My Sad Captains, by Thom Gunn

Faber, 16s.

there is in this country a noticeable tendency for critics who are themselves sensitive to social questions to found judgments of artistic excellence on largely ideological grounds. This was the case when Auden began publishing in the early 30’s; while in our own time it is the young English poet Thom Gunn who has received similar treatment. It is the intention of this review therefore to discuss Gunn’s most recent book of poems, My Sad Captains, chiefly from the point of view of verse technique: in the conviction that no degree of congruence between a poet’s attitudes and the commitments of a particular group or party excuses bad writing; and that it is the chief task of the critic of any age, however politically embattled, to defend certain standards of excellence that are always at least formal.

The most revealing surface feature of Gunn’s latest book is that it is divided into two almost equal halves; but the epigraph to the second, from Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (“It’s startling to you sometimes—just air, unobstructed, uncomplicated air.”), is misleading as to the real difference between them. Besides a few poems about California landscapes in the second part the subject matter in both is roughly the same. Instead what is acknowledged, and even underlined, by this division is a radical change of technique, which it will be the burden of this review to elucidate.

In broadest outline this change may be summed up as follows: in the first 16 poems, as throughout both Gunn’s previous books, the underlying metre is iambic. Whereas in the following 13 poems there is a studied and consistent effort made to avoid iambic meters at all costs. This more than anything else is the real drama, the true internal conflict of the present book; and any discussion of Gunn’s poetry, even if aspiring to seemingly broader questions of stance and content, ought to begin here, where excruciation manifests itself in hesitancies of form.

What is the nature of this excruciation? I suggest that it derives from Gunn’s growing sense of his failure to create out of the spoken language of his time a personal idiom, in which poems dealing with private experience may be written. And that this failure derives in turn from the fact that, for all his seeming contemporaneity, Gunn has never allowed the cadences of spoken English or American to perturb his metres. What he chose to cultivate instead were mannerisms, tough turns of phrase which lent the poems in his first books a specious ring of the moment; but which left the poet with increasingly threadbare means for coping with experience of any depth or complexity. We have only to look at Gunn’s ostensibly most personal poems—Carnal Knowledge or Lofty in the Palais de Danse, for example, from Fighting Terms (1954)—to see how willingly he took up the full traditional structure and weight of iambic metres, and accepted the consequent distortion as a matter of course:

You are not random picked. I tell you you
Are much like one I knew before, that died.