic to me as I stood reading them in a library thousands of miles away. One of them, “Flying Above California,” came to mind as I flew up to San Francisco to meet Gunn. The poem is filled with the excitement of the newcomer, the stranger in a strange land:
. . . I repeat under my breath
names of places I have not been to:
Crescent City, San Bernardino
— Mediterranean and Northern names.
Such richness can make you drunk.
That poem, Gunn told me when I met him late on a warm Monday afternoon at his home in Haight-Ashbury, “was about various trips, a general experience rather than one in particular. It was partly about being an Englishman in America, and just finding it so romantic and exciting. There was a time when I would read it and audiences would laugh when I said San Bernardino — as if that were a romantic place!”
Gunn laughs at the memory himself. After 46 years in the States, his accent seems as American as English, and when I ask him how often he goes back to England, the question almost seems to surprise him. (Answer: rarely.) As Clive Wilmer pointed out in the Paris Review, Gunn is a British poet who has performed the unlikely trick of turning himself into a regional, California writer. In his poetry as well as in his life, he has made San Francisco his home.
I have seen Gunn in the flesh only three times before: twice at readings, and once when I passed him at night on Christopher Street in New York. Walking along with a group of friends, snug in his trademark black leather jacket, Gunn had the relaxed but expectant air of someone looking forward to a long, highly pleasurable sojourn in the gay fleshpots of the West Village. This was in 1983, shortly before the emergence of AIDS, whose great elegist many think Gunn has become. In his poetry he has celebrated casual sex —
. . . Why pretend
Love must accompany erection?
This is a momentary affection,
A curiosity bound to end . . .
— and mourned the passage of friends who died after long residence in what he calls “the sexual New Jerusalem,” the era of gay liberation in the 1970s. What he hasn’t done is draw a link between the two: Puritanism isn’t Gunn’s cup of tea.
Remarkably, given the number of people he slept with, not to mention his days of injecting speed with a shared needle, Gunn himself has been left unscathed by the plague — “Excluded from the invitation list/To the largest gathering of the decade” as he noted ironically in one poem. But even as he has memorialized the victims of AIDS with one hand, he has continued to write raunchy hymns to Eros with the other. His new book, Boss Cupid, is filled with them.
“I’m such a hedonist,” he says, laughing. “I remember looking up the word hedonist in the dictionary when I was about 14 and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s me! Isn’t everybody?’”
Thin and relatively fit despite his 71 years, Gunn still looks like a hedonist. He sits on a couch in his living room dressed in ancient blue jeans, black motorcycle boots, and a T-shirt featuring a very buff male torso cut off at the neck — just where his own neck appears, in fact. His sparse gray hair is cropped short and clings just a little grimly to his scalp. Naturally, to someone accustomed to viewing an author’s face through the delayed chronology of book-jacket photographs, he looks diminished. Still, if the last traces of youthfulness have finally bid Gunn farewell (for a long time he looked far younger than his years), everything about him, from the fading panther tattoo on his forearm to the glimmer of gold in his ear, tells you that he once had it, and still identifies with it strongly.
Born in Kent in 1929 to a journalist father and a mother who committed suicide when he was 15, Gunn made his name as a poet early. His first book, Fighting Terms (1954), was published when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge. His second, The Sense of Movement (1957), appeared when he was already in California, and it made him famous. His nearest rival on Britain’s Hot Young Poets chart was Ted Hughes, who wrote brooding hymns to the animal world and would later marry Sylvia Plath. For a while, even though they barely knew each other, the two men were so closely linked in the public imagination that one critic jokingly referred to them as “Ted Gunn.” But once Plath committed suicide, Hughes’ fame, not to mention his Bluebeard-like notoriety on American campuses, totally eclipsed Gunn’s.
In any case, Gunn was no longer in England. At Cambridge he had fallen in love with an American student named Mike Kitay. After Kitay was drafted into the Air Force, Gunn won a fellowship at Stanford University and followed him out to the States. Gunn likes to describe himself as having been “just a timid little English boy” at the time, but one suspects he’s being disingenuous. His poetry was filled with a youthful bravado so militant it bordered on fascism. In a notorious poem, “Lines for a Book,” he praised “all the toughs through history” from Alexander the Great on down. In “On the Move,” a meditation on a Hell’s Angels–type motorcycle gang, he sang the existential delights of endless, even aimless movement. And after hearing Elvis on a jukebox in a Texas bar, he composed a 16-line poem in his honor. It reads like a creaky period piece now, but at the time it felt daring. Gunn wasn’t the first English poet to move to America — Auden had been living in New York for 15 years by the time he arrived — but Gunn was the first (and perhaps still the only one) to sound as if he’d gone native.
The big thing happening in San Francisco when Gunn arrived was the Beats, but Gunn, like most Americans, first found out about them in the pages of Life magazine. When he finally got round to reading them, he wasn’t too impressed. So what was he doing that was different from the Beats, I ask. How did he see himself as a poet?
