Sunday, November 8, 2009

New York Friends and Thom Gunn

It’s the familiar paradox: when your days actually do bear retelling, i.e., when you’re out there doing things and seeing people, you don’t have time to write about them. I haven’t added to these pages because my two weeks in New York (plus a weekend in East Hampton) didn’t leave me a free hour. I got into town on October 15th, staying on the Upper West Side with Karen Clark and Jonathan Bernstein, who invited friends James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar to dinner that first night. James is spending 2009-2010 in New York, enrolled in the MFA program at NYU and Sandeep is doing post-doctoral research on the British modernist poet Hope Mirlees. After so many encounters in London, meeting them in New York added a new thread to the text of our friendship.

Next day Karen and I went to see the Blake exhibition at the Morgan Library, which might sound like an exercise in déja vu, after the Tate Britain. The difference is that the Tate’s prints are on permanent display and therefore have to be kept behind thick plate glass in semi-darkness. At the Morgan the prints were well lit and right there on the wall, allowing for up-close inspection. Given that many of the works are small, the pleasure of focusing on detail was magnificent. Also, quite a few items included were drawings, watercolors, or holograph mss. from the museum’s holdings, including the Job watercolors, which are among Blake’s most successful. There were a few works as well by Blake’s contemporaries or followers, the group that called themselves “the Ancients.” For example, Fuseli and Samuel Palmer. To be immersed for an hour in early English Romanticism is an experience not easily described or matched.

It was only a short walk from there to the CUNY Graduate Center, the plan being to attend a reading from Michael Montlack’s My Diva anthology, which includes an essay I wrote about Billie Holiday. Michael hadn’t known I was going to be in New York and already had a full slate of participants (Mark Doty, Wayne Koestenbaum, Christopher Murray, Jason Schneiderman, and Richard Tayson); but, when I said I would attend, he asked me to read at least a short poem. The choice seemed obvious: “Billie’s Blues,” which includes some comments about my “diva,” arguably the greatest jazz singer of the 20th century. I’d never actually met Michael face to face, and the event also was an occasion to renew friendship with Wayne Koestenbaum, whom I hadn’t seen for nearly two years. I made appointments to meet both Michael and Wayne for the following week.

From there I took a cab to the New School to join Marilyn Hacker for the annual awards ceremony and dinner of the Academy of American Poets. Marilyn had flown in from Paris just to attend, as Chancellors of the Academy are generally expected to do. We had a few minutes to catch up before proceedings got underway. She’d received her first copy of her new book, titled The Names, most of whose poems I’ve read with enormous admiration as they were written and published. We found a seat down front in Tischman Auditorium, and, while people were milling around, I had a chance to speak to Jean Valentine (this year awarded the Wallace Stevens Prize), Frank Bidart, and Kay Ryan, whom I’d seen only once before, several years ago, when we were both participants in the West Chester writing conference. The ceremony went like clockwork, each award accounted for in an introduction, then followed by readings from the recipients. Afterward, drinks and snacks were served in the hall outside, and I spoke to several poet friends I hadn’t seen for a while, Marie Ponsot, Carl Phillips, Rita Dove, and David Baker, for example. It was a chance to exchange news—to me one of the main reasons for attending events like this. The reception was followed by dinner at the Café Loup, and Marilyn and I, by the luck of the draw, were seated at the same table as Tree Swenson, Director for the Academy and an extraordinarily intelligent and friendly person, whose work for the Academy deserves special commendation. After our dinner Marilyn, Marie and I took a cab uptown together and summed up what we’d seen and heard during the evening.

After my weekend in East Hampton with Walter Brown, one of my oldest and closest friends, I came back to New York and stayed in his loft in SoHo (described in blog entries for March 2008). The following week I devoted to revisiting favorite places around the city, seeing friends (Jaime Manrique, Michael Feingold, Elizabeth Macklin, Michael Montlack, James Byrne, Ben Downing, David Shapiro, Wayne Koestenbaum), and having a look at three special exhibitions at the Met Museum: Robert Frank’s photographs for The Americans, a ravishing assembly of Watteau paintings having to do with music and theatre, and a blockbuster show of American paintings billed as American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915. Many familiar pictures in the latter show, including Eakins’s homoerotic picture The Swimming Hole, which I first saw many years ago at the Amon Carter Museum in Texas. One Winslow Homer painting in the show I’ve often admired for its handling of color and chiaroscuro depicts African-Americans celebrating carnival; Homer is one of the few 19th century artists to depict African-Americans in non-stereotypical ways. And our greatest water-colorist.

