Posts Tagged ‘Thom Gunn’

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

Saturday, March 20th, 2021
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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.

“He was so good at everything he did”: Robert Conquest and his poems of “elegant irreverence” in WSJ

Sunday, August 23rd, 2020
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A literary scholar – and a very good one.

Robert Conquest‘s Collected Poems is out at last, thanks to the assiduous efforts of his widow, the literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest. And also to Philip Hoy of Waywiser, who is my publisher as well. But thanks especially, in the last few days, to David Mason, who has written a review, “The Impervious Dream,” in the Wall Street Journal. We’ve written about Stanford’s Bob Conquest, who died in 2015 at 97, here and here and here. among other places. We’ve written about Liddie Conquest here and here and herePhil Hoy is here, and David Mason here and here and here.

An excerpt from the review:

He was so good at everything he did—soldier, diplomat, historian and poet—that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he also left behind a few sonatas and paintings in oil. His histories of the Soviet Union’s failures and atrocities include The Great Terror (1968) and The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), meticulously researched and humane investigations of a criminal state, surely among the major historical achievements of the 20th century. His television documentary series, Red Empire (1990), distills this work and makes grimly compelling viewing.

But Conquest first came to readers’ attention as a poet of sophistication and grace, and as the editor of two New Lines anthologies (1956 and 1963) that introduced a group of English poets known as The Movement, among them Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, Kingsley Amis and Thom Gunn. Though his poetry was pushed aside by his work as a public intellectual, we now have the opportunity to see it whole for the varied, remarkable accomplishment it is, a poetry praising “the great impervious dream / On which the world’s foundations rest.”

Mason: a poet himself

In her editor’s note for this new “Collected Poems,” the poet’s widow, Elizabeth Conquest, gives us a glimpse of his character: “Kingsley Amis, complaining to Philip Larkin of getting old, wrote: ‘Bob just goes on and on, as if nothing has happened.’ And so he did, walking a mile at light infantry pace until his 89th year, dying at age 98 in the midst of editing his 34th book, while also writing a poem.” Readers tempted to dismiss Conquest as a dinosaur for his lyric formality, his Old World erudition and his occasionally patronizing love of women would be too hasty. This is a civil voice, a man who in his poem “Galatea” praises both “passion and reserve.” An early poem about the Velázquez painting known as “The Rokeby Venus” begins, “Life pours out images, the accidental / At once deleted when the purging mind / Detects their resonance as inessential: / Yet these may leave some fruitful trace behind.” Conquest positioned himself between the life lived and its ideal expression, yet never lost the realism that chastened ornament.

I am particularly moved by Conquest’s poems about World War II. Another early work, “For the Death of a Poet,” echoes elders such as Eliot and Auden, while touching a nerve of its own: “But how shall I answer? I am like you, / I have only a voice and the universal zeals / And severities continue to state loudly / That all is well. / Even the landscape has no help to offer./A man dies and the river flows softly on. / There is no sign of recognition from the calm/And marvellous sky.”

Read the whole thing here (warning: paywall).

Dana Gioia’s archives go to Huntington, Stanford – including “tens of thousands” of letters!

Monday, April 20th, 2020
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Dana Gioia’s books, manuscripts, libretti are now at the Huntington Library.

Dana Gioia is a man of letters in the time-honored sense of the term, influencing our culture as a poet and essayist, but also as a translator, editor, anthologist, librettist, teacher, literary critic, and advocate for the arts. His correspondence was extensive, and it went on for decades. Hence, his archive is a treasure trove, and though he has had offers from other institutions to acquire it, he wanted his papers to stay in California. Now it will. He has donated his substantial archive to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which announced today it had acquired the papers of the poet and writer who served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003–09 and as the California Poet Laureate from 2015–19.

Dana Gioia in L.A. with friend, Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

It is the second large donation he has made in the last year. Last August, he gave to Stanford the large archive of Story Line Press, which he co-founded. The papers are the central archive for the New Formalism movement. The archive includes a number of people who have spent time at Stanford, including Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Christian Wiman, Paul Lake, Annie Finch, and of course Dana himself, among others. Stanford Libraries already holds the archive for The Reaper, so this is a natural pairing with that irreverent journal.

