To further enter the dialogue about Thom Gunn created by Eshuneutics' post on Thom Gunn's Selected Poems and Randall Mann's Book "Breakfast with Thom Gunn", I am posting an essay of mine, "On Love, Sex, and Thom Gunn" that appeared in Number 38 of Another Chicago Magazine in early 2001.
Here is a reprint of that essay in entirety:
On Love, Sex, and Thom Gunn
A fellow student in one of my classes said that she disliked Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats. She described his verse as self-indulgent, “masturbatory.” I couldn’t tell which bothered her more: the poems or that somebody somewhere in the world was touching himself. And enjoying it.
Reading a book of poems and searching for attractive guys in a bar are essentially the same exercise for me. I never read a book of poems from cover to cover. Most often I open the book to a random place, scan the page for something that catches my eye. If nothing does, I turn to another page and do the same thing. It’s not often that I stay with the same page for long. Usually, I just flip through the book until I get bored. Once in awhile a poem does obsess me. I can’t stop staring at the words. I read the poem to a friend, ask them what they think. For hours we analyze every line break, odd word choice, covert message.
I’m too promiscuous to read novels. Too much of a long-term commitment.
This is one of my many tragic flaws: I am so restless that I rarely allow myself to linger and miss noticing a lot of beautiful things.
As an undergraduate, I was afraid of going to the gay bars, because I knew I’d want to have sex and was afraid of getting AIDS. It was a deep, irrational fear but I didn’t have the strength of character to do anything about it. So I stayed home and touched myself. The Man with Night Sweats was one of the best books I used to get off. Some poems worked their magic in odd ways. Consider “Lines for My 55th Birthday.” I’ll quote it in its entirety:
The love of old men is not worth a lot,
Desperate and dry even when it is hot.
You cannot tell what is enthusiasm
And what involuntary clawing spasm.
When I confessed to a friend that this poem excited me, he said, “You’re such an easy lay.” I laughed and then explained my attraction to the poem: it constructs a desperate, even if comic, image of growing old as a gay man. It made me hate myself for sitting at home, wasting my precious youth. I imagined myself as not being afraid of touching various attractive men. This, of course, stimulated me.
I also credit this poem for finally motivating me to go out to the bars. I fooled myself into believing that all sex between young people was hot, void of desperation and dryness. I was wrong. Young people are desperate too. And dry. I was bummed for weeks. Only now am I appreciative of the fact that I did find that out for myself. Through the undeniable, gentle prodding of that wonderful poem.
On the inside back cover of Boss Cupid, there is a picture of Thom Gunn: short, cropped hair, wise, kind, gaze, pursed lips. He’s thinking, Dear Reader, I’m not going to let anything be revealed in this photo; I’m not going to let you know how much I want you to love me. He looks like he’s looking at me.
This is my fantasy: he meets me and falls in love. He thinks I’m the most brilliant poet. “But I haven’t even shown you any poems,” I say.
“You don’t need to,” he says. “I can just tell.”
I believe him. I believe I can identify a genius just by looking into his eyes.
This fantasy only goes so far. It only excites me a couple of nights. So I add to it. I imagine that Thom Gunn and I have dated for several years. He never cheated on me once. I imagine him telling me that my beauty and talent turned him monogamous. I know he is lying. But I don’t care. All that has ever mattered to me was the willingness of the gesture.
One night he says to me, “I have a confession. I don’t really like your poems.”
“But you’ve never even seen any of them,” I say. “You’re always too busy with your own.”
“That was a ploy,” he says. “I just never wanted to read them. I was afraid I’d be disappointed.”
“So do you love me?”
He doesn’t answer.
“So do you love me?” I say.
I masturbate in silence. It’s the best sexual experience I’ve had in weeks.
The final poem in The Man with Night Sweats is a complete embarrassment. “A Blank” acts as an apology for a lot of the poems that precede it and feels like a dangerous sell-out. Let’s take a look at the second stanza:
Watching Victorian porches through the glass,
From the 6 bus, I caught sight of a friend
Stopped on a corner-kerb to let us pass,
A four-year-old blond child tugging his hand,
Which tug he held against with a slight smile.
