Boss Cupid; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000; 111 pages; $22
Author Thom Gunn was born in 1929 in Gravesend, a town in Kent in the southeast of England. “Thom” is not an affectation or an attempt not to be plain old “Tom.” “Thomson” was a family name, from his mother’s side. Gunn’s father was a successful journalist, who edited a newspaper with somewhat of a reputation as a scandal sheet. But it was his mother who was the family’s great reader, who read to Gunn and his younger brother. Given Gunn’s birth date and place, one imagines a tranquil Ventre deux guerres English childhood — cozy nursery teas, Mum knitting socks in the shade of the walled garden where Gunn and his younger brother race across damp grass, Dad in baggy tweeds leading the boys on a Sunday walk. The reality likely was somewhat different. Going off to sleep Gunn may have heard raised voices, muffled sobs. Gunn’s parents divorced when he was nine. Gunn and his brother lived with their mother in London. During the war years, the boys, like many English children of their time, were sent to the country, away from Axis bombs. Later, with the war still on, Gunn attended a progressive coeducational school. One of his classmates would grow up to marry Kingsley Amis.
Gunn was 15 when his mother committed suicide. In this newest volume, Gunn’s poem, “The Gas-Poker,” addresses this event.
Gunn did his service in the British Army National Service and then went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his B.A. in 1953. His first book, Fighting Terms, was published in 1954, the year that Gunn arrived in California, where, with the exception of a few years, he has lived ever since. He is author of 14 books, including two prose collections. Many prizes and fellowships have been awarded him, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971 (with part of the money from this, Gunn made the down payment on the Haight-Ashbury house where he still lives); the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fellowship, 1991; the five-year MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship, 1993; the Lenore Marshall Prize, 1993. For many years, Gunn taught in the English Department at University of California at Berkeley, retiring last year.
Poems I read in Boss Cupid made me want to call Gunn and talk with him. I felt intimidated, though, by his reputation. Gunn is a deity among living poets writing in English. Without being an easily pleasing, Billy Collins kind of poet, Gunn’s work nevertheless has sufficient cultural heft that Time takes notice of his books.
About Boss Cupid, Time’s reviewer wrote:
"Almost all of Gunn’s virtues are on display here: his playful metrical dexterity, his unflinching celebration both of beauty and of its transience. The subject of love crops up repeatedly in the book’s 60 lyrics, but the Boss Cupid of the title is not the chubby winged cherub of popular lore. He is something of a hooligan, “devious master of our bodies,” wreaker of joy and havoc: “Love makes the cuckoo heave its foster-siblings/Out of the nest, to spatter on the ground.” Pleasure is the other side of loss. In “American Boy” Gunn writes, “Expertly you know how to maintain me/At the exact degree/of hunger without starving. We produce/ What warmth we can.”
I said to someone who knows Gunn well, a person listed in the acknowledgments, “He is so august. I can’t call him.” “Thom,” Gunn’s friend said, “is just a dirty old man. Call him.”
So, I did. I called him. Before I called him, I read several times through his fat Collected Poems and reread The Man with Night Sweats. The latter, with its matter-of-fact poems about friends’ deaths from AIDS, perhaps is the title best known to readers who do not regularly read poetry.
Gunn laughed when I mentioned he’d been described as a dirty old man. We talked, a bit, then about aging. “Men,” I said, “get so much hairier when they get older.”
“True,” he said, “it goes on growing, in the nose and the ears. Quite repulsively. When I was a kid, I remember the math teacher, who was very kind to me, I was about 14 or something. He kept me in. But when he kept me in after school, he really explained the problems so that I could understand them. Very good, good teacher. But he leant over me, and I could see his nose hairs up close, and I thought, ‘Oh, how repulsive.’ ”
When one was older, past 60, perhaps, to write poems that celebrate physical desire would seem more difficult, or even embarrassing for the poet, I suggested.