The larger Huntington archive includes correspondence with many of the major poets and writers for the last several decades, including Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Ray Bradbury, Rachel Hadas, Jane Hirshfield, William Maxwell, Thom Gunn, Edgar BowersKay Ryan, Robert Conquest, Julia Alvarez, Thomas Disch, Cynthia Ozick,  Donald Davie, Anthony Burgess, John Cheever, J.V. Cunningham, and even some musicians, such as Dave Brubeck. It also includes his own books, manuscripts, and libretti. “Even after I pruned my correspondence, there is a lot of letters – in the tens of thousands,” said Dana.

“When I told my brother Ted that I had made the donation, he commented that I wanted my papers to be at the Huntington because our mother took us there as children. ‘You’re probably right,’ I said. I  still remember seeing the elegant manuscript of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ there nearly sixty years ago. It was my first glimpse into that enchanted kingdom by the sea called poetry.”

The Huntington picked up 71 archival boxes last December – the first part of his donation. Then Dana Gioia had a more urgent task: the next day he flew back to northern California home, which sustained fire damage during last year’s Kincade wildfire.

From the Huntington release:

The archive documents Gioia’s work as a poet through fastidiously maintained drafts of poems and essays from his books, which include five books of poetry and three books of critical essays. He is one of the most prominent writers of the “New Formalist” school of poetry, a movement that promoted the return of meter and rhyme, although his arts advocacy work situates him in a broader frame.

The archive en dishabillé, as Mary Gioia helps organize.

“In his correspondence, you see a writer who has been willing to engage the young and old, the esteemed and emergent—anyone who wants to critically discuss poetic form, contemporary audiences for poetry, and the importance of literary reading during decades when popular culture has become increasingly visual and attention spans have fractured,” said Karla Nielsen, curator of literary collections at The Huntington. “We are delighted that Dana has entrusted his papers to The Huntington, where his collection fits perfectly. He is a local author—he grew up in a Mexican/Sicilian American household in Hawthorne—and even as he attained international recognition as a poet and assumed the chairmanship of the NEA, he remained loyal to the region and invested in Los Angeles’ unique literary communities.”

“I’m delighted to have my papers preserved in my hometown of Los Angeles, especially at The Huntington, a place I have loved since the dreamy days of my childhood,” said Gioia.

While the range of correspondents in the collection is broad and eclectic, the sustained letter writing with poets Donald Justice, David Mason, and Ted Kooser is particularly significant.

Gioia’s work co-editing a popular poetry anthology textbook with the poet X. J. Kennedy from the 1990s to the present will interest scholars working on canon formation during those decades when the “culture wars” were a politically charged issue.

A portion of the materials represent Gioia’s work as an advocate for poetry and the arts at the NEA and as the California Poet Laureate. This work is integral to his career and will be important to scholars interested in the place of poetry and the role of reading for pleasure within greater debates about literacy and literary reading at the beginning of the 20th century. … At The Huntington, Gioia’s archive joins that of another businessman poet, Wallace Stevens; that of a very different but also quintessentially Los Angeles poet, Charles Bukowski; and those of two other New Formalist poets, Henri Coulette and Robert Mezey.

Tens of thousands of letters and much more – now at the library his mother Dorothy Ortiz took Ted and Dana Gioia to visit as children. Dana remembers the Poe manuscript of “Annabel Lee.”

Four poets, two versions of Orpheus

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017
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Greville, for purposes of comparison.

Thom Gunn once wrote a letter of reference for Edgar Bowers, and he evidently said afterward that the experience made him feel like Philip Sidney recommending Fulke Greville.” So Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele opens his “Two Versions of Orpheus” in the summer issue of the Yale Review. One thing the Gunn and Bowers shared: a deep grounding and love for the Renaissance poets, including of course Sidney and Greville.

We’ve written before about Gunn here and here, and about  Bowers here and here, and even a little about Fulke Greville here, and Tim Steele here and here and here, among other places. 

But that’s all in pieces. Tim’s essays are always thoughtful, erudite, and insightful, and this long piece is one of the best of them – and it begins with Gunn’s anecdote, which frames the essay.

You can read it for yourself, but if you don’t know either of the poets, who studied with Stanford’s Yvor Winters, here’s your introduction, which gives you a taste for the whole:

Gunn: a panther tattoo and an earring.

