Sunday, July 08, 2018

'The Very Thing in Which Consists Poetry'

“I think of all the toughs through history,
And thank heaven they lived, continually.”

Even the mild-mannered among us understand. Men of action will always be more glamorous (and easier to film) than we contemplatives. In “Lines for a Book,” from his second collection, The Sense of Movement (1957), Thom Gunn hints at the pleasures of “rough trade” and makes fun of the always tiresome and never tough Stephen Spender. I can understand Gunn’s point without quite accepting it, until later in the poem he widens his understanding of “toughs”:

“It’s better
To go and see your friend than write a letter;
To be a soldier than to be a cripple;
To take an early weaning from the nipple
Than think your mother is the only girl;
To be insensitive, to steel the will,
Than sit irresolute all day at stool
Inside the heart; and to despise the fool,
Who may not help himself and may not choose,
Than give him pity which he cannot use.”

And yet, Gunn would probably poke fun at the adolescent silliness of Hemingway. Context is helpful. “Lines for a Book” is preceded in The Sense of Movement by “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death” and followed by “Elvis Presley” (“He turns revolt into a style”). Gunn’s poem always reminds me of an observation Keats made in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgia Keats, written in the spring and summer of 1819. The previous year, the couple had immigrated to Kentucky, seeking their fortune and settling in Louisville. The poet writes:

“Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel - By a superior being our reasonings may take the same tone - though erroneous they may be fine - This is the very thing in which consists poetry.”

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