Posts Tagged ‘Dunstan Thompson’

Rescued from oblivion: selected poems from the early and late Dunstan Thompson

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

thompsonHere at last is Dunstan Thompson‘s Here at Last Is LoveIt’s been a group effort to get this slim volume published. Author Gregory Wolfe, California poet laureate Dana Gioia, Thompson’s longtime companion Philip Trower, and others have rescued the poet from oblivion.

Thompson (1918-75) was an American poet who had risen to fame in the New York literary scene of the 1940s. After his wartime experience, he all but disappeared in a remote Norfolk village called Cley. His poetry was no longer sought after and published. The problem was, as Dana Gioia wrote, that there were two Dunstan Thompsons: the poetry of early Thompson of the 1940s is “expansive, ornate, dramatic, and confessional.” The later poetry is “austere, urbane, controlled, and quietly confident.” (I’ve written about Gioia’s essay, “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson,” which is now the afterword of the book, here.)

According to Kevin Prufer, co-editor of Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Late American Master: “Here, for the first time, Gregory Wolfe draws draws poems from the poet’s entire writing life, including his harrowing, erotic wartime poetry and his almost entirely unavailable, more reflective work of maturity. In doing so, he brings to new audiences the work of an essential mid-century poet…”

Greg Wolfe, the book’s editor, has written a graceful introduction to this small volume (128 pages), but this commonplace sentence is the one that stopped me. It describes the poet’s life in rural Norfolk: “A steady stream of visitors – British and American – came to Cley. Thompson’s Harvard friend Billy Abrahams came for many visits along with his partner, the writer Peter Stansky.” Could there be two literary Peter Stanskys in the world, I wondered?

Naturally, I wrote Stanford’s Orwell scholar, Peter Stansky, right away to clear things up. He replied within an hour or so: “Many visits is an exaggeration. The first I remember fairly well, and we may have gone a second time. Dunstan was a contemporary of Billy’s at Harvard and one of his closest friends.  Dunstan had gone to England as a soldier during the war and may not have come back to the U.S.A. except briefly, but I’m not sure of that. If so, Billy would have seen him in New York after the war.

“I met Billy in 1961 and some years after that we went to England to work on Journey to the Frontier. We went to see Dunstan and his partner Philip Trower, a very nice Englishman and writer. Dunstan who had been, I believe, a rather irreverent poet had now become a devout Catholic and Philip had converted.  We had a very jolly time but I can’t remember much in particular. I bravely swam in the sea. We ate and drank well. They took us to Houghton, the great Norfolk Walpole house, where we were shown around by the Marchioness of Cholmondeley [that would be the former Sybil Sassoon, cousin to the poet Siegfried Sassoon]. Philip had been at Eton with her son.”

“Little did I know that years later after her death I would write her biography [i.e., The Worlds of Philip and Sybil (2003)], so in retrospect, it was terrific that I had met her. I have a feeling that we may have visited a Catholic English shrine at Walsingham.  The main point was for Billy and Dunstan to talk about the old days. They may have been somewhat wild, although I don’t remember anything specific mentioned,” he said.

“Billy remained in touch with Dunstan, though I don’t think either were good correspondents. It was very touching that on Dunstan’s death, he left Billy his Bulova watch, some books including, I think, an early edition of Byron I have somewhere and, most wonderfully, he very kindly left me specifically a print by Paul Nash, an artist I much admire that I have on my walls.”

Peter Stansky also gave Dana Gioia several books that Dunstan had inscribed to Billy Abrahams. The Stanford Libraries printed a selection of Abraham’s poems to commemorate Peter’s donation of Abrahams’ papers to Stanford.

The title poem is, as Greg notes, a short “shape poem” called “On a Crucifix”:

Here at last

443px-Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans_002It’s one of the last poems in the volume. In keeping with the season, here’s Thompson’s short “Fragment for Christmas,” another poem from the very late Thompson:


Dear Lord, and only ever faithful friend,
For love of us rejected, tortured, torn –
And we were there; who on the third day rose
Again, and still looks after us; descend
Into each wrecked unstable house; be born
In us, a Child among Your former foes.

