I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tights: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.
He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,
Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.
His poetry always has a high polish. But flowing like a vein of lava under the surface is a burning empathy -- a ferocious outrage over so much meaningless human pain; the kind that lovers inflict upon each other, society upon the homeless, what is felt by AIDS victims, the lonely, and everyday outcasts.
This becomes more and more apparent as you move through his Collected Poems. His style becomes increasingly lucid and direct with the passing years. He has enjoyed great success ever since his early days as a Cambridge poet. Since 1954 he has lived in Northern California and considers himself Anglo-American now. Though obviously writing in very different styles, his poetry is widely held to be on the exalted plateau of Allen Ginsberg and Robert Haas (our current laureate).
We interviewed Thom Gunn in his charming Haight-Ashbury Apartment. The front room is decorated with wall to wall antique 40's and 50's giant soft drink signs (Drink Pruno For Good Health!") The effect is extremely picturesque and cheerful -- with a lit up old Wurlitzer juke box thrown in for good measure.
Goblin: Why did you move to America, and why San Francisco in particular?
Thom Gunn: When I was a student in the University of England, which is Cambridge, I met this wonderful American guy and we fell in love with each other. He had to go to the Air Force for a couple of years after he finished college. While in England we had to do our service first, which is kind of a relief -- at least I got it over with. So we met in 1952, during our second year. I was doing quite well as a student so I tried for fellowships to this country, and I got one to Stanford. Which was not very close to him because he was in an Air Force base in San Antonio. I didn't want to go to Harvard because the west coast is so exotic and nothing like Europe, while the east coast is like Europe. After my first year I went to get some half-assed teaching job in San Antonio so I could live with Mike. After he was released I said the place to move is San Francisco. We came up separately and enrolled in Stanford doing graduate work.
Goblin: You took a lot of acid in the 60's -- did that have a profound affect on your poetry?
Gunn: I did it so many times I couldn't count, I'd still take it now if I could. The publicity was awfully good in the late 60's and you were prepared for it to open you up. And open me up it did. If I'd been doing it on my own maybe it would have done just the opposite. The first time I ever took any drug of the sort was when I met Paul Bowles in 1959. I'd been reading "The Doors Of Perception," and Paul Bowles had given me his address, which was very flattering because I was unknown and he was very well known. I was staying in Oakland at the time and he invited me to stay with him in San Francisco for a few days. We met in his hotel room, and the first thing we started talking about, because I'd read the book, was about Mescaline. He said, 'Actually I got some here in my luggage. You take one of these pills and I'll take the other if you promise to be with me all evening.' So I said "great!" We'd never heard of freak-outs then, we'd never taken Mescaline! Anyway, I didn't freak out. I had a great time with him all evening.
In the end I got on the bus to go back to Oakland and walked out on Telegraph avenue -- it was very depressing, and the streets were weaving in a metaphysical way. There were orange lamps going on forever and ever! HA HA! It wasn't very nice but it didn't worry me excessively, it still wasn't a freak out. I went back to my room and couldn't sleep all night. It did seem like there was a physical presence hiding behind a chest in the room. (That was Mescalito, he always shows up on Mescaline -- Goblin) So this was a very interesting experience for a young man to have long before anyone starting taking drugs. All I knew about drugs was from the Life Of Rimbaud.
Goblin: Did you ever have any trouble when you were living with your lover and he was in the Air Force?
Gunn: There was a bit. There was an investigation. I said a magnificently cunning and duplicitas thing. I said "I'm absolutely certain that Mike could not be homosexual, because I've lived with him so long if anyone knew about this I would.' It was a complicated deceit within deceit there. It was an arduous time because they really wanted to get Mike and they really did try everything they could; including getting some poor privates that were frightened out of their minds, that came up with the most extraordinary lies about him. Like they'd been to our apartment and had sex with us and there was pornography all over the walls. I wouldn't have minded pornography all over the walls but I couldn't have afforded any.
I stand here in the cold
in a loose old suit bruised and dirty
I may look fifty years old
but I'm only thirty
My feet smell bad and they ache
the wine's gone sour and stale in my pores
my throat is sand I shake
and I live out of doors
I shelter from the rain
in a leaky doorway in leaky shoes
and all I have is pain
that's left to lose
I need some change for a drink
of sweet wine Sir a bottle of sherry
it's the sugar in it I think
will make me merry
I'll be a daredevil then
millionaire stud in my right mind
a jewel among men
if you'll be so kind
The bastard passed me by
fuck you asshole that's what I say
I hope I see you cry
like Sparrow one day
Gunn: If you're interested in being a writer of any sort, you have a certain instinct, unless you're stupid (and you can be talented and stupid) of self preservation. When I was seventeen I wanted to be a poet and I started learning poetry from the Oxford Book Of Poetry because I thought it would help my sense of rhythm. It probably did, but what a strange priggish boy I must have been to have done it. Many of the students I know at Berkeley are not very interested in trying metre. I don't find many poets writing in metre these days are very interesting.
So I came to this country eventually and I came into contact with all these modernists I had never read before except for Eliot and a little bit of Pound. And here was Stevens and Williams and all the others. And I saw something very interesting here that I was not yet able to do. This was something new and wonderful and different from what I'd been training myself to do. Later I read an introduction by DH Lawrence which was an introduction to his poems that said that metred poetry and poetry of the past and free verse was the poetry of the present. Not of the old dead past but of what you ever considered. And it was important if you wanted to capture the feeling of something that's improvised, and free verse is deeply aligned with the feeling of improvisation. I tried writing in free verse but it was very difficult for me because I had to get the iambic pentameter out of my head. When I wrote something I thought would be verse I'd find, 'oh those three lines rhyme.' So it took me about three years to write one free verse poem.