I saw one more Met exhibition, in the company of David Shapiro and his wife Lindsay. In the Asian wing, it gathered works by the 18th c. Chinese painter Luo Ping, juxtaposing to them works by his mentor Jin Nong and others by his family members. Luo Ping belonged to the group known as the "Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou," and his images justify the designation. David knows a whale of a lot about classical Chinese art and gave me a running commentary about it as we strolled among the vitrines. He has a particular liking for the “scholar’s rocks,” bizarrely shaped but natural mineral formations used as objects for reflection in Chinese culture. But David’s conversational style is digressive, so he also spoke of music (he plays violin expertly) and friends like John Ashbery, Meyer Schapiro, Jasper Johns, and Kenneth Koch, for all of whom he provides a special perspective. When you have as much learning as David, it’s only natural that the abundance will spill over in conversation. We went for coffee afterward, whereupon David presented me with several of his lovely and, I guess, “eccentric” collages. Not sure what I’d done to deserve them, I was nevertheless touched, and pause here to look them over again.

I had been invited by a poet named Alex Dimitrov to attend a meeting of a group of young gay poets he formed and named "the Wilde Boys." It was held at the apartment of Tom Healy, whom I remembered from his days in the MFA program at Columbia. I was glad to see Tom and again and to hear that he had just published his first collection, titled What the Right Hand Knows. (Tom gave me a copy and now that I've read it I can recommend it as one of the most startling and original first books I've seen in a long time.) Among the guests were pals David Groff and Mark Bibbins, not seen for a couple of years and both prospering. It was also interesting to meet John Stahle, editor of the magazine Ganymede and a poet himself. The younger poets I didn't know but found them all bright and sophisticated, a whole new crop of talent that clearly will soon be publishing their first books. It made me wish there had been an equivalent group when I started out, but gay poetry in those years (excepting Duncan,Ginsberg, and Gunn) was mostly marginalized and unmistakably a career disadvantage. I'm glad the current generation doesn't have to confront the poorly concealed hostility we had to put up with back in the day.

On October 28th, I participated in an event celebrating the poetry of Thom Gunn, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. The coordinator of the event, Joshua Weiner, is the editor of a recently published collection of critical articles about Gunn, titled At the Barriers, where an essay of mine about Gunn and existentialism appears. All the program participants had in fact contributed to the book—Joshua Weiner, Wendy Lesser, Robert Pinsky, Tom Sleigh—with the exceptions of Elaine Equi and Robert Polito. I enjoyed talking with everyone before and after the program, when we all went to dinner (again, at the Café Loup, which seems to be the preferred venue this year). I had a long conversation with Alice Quinn, now the Director of the P.S.A., whom I first met when she was an editor at Knopf, an early architect of their celebrated poetry series. During the years when she was poetry editor for The New Yorker, she was also my colleague in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia. One achievement of hers from that time was to plan a program of poets from England, Ireland and Scotland, in collaboration with the magazine and the Writing Division. It brought poets over that I hadn’t known about beforehand, and I count the event as one of the factors that led to the decision to go and live in Lonfon. One of the poets invited was Thom Gunn. In fact, it was the last time I saw Thom. To conclude this blog, I will append the comments I made for the PSA program. The poems of Thom’s I read after presenting the comments below were “The Hug,” “The Vigil of Corpus Christi,” and “The Girls in the Next Room.”


Remembering Thom

The example of Pound, Eliot, Auden, Hughes, Plath, and Thom Gunn suggests that results are likely to be good when American poets go to live in Britain or British poets come to live in the United States. Thom Gunn has meant many things to me, and his expatriate courage is one of the reasons that during the last decade I’ve lived in London as much as I have. I say “courage” because of course home may decide to take offence when you go away, and you sometimes find that away’s welcome is mixed. It’s not a choice for the faint-hearted, and Thom was certainly not that.