And the narrative continues later with the following exchange between the two men:
A sturdy-looking admirable young man.
He said ‘I chose to do this with my life.’
Casually met he said it of the plan
He undertook without a friend or wife.
Perhaps the conceit of the poem would bother me less if it appeared anywhere other than at the end of the book. I can’t help but read Gunn’s placement of the poem as a claim that becoming a father functions as some sort of redemptive act for engaging in the freedoms of anonymous, casual sex. This isn’t to say that Gunn fails to provide some complications to my possibly oversimplified reading of his poem. But how else are we supposed to respond to these lines?:
...So this was his son!
What I admired about his self-permission
Was that he turned from nothing he had done,
Or was, or had been, even while he transposed
The expectations he took out at dark
-Of Eros playing, features undisclosed-
Into another pitch, where he might work
With the same melody, and opted so...
At first this poem may seem radical. To use that horrible word: empowering. Gunn does articulate that this gay man has no shame about his past sexual acts; however, Gunn feels the need to emphasize these acts are of the past (“had done,” “was,” “had been”), an aspect of self-identity which no longer exists. As Gunn says, they have been “transposed.” What an interesting word! Transposed. One of the definitions in Webster’s is “to transfer (an algebraic term) from one side of an equation to the other, reversing the plus or minus value.” It cannot be denied that Gunn admires this man for choosing parenthood, so are we supposed to see his past promiscuity as ultimately a negative?
My hunch is Gunn’s true feeling toward this man are much more severe and buried than one may want to believe. Analyzing the logic of the claims supports this belief: Why does Gunn preclude that the sexual energies are the ones he’s drawing upon now as he raises a baby? Why can’t these current paternal impulses have been located elsewhere? Or perhaps never have existed before? Gunn’s desire to view this man’s choice of parenthood as transformative upsets me. Also, it troubles me that once again we have such a conventional image of a desexualized parent. Why can’t this man sleep around and be a responsible father? Why does sex need to be sacrificed in order to be a good parent?
I’d like to emphasize the problems of making this the final poem of the book. As I said, I don’t read novels, but I read a collection of poems as a novel in some ways. At least in the sense of asking the question, “What happens next?” Parenting seems to be the next step. Although this undertaking has been done “without a friend or wife,” we’re to assume, I hope, that eventually he’ll find a partner, even if it’s a sexless marriage. Being alone is rewarding for only so long. And after all, the guy isn’t getting laid; parenting has dried up his libido. So eventually, this “sturdy looking admirable young man” will be the epitome of middle-class respectability.
Once I read the poems as a novel with this conservative ending, I found the erotic potential of the whole book diminished. I also had a weird ethical problem about using it as masturbatory material. Should I jerk off to something that is ultimately sex phobic, even possibly dangerous in the way it longs for middle-class heterosexual approval?
It took me a long time to figure out what to do about it.
I tore out my favorite poems and threw the rest of the book away.
When I come across a poem I love, I think: would the author love me? I look for proof everywhere in their collection. This is what happened when I read The Man with Night Sweats. Some of the poems appealed to me. So I asked myself: Would Thom Gunn fall in love with me?
I searched “To a Dead Graduate Student” for answers. The title gave me some clues. He cares enough about graduate students to write a poem for one. I am a graduate student. I may win some affection, if not a little love, from him based on that alone. The last four lines of the poem also provided some help:
What a teacher you’d have made:
Your tough impatient mind, your flowering looks
Would have seduced the backyard where they played,
Rebels like you, to share your love of books.
I could claim to have an impatient mind (my mind is always wandering in a million different directions, undisciplined in its inability focus); when I’m not feeling lazy or bored, I am a somewhat questioning person. But as for the “flowering looks” I don’t think so. What did that word flowering mean exactly? Did it mean as beautiful as a flower? Divine like nature?
That’s not me.
Or did flowering mean that he was blossoming into someone better and better looking every day? That couldn’t really be me either. I’ve looked the same for the past decade.
