Posts Tagged ‘Thom Gunn’

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.”

Seamus Heaney at Stanford

Saturday, August 31st, 2013
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Seamus Heaney

Portrait of the poet as a young man.

Seamus Heaney, who died yesterday at 74, never taught at Stanford, but he did visit here at least once.  I was thumbing through Stepping Stones, the book-length Q&A with the late Dennis O’Driscoll, which I purchased after he mentioned it in his second letter to me (see yesterday’s post about that brief encounter here).  As with my usual impulsive book purchases, I had more money than time, so I never did more than crack the spine.  I did today though, and ran across this:

O’Driscoll:  Did you meet Thom Gunn?

Heaney:  During my later visit, yes, a couple of times. I don’t think we encountered in 1971/2. But when I was Beckman Professor [at the University of California] in 1976, Donald Davie organized a dinner in his house in Stanford and sent Alan Shapiro to collect me and drive me down. Alan was his graduate student at the time and had a car.  Thom Gunn was a guest that evening also and the whole event went off with great brio; but what I remember most was the fact that Thom had hitch-hiked down from San Francisco.  No pampering there – even the bus was too much for him.  I think, by the way, that I stilll like the iambic, English side of Gunn better.  Fighting Terms is a terrific first book; and there are poems like “The Discovery of the Pacific” and those late Dantesque treatments of the pre-AIDS gay scene in San Francisco.  He can really build the pressure when his stanzas are working for him.

thom-gunn

Gunn: he packed a punch

It wasn’t courage only that led Gunn to thumb his way down to Palo Alto from his Upper Haight apartment. He doesn’t drive, at all.  Who needs to in San Francisco, he told me.  (I suppose he still could have taken some sort of bus, if there was was one … which I doubt.)

To my knowledge, I was the last person to interview Thom Gunn. The Q&A  ran posthumously in the Georgia Review in Spring 2005 – alas, it’s not online.  Now Gunn did teach at Stanford, briefly, for one quarter.  I wrote about that here.

Eros as delusion: Poet Helen Pinkerton tips her hat to Thomas Aquinas (and Yvor Winters)

Sunday, July 31st, 2011
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Helen's hero ... as seen by Bernardo Daddi

Helen Pinkerton‘s interview in Think Journal, “The Love of Being,” starts out slowly – but by the time she gets to Thomas Aquinas, she’s on a tear.

The octogenarian poet came from hardscrabble upbringing in Montana. Her father died in a mining accident when she was 11, leaving her mother with four children to raise – well, if you want that story, you can read it in my own article about her here.

Then, she landed at Stanford, where she was one of Yvor Winters‘ inner circle, along with folks like Janet Lewis, Thom Gunn, Edgar Bowers, Turner Cassity, and J.V. Cunningham.  Although she intended to be a journalism major, her plans changed abruptly: “Winters’ level of teaching, the kinds of topics he expected us to write about, the seriousness of his consideration of literary and philosophical questions of all sorts simply brought out in me a whole new capacity for thinking and writing.”  After that, and a course on narrative with Cunningham, she launched an alternative career as a poet and a Herman Melville scholar, too.

After that experience, Pinkerton found that her subsequent graduate work at Harvard “was a breeze and made little mark on me as a poet or a scholar.”

Fra Angelico's Aquinas

Winters described Pinkerton’s poetry as “profoundly philosophical and religious,” and she discusses how  Ben Jonson scholar William Dinsmore Briggs led her in that direction, though she never met him – his teaching on medieval and Renaissance learning “permeated” the work of Winters and Cunningham, she said.  Helen became preoccupied with the Thomistic notion of esse, and sees “nothingness” as the primary temptation of humankind.  Hence, her poem, “Good Friday” (included in her book Taken in Faith), which claims:

Nothingness is our need:
Insatiable the guilt
For which in thought and deed
We break what we have built.

But more than temptation – it is delusion.  “The chief aspect of the drive is the metaphysical assertion that nothingness is the real reality – that there is no real being.”