I first met Thom in October or possibly November of 1982. At that time I was living, with J.D. McClatchy, at James Merrill’s apartment on East 72nd Street in New York. Thom and I had begun a little correspondence—letters on my side, postcards on his. Possibly you remember his poem “Interruption,” in which he says, “I manage my mere voice on postcards best.” When he wrote that he was planning to be in New York, I asked him to drop by for a drink. I knew what he looked like from book-jacket photographs, plus one drawing that depicted him in a tank top, a clothing choice that would be startling even now, twenty-seven years later. He struck me as handsome in a craggy, unadorned mode; he wore jeans, a leather jacket, and of course no tie.

I wouldn’t say he was so very warm during that first meeting, though certainly keen-witted. It might have had something to do with the fact that we were in Merrill’s apartment; they weren’t friends, though I think he had a qualified admiration for Merrill. It was a reserve that could plausibly be extended to anyone he perceived as being a follower of his very famous American contemporary. We exchanged comments about not much in particular that I can recall. He asked at one point where the toilet was, and I gestured toward a door off the next room. Although he closed the door, while he was there I could hear him whistle a little melody, not one I recognized, but spirited and quite in tune. And then he left.

Exchange of letters (on my side) and postcards (on his) continued. And then in Oct. of ’84, I had a reading date at Berkeley so I proposed meeting in San Francisco the day before. The suggestion was accepted. I’d always been a fan of San Francisco, ever since my first visit in the summer of ’69, in the aftermath of its years as epicenter of the “Counter-culture.” I took a bus from the place I was staying in the mission District, went along Haight Street past Ashbury and Fillmore, all the Victorian gingerbread painted in Flower-Power colors, liquidambar trees trimmed perfectly spherical along the sidewalks. And the signature fog hanging in the air. A turn up Cole Street, past Parnassus, Waller, and Alma to number 1216, where I rang the bell. Steps bounded down the stairs and Tom threw open the door. He was suntanned and offered a closed-mouth smile, with creases at the cheek, his black hair salted with white. His voice had an original timbre, breathier and higher in pitch than you might expect, and American-tinted British in accent.

He said we should hurry out to a restaurant directly before it closed. We took a five-minute walk to an unpretentious café with ferns levitating at the window, sat down, placed our orders, and gazed at each other. I noticed he wore a delicate gold earring and looked a little heavier than he’d been two years earlier; but I on the other hand had been working out regularly and was quite fit, as didn’t escape his sharply observant dark eye. Truth to tell, Thom and I were never altogether easy with each other, both of us a little intimidated, I think, though the reason for that is hard to state. Imagine a couple of tom cats circling each other, intrigued but wary.

After lunch we walked back to his place, entered, walked up a flight of stairs. A series of rooms opening on something like a central atrium. His partner Mike Kitay had assembled a collection of commercial graphics, metal signs and posters advertising soft drinks and whatnot. These were displayed along the walls instead of the usual cutting-edge paintings expected in poets’ digs. In the bedroom was a glass case filled with pop figurines—comic-strip characters and American folk heroes like, say, Paul Bunyan or Billy the Kid. We sat and talked for a while, but the previously mentioned wariness prevented conversation from getting confessional, though it was cordial enough. Thom said he’d be in New York the following month and we promised to meet.

But in fact we didn’t. I don’t recall any further meetings except for a public encounter when Thom came to participate in a celebration of British, Irish, and Scottish poetry that The New Yorker co-sponsored in the late 1990s with the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia, where I was teaching.

If I’d lived in San Francisco, I think we’d have been close. But I didn’t and that was that. I reviewed one of Thom’s books in the years following and suspect he didn't much like it, never mind that the comments were favorable. I can imagine him feeling I was too young and unseasoned, that I hadn’t yet earned the right to praise him; which was plausible enough. Meanwhile, the year he won the Brandeis Poetry Prize, he was unable to attend the ceremony in Boston, and I was asked to accept the award for him. I recall sending him a letter about the event, concluding with a tercet in iambic dimeter that went this way: “Isn’t it fun,/Being a pun/For Thompson Gunn?”

I had a few more postcards from him and faithfully read whatever he published, even the blurbs he gave younger poets, some of which provoked a puzzled “What?” from me. I speculate that Thom was a soft touch where his friends or even acquaintances were concerned. He also gave me a comment for my book Autobiographies, one sure to have been equally puzzling to my fellow blurbees. Thom had unpredictable taste, one that could make room for Fulke Greville, Ben Jonson, Mina Loy, and Robert Duncan. I like it that he was unpredictable, hard to pin down. He had the courage of his convictions and his convictions could change. I wish, how I wish, he were here now.