“I think I thought of myself as being Baudelaire or somebody,” he laughs self-deprecatingly. “Treating the urban scene with rhyme and meter. I liked the slight whiff of the satanic about Baudelaire, which is not what I admire about him now. But I also liked the fact that he wrote about sleeping with whores and stuff. I thought that was great. Better than T.S. Eliot, who wrote about sleeping with whores, but not as though he slept with them!”
For several weeks I have been reading
the poetry of my juniors.
Mother doesn’t understand,
and they hate Daddy, the noted alcoholic.
Gunn’s house, a few blocks off Haight Street near Golden Gate Park, is an unpretentious three-story affair with a kind of arty working-class atmosphere. There’s an antique jukebox in the living room, and huge old beer-bottle signs decorate the walls. The second time I visit, I find Gunn has traded in his jeans and boots for shorts and flip-flops, and a T-shirt with a picture of a motorcycle on it. This time we talk in his workroom, a small third-floor room at the back of the house that overlooks neighboring rooftops. It’s here that Gunn keeps his books of poetry. The living poets go in a bookcase on the left, the dead poets in a bookcase on the right. Otherwise the room is dominated by a collage of clippings and pictures and post â cards that spans two walls. Porn shots mix freely with photos of friends, post cards of literary greats like Baudelaire and Hardy, movie stars like Keanu Reeves, and a close-up shot of Pete Sampras’ legs. It seems an apt metaphor for Gunn’s own approach to things — mixing and matching, inserting pop culture into high culture, refusing to make distinctions between the two.
Which isn’t to say he’s entirely nonjudgmental. In Boss Cupid there 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 Grace for 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 and free 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 Cupid and 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.
“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 Moly in 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
“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.”
It doesn’t 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, Gunn’s income has increased considerably, thanks to the $105,000 Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writer’s 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 doesn’t 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, he’s the picture of domestic, geographic and economic stability. It’s 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.
Gunn’s 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”:
Walker within this circle, pause.
Although they all died of one cause,
Remember how their lives were dense
With fine, compacted difference.
“Why did you choose to make that particular point?” I asked Gunn on my third and final visit. He was back in his jeans and motorcycle boots, only this time, somewhat incongruously, he was wearing a T-shirt that said, “AT&T.”
“It’s one of the few things you can say in such a short poem,” he replied. “I, like many other people, lost an enormous number of friends and acquaintances, including very close friends. And they got cut down by the same thing, but they were all so wonderfully different in themselves.
“One of my worst times,” he continued, “was in August of 1987, when four close friends — they didn’t even know each other, in different cities — died within five weeks. And that was when I wrote a poem called ‘The Missing’. A lot of people I know who died of it were early ones, early deaths, and you know what that means: They were sexual explorers, and they were committed to having sex up the asshole.”
“Did you think you had it?”
“I assumed rather stoically that I probably had it, but I wasn’t going to worry about it until I actually got it. I never even got tested. And I’d had all sorts of risky sex, even sharing needles with people, which I had given up doing because I figured it was unhygienic.”
“Do you have any idea why you’ve been so lucky?”
“No. Nobody knows. There may be some people who have some kind of immunity for unknown reasons. Or maybe I’ve had safer sex than some people, however that’s defined. Certainly since AIDS has been around, I’ve been very insistent on safe sex with whoever I was having sex with, because I suppose people might be dishonest about their status.”
You make desire seem easy.
So it is:
Your service perfect freedom to enjoy
Fresh limitations. I’ve watched you in person
Wait for the light and relish the delay
Revving the engine up before you spurt
Out of the intersection.
(from “To Cupid”)
As its title suggests, love and sex are to the fore in Boss Cupid, Gunn’s 10th volume of poetry, published this summer. Its most disturbing poems are five â “songs” for Jeffrey Dahmer, gruesome and gruesomely persuasive studies in addictive and predatory sex in which Gunn displays a startling imaginative sympathy for a cannibal and murderer. As Gunn presents him, Dahmer was like all of us, only more so. (“Oh do not leave me now,” begins the first poem, entitled “Hitch-hiker.” “All that I ever wanted is compressed/In your sole body.”) But then, the dark side of sex has always been present in Gunn’s work. As far back as 1954, there’s a brief, 12-line poem (“La Prisonnière”) that reads like an early draft for one of the songs to Dahmer:
Now I will shut you in a box
With massive sides and a lid that locks.
Only by that I can be sure
That you are still mine and mine secure . . .
Not all of Boss Cupid is so grim. There are also poems about Gunn’s long relationship with Kitay; a tribute to his great friend and fellow poet, the late Robert Duncan; and a poem to Cupid, inspired, Gunn says, by the glimpse of an anonymous motorcyclist during a visit to Los Angeles. In Gunn’s early work, love was depicted in terms usually reserved for warring parties in the Middle East: Compromise is possible, peace never. But in “To Cupid,” Gunn seems finally to make peace for real.
