Happy Birthday, Thom Gunn

Thom_GunnOn August 29, 1929, Thom Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent, England, the older son of two journalists. His parents were divorced when the poet was ten years old, and his mother committed suicide while he was a teenager. Before her death, his mother had inspired a deep love of reading in him, including affection for the writings of Marlowe, Keats, Milton, and Tennyson, as well as several prose writers.

Before enrolling in Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1950, he spent two years in the national service and six months in Paris. In 1954, the year after his graduation, Gunn’s first poetry collection, Fighting Terms, was published. The book was instantly embraced by several critics, including John Press, who wrote, “This is one of the few volumes of postwar verse that all serious readers of poetry need to possess and to study.” Gunn relocated to San Francisco and held a one-year fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied with Yvor Winters.

The Hug

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined

Half of the night with our old friend

Who’d showed us in the end

To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.

Already I lay snug,

And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,

Suddenly, from behind,

In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:

Your instep to my heel,

My shoulder-blades against your chest.

It was not sex, but I could feel

The whole strength of your body set,

Or braced, to mine,

And locking me to you

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.

I only knew

The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

Thom Gunn

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A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979)

By Craig Raine

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings

and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt

or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but

sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight

and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish

like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.

It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside –

a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film

to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist

or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,

that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it

to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up

deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer

openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.

They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt

and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night, when all the colours die,

they hide in pairs

and read about themselves –

in colour, with their eyelids shut.

A Martian sends a postcard homeDr. Bruce Meyer in his 1996 CBC series “Poetry as Life” with Michael Enright, cites “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” as an interesting example of the use of “reverse metaphor.”

Another early reminder that we’ll be discussing the use of metaphor in poetry on November 24.

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THE SHORTEST DISTANCE BETWEEN TWO POINTS IS A METAPHORWe commonly think of metaphor as a poetic device but it is used in fiction, too, and saves miles of unnecessary words. Metaphor can leap from the desk at which you are writing to darkest Africa or Dante’s hell or your grandmother who died 50 years ago. It leaps tall buildings in a single bound. It can tie the end of the universe to the beginning of the universe. And all you have to do is compare something with something else.

But in fiction, metaphor should be to the point and relatively brief. A novel in which everything becomes something else stretches credulity and grows tiresome. Yawningly tiresome. The reader has come to your story, novel, or poem to find something out. She has not come to it to play word games.

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An early reminder that we’ll be discussing the role of metaphor in poetry on November 24.

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By Vernon Watkins

I find them in the wings of every age
While fools and rhetoricians hold the stage.

They know instinctively that speculation
Will never reach a single true equation.

There is no theory, however strict,
A work of genius cannot contradict.

Who pulls tradition down and sets up fashion?
Pretence is one thing, and another, passion.

In every smith whose work I come across
Tradition is the ore, fashion the dross.

They who skim ice cannot afford to stumble;

If pausing they went through, they might grow humble.

Pretenders mock the dead to make their mark,
As little children shout who fear the dark.

‘His work is new. Why, then, his name encumber
With ancient poets?’ He is of their number.

Complain against the dead, but do not sue.
They never read you, much less injured you.

Must it be anarchy to love that nation
Which counts among its assets inspiration?

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By Christopher Spaide

THE IMPROBABLE LIFE AND PRESCIENT POETRY OF BASIL BUNTINGBasil Bunting’s poem “Briggflatts” has been hailed as the successor to Ezra Pound’s “Cantos” and T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Bunting himself, meanwhile, has been almost forgotten.