But I do love books.
Not much of a rebel though. Can any graduate student really claim to be any sort of rebel? A rebellious grad student: one of the best oxymorons I’ve heard in a long time.
I wanted to be the living incarnation of the grad student he lost.
I wanted him to think I had risen from the dead.
As an undergraduate, I wanted to be cool. So I dated someone who was HIV positive. His name was Bill. Bill was a wonderful cook, so I convinced him to throw dinner parties for our friends. We had at least one dinner party a week. Somehow during the conversation I always made sure we talked about AIDS. I made a huge speech about how people with AIDS are misrepresented, shut out of health care, etc. Later during the night I whispered to anyone who I suspected didn’t know Bill was HIV that he had contracted the disease years ago, and that I knew that going into the relationship, and it didn’t bother me at all. “We’re all going to end up in the same place anyway,” I joked. Everyone looked sufficiently impressed. So I was pleased with myself.
Bill and I never had sex. Once when he started to kiss my neck, I said, “Get away from me, you know you have that disease.”
He threatened to leave me. So I started crying. He made it up to me by throwing a large dinner party for me and my friends. Seven whole courses. Homemade pasta. During the meal, I talked about how people needed to stop fearing their bodies and learn to let go a little. In front of everyone, I kissed Bill on the lips.
In a poetry class, a teacher passed out the poem “Lament” from The Man with Night Sweats. After we read the poem, a student was surprised to discover that the poems were written about AIDS. She claimed that without changing too many details, the poem could easily have described her mother’s battle with Lupus. A few students looked sympathetic, nodding their heads in agreement.
I raced through the poem, trying to find telltale clues that the poem was written about a gay man dying with AIDS and no one else. I found the lines:
...they conveyed you from
Those normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdom
The hedonistic body basks with in
And takes for granted...
Exactly, I thought to myself: “hedonistic body.” Translation: A gay man’s sexualized body. Imagine how disappointed I was to read the subsequent litany:
...summer on the skin,
Sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea
In a dry mouth.
None of those things related specifically and undeniably to a gay man’s body. So I looked quickly for more textual clues only to find in a rather pat hospital bedroom scene:
You wrote us messages on a pad, amused
At one time that you had your nurse confused
Who, seeing you reconciled after four years
With your grey father, both of you in tears,
Asked if this was at last your ‘special friend’...
But still. That didn’t feel gay enough. And a similar scene could easily be constructed between a father and daughter and the same sort of silly, odd confusions. I needed more proof that this poem was written for me.
No one else. Just me.
Couldn’t find anything on the spot.
Another student in the class said that it was important to contextualize the poem; it was part of a book after all. I seconded his claim, and felt oddly, ridiculously victorious.
Later on my bus ride home I found myself cursing Gunn’s name. How could he write a poem in such a way that someone else could think it was for them? I felt jilted, betrayed, dumped.
That same day a student from the class approached me at a party and said that I was acting a bit too crazily emphatic in class. “You pulled the whole, ‘I’m gay and I’m suffering like no one else routine,’” she said.
This is what I wanted to ask her: But did you still love me? Did you ever love me?
As a young poet, I am more than often frustrated with my limitations as a writer. After I finish a series of poems, I realize how weak they are and throw them away. When this happens, I become depressed and go to pick up a man. Once after working for an inordinately long time on a book-length project, I realized that my work was worse than flawed; it was completely inept and dumb. Upon this assessment, I had the immediate urge to go have public sex. I found someone in a restroom. I came on the wall. I didn’t clean it up. I left and went home to bed. I slept for three days, too depressed and exhausted to shave or put on clothes. All my energy was focus on one detail: I wanted to know if anyone cleaned up after me.
I wanted to have left a mark.
When Boss Cupid came out, I exaggerated how much I disliked the poems to my friends, concealing my tortured ambivalence to the poems, failing to mention the solid, great ones such as “The Dump.” Why did I do that? I wanted to show my friends that I could be objective, that I was capable of not liking the work of a gay poet, so that when I found a poet, who happened to be gay, that they misunderstood, I would be able to show them why, and they would be more apt to believe me.