Dana Gioia on little-known poet Dunstan Thompson: “ambitious, original, mercurial, uneven”

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Dunstan Thompson photoPoet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has performed many good deeds for literature; here’s one that has generally gone unnoticed: he has promoted the work of many little-known poets and writers, both living and dead, who have received fame, acclaim, and wider circulation soon afterwards. In many cases, I think his imprimatur has been decisive. He was one of the early champions for Kay Ryan, the Marin community college teacher who went on to win a Pulitzer and just about every other major poetry award, as well as being named U.S. poet laureate. We can add Kim Addonizio, Weldon Kees, and even Robinson Jeffers to the list.

That observation alone would make it worthwhile to pay attention to his article in the current Hudson Review, “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson.” Thompson’s not entirely forgotten … at least not anymore. D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer compiled a tribute volume, Dustan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master in 2010. Later this year, Thompson’s Selected Poems, edited by Gregory Wolfe, will bring his work (we hope) to a wider audience.

The Connecticut-born Thompson (1918-1975) was educated at Harvard and enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II. Borges translated some of his work after Thompson’s Poems (Simon & Schuster) was published in 1943. His second poetry collection, Lament for the Sleepwalker, appeared in 1946. A 1954 novel, The Dove with the Bough of Olive was not well received. A travel book The Phoenix in the Desert was published in London in 1951. He had published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, but his next three manuscripts remained unpublished. What happened in the final decades is most interesting.

Dana’s essay is highly recommended; it’s one of his finest. And you get two poets for the price of one. Here’s why:

Two contradictory views of Thompson and his poetry have emerged, which seem to reflect an irreconcilable dichotomy inherent in both his life and work. Each faction has made exclu­sive claim to his legacy. For one group, Thompson stands as a pioneering poet of gay experience and sensibility. He was one of the first poets—and certainly the best of the World War II era—to write openly about homosexual experience. Although his language remained slightly coded—even straight sex could not be depicted literally at that time without censorship or prosecution—there was little ambiguity about the hidden world of casual sexual encounters he describes so powerfully in his neo-Romantic and rhapsodic poems. An heir to Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, Thompson stood, to quote Jim Elledge, as “a kindred soul” to contemporary gay poets.

To the second group, Thompson ranks as one of the important English-language Catholic poets of the twentieth century. A neo-classical writer of cosmopolitan sensibility, he cultivated an austere and formal style to explore themes of history, culture, and religion. In ways that seem more European than American, the mature Thompson also used the long perspectives of Christian and Classical history to understand the modern world after the devastations, dislocations, and atrocities of a troubled century.

There is no question that Thompson’s poetry falls into two parts—the early work published during the 1940s and the later work gathered posthumously in 1984.

The “vast and insistent threnody” of the first era “transcends its own sentimentality mostly bit its sheer feverish persistence. All of the wrong notes seem small in comparison to its large, symphonic sweep.” The highly musical poems (“The boy that brought me beauty brought me death”) reflect a poet who “reveled in the hypnotic quality of formal rhythms. His mode is essentially rhapsodic – an attempt to cast an emotional spell over the listener.” The second period occurred after he had settled in the obscure Norfolk village of Cley, initially for financial reasons, but then he and his partner, the journalist Philip Trower, stayed and stayed, far away from the mainstream literary world. “If Thompson’s early verse is flamboyantly neb-romantic, the later work is calmly neoclassical. … His style cooled becoming more austere and controlled. The tone shifted from vatic to conversational.” He adopted free verse as another tool in his repertoire, and wrote dramatic monologues, narratives, hymns, satires, epigrams, epistles, devotions, discursive meditations. “The older Thompson obsessively ponders the past as window into the human condition.”

Dana concludes: “Dustan Thompson is not a major poet, but he is also not a minor writer in the conventional sense of doing a few things exquisitely well. He is ambitious, original, mercurial, and uneven in equal measures. His central themes – love, sex, desire, faith, war, and history – are not minor subjects.” Read about both poets – Dunstan Thompson I and Dustan Thompson II – over at The Hudson Review, here.


Refuge: Cley on the River Glaven (Photo: John Beniston)