Posts Tagged ‘Clive Wilmer’

Thom Gunn – an Elizabethan wannabe? Letters reveal a complicated poet.

Saturday, March 20th, 2021

San Francisco Poet Thom Gunns letters have been published at last. Andrew McMillan discusses the collection, edited by Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler, and Clive Wilmer, over at The Literary Review. (I’ve written the transplanted Englishman here and here, among other places.)

The review mentions Gunn’s involvement with the “Movement” poets, a group that included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Robert Conquest, among others, but I hope a few of the letters trace the sway of Stanford’s Yvor Winters upon Gunn’s thinking and writing. While not as widely recognized as the Movement, the circle of poets and writers taught or influenced by Winters is prominent and traceable – including Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Helen Pinkerton, J.V. Cunningham, Turner Cassity, and others.

The review also mentions Gunn’s desire to be among the Elizabethans (read more about that here). From the review:

Ben Jonson, an edition of whose poems Gunn once edited, is an important figure here: Nott quotes Gunn saying that people have ‘difficulty with my poetry … in locating the central voice or central personality. But I’m not aiming for central voice and I’m not aiming for central personality. I want to be an Elizabethan poet. I want to write with the same anonymity you get in the Elizabethans.’ Nott suggests that we get a ‘staging’ of Gunn’s personality in these letters, a tailoring of voice to recipient. That certainly feels right, though it feels too as though the life and personality come through in the letters in a way they don’t in his poetry, particularly the earlier work.

“Some of the rawest moments come in early letters to Mike Kitay, Gunn’s lifelong partner, whom he met in 1952 when they were both undergraduates at Cambridge and whom he followed to the USA when Kitay returned there in 1954, after which Gunn felt able to come out. ‘We can lead rich lives together if we allow each other to, my beloved,’ Gunn writes to him in 1961. ‘Oh baby, please settle for me. I’ll never be your ideal, but you’ll never find your ideal on earth.’ It’s a letter written over the course of a week, with headings marking out the different days; it ends, ‘I can’t go on like this much longer. Please, my darling Mike.’ Gunn was largely a writer of tight, syllabic poetry who aimed for a lack of ‘central personality’; the directness and freedom of expression in letters such as these offer us a side of him we rarely, if ever, have seen before. By contrast, a letter written a few months later to the Faber editor Charles Monteith sees Gunn retreating behind a mask of business, discussing what would become a well-known combined edition of his work and that of Ted Hughes, eventually published in 1962 …”

Read the rest here.

Christmas, Clive Wilmer, and the “world that was before it was”

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

wilmer3Merry Christmas! Here’s our final poem from Clive Wilmer to celebrate the season.  It’s included in his New and Collected (Carcanet), which he sent me shortly after it was published last year.  I picked this poem out for a possible Christmas inclusion, so here we are.  Like the Sidney Carol yesterday, this one also evokes “that feeling of absence, dark and cold, but also of anticipation before some great, as-yet-unknown event.”

Here’s what Francis O’Gorman wrote about the New and Collected: “Clive Wilmer has a remarkable eye for places: for the living nature of a historical past; for hidden spiritual meanings; for the testimony of building … Here is the established voice of an exceptional writer, for whom language is the supplest tool in the creation of verbal mosaics, of patterned and precious – and also fragile – meanings. The religious dimension of Wilmer’s poetry is unmissable. This is writing that demnstrates a continual return to hopes, scrupulous sense that spiritual meanings might be present in places, things, events, people.”

wilmer4We should also add that he’s one of the leading translators of Hungarian poetry, for which he has received Pro Cultura Hungarica Medal for translation from the Hungarian Ministry of Culture. Included among his translations from that difficult tongue are poems by  János Pilinszky, Jenő Dsida, Miklós Radnóti, and Anna T. Szabó. (You can read an interview with him on that subject here.)  He collaborates with another friend, George Gömöri.

Meanwhile, remember: this is only the first day of Christmas!  You have eleven more days to celebrate. Enjoy the rest of the season.


The Advent Carols

Aspiciens a longe

I look from afar. We stand in darkness.
A people in exile, shall we hear good news,
Who toward midnight, in mid-winter, sing?

Sing words to call a light out of the darkness
To thaw dulled earth, to unfold her fairest bud;
Our song holds faith that the Word will be made flesh.

Now we bear candles eastward, bear them into
Inviolate dark the Word should occupy:
Light disembodied swells the sanctuary

Where an old dream is mimed, without conviction,
Over again. I look from afar. Our sung words
Are herald angels, and they announce his name,

But lay no fleshly mantle on the King,
The one Word. And yet, in the song’s rising
Is rapture, and dayspring in the mind’s dark:

For the one sanctuary, now, is the word not
Made flesh – though it is big with child, invaded
By the dumb world that was before it was.

Just in time for Christmas: Clive Wilmer’s “Sidney Carol”

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013


Quite the man.

Readers of the Book Haven know of my special fondness for Cambridge, after my single night as a Girtonian a couple years ago (I wrote about it here). I have an additional reason for my warm feelings for the place: the poet Clive Wilmer and I have never met face-to-face, but we’ve corresponded, off and on, for years.  The poet is a fellow at Cambridge’s Sidney Sussex College, which was founded on St. Valentine’s Day in 1596 by legacy of Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, for her nephew, the Elizabethan courtier and poet Sir Philip Sidney. What better place for a poet than a college named for one?  And where better to turn for a couple Christmas poems than Clive Wilmer? (Second installment tomorrow.)