“But you can still have fun,” said Gunn. “I guess the thing one doesn’t realize, is the presence of an enormous number of gerontophiles. When I was about 30 or so, I was very kindly treated by an editor, a gay editor, quite a famous one. John Lehmann. This was in England. He took me out to lunch once or twice. We spoke freely about our sexual inclination. He was 55 or so. I thought, ‘How brave he is, nobody can take him seriously sexually.’ I must have said something like this, though I hope not patronizingly. And he said, ‘You would be surprised at the number of gerontophiles in existence.’ I didn’t believe this. I thought, ‘How brave he is, to say that.’ But it’s true. You certainly realize there are a lot of people who didn’t take any notice of you, the kind of people who wouldn’t have taken any notice of you, when you were in your 20s, who suddenly get interested once you’re over 45 or 55.”
I suggested that perhaps the older man became something of a “wisdom figure.”
Gunn disagreed. “No, no, you become a father figure. I’m treated as if I have strength, which I don’t. I’m very weak. One fellow said to me that I didn’t look like I could look after myself in a fight. Well, I couldn’t. I’d turn tail and run. But I have a mean kind of aggressive look on my face, which is not deliberate. Says nothing about what’s inside me.”
“When you were still in England and you were stll a boy, or a young man, what American poets did you read?”
“Very few. I read little bits of Whitman and didn’t like him much.”
“When I was a young woman, Whitman seemed like an old windbag to me.”
“Yes, he did to me as well. And, of course, I read the wrong ones. I didn’t read enough of him to really feel about him, one way or the other. And most of the American poets were not available in England in book form. Unless they were friends of Eliot, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way. Because he was at Faber, he published Pound and Marianne Moore. Eventually, a year or two before I left England, Faber published Robert Lowell. But I had never even heard of William Carlos Williams. Just before I came over, I had been reading Hart Crane, though not in a book by himself, but in the Oxford Anthology of American Poetry, where there was quite a lot of Crane. I thought he was wonderful. He made a convenient bridge for me between English and American poetry. But there were very few 20th-century American poets published in England in 1954. Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems was published by Faber the year I left.”
I wondered, I said, when Gunn came to the States in the mid-’50s, what sort of world of poetry he imagined he was entering.
“A world of e.e. cummings, I thought, though I don’t like e.e. cummings very much. I thought that was what American poetry would be like. Funny punctuation and stuff, I thought.”
When Gunn arrived in the States, he entered Stanford, where he studied with Yvor Winters, a poet entirely unlike cummings. Gunn hadn’t, he said, read Winters before arriving in Palo Alto. “I hadn’t been able to find any of his poetry.” Winters, said Gunn, was a bit frightening to him during the first few weeks. “And then, we got on. He liked the fact that I thought for myself and I resisted him. Of course, I capitulated every time.”
Gunn writes in an essay on Winters, reprinted in Gunn’s prose collection, Shelf Life, that he was shocked in Winter’s course on the criticism of poetry, when Winters “set about the systematic demolishing of my favorite 20th-century poet, Yeats, in ruthless detail.... I was angry at first and fought him bitterly. I adored Yeats and was grateful to a career which had seemed exemplary to me in showing how a spirit of romanticism could survive, self-correcting and self-nourishing, into the 20th Century.” Winters, however, introduced Gunn to poems he did not know or did not know well — “compensations,” Gunn writes, “for the degradation of Yeats.”
Gunn left Stanford without a degree, “bored and exasperated,” he writes in his essay on Winters, “with graduate work that seemed to have nothing to do with the reasons I had taken up English in the first place.” Gunn continued to visit and write Winters over the years (Winters died in 1968), although, Gunn writes, “He never liked any poetry I wrote after 1958, the year I left. Once in the ’60s when I sent him a group of poems, he wrote back that they were simply journalistic and maybe I should try to learn how to write prose instead. The letter came as no unexpected blow. I had been anticipating something like it for years, and I wasn’t going to fight him about it. If he had a streak of brutality in him, I had a streak of sentimentality.”
Gunn’s rhymes arrive so naturally in his poems that a reader easily can assume that Gunn thinks in rhyme. Did rhyme come easily to him?
“Well, it depends how long you’ve been using them. First of all, you train yourself to write rhymed poetry. It’s very difficult, and it’s very stiff, and your original concept is diminished probably by your having to obey so many rules at once, like rhyme and meter. But you have to practice, and eventually it gets much easier. Sure, sometimes it’s difficult, even when you’re 70 years old.”
There’s one line where the rhyme is called for, by the pattern you’ve chosen in the other stanza. So what do you do?