If Basil Bunting were not remembered for “Briggflatts”—his longest and best poem, first published fifty years ago—he might still be remembered as the protagonist of a preposterously eventful twentieth-century life. By the age of fifty, he had been a music critic, a sailor, a balloon operator, a wing commander, a military interpreter, a foreign correspondent, and a spy. He had married twice, had four children, lived on three continents (and one boat), survived multiple assassination attempts, and been incarcerated throughout Europe. He had also apprenticed at Ezra Pound’s poetic “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, played an “indifferent” game of chess with General Francisco Franco in the Canary Islands, and communicated with Bakhtiari tribesmen in classical Persian. Educated in Quaker schools, he was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the First World War—and released after a brief hunger strike—only to high-mindedly rush into the Second, during which he served in the Royal Air Force and MI6. Eventually, as he boasted to Pound’s wife, Dorothy, he became “chief of all our Political Intelligence in Persia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.” As a LondonTimes correspondent in Tehran, in 1952, he watched as a hired mob congregated outside his hotel and chanted, “death to mr. bunting!” Guessing, correctly, that nobody calling for Mr. Bunting’s death had ever seen the man, Bunting joined the mob and chanted along with them. Soon after, he and his family fled the country, driving from Iran to Bunting’s mother’s house in England—a one-month trip—in a company car.

By the nineteen-sixties, though, Bunting’s life was at an uncharacteristic lull: he had spent the previous decade in his home of Northumberland, working at local newspapers, where he ended up subediting the business page and stock tables. He confessed in a letter to the publisher Jonathan Williams that his life had been “one of struggling to keep my belly filled and my children’s bellies filled, and no time whatever for literary pre-occupations.” His time as a chameleonic world-traveller, and as a poet, seemed to be behind him. From 1930 to 1951, the never-prolific Bunting had published several multi-movement “Sonatas,” a few dozen shorter “Odes,” and translations from Persian and Latin, which he modestly called “Overdrafts” (drafts, that is, penned over poetic predecessors—overdrafts taken on the literary treasury). Enchanted early by Pound—Yeats’s first impression of Bunting was of “one of Ezra’s more savage disciples”—Bunting obeyed Pound’s modernist commandment to “Make It New,” resuscitating and recombining past traditions. But he had published nothing since his apocalyptic war poem “The Spoils,” and he had never secured a British publisher, not even a small press of the sort that disseminated his work in the U.S. and Italy.

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by Gunnar Ekelöf

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Found: Walt Whitman’s Guide to ‘Manly Health’

By Jennifer Schuessler


Walt Whitman

In 1858, when Walt Whitman sat down to write a manifesto on healthy living, he came up with advice that might not seem out of place in an infomercial today.

Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else,” Whitman wrote, sounding more than a little paleo.

As for the feet, he recommended that the comfortable shoes “now specially worn by base-ball players” — sneakers, if you will — be “introduced for general use,” and he offered warnings about the dangers of inactivity that could have been issued from a 19th-century standing desk.

To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice,” he declared. “Up!”

Whitman’s words, part of a nearly 47,000-word journalistic series called “Manly Health and Training,” were lost for more than 150 years, buried in an obscure newspaper that survived only in a handful of libraries. The series was uncovered last summer by a graduate student, who came across a fleeting reference to it in a digitized newspaper database and then tracked down the full text on microfilm.

Now, Whitman’s self-help-guide-meets-democratic-manifesto is being published online in its entirety by a scholarly journal, in what some experts are calling the biggest new Whitman discovery in decades.

This is really a complete new work by Whitman,” said David S. Reynolds, the author of “Walt Whitman’s America” and a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who was not involved with the find.

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by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.

Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you; for you
overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.
Learn, inner man, to look at your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.

These are the closing lines from Rilke’s poem, “Turning-Point.” Click here to read the complete poem.

In his remarkable book, The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry, Sven Birkerts writes of this poem: ‘On the surface, this [poem] looks like a complete reversal of Rilke’s program. In truth, it is a most radical extension. “Work of the eyes is done,” he writes. Only now, after the objective seeing of the world has been undertaken, can the next phase begin: transformation. Implied in the phrasing is a larger vision of interdependence. For the poet is not merely bringing the out there back into the crucible of his subjectivity. No, the world “wants” to flourish in love. As Rilke would later ask in the Ninth Elegy: “Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us, invisible?” Poet and world are no longer seen as separate; a single spirit seems to love through all things. [….] What Hegel began as philosophy – the idea of the self-realization of a World Spirit through history – Rilke sought to bring to completion in his poetry. And what is this vision finally, but a secular eschatology? If the redemption of the world cannot be had through God, or son, then the task falls to us.’

