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Fine Old Thom

The poet Thom Gunn was well-established in the English department at U.C. Berkeley when I passed through it in the late 70's, but I never met or studied under or otherwise encountered him.  In fact, it was not until the last 7 or 8 years that I started reading his poetry in any quantity.  I pulled down my copy of his Collected Poems on Sunday evening, to add it to the reading/rereading stack by the bed, and learned only yesterday, as I was catching up again with a number of poetry weblogs, that he had died on Sunday at age 72.  There are any number of citations, quotations and appreciations of his work accumulating online on the occasion of his passing -- e.g., these from Mike Snider and Jonathan Mayhew.

Some poets -- Dryden springs to mind -- emerge as primary eyewitnesses to their period.  It was Thom Gunn's fate, surely unlooked for, to become one of the foremost chroniclers of the AIDS pandemic as it had its way with countless friends and acquaintances in the San Francisco gay community.  The poems from that time -- most notably in his 1992 collection The Man With Night Sweats (also included in the "Collected") -- tie in to the centuries-long line of English elegists.

Gunn studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford in the late 1950s, and the two seem to have approved of one another.  Gunn recently edited the new American Poets Project volume of Winters' Selected Poems, and included a poem "To Yvor Winters, 1955" -- there are Airedales in it -- in his 1957 collection, The Sense of Movement.  More details on the Winters connection come from the Guardian's obituary:

It was primarily to be with Mike Kitay, his lifelong partner, that Gunn applied for a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University, California, which he was awarded in 1954 and where he worked with the great if wayward poet-critic Yvor Winters.

The juxtaposition of Gunn's metaphysical Englishness with Californian life and Winters' reaching is very evident in his second collection, The Sense Of Movement (1957), an exciting, deliberately provocative book whose distinctive energy comes from an apparent tension between form and content: traditional poetic structures and intellectual abstraction are deployed on subjects which include Hell's Angels, Elvis Presley, and a keyhole-voyeur in an hotel corridor.

Winters included his student compatriot Gunn in the relatively short list of contemporary poets whose work he found tolerable in his excellent study of the short poem in English, Forms of Discovery, and in the companion anthology Quest for Reality he reprinted this poem, which opens Gunn's 1961 collection My Sad Captains and is illustrated here with the painting to which it refers:

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Any Day Now

We will soon resume our broadcast day.... The woes my hard drive is heir to seem to have been cured now, but other duties are calling.

A more regular run of posting will resume as soon as can be. Meanwhile, imagine the graphic to the left as emitting a high pitched squeal, and await further developments. Thanks for your patience.

Alas, Even This Title Is Not By Me

Sure as the sun rises in some east-like direction, you are probably tired of my complaints of the state of my principal office computer. The poor machine is due for its second complete-reformatting-and-reinstall-of-this-thing-called-Windows-within-a-72-hour-period-or-thereabouts, and I can hear it whimpering. Or is that me? Whatever the case, I need to post on some other topic and today that topic is: a hodge podge of light verse by others.

I have been reading over Russell Baker's Norton Book of Light Verse and came upon this relevant commentary from Alexander Pope:

The Fool and the Poet

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

Next, for lack of a fresh double dactyl of my own, here is a favorite from George Starbuck, in a painterly vein:

El Greco, View of Toledo - Click to Enlarge!

High Renaissance

“Nomine Domini
None of these prelates can
Manage your name.

Change it. Appeal to their
Sign it ‘El Greco.’ I’ll
Slap on a frame.”

And by way of freely associating fro that painting, consider this chorus from “Toledo,” one of the better songs on the altogether fine Elvis Costello-Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted From Memory:

And do people living in Toledo
Know that their name hasn’t traveled very well?
And does anybody in Ohio
Dream of that Spanish citadel?