Even in the personal impressions they produced, Gunn and Bowers differed in ways that Sidney and Greville did. Just as Sidney was the cynosure of his era, Gunn was a rock star in the poetry world of the second half of the twentieth century. Tall and handsome, he combined courtly good manners – he was in person very thoughtful and considerate of others – with an appealingly piratical air. He wore an earring long before it was a common fashion accessory for men. On his right arm, he had a tattoo of a panther that he got in 1962 from Lyle Tuttle, the San Francisco artist who later did Janis Joplin’s tattoos and who tattooed the Allman Brothers with the mushroom design that has remained the band’s logo to this day. If Paolo Veronese painted Sidney, artists like Don Bachardy and Robert Mapplethorpe drew or photographed Gunn. The dust jackets of some of his books carry their portraits of him. Seeing these, many of us feel that, yes, this is the way a poet should look.

Counterpoint: Sidney as fashionplate.

Bowers was just the opposite. Reluctant to call attention to himself, he dressed in a quietly tasteful Brooks Brothers manner, and with his understated charm could have passed for the kind of cultivated civil servant that Greville became for Elizabeth and James I. Though a wonderfully intelligent and lively conversationalist, he had no artistic airs. As devoted as he was to poetry, he sometimes said, as Dick Davis recalled in a memorial essay on Bowers in Poets & Writers (2000), that one is a poet only when one is writing a poem. Further, he thought that the poet’s main responsibility was to write well and to produce the best individual poems he or she could, and he believed that it was ruinous to poets to imagine that they were more special than other people or had creative spirits that automatically conferred value on whatever they wrote. He worried that his contemporaries judged poets more by their appearance than by their work, and on one occasion during a literary dinner in Florence, his suspicion received ironic confirmation. One of the other guests, not realizing that Bowers had good Italian, remarked within his hearing that he obviously was not a real poet, in view of how well groomed he was. Such thoughtlessness irritated Bowers, but he recognized that it reflected the zeitgeist and resigned himself to the situation as best he could.

Bowers was a Brooks Brothers guy.

While on the subject of the folly of judging merely on appearances, I should add that Gunn, despite his outlaw image and his genuinely wild side, conducted his writing life with extraordinary meticulousness. Those who visited him at his house on Cole Street in San Francisco have noted how neatly he kept his room and library. As is shown by his notebooks and diaries archived at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, he was also an inveterate maker of to-do lists and was continually mapping out writing projects, quite a few of which he relinquished simply because there was not time enough in one life to do them all. Moreover, he maintained careful and extensive records of his publications and public appearances. In an essay in The Threepenny Review (2005), Wendy Lesser conveys the powerful impression produced by the thoroughness of this documentation.

TIm

After Gunn’s death the previous year, and at the request of his longtime partner Mike Kitay, she and August Kleinzahler inspected Gunn’s study: ‘‘We found drawers of file folders containing every draft of every poem he had ever published, all sorted into book-manuscript order and each clipped to the finished, printed version of the poem; and we found schedules of every reading he had given for the past four decades, each with the list of poems to be read that night.’’

In contrast, Bowers possessed, in spite of his conventionally tasteful wardrobe and exquisitely poised intellect, the kinds of quirks and crochets we tend to associate with the artistic temperament. As he confessed in a 1999 radio interview with Troy Teegarden’s Society of Underground Poets, he was ‘‘very disorderly.’’

Read the whole thing here

Mike Kitay remembers poet Thom Gunn: “He liked to clown around.”

Monday, June 27th, 2016
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gunn3Poet Thom Gunn left England for America in 1954. A big part of his reason for departure was Mike Kitay. They lived together until the poet’s death in 2004. I had to reach Kitay last week. But how? I phoned the old phone number I had kept since the time I interviewed Thom in August 2003. To my surprise, the famous address on San Francisco’s Cole Street still had the same phone number and, even more to my surprise, the cordial Kitay picked up the phone.

Anyway, the search led me to this interesting piece he wrote in The Threepenny Review, in the summer of 2005 (a few months after my Q&A with Thom Gunn ran in The Georgia Review). A few excerpts, in case you missed it a decade ago:

At home, if you didn’t know who he was, you’d never guess. He liked to clown around. He’d do his Vincent Price limp; his Instant Face Lift; make one of many rude sounds. His energy was awesome and he did a kind of tap dance with a big finish: one hand over his head, he’d twirl around. If you didn’t laugh, he’d twirl the other way and add a curtsy.