Goblin: In poems like Sparrow, which is incredibly powerful, you show a huge empathy with the homeless. Where does that come from?
Gunn: That's a nice thing for you to say to me and I think maybe you're right, but I don't know where it comes from especially. I was raised as a Socialist and I think that's essentially what Socialism is, I know the Marxist countries have been collapsing but still there is that idea of fairness that we have to hold on to. When I first came over to this country there were not all these homeless people sleeping in the streets. Yes, in certain parts there were people we called beggars, and they were particularly unfortunate people. When I first went to New York in 1974 I got lost in this dock called the Bowery. And there were people, mostly drunks, sleeping in doors and stuff, and that was exceptional; not all over New York and San Francisco which is the way it is now.
So this has been to me as the same way AIDS had been a tremendous shock because we'd been shielded by Penicillin. Now these young people were dying like flies and of course it's tremendously shocking because we were so unfamiliar with it. And the same way with the homeless: it was tremendously shocking that people should be sleeping on Haight street.
Goblin: You're turning 67 now, and you wrote in one poem how old you felt when you turned 55. With all the baby boomers turning 50 this year do you still feel the same way? Or is it different being old and gay?
Gunn: I was abusing myself when I wrote that, and I felt bad. I think gays and straights are equally concerned about their looks. There's a myth that gays are more so because they're effeminate. The extraordinary thing about getting older is you find there are all these "gerontophiles." It's a pompous name to give a very common tradition. When I was in my twenties I knew this gay editor named John Raymond who was very good to me, I never slept with him or knew anyone who did. But apparently he had a very full sex life, or so I gathered. I was once patronizing him for being so old, he was about 55, and he said, "I'm having a good time Thom, it's incredible how many "gerentophiles" there are around." It's everywhere, in the hetero and homosexual scene. It happens to me a lot, totally unexpected, a boy about 26 will come up to me and say, "Hey, I really like your salt-and pepper-hair." I hate it! But I'm glad he likes it.
Their relationship consisted
In discussing if it existed
Gunn: It's very, very, very, very . . . There's what I guess you could call a leather bar in the city on the end of Haight called the Hole In The Wall. It's the friendliest bar in the city and it's the way people ought to be. There's a range of behavior and I think everyone wants to do something different. The conventional assumptions of what people want to do don't apply at all. That guy who writes the column about leather for the B.A.R. is an idiot isn't he? The farther we get away from the clichˇs and stereotypes of behavior the more they stop applying. I want to be a romantic rebel and not think about it.
Goblin: How do you think your poetry would be received if you were a heterosexual? Gunn: I have no idea how my poetry would be received. Somebody said and I think this is true that the reason my reputation wasn't higher is because I'm not homosexual enough to please a homosexual audience and I'm not heterosexual enough to please a heterosexual audience. Because I want to write about everything! I never set out to be a homosexual poet. I never dreamt that any body could be one or the other. I don't want to be a landscape poet either but that wouldn't stop me from writing about a landscape. It's just one of the things that's part of my life and I write about it.
I am too young to grow a beard
But yes man it was me you heard
In dirty denim and dark glasses.
I look through everyone who passes
But ask him clear, I do not plead,
Keys Lids acid and speed.
My grass is not oregano.
Some of it grew in Mexico.
You cannot guess the weed I hold,
Clara Green, Acapulco Gold,
Panama Red, you name it man,
Best on the street since I began.
My methedrine, my double-sun,
Will give you too lives in your one,
Five days of power before you crash.
At which time use these lumps of hash
- They burn so sweet, they smoke so smooth,
They make you sharper while they soothe.
Now here, the best I've got to show,
Made by a righteous cat I know.
Pure acid - it will scrape your brain,
And make it something else again.
Call it heaven, call it hell,
Join me and see the world I sell.
Join me, and I will take you there,
Your head will cut out from your hair
Into whichever self you choose.
With Midday Mick man you can't lose,
I'll get you anything you need.
Keys lids acid and speed.
Gunn: Spoken word has always been important for poetry, and I've always acted on the assumption, probably due to my early education that poetry is metrically heard as much as word. So that's fine. When reading it aloud the theatrical gesture behind it seems to be the most important thing. So much of the subject matter is about how "I hate my parents" or "I just got dumped." For Christ's sake! Telling total strangers about how you hate your parents is probably one of the most boring subjects in the world; until you're about ninety and mature enough to speak about it. HA! HA! HA!
Goblin: Why do you think poetry is such a hard sell to mainstream America?
Gunn: I think poetry has always been a hard sell. I think if you look at the sales figures over the past couple of hundred of years you might find that Anna Hall (a highly sentimental Victorian poetess) sells better now than she ever did. Auden's first book published in 1930, the one that made his reputation -- in England if there were a thousand copies printed and it was still in print by 1939 it was a smash -- and he was the most famous young poet of his age!
The really best selling poets were at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There was Byron and Sir Walter Scott, and later Tennyson. They were bestsellers, when we almost never have best sellers in poetry nowadays. But this was before the heyday of the novel, and the only good novels could be counted on your fingers.
Goblin: Did you ever see that episode of Beavis & Butthead called Buttniks, where Beavis drinks too many "crapachinos" and goes up on stage and does his Great Cornholio ("I am the Great Cornholio, my people are poor -- they have no TP for their bungholes") routine and wows the whole pretentious coffee house crowd?
Gunn: I love Beavis & Butthead. I think I saw another episode where he went totally berserk after eating too much sugar at breakfast. Bwah Ha Ha!