“Well, what you do — a poet as romantic as Dylan Thomas did it, it can be seen in his manuscripts — is this: you can make lists of the possible words that would fit in there, at a pinch. Like, ‘winch,’ ‘cinch,’ ‘lynch.’ You asked yourself, ‘Would any of those words fit in?’ This doesn’t mean that the poem is going to be inferior because of that. It means a lot of hard work and hard thinking, to discover in what way would one of those words be able to fit in, deep down, with the overall meaning of the poem. And sometimes you get your best lines that you worked on very hard to find the rhyme for. This is where you can get real, new exploration. But that, of course, is what’s so good about good writing, is the exploration that takes place at the time of writing, as opposed to in the original conception. You have to have an original conception of some sort or you wouldn’t start writing. But it’s not going to work out in any way that you expected. And that’s what makes the poem good.”
The title of Gunn’s new book comes from a poem on page 22: “The Problem.”
He seemed all body, such As normally you couldn’t touch,
Reckless and rough,
One of Boss Cupid’s red-
haired errand boys Who couldn’t get there fast enough.
“I was struggling for a title,” Gunn said. “I had very uninteresting titles in mind. Then I was proofreading ‘The Problem.’ I thought, ‘Hey, that would make a great title.’ Because the majority of poems are about how love is a complicated thing — sometimes love as a tyrant or love as an obsession. An obsession that works different ways. For example, a Jeffrey Dahmer or King David [both of whom are subjects of poems in Boss Cupid]. You know, for good or for bad.”
In Gunn’s poems one finds many redheads and blondes. I asked about that.
“Somebody said that the other day. I think redheads are very attractive because they’re so unusual. Although I don’t really prefer blondes to brunettes. But somebody wrote me a letter, a fan in Florida, a woman, saying, ‘I’m counting the number of blondes in your poetry.’ Well, in real life, I’m just as attracted by dark-haired people as blondes.”
Gunn writes openly of his love for and attraction to men. I had thought, reading in Gunn’s Collected Poems, about Auden and Stephen Spender, who did not write publicly in poems about their attraction for men. I mentioned this to Gunn.
“Well, I think Spender was genuinely bisexual. I think. He was very honest about it. He was a creep, but he was very honest about his sexuality in his prose, eventually. Auden was not that open about it. I think he was naturally more secretive. But an interesting thing about Auden is that, in my generation at Cambridge, we read him a lot. We really knew Auden backwards. I was astonished the other day, when I opened a collected Auden, and I found out how many of his first lines were so familiar to me. But we didn’t know about his sexuality. I don’t think I knew about that until I came to this country. We just assumed he was straight. It wasn’t well-known gossip at that time. In the early 1950s.”
About the secretiveness about one’s romantic choices, Gunn said, “I adopted his [Auden’s] strategy in my earlier poetry. It didn’t strike me as being dishonest, it struck me as being prudent. But not dishonest. It was my ambition to come out of the closet as soon as it was safe. Because it would have been difficult getting into this country and staying in this country if I had been open about it. I was extremely dishonest with people for quite a long time. I had to be. But it’s been safe for me for a long time.”
I said that it seemed it would be difficult to keep so much of one’s life hidden and to write.
“Edmund White contends that it’s not only a tremendous release for a writer to come out of the closet, but it transforms him, because it gives you so different a kind of subject matter. And it does.”
I said that I wondered if, because Auden could not be open, because he disguised and encoded references to romantic love and lovers, if it did not deny or blunt what I described rather imprecisely as “what would have been Auden’s personal voice.”
“It gave him another,” said Gunn.
“But wasn’t it a more social voice,” I asked, “than he might otherwise have developed?”
“Didn’t he want that? He had several voices. There was the early Auden, and then later on, there’s the much more social voice. The early Auden is very nicely rebellious, which is what always attracted me most.”
Gunn met Auden several times. “Never got to talk close. He was a very shy person. I never got beyond small talk with him. I will never forget this. He engaged me in conversation. And one or two other people, I think. After a poetry reading, in discussing, ‘Where could you get the best martini in Britain?’ But I hardly ever had a martini in my life at that time. And I was not interested in the subject at all. But there were people 1 knew, who were young, or younger than I, who got on famously with him. One of them being my friend, Oliver Sacks, who got on wonderfully with him. And Oliver readily admitted to me, ‘You know. I’ve hardly read any of Auden’s poetry, his prose I like.’"
