Topical Weekday Verse: Thom Gunn, “Nasturtium”

When he started publishing, Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was quickly grouped with other young British poets who were poised to follow W.H. Auden’s lead, rejecting what they saw as the gratuitous, reader-alienating Difficulty of modernists like Pound, T.S. Eliot, Stein, and Stevens. In other words, they disliked how hard it was to decipher, let alone enjoy, many canonical modernist poems—the Cantos, anyone? (Most of them also detested Dylan Thomas’s lush neo-romanticism.) Starting in the mid-1950s, journalists foisted the label “the Movement” onto Gunn, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and others; then New Lines, an influential 1956 anthology that Conquest edited, presented them as cohesive, not just contemporaneous.

Like all narratives this one simplifies a lot, which is why most of the so-called Movement poets refused the term (1). Yet there are discernible patterns in the work of these individual writers, who sought a poetics that was aesthetically pleasurable (it rhymed and scanned in meters that English poets had been using for centuries) and less thematically opaque: none of The Waste Land‘s maddening footnotes. More accessible, more public, in other words. Larkin turned out to be Auden’s greatest heir, but Gunn has also staked a place in the anthologies. (Amis wrote fine poems, too, but he is known more as a brilliant comic novelist.) Larkin, whose letters sometimes have a nasty provincial streak disguised as half-ironic Tory wit, claimed to detest Gunn’s work—”What a genius that man has for making an ass of himself”—but then again he also preferred Sylvia Plath to Robert Lowell. Even geniuses have moments of shaky taste (2).

No doubt Gunn’s lifestyle, or stories about it, also bugged Larkin, who saw himself as a conservative. By the time he was being touted as a new voice in British poetry, Gunn had moved to San Francisco. He spent the rest of his life there. An openly (by the late 1970s) gay man who rode motorcycles, dropped lots of acid, hung out with lovers in leather, taught at Berkeley, and generally appeared just fine with hippies, queens, bikers, and other Bay Area species, you probably wouldn’t peg him as a Royal Army veteran educated at Cambridge.

His life in the Bay supplies a lot of his subject matter; as such he might seem fully Americanized. However, in terms of its formal structures, Gunn’s strongest poetry derives from an English lyric tradition which prizes conceptual lucidity, metrical cohesion, pleasing rhymes, and a frequently ironic (not to say cynical) view of human life. He may write about surfers and sometimes mess around with free verse and syllabics (like a damn Frenchman!) but ultimately he’s a traditionalist who leans toward patterned meters.

As far as Anglophone poetry goes, there are two main species in this metrical genus. Accentual-syllabic verse, where you look at the placement of stressed and unstressed syllables within lines that have the same total number of syllables, is the most common. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is probably the best-known example, but accentual-syllabic forms have been the foundation of English lyric since the 1500s, and you can draw a line from Marlowe to Ben Jonson to Marvell to Pope to the nineteenth-century British giants (e.g., Keats, Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Housman) to modern poets like Auden and Larkin. You could also throw in certain Americans, like Robert Frost, the Fugitives, and Yvor Winters, the aesthetic arch-conservative whom Gunn studied with at Stanford (3). Straight-up accentual verse, where you only count the number of accents (not the syllables), regardless of where they fall in a particular line, is also a Gunn mode. Gerard Manley Hopkins is the king of this one, which ultimately goes back to Old English texts like Beowulf, but Coleridge and Milton also experimented with it.

Now, like any skilled formalist poet, Gunn rarely sticks with a totally regularized beat. A lyric’s meter serves as a baseline, not a straitjacket, because the poem will get boring and shitty if it bounces along the same track the whole way. Even when working with, for example, rhyming couplets—the ultimate in neoclassical regularity, favored by eighteenth-century wig bros like Alexander Pope—Gunn will shift accent-placement and line-length, or occasionally swap in a slant rhyme where the pattern would seem to call for a full one. Indeed, you often get texts that seem to hover between accentual and accentual-syllabic verse; hey, most literary classifications are somewhat imprecise.

So what’s the poem for this edition of Topical Verse? It’s “Nasturtium,” from Gunn’s 1992 collection The Man With Night Sweats. More lit-crit talk below.