How significant of a betrayal of this is to Thom Gunn?
I don’t know.
But I do know I still feel that I can freely and justifiably criticize aspects of The Man with Night Sweats, because everyone else loves it. Other than Mark Doty, Gunn’s work has appeared in more of my undergraduate and graduate classes than any other poet writing about AIDS. I always see his stuff in The Most Important Anthologies. Farrar Strauss Giroux published his latest Boss Cupid.
He doesn’t need my love.
When my boyfriend Bill finally died of AIDS, I was oddly relieved, almost happy. Now I could be a writer. I had a subject. No one would take that away from me.
Although Bill had tried to. Before he died, he said, “I know you don’t really love me. You want to be a writer. You’re here for one reason: my dying is good material.”
“Nice to know you see me as a saint,” I said.
“No problem,” he said. “And just so you know: there’s a lot of people writing about this stuff. Better writers than you. By the time you get the skill to do it, it’ll be too late. Dying boyfriend with lesions will be a huge cliché.”
It was true. The day he died I tried to write an elegy in formal verse. It included all the clichés: hospital visits, bitchy humor, wistful sexual remembrances. They read like the worst sort of derivatives of Thom Gunn.
I still blamed my inability in writing a successful AIDS elegy on Thom Gunn. I hated him. And Doty. And Campo. And Monette. And Ashberry. And Shepherd. And Wunderlich. And Cole. And McClatchy. And Trinidad. And Powell. And Hemphill. And Dlugos. And Liu. And McCann. And so on and so on. There isn’t enough room for all these men and me to love the same men, the same disease.
In a recent feature published in L..A. Weekly, Gunn says, “Stand-up poetry, performance poetry, seemed to be mainly people complaining about their parents, long past childhood. It seemed to me a boring subject and it seemed to me they had nothing new to report about their parents that you couldn’t have heard from most people. You didn’t appreciate me enough. That kind of thing.”
So I scorn some of the poems in Boss Cupid without too much reluctance. After issuing such a critique, how could Gunn present this poem entitled “A Los Angeles Childhood”? I’ll quote the first two stanzas:
My stepfather sat on the can
while I was taking a shower
he would read the paper, but when I got out,
toweling myself, into his stink,
he’d look over at me.
I was eight. Whenever my mother was out,
it was time for punishment,
for whatever I’d done,
he’d take off his belt and then
wale into me, then he’d fuck me.
I hated him !...
In discussions, I found myself ranting about the obvious: the dullness of the trope of the abused child, the lack of daring in the execution, the journalistic telling, the uninspired word choice, the linearity of the narrative. No one disagreed. How could they?
Would Gunn himself not identify this as an inferior poem?
I want to believe Gunn has the self-awareness to realize the limitations of his own poem. In other words, can we read Gunn’s laziness, his lack of craft and the exhausted subjects as something other than an unself-conscious artistic failure? It is not coincidental that the weakest poems of the book appear in a section called “Gossip.” Is he trying to emulate the nature of gossip, its formlessness, emphasis on content over form (or even inventive word choice) in poems such as “Los Angeles Childhood”?
My major problem with this analysis is it doesn’t explain why Gunn failed to provide more self-reflexive clues in the actual poem, that he wanted this apparently autobiographical anecdote to be seen as gossip rather than a simple catharsis. Why not offer clues in the text that could show the narrator’s awareness of his questionable motives in sharing the story? Why not even possibly insinuate that the narrator’s exaggerating the story to receive attention, love from his audience, thus offering an implicit critique of mainstream audiences’ desire for certain sorts of tragedies?
True: these aren’t the most exciting solutions in fixing a bad poem, but at least it would offer a sign that Gunn knows he’s writing one.
Consider another poem from the same section entitled “The Search.” The rather grand title leads to a bunch of fairly witty, coy one-liners leading to nothing other than yet another minor punchline:
Looking to hook up
with a younger guy from E Bay.