One of the pleasures of talking with poets is asking about lines one doesn’t understand. I asked Gunn about several lines in “Office Hours.” What, I wondered, was this Wyatt reference: “or Wyatt’s careful/ sidestepping of danger.” English poet and diplomat, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Gunn said, lived during the reign of Henry VIII. “And he had the misfortune to have an affair with Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII’s wives. Well, so far as one could tell, this affair was completely over by the time the king married Anne Boleyn. Nevertheless, it put Wyatt in a very difficult position when the king wanted to get rid of Anne, as he did eventually. Various people were accused of having had affairs with her, including her brother. None of these accusations were necessarily true. But, you know, the king was the king. And of course Anne was eventually executed. Wyatt was put in the tower and was in considerable danger. From the tower, he could see Anne being executed, and also he could see the other supposed lovers, being executed. But Wyatt had been very useful to the king as a diplomat and ambassador.”
“The Office Hours,” I said, must come from Gunn’s years as a teacher. It did, he said, adding, “I thought somebody ought to be honest about it.”
The lines, “we do not flirt with/ one another...”?
“There is something amorous about the relation between students and teachers,” Gunn said, “when they’re getting on together. One of the troubles with some teachers, who are particularly strong, like Yvor Winters, for example, is that they become father figures. Which is kind of sexual. But there is a real attraction on the part of the teacher for the students who are doing well and are young and pretty, or even not very pretty, but just young and energetic. And there is an element of unacknowledged flirtation between a popular teacher and his students. But I’ve known far fewer sexual scandals involving gay teachers than straight ones.”
I was hesitant to ask Gunn about “The Gas-Poker,” the poem in which he writes about his mother’s suicide. But I did not know what a gas-poker was. So, I asked.
Gunn answered calmly, “I thought maybe I ought to make a note about that. But I asked all sorts of people I knew if they knew what a gas-poker was, and they did. And these are not people just my generation. A gas-poker was used to ignite a fire in the grate. Instead of using paper and wood, as you would normally, it’s much easier to have this thing handy, which is shaped like a poker, but had holes in it, rather like the holes on the top of a gas stove. Except they’d be in a straight line.”
And so, I said, the poker was attached to the gas.
“Yes, it was attached to the gas. And you put it under the coal and lighted it, and after a while, the coal would ignite. So it looked like a kind of flute. A piece of metal, a hollow piece of metal, with holes in it. I should think it’s probably handier than putting your head in an oven.”
Gunn then went on to say, “The trouble with suicides is they don’t think of the consequences of their action. Maybe they do. But they don’t take into account all the consequences. I realize, you know, that they are in despair, that’s what drives them to it. My mother left two children. I was 15, my brother was 12. My father had remarried, and his new wife was just about to give birth to her first son. So this would be extremely inconvenient for them. And my aunt, whom I eventually went to live with, didn’t need a big bumbling adolescent boy suddenly in their house. They had enough on their own.”
Toward Boss Cupid's last pages are five poems — “songs,” Gunn describes them, “for Jeffrey Dahmer.” (Gunn identifies Dahmer in his notes as a “serial murderer, cannibal, and necrophile.") The first of these Dahmer poems, “Hitch-hiker,” begins:
Oh do not leave me now.
All that I ever wanted is compressed In your sole body. As you turn to go I know that I must keep you, and know how, For I must hold the ribbed arch of your chest And taste your boyish glow.
I wondered if people had been fussy with Gunn about his Dahmer poems. Some had, Gunn said. “I don’t think they quite realize what I’m trying to get at. I’m trying to enter his head. And he’s somebody who is obsessive. But he’s possessed by his obsession. In some ways, a perceptive and agreeable person, he seems to have been. He sounded like that in something I saw him in on TV. I had a sense, when I was working on the King David poems [a series of four poems with which Gunn ends Boss Cupid] that these were in some way parallel to the Dahmer poems. I asked Robert Pinsky about this. I wrote him, saying, ‘I can’t figure out why they’re similar.’ And Pinsky wrote back saying. That’s easy. Each of these characters, Jeffrey Dahmer and King David, would kill for a fuck.’ ”