Born in a sour waste lot
You laboured up to light,
Bunching what strength you’d got
And running out of sight
Through a knot-hole at last,
To come forth into sun
As if without a past,
Done with it, re-begun.

Now street-side of the fence
You take a few green turns,
Nimble in nonchalance
Before your first flower burns.
From poverty and prison
And undernourishment
A prodigal has risen,
Self-spending, never spent.

Irregular yellow shell
And drooping spur behind . . .
Not rare but beautiful
—Street-handsome—as you wind
And leap, hold after hold,
A golden runaway
Still running, strewing gold
From side to side all day.

This is a love poem, devoted to the community where Gunn found a home and to the nasturtium itself, a common flower of resplendently strange appearance. (This is what a nasturtium looks like up close, and this is what they look like in tumbling, spilling floods of color.) The flower is a metaphor but it’s a flower too.

Nasturtiums, which have shallow roots and reproduce via seeds that look like tiny shriveled craniums, are rapacious spreaders and excellent climbers. Perfections up close, they are even better en masse; repetitive and profligate, they lend themselves to filigree, and illustrators, designers, and other artists have long prized them (3). Gunn uses a weedy, light meter—generally three accents distributed over a six-syllable line, though some lines can be read with four accents, all of it arranged into three stanzas of equal length—that mimics that plant’s organic form. Nasturtiums do well in poor soil, loving a “sour waste lot,” and will in fact produce fewer blooms if you water or fertilize them too much.

Iambic pentameter is the workhorse of English poetry because lines with ten-ish syllabus and five-ish beats are long enough to do complicated stuff with, in terms of sound and image, but not so long that they run out to the page’s edge, which would tax the reader. (Poems that care about musicality usually need the propulsion that comes from line breaks and new starts after that drop.) But even with relatively scrawny lines, Gunn does some cool stuff. For example, although the meter and the rhyme scheme used in the first two stanzas persist into the third, in that final unit the punctuation partially abandons the syntactical conventions of standard English. In its closing exuberance, the stanza’s punctuation serves mainly to organize sensuous impressions.

Read metaphorically, the nasturtium represents survivors, in particular the gay men who made it to the big free city (free compared to the places many came from, at least) and settled in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Castro after “poverty and prison / And undernourishment.” Seen in terms of the “golden runaway,” Young-Man-Escaped narrative, the lyric is hopeful.

However, its surroundings are grim: The Man With Night Sweats is largely a meditation on the first terrible decade of AIDS, the plague years that tore through urban gay communities. Gunn lost a lot of friends. A few pages after “Nasturtium” the book’s last section begins, opening with the titular poem. The noun “prodigal” has a dark slant, and Gunn builds cold irony into the dream of nonchalance, pure subjective freedom, and endless “spending” (a verb poets have used for centuries as a half-comic euphemism for ejaculation). There is no “all day.” Life is always preparing forms of suffering.

At the end of Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007), a man named Stefan Pashov, who drives machines in Antarctica, says something beautiful:

Suffering reproduces aggressively, as do viruses (bad) and nasturtiums (good). Poems are diffusive too, hauled out of the languages we’ve devised and passed from writer to reader. Texts are partially biological. You see this vividly when the same poem demonstrates both the human compulsion to make metaphors—plundering nature for tropes to help us describe our lives—and our urge (still flickering in 2014) to admit the otherness of living things.

NOTES
1) In the second appendix of Kingsley Amis’s mammoth Selected Letters (seriously, it could stop a bullet) you’ll find some superb parodies of Movement poets that Amis mailed to Larkin (one of his best friends) in 1956. Titled “All Aboard the Gravy Train: Or, Movements Among the Younger Poets” and written by one “Ron Cain,” it pokes fun at the tics and tendencies of Gunn, Robert Conquest (another one of Amis’s bros), Larkin, D.J. Enright, Amis himself, and others frequently deemed Movement types.
2) Letter to Robert Conquest, 20 February 1962, reprinted in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 341.
3) Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are also handy with traditional forms, though both were perfectly comfortable writing lots of free verse.
4) Plus the blooms are edible. Very tasty in fact, a spry pepper. Makes you look cool if you put them in the salad you bring to a picnic.

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