***

After he retired, Thom kept saying how happy he was. He said it often; too often and too loudly. He wanted to have A Good Time and he wanted to have A Good Time the way he’d always had A Good Time. But he was seventy now, a seventy-year-old gay man. Healthy, yes; lucky, yes; but still…

And he couldn’t write.

***

Thom was easily bored but slow to anger. I can’t think of a time when he lost his temper. When he got angry with me, he didn’t let on. He didn’t like shows of emotion. He didn’t like problems. And most certainly he didn’t like to talk about problems, which was a problem for me: I’m Jewish.

***

When people asked me right after he died if there was going to be a service for him, I thought: They’re kidding, right? A service? For Thom? He’d turn over in his urn! But what if there had been? Would I have said anything? “Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”? And I choke up. Because one morning, less than a year before he died, out of the overcast gray sky, Thom told me how little he liked those lines, how sentimental they were. “That may be,” I said, “but they work; they make me cry.” “That may be, but what do they mean? Angels! Really. Flights of angels.” Well, perhaps; but I think of those lines now, and of him, and I cry.

Read the whole thing here.

“Death is so plain!” Remembering Thom Gunn on the anniversary of his death.

Monday, April 25th, 2016
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gunn1

tim120I’ve been thinking about San Francisco poet Thom Gunn in the last few days, for reasons I won’t get into. But perhaps a subliminal one is worth mentioning: he died on this day, twelve years ago. I was, to my best knowledge, the last person to interview him at his flat in the City, in a Q&A published in The Georgia Review – not online, alas. 

He was apparently on L.A. poet’s Tim Steele’s mind, too. Both poets are alums of Stanford’s English Department and its Creative Writing Program. Gunn studied with the legendary Yvor Winters while at Stanford; Tim was a Jones Lecturer. 

Tim remembers one of Thom Gunn’s many fine poems on this sad anniversary:

gunn3Thom Gunn died on April 25, 2004. A wonderful elegist, he also wrote with memorable affection about domestic animals, and these gifts come together in “Her Pet.” As he indicates in a video clip (below), he composed the poem when, during the AIDS crisis, he was reading Michael Levey’s “High Renaissance” and came across a reproduction of Germain Pilon’s sarcophagus for Valentine Balbiani (1518-1572) that resonated with own experiences of seeing friends die in the epidemic.

The Balbiani sarcophagus is an example what Erwin Panofsky calls “the double-decker tomb.” On the top of the tomb, Pilon depicts the reclining figure of Valentine as she was in life. Below, on the side of the tomb, he renders her as she was after she died.

Contracts concerning the sarcophagus survive, and they call not only for this double depiction of Valentine, but also for her being accompanied by “a little dog of marble, made as naturally as possible.” Dogs often appear on tombs, but generally at the feet of the deceased and chiefly as symbols of fidelity. In this case, however, the dog was an effigy of a real companion of the subject, and according to contemporary accounts, it died of sorrow three days after its mistress did.

gunn2Writing about the sarcophagus, Gunn imitates its appearance by devising a double sonnet. The first sonnet—the upper one—describes the portion of the tomb that shows Valentine alive. The second sonnet describes the side-relief of her in death. Below is the text of “Her Pet,” along with the two images of the tomb reproduced in Levey’s book. The video clip of Gunn’s reading of the poem is from a 1994 appearance at the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles.

“Her Pet”

I walk the floor, read, watch a cop-show, drink,
Hear buses heave uphill through drizzling fog,
Then turn back to the pictured book to think
Of Valentine Balbiani and her dog:
She is reclining, reading, on her tomb;
But pounced, it tries to intercept her look,
Its front paws on her lap, as in this room
The cat attempts to nose beneath my book. …

[Well, copyright laws forbid us to do more. Listen to the rest below…]

Postscript on 4/26 from Tim Steele: “I well remember your Georgia Review interview with Thom. It brought many characteristic flashes of his insight. I also recall his comparing, in his conversation with you, Yvor Winters’s influence on him to his mother’s influence on him. (This appeared in your Stanford Magazine piece on Thom, I believe.) That’s an incredibly revealing and touching comment. People often think of Winters as a formidable father figure, and he may have been that for Thom to some extent. But Thom also saw Winters as a nurturing, supportive, literature-loving figure, just as his mother had been.”