She links this drive with the thinking of the 19th and 20th century, particularly romanticism, which she sees as a drive toward annihilation.  “Real love is the love of being. Eros is the love of non-being”:

Helen, me, and the late Turner Cassity

I found my way out of it by grasping the Thomistic idea of God as self-existent being. There is no nothingness in reality. It is a kind of figment of the imagination. To believe that there is is a verbal trick – a snare and a delusion. Much of modern philosophy (Hegel, the Existentialists, et al.) are caught up in this delusive state of consciousness.

I do scorn and critique (always) “romantic religion” – or the religion of eros … as I call it – and I did see in others, as well as in myself – a pervasive “unavowed guilt” in our culture – based on an unavowed longing for “nothingness.” This is a kind of obsession of mine in my early thinking (and consequently in my poems) after I came to a realization of the nature of my consciousness. What was driving me to be dissatisfied with everything and everyone, including myself, was this “eros,” this craving for extremes of feeling, for a kind of perfection in things and in others.

Patrick Kurp has written some lovely stuff about Helen at Anecdotal Evidencehere, and here, and here … oh, just type “Pinkerton” into his search engine.  There’s lots.  I’m proud to have introduced them.

Meanwhile, an Yvor Winters reading was always mesmerizing.  You can get a taste of it in this recording from San Francisco’s Poetry Center on Valentine’s Day, 1958:

Yvor Winters Reading – 1958

Elizabeth Bishop centennary: Dana Gioia, Thom Gunn, and my long-ago trip to Samambaia

Sunday, February 6th, 2011
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The young Bishop

Feb. 8 marks the centennial of Elizabeth Bishop‘s birth, and her publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux, has put out a triple-hitter: a compilation of her letters to and from The New Yorker and a pair of companion volumes called simply Poems and Prose.

Dana Gioia reviews the trio in the Wall Street Journal, here.  He is too modest to say, except in passing, that he studied with Bishop at Harvard, but he’s wrote about it years ago for the New Yorker — an excerpt is here, and it’s definitely worth the read.  As always with Dana, it’s a good general introduction to Bishop and her oeuvre.

But on one point I must quibble:

In 1952, having embarked on a trip around the world, Bishop took ill in Rio de Janeiro. There she met Lota de Macedo Soares, an architect, who became her lover. Bishop quickly settled in Brazil, and the two women lived together for 15 years—the one extended period of domestic stability in Bishop’s life. Then in 1967 the Brazilian idyll was terminated by Soares’s suicide.

Some years ago, I made the trip to Samambaia — outside Petropolis, which is outside Rio — and wrote about it for the Times Literary Supplement on February 8, 2002:

Brazilians use the expression “toda vida” — for all life — where we would say, “continue to the end of the road”. On the narrow, bumpy brick roads around Petropolis, about sixty miles outside Rio de Janeiro, you may indeed feel you will reach life’s end before you reach your destination: Sitio Alcobacinha, the long-time home of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, in the outlying village of Samambaia. You have to stop every few minutes to question a resident, typically one of the ubiquitous men, shirtless and enervated by the Brazilian summer, drinking beer in the street-side cafes of this trendy, if slightly threadbare, former imperial capital. Continue down the left fork, they will tell you, “toda vida”.

Outside Petropolis ... Bishop's home for years

Bishop didn’t quite end her days here. But certainly a crucial era of her life concluded in Samambaia in 1967, when she left Brazil after a sixteen-year stay that began as a lark, endured as a deep and difficult love affair, and ended with a death. She was to return to Brazil, more particularly to the home she bought and refurbished in Ouro Preto, another 150 miles or so due north, but she never stayed long, and visited more and more sporadically, until she finally left Brazil for good in 1974.

Bishop occupied a marginal, even ostracized, place in Brazilian society at the time, and has done since; how odd, then, the current clamour about her life here. An acclaimed play, a spicy fictionalized “biography” and an excellent set of translations of her poems into Portuguese have all appeared in Brazil in the past few years, and a major film is planned. The poet who once described herself as “the loneliest person who ever lived” is hot.