Clive considers this poem is more an Advent Carol than a Christmas one – so I had to hurry to catch the last day of Advent before the first day of Christmas.

The poem was inspired by an Advent Carol Service in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. “The first item in that service – not at all the same as the famous Christmas Eve one that you see on TV – is a setting by Palestrina of a prose text which begins ‘I look from afar’, ‘Prospiciens a longe‘ in the original. I thought of the whole poem as trying to evoke that feeling of absence, dark and cold, but also of anticipation before some great, as-yet-unknown event.”

I’m not sure darkness and cold is part of a California Christmas – the sun is shining brightly outside my window as I patter away on my keyboard, and my black cat is lolling in the grass, reveling in the mild weather. However, a few weeks ago I was throwing bedsheets over my olive trees and orchids to keep them from freezing in the nasty cold snap and huddling over the oil heater.  See? Even Californians suffer.

Enjoy the poem and the day.

Sidney Carol

Each year it comes round again:
.       The aching chill,
.       The ashen sky,
The sunset bleeding through the fen,
The freezing of our warm good will,
.   The sense that things must die.
Each year it comes round again.

As every year, the shepherds squat
.       On bleaching grass
.       Around the fold.
Not asking if their life is what
Was always meant to come to pass
.   Or why good things grow cold,
As every year, the shepherds squat.

Sure as the stars at evening rise,
.       There are three kings
.       Who year by year
Come seeking what will make them wise:
The new life which the winter brings,
.   And which will now appear
Sure as the stars at evening rise.

In this bleak world what hope of joy?
.       The ordeal of birth
.       Has flecked with blood
A slight girl and her tiny boy.
They hear the song of peace on earth
.   And trust in human good:
In this bleak world a hope of joy.

The year runs on and there is change:
.       Not peace but war,
.       My path is lost.
And yet the power of time is strange.
The winter child comes as before,
.   Like snowdrops in the frost.
The year runs on and there is change.

Once more, a choir of angels sings,
.       As moonlight glows
.       Within the ice.
The shepherds join them, and the kings.
Let us, too, join them, while it snows,
.   To greet the new-born Christ.
Once more, a choir of angels sings.


Cloister Court, Sussex Sidney College – a poet’s college for a poet. (Photo: David Purchase)

Peter Dale Scott’s “J’aime mais j’accuse”

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Poetry reviews are hard to come by in our increasingly distracted world, so Peter Dale Scott wrote me yesterday to say that he is understandably chuffed with John Peck‘s hefty, megawatt review for his  Mosaic Orpheus in the current Notre Dame Review. (If you scroll way down to the bottom of the screen here, you can download the 15-page pdf, which is certainly a clumsy way for NDR to do things.)

Peter, a former Canadian diplomat, is one of the few to tackle political poetry in a way that is gritty and specific, rather than the more commonplace attempt to commandeer politics to give oneself unearned gravitas via airy and politically correct generalities.  Robert Hass called Peter’s 1988 Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror “the most important political poem to appear in the English language in a very long time.”

Peck’s discussion opens with the 1988 “contemplative epic”: 

“Coming to Jakarta, his attempt to contain distress over the blocked publication of his investigative research findings comes up against ‘mosaic darkness’—not familiarly seamless obscurity, but kaleidoscopic stuff—while in the poem’s later books Dante’s civic grief and wrath, with his loyal love for a dead woman, make him an Orphic brother-father to Scott, in that Alighieri’s existential defeat folds out into contrary visionary assurance. Such is not regulation Orphism, particularly as invoked collegially against American amnesiac indifference toward a largely occulted, webby congress of state terrorism, proxy mass slaughters, off-the-books funnelings of the sluice from international drug cartels to black ops, economic decline and the management of fear by debt, false-flag events, assassinations, and greasy resource wars.”

Shovel ready

Peck’s writing style is dense, but often rewarding.  And while I hadn’t been terribly looking forward to a long gaze at the nastiest sides of American policy — other than that proffered by the daily news — I must say that Peck’s review has heightened my interest.  Of Scott, Peck writes:

“He must be the only poet now writing who can say that Czesław Miłosz, peace-studies scholar Ola Tunander, various prominent vipassana teachers, and certain unnamed informants in government service deceased in mysterious circumstances, equally have nourished his effort. This span, together with an iron stomach for the forensics and catharsis of difficult findings, spell his personal equation. His poetics therefore will likely be neither a standard Orphic affair nor a canonical Buddhist one, although the poetry plainly arises in order to square those canons, and that personal equation, with a civics obdurately impersonal and malign.”

Peter, one of Miłosz’s earliest translators, describes his up-and-down relationship with the Nobel laureate — the two parted over politics, but reconciled much later — in my  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

Peck concludes:

“The spirit of research in this our dump needs every acolyte who carries a shovel. My Ketman-meter, its needle pushing into the red zone, tells me that our bitched order forces doubleness into both zones, out behind the vast oligarchic scrim and down into the crannies of palimpsested authority.  Scott has done us the honor of adopting this country as his own. Shall we read his voluminous J’aime mais j’accuse with due attention? His vade mecum, Mosaic Orpheus, reminds us that this labor has been one of hopeless, yet justified, love.”

By the way, Clive Wilmer called Peck, a Pittsburgh-born psychotherapist, “the outstanding American poet of his generation–as well as one of the most difficult.” As a young man he studied under Yvor Winters, and earned his Stanford PhD with doctoral thesis on Ezra Pound, supervised by Donald Davie.  Some of Peck’s poems are at the Poetry Foundation here.