You: cab driver’s build,
lots of attitude. Me:
lo tolerance for
anything not me.
Am forty-eight, work out,
classic abs, uncut
man on man? Let’s do
lunch and each other.
Leave #. Movie stars
OK, insensitivity a big +.
If we were to read The Man with Night Sweats and Boss Cupid as a serial novel, would our impressions of the weaker poems in the latter book change? The Man with Night Sweats is permeated with a sense of wanting to create Great Art: the rigorous formal choices, the odd and unexpected earnest bouts in dealing with the disease, such as the sporadic likening of the dead gay man as martyr. Maybe we should be happy that Gunn has allowed himself to grow a little lazier and more self-indulgent, writing poems simply for gay men, our own “gossipy” circles, who see nothing wrong with nothing wrong with a wink and a fuck. No more Gay Overachiever Syndrome, exacerbated by our awareness of people’s AIDSphobia, we can write whatever we want, and make it as joyfully banal as anyone else’s.
But then again, why waste my time, our time? We’re dying. We’re all dying. Is there anything more cruel than wasting someone else’s mortality with the uninspired details of your own life?
I always judge a book by its title.
Even though all my friends were encouraging me to read The Man with Night Sweats, I refused. I didn’t understand why someone would give their book that title. The image begged for pity and love: a weakened sick man, clinging to his bedsheets, sweating profusely, calling the name of his beloved.
My boyfriend Bill wouldn’t read the book. “That’s not how I want my suffering portrayed,” he said.
“If I was sick, I guess I’d feel the same way.”
“You’re a jerk,” he said. “You should be offended, too.”
“Well, I don’t want to speak as someone who has HIV.”
“Don’t speak as someone,” Bill said. “Speak for someone. Be presumptuous. There’s so few of us in the world. Every voice counts.”
In the last month, a friend of mine who’s also a young gay poet, went through a breakup. His boyfriend of three years who was HIV positive broke up with him. My friend said, “He’s the one who’s dying. Shouldn’t I be the one leaving him?”
I didn’t know what to say. I never think of talking about my breakups as I left him or he left me. All that matters to me is he’s gone. He’s somewhere else. And that somewhere else is not where I am.
“Write an elegy,” I said.
“But he’s not dead. He’s sick,” my friend said.
“I know,” I said. “But he’s as good as dead.”
“But I’d feel like I was killing him off,” my friend said.
“Is voodoo necessarily a bad thing?” I said.
I wonder if the dead love Thom Gunn’s poems. For example, what do they think of “Words for Some Ash”?
Poor parched man, we had to squeeze
Dental sponge against your teeth,
So that moisture by degrees
Dribbled to the mouth beneath.
Christmas Day your pupils crossed,
Staring at your nose’s tip,
Seeking there the air you lost
Yet still gasped for, dry of lip.
Now you are a bag of ash
Scattered on a coastal ridge,
Where you watched the distant crash,
Ocean on a broken edge.
In interviews, Gunn has openly admitted that a lot of his poems are based on real people, real experiences. There seems to be something cruel in Gunn’s relentlessness in portraying the dying as useless, decaying bodies. And is Gunn really addressing the poem to his friend who died, this “poor parched man?” I’m not convinced he is. His friend knows the day-by-day disintegration of his own body. Does he need to be reminded of the specific, horrific details of his own demise? I have no other choice to read this elegy as a nasty taunt.
And I think the dead would find problems with the closing of the poem:
May you lastly reach the shore,
Joining tide without intent,
Only worried any more
By the current’s argument.
It’s interesting to me that Gunn portrays the afterlife as such a conflict-free, blissful existence, devoid of any decision making. Does he not think the dead live and want to be loved? Does he not think the dead have some serious things to take care of?
I should add here I realize I’m speaking for the dead. I do it because I want them to love me for it. I want to have a lot of potential lovers in the afterlife.