The reasons for this enthusiastic reclamation, and for the original banishment, are many. The obvious one is that Bishop wrote in English, not Portuguese. Yet perhaps two dozen of Bishop’s small output of poems are about Brazil, and she was a cheerleader for Brazilian poetry, publishing her own translations in an influential anthology in 1972. Her feelings about Brazil were perplexed, puritanical, and patronizing. (“As a country I feel it’s hopeless not in the horrible way Mexico is, but just plain lethargic, self-seeking, half-smug, half-crazy, hopeless”, she wrote in a letter.) Brazilians also resent the fact that she never took the trouble to learn Portuguese properly. (“I must take Brazil more seriously and really learn the damned language”, she moaned.) Other reasons are interwoven with the explosive history of Brazil during the period of Bishop’s stay, and with the mercurial temperament of her aristocratic lover, Carlota de Macedo Soares, a self-trained architect and civic planner universally known as Lota. Lota dabbled, however peripherally, in politics, and another cause of Bishop’s banishment was her lover’s controversial friendship (and by association Bishop’s) with Rio de Janeiro’s Governor, Carlos Lacerda, the anti-Communist politician, orator, and sometime journalist.

Aterro: The park Lota designed in Rio

The story was a sad one, ending with Bishop’s affair with a younger woman (the woman she was to spend the rest of her life with, who would remain unnamed for many years) and Lota’s death:

The more active Lota became in civic affairs, as Lacerda appointed her to create Rio’s equivalent of Central Park, the less time she had for her beloved “Cookie”. The more Elizabeth drank, the more overwrought Lota became.

Lota had a breakdown — from the stress of her civic work as well as her fraying relationship — and turned to tranquillizers. … Lota, rejoining Bishop in New York in 1967, took an overdose of valium the morning after her arrival.

When I interviewed Thom Gunn in August 2003 (the interview was published in the Spring 2005 Georgia Review), he described her as an “extremely nice woman, delightful to know.”

TG: The only time I ever saw her drunk was the first time I met her. This was a meeting set up by a friend of hers in San Francisco. I think it was news to me that she’d moved to San Francisco. She wanted to meet me, which was flattering. So I spent an evening with her, and her friend, whose name I have forgotten. The woman she was living with. I guess I shouldn’t say her real name, because everybody calls her “X” or something.

CH: I think it’s come out.

TG: Roxanne. Anyway, whatever it was. She was out of it, she was out of it. I mean, she was so out of it she was not following the conversation, just making strange remarks that had nothing to do with anything. So I received a message—whether it was from this guy, or whether Roxanne phoned me. It said, “Let’s try over,” which was very nice to say. So we did try over and we got on excellently.  She gave the one good party for poets that I’ve ever been at.  Most of those can be obnoxious or boring or pretentious. She knew all these poets—like Robert Duncan—who were just poets. I think it was a Christmas party. We had a great time together.

Dana notes: “She published only five volumes of verse and a short illustrated book on Brazil.”  I have the work-for-hire that she wrote for Life’s “World Library” series on my bookshelf — not her best work, admittedly, but a dutiful tribute to the country she came to love.

Happy birthday, Fulke Greville!

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010
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The birthday boy

A few more hours to wish a very happy birthday to Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke,  de jure 13th Baron Latimer and 5th Baron Willoughby de Broke, born this day in 1554.

Patrick Kurp has a fine tribute to him at Anecdotal Evidence here:  “He was known not as a poet but as treasurer of the navy, chancellor of the exchequer and commissioner of the Treasury. Only in the twentieth century was his accomplishment as a writer of austerely passionate verse, the peer of Herbert, Donne and Shakespeare, truly weighed.”

Kurp credits the late Thom Gunn, who edited Selected Poems of Fulke Greville in 1968.  Not surprising, since Gunn was a student of Yvor Winters, and no one exalted the obscure poet Greville more than Winters,  who rated Greville more highly than Sidney and Spenser.  Said Winters:

“How great a poet Greville is. It is my opinion that he should be ranked with Jonson as one of the two great masters of the short poem in the Renaissance”
— Yvor Winters, Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English, 1967

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky compared him with John Donne in imaginative power.  Here’s Pinsky in The Paris Review on the subject of Greville (and Winters):

Pinsky -- a Winters protégé (Photo: Steve Castillo)

PINSKY:  Winters claimed to have read every poem by every poet of any distinction who ever wrote in English; he challenged those of us who disagreed with him to do the same. He certainly seemed able to respond to anything anybody ever alluded to. Winters resurrected Fulke Greville,  a really great poet, I am convinced; and some of the poems he pointed to, like Herbert’s “Church Monuments” and Jonson’s “To Heaven,” were influential to many of us who studied with him, like Thom Gunn, Bob Hass, Donald Justice, Phil Levine, James McMichael, John Peck.