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke

An early reminder that we will be reading and discussing the remarkable poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke on September 22. Please visit the SCHEDULE PAGE for a list of poems to be featured.

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by John Greening

LIKE A SILENT CLOCK_EDWIN MUIR AND HIS POETRYEdwin Muir (1887-1959) has had no lack of distinguished admirers. T.S.Eliot published him and edited a Selected Poems for Faber, noting in his Preface the ‘rare and precious quality’ of Muir’s personality and the ‘unmistakable integrity’ of his poetry, admiring the way that ‘under the pressure of emotional intensity, and possessed by his vision, he found, almost unconsciously, the right, the inevitable way of saying what he wanted to say.’ He was one of the mighty handful of such visionaries championed by that great English mystic Kathleen Raine (David Gascoyne, Vernon Watkins were other moderns she found fit to stand by Yeats and Blake). The late John Haines recognised in Edwin Muir – as much as in his beloved John Muir – a kindred spirit, another doughty individualist whose Eden was not Alaska but the tiny isle of Wyre, off the coast of Scotland; Haines provided the introduction to Graywolf’s 1993 edition of Muir’s essays, The Estate of Poetry. Seamus Heaney, too, considered Muir important enough to write about him at length (and not uncritically) in Finders Keepers, while one of the last things that Mick Imlah published before he died of Motor Neurone Disease in 2009 was a new Faber edition of his fellow Scot’s poetry. It hardly raised a ripple. In an age when poets routinely come out from under the shadow of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop or (in the case of UK poets) Edward Thomas, how often do we find anyone claiming the influence of Edwin Muir?

Most readers will have come across the name indirectly, through the translations of Kafka he made for Penguin with his wife, Willa (whose 1968 memoir,Belonging, is well worth seeking out). Their versions of The Trial, The Castle and the short stories are still among the best. Having lived in Prague after the First World War and during the Communist take-over in 1948, Muir knew and fully understood what ‘Kafkaesque’ would come to mean. He has been criticized for missing an opportunity to write from first-hand experience about life under Communism, to analyse the upheavals he lived through, yet it seems to me that this reveals a profound misunderstanding of his art. He was never going dramatise his experiences; he was no Vaclav Havel and certainly no Miłosz. Yet almost everything Muir wrote in his later years bears the mark of his experience of mid-twentieth-century Europe. Read ‘The Good Town’, a longish poem from his most powerful collection, The Labyrinth (1949) for example, which shows how a settled community ‘with streets of friendly neighbours’ can lose what it took for granted, and become a place with ‘a fine new prison,/The house-doors shut and barred, the frightened faces/Peeping round corners, secret police, informers,/And all afraid of all.’

Muir’s achievement as a poet is to have avoided the temptations of propaganda, or direct political pronouncements. When he writes, as he often does, of a way or a road, of a hero or a leader, it is not part of a cry to arms. When he tells us of poverty it is with passive resignation, but with wisdom and sympathy too. Only in his third collection, The Narrow Place, published during the Second World War, does he produce anything that could be called satirical, and even here the blame is turned inward, and the impression is of a disillusioned bitterness. In ‘Scotland, 1941’, it is ‘we’ who are to blame: ‘We were a tribe, a family, a people’ he begins, then adds: ‘Wallace and Bruce guard now a painted field’ (the latter a phrase taken by Scottish poet, Robin Robertson, as title for his 1997 collection). Towards the end of the poem, there is a simmering of outrage, but it is really the kind of thing that Eliot did better:

[…] We, fanatics of the frustrate and the half,
Who once set Purgatory Hill in doubt.
Now smoke and dearth and money everywhere,
Mean heirlooms of each fainter generation,
And mummied housegods in their musty niches,
Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation,
And spiritual defeat wrapped warm in riches,
No pride but pride of pelf

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‘A Peasant’

By R.S. Thomas

A_PeasantIago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind—-
So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.
And then at night see him fixed in his chair
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
His clothes, sour with years of sweat
And animal contact, shock the refined,
But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed even in death’s confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.


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