The poem begins with a vision of Boss Cupid as a glamorous motorcyclist out of a Cocteau movie — a kind of capo di capi of the love racket, sending out his servants on their various erotic assignations: “. . . scripts of confinement,/Scripts of displacement, scripts of delay, and scripts/Of more delay.” Gunn then examines the “script of confinement” at the heart of Stendhal’s great 19th-century novel, The Charterhouse of Parma, in which the hero, Fabrizio, willingly returns to jail so that he can look through his cell window at the jailer’s daughter he fell in love with when he was locked up there:
Of course they could not touch. In later life
They touched, they did touch, but in darkness only.
Finally, the poem looks at a “script of delay” in a more naturalistic, autobiographical mode. Falling asleep one night, Gunn hears the sounds of eating and laughter coming from the apartment of his neighbors, a man and woman married earlier that day. It’s nice to think that, some evening as we go about our business, following our various erotic scripts, there might be a drowsy poet within earshot in whom we could inspire lines as beautiful as these:
When I switched off my light I was dog-tired
But for some minutes held off sleep: I heard
The pleasant sound of voices from next door
Through windows open to the clement darkness.
A dinner for the couple one floor up,
Married today. I hardly had the time
Before falling away, to relish it,
The sociable human hum, easy and quiet
As the first raindrops in the yard, on bushes,
Heard similarly from bed. Chatting, the sounds
Of friendliness and feeding often broken
By laughter. It’s consoling, Mr. Love,
That such conviviality is also
One more obedience to your behest,
The wedding bed held off by the wedding feast.
Good will within delay within good will.
And Cupid, devious master of our bodies,
You were the source then of my better rest.
I asked Gunn about “To Cupid’s” opening lines: “You make desire seem easy. So it is:/Your service perfect freedom to enjoy/Fresh limitations.” What did he mean by them exactly?
“Love is usually with us an obsession, for good or bad,” he replied. “It’s still what we want, still what we have in mind, but we often screw it up because of our obsessions, [which are] curiously mixed with what Freud would call perversions. I don’t mean perversions in the ordinary sense, but obstructions to itself. And at the end I’m saying how wonderful that the wedding feast should be not only a prelude to the wedding bed, but a postponement of it. D.H. Lawrence always [criticized] ‘sex in the head,’ or sex in the brain, but that’s part of its beauty! That’s part of what makes sex so exciting for human beings, that we think about it, and look forward to it, and maybe in some ways even deliberately postpone it. That’s what I’m talking about.”
“Do you feel that there’s an overarching theme to your work?”
“People say I write a lot about sex. I write about aspects of desire, which is always interesting. It’s not for nothing that I admire Stendhal and Baudelaire so much, because it’s their preoccupation too. But it’s not my only subject. I have a lot of subjects. I think I have a novelistic interest in people, though I’m not that hot on narrative and things like that. But that’s another way of looking at my work. A lot of it is about people.”
Gunn publishes a book of poems, on average, every eight years or so. At age 71, there’s always the possibility that Boss Cupid will be his last. The book feels so fresh, so utterly up-to-date, it’s hard to believe this could be the case, but Gunn himself appears to think that it’s quite possible.
“I haven’t written anything in the last two years,” he tells me, sitting in his chair, the bookcase of living poets on one side of him, the dead poets on the other. “One reason is that, when I finish a book, I always have such a sense of completion that I find it difficult to start writing again. The longest it ever went on was for two and a half years. That was after Jack Straw’s Castle. Even after my first book, I couldn’t write for six months. But maybe I have nothing left to write about. I don’t know.
“I figured that, in thinking about my life, I was not going to be a poet who died young. People didn’t die young at that time, not until AIDS. I figured I had time to try anything, like syllabics and free verse, even though I think my strength really was in metrical verse, and I think still is. I felt I had the time to try all that, and, well, maybe try to solidify things in old age if I had enough talent. But I never expected to be writing past the age of 70. I never expected to live beyond 70.”
“Would it bother you if this period of not writing continues?”
“It probably will. Nothing’s going to bother me now. Just getting ready to die — cheerfully.” Gunn chuckles slightly.
“Could it be that age is simply a subject that doesn’t interest you very much? Whereas Yeats, for instance, had a fiery late period which had a lot to do with the subject of aging in itself.”
“Yeah, well, he thought about age a lot, didn’t he? And he even had the monkey-gland operation. And though apparently completely unfeasible, it had great results for him because he thought it did. Fucking went out crazy!” Gunn laughs heartily. “But, no, I don’t think of it as that interesting in itself. Old age seems to me to be a time when people tend to lose their energy and lose their faculties more than they gain anything. Wiser? No, I don’t think so.”
BOSS CUPID | By THOM GUNN | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 111 pages | $22 hardcover
COLLECTED POEMS | By THOM GUNN | Noonday Press/FSG | 495 pages | $16 paperback