INTERVIEWER:  Some of Winters’s favorite poems seem to have found their way into your own work, as for instance your “Poem with Refrains,” with its gobbets of Fulke Greville.

PINSKY:  Yes, “Absence my presence is, strangeness my grace. / With them that walk against me is my sun.” That’s Greville,  and he is unsurpassed at lines of that kind. What Winters showed me about the English poets of that period gave me an inkling of the level of the art, the quality of seriousness, the principles of musical language that one might hope to attain. I feel that those couple of years when I read poetry intensely with him have served me well, and I’m grateful for that.

He gets the final word

Let’s give Winters the final word on the subject, then.  Try this, from “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” from Winters’s 1956 The Function of Criticism:

“The language of metaphysics from Plato onward is a concentration of the theoretical understanding of human experience; and that language as it was refined by the great theologians is even more obviously so. The writings of Aquinas have latent in them the most profound and intense experiences of our race. It is the command of scholastic thought, the realization in terms of experience and feeling of the meaning of scholastic language, that gives Shakespeare his peculiar power among dramatists and Fulke Greville his peculiar power among the English masters of the short poem. I do not mean that other writers of the period were ignorant of these matters, for they were not, and so far as the short poem is concerned there were a good many great poets, four or five of whom wrote one or more poems apiece as great as any by Greville; but the command in these two men is not merely knowledge, it is command, and it gives to three or four tragedies by Shakespeare, and to fifteen or twenty poems by Greville, a concentration of meaning, a kind of somber power, which one will scarcely find matched elsewhere at such great length in the respective forms.”


Don’t look for him in Wikipedia

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010
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In an era when most prominent poets seem to have a protected perch in academia, Moore Moran is rather refreshing.  Moran, one of the lesser known students of Yvor Winters, left Stanford and entered the advertising world as a copywriter and later creative director.  He lives in Santa Rosa, and has raised four daughters and a son — all the while writing poetry for the last half-century or so.  He’s managed to avoid even a Wikipedia entry.

Nevertheless, his first full-length book, Firebreaks, won the National Poetry Book Award in 1999.  His newest book, The Room Within, was published this month.

It rather startles that Moran’s name was entirely unknown to me.  For awhile, I had made a point of writing about the generally unheralded Yvor Winters/J.V. Cunningham group of poets, which included Thom Gunn, Edgar Bowers, and many others in the so-called “Stanford School of Poets” (I say “so-called,” because they dodge any grouping).  Moran and I have a number of mutual friends — Timothy Murphy for one.  The accolades on the back of the book include a few others who have been mentioned on these cyberspace pages:

“Imagine a poet who could deal with the experience of Jack Kerouac but with too much intelligence to limit himself to the road. You don’t have to imagine him. He exists. He has many skills, all of them beautifully bright, and on occasions when he looks into the abyss they take him safely over it”  — Turner Cassity (my article here — Book Haven post here)

“Moore Moran writes out of a wide range of experience in both traditional and experimental verse. Reading his work is a joy for the reader seeking a mature and sensitive mind.” — Helen Pinkerton (my article here)

And an important voice from my own alma mater, X.J. Kennedy, chimed in, too: “Moore Moran knows how poems should be made, and a great many of his poems score resounding victories.”

I haven’t had much time to go over the book thoughtfully.  But there is much that is striking and fine, and a good deal can be found online —  “Ordinary Time in the Pews,” for example.

The title poem will be top-rated for many readers, I think, but I favor this one, edged in spare mystery:

Holy Thursday

Tonight I ask You in to help me mourn.
You who help whom you please,
don’t leave me just with these–
a loincloth, timber, nail and scarlet thorn.

I‘m what I earn to think, not think I am.
Nor love, wisdom or art
sustains the baffled heart,
and fact contains no holy anagram.

Be more, Lord, than my hope, Your innocence.
Reason has never known
how to live with its own
immaculate, hard-hearted arguments.