When I was at the NPG the other day, I was browsing in the gift shop trying not to buy too many postcards. I picked up Thom Gunn's The Man With Night Sweats just to flick through while I was there. The poems of his I've read have been good, but nothing has gripped me absolutely. Then I found the following, after which the book came away with me:
Barren Leaves Spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling:
Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.
That's all there is of it, just those two lines. The first is a quotation from Wordsworth's 'Preface to the Lyrical Ballads', which can be regarded as one of the first attempts to define what poetry should be in the modern age. Gunn's irreverent second line subverts the high minded Romantic ideal of poetry, poking fun at the old master and his own profession. It reinterprets poetry for our time, basely humanising it. The feminine rhyme in the couplet underlines the self-deprecating mood, as does the title - written down, left on shelves, and poetry loses its immediacy. A spurt of emotion, left for others to re-invigorate or not as they choose. Gunn even seems to be suggesting that those overflows of feeling, like spent semen, is un-recoverable. I love it.
And THEN, there were more, still about writing.
He concentrated, as he ought,
On fitting language to his thought
And getting all the rhymes correct,
Thus exercising intellect
In such a space, in such a fashion,
He concentrated into passion.
This time, it's a much more positive picture of poetry - the compression of thought into language results in 'passion' at the end. The writer character in this poem succeeds in creating something. Refining thought into poetry. The full Wordsworth quotation given in part in 'Barren Leaves' is as follows:
"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind."*
Gunn's poem describes this process almost exactly.
Finally, another two-liner:
Their relationship consisted
In discussing if it existed.
I assume the title refers to Henry James...whose work I have never read. Anyone who makes a point of style out of long sentences doesn't immediately attract me to read him. But I do know that his novels spend a lot of time examining personal relationships...navel gazing, really. Gunn's couplet here doesn't make me any more likely to read any James, it has to be said. But it's an interesting concept of a relationship and the traps that it might be possible to fall into - style over substance, and all that. Too much thinking and not enough living.
I haven't finished the collection yet. There are more poems I'll quote when I have, I think, that aren't so comedic. I would recommend this to anyone at all though. It's accessible, joyous poetry. Exuberant and boisterous. Fun to part of. Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and the rest of them are great, don't get me wrong at all, but they require the right mood for reading. From what I've seen of this collection of Gunn's so far, you could pick it up any time and anywhere and take something away from it. Fantastic artistry.
*The full text of the 'Preface to the Lyrical Ballads' can be found here, for anyone who has time for that kind of thing.