In a postscript for one of the poems from Boss Cupid, Gunn writes, “The dead have no sense of tact, no manners they enter doors without knocking, but I continue to deal with them...They pack their bodies into my dreams, they eat my feelings and shit in my mind. They are no good to me, of no value to me, but I cannot shake them...” Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this excerpt is Gunn’s belief that etiquette confounds the relationship between the living and the dead. How much of a projection of Gunn’s English middle-class social codes hinder a more authentic, healthy (?), loving relationship with the spirits he writes about. For a man, who brags about the playful insensitivity of his sexual relationships, I find it oddly defensive of him to privilege good manners over candor and forthright desire. It seems to me that he should view the lack of attention to etiquette as symptomatic of larger problems. Maybe the dead don’t want to be contained in formal elegies. Maybe they want love poems.
My teacher passes out several unremarkable poems from The Man with Night Sweats. During the discussion, she begins to talk about Gunn’s flamboyance, his “extravagance.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. I’ve always seen Gunn as an eerily restrained poet: his plain-spokenness which strays into abstraction rarely, and always to make a larger, necessary philosophical point, his hard, sometimes harsh rhyme schemes, his characteristically short free-verse lines, his sexual experiences always almost told in deliberate flat understatement.
I ask her what she means.
She never really answers. Not that she’s avoiding the question, but other issues elide that debate. I wonder if Gunn has always felt the pressure to use such obvious rhymes, tight lines, because he knew as a gay poet, people would want to see him as out-of-control, a histrionic. Would he have written in much longer lines and have been less likely to employ rhymes if he was straight?
These are not the sort of silly questions one should ask.
These are the sort of questions that ruin any chance of me being loved.
One of my friends came home to his apartment to find his lover and his best friend in bed. My friend kicked them out and called me on the phone. “It all comes down to who you love,” my friend said to me, “When you love a man you’re doomed. The man will cheat. It’s inevitable.”
“There’s forms of betrayal other than cheating physically with someone else,” I said. “That’s just usually the easiest to identify.”
“Don’t be a Pollyanna.”
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m just saying that everyone betrays their lover in some way.”
“Then how do you know if he ever loved you?”
“It’s a question of not who loved you, but how you loved. All that matters is how tortured your lover is when he’s found out. If they express shame and regret, then they’ve done the most they can for you. Then they’ve loved you.”
I wonder what the spirit of Robert Duncan thinks about Gunn’s elegy to him. And I wonder if he’s at all jealous of Gunn’s elegy to Donald Davie. Or if Davie is jealous of the elegy to Duncan. I wonder who Gunn loved the most. Because the elegy to Duncan begins the book, I’d want to say that Duncan is loved the most.
But so much of the elegy to Duncan is really about Gunn himself:
...he faltered and he fell
-Fell he said later as if I stood ready,
“Into the strong arms of Thom Gunn.”
The image comic, as I might have known,
And generous, but it turned things round to myth:
He fell across the white steps there alone,
Though it was me indeed that he was with.
By contrast, a personal narrative in “To Donald Davie in Heaven” reaches its point of closure with a commentary about Davie. Gunn’s obsession with himself doesn’t upstage his insight on Davie:
I was reading Auden-But I thought
you didn’t like Auden, I said.
Well, I’ve been reading him again,
and I like him better now, you said.
That was what I admired about you
your ability to regroup
without cynicism, your love of poetry
than your love of consistency.
Am I suffering from needless self-righteousness that I believe a poet should remove himself from the elegy of a beloved as much as possible? Does Gunn’s ability to do this in the latter poem mean that he loved or loves Davie less? It’s so difficult to determine who loves who more. But often it seems to be the only question of any value, urgency.
The following is something you should never do to your beloved.
You should never write an elegy for them before they are dead.
I imagine myself speaking to the ghost of Thom Gunn. I imagine him hovering above my word processor, laughing at my arthritic fingers hunt and peck the computer keys, struggling to type the most profound things imaginable about his poems, his person, his spirit.
I imagine him laughing, thinking that he has an eternity to watch me suffer.
Of course, I only have a lifetime. A single lifetime to figure out how to say I love you without ever using the actual words.
3 weeks ago