Thom Gunn's Boss Cupid & Anne Stevenson's Granny Scarecrow
Thom Gunn and Anne Stevenson offer readers two different examples of how British and American English can merge into distinct and unusual poetic language.
Gunn was born in England in the 1920s, but since the 1950s he has made the United States, in particular San Francisco, his home. Primarily a formalist, Gunn's latest book, Boss Cupid, consists of poems that, said simply, are rough (his American side) and refined (his British side). The outcome is a poetry that is somewhat of a cross between Eliot and Williams, or a poetry with hints of Byron and Auden tempered by Williams.
Gunn can be wickedly funny, as in "Cat Island": "Sensible bourgeois / wild-cats / Working / with the furred impudence / of those who don't pretend / to be other than whores . . ." Or he can just be wicked, as in "Troubadour," a series of songs for Jeffrey Dahmer, where he uses a traditional form that so sharply contrasts with his content that the form itself becomes ironic: "That sullen moody summer when it rained each day / I sat in my room, sat in the kennel of my inaction, / With few abilities, my parents away / Getting divorced, I think, gnawed my dissatisfaction."
Stevenson was born in England of American parents, grew up in the U.S., but has made England her home. In Granny Scarecrow, her use of language is just as precise, and just as wicked, as Gunn's. But unlike Gunn, she is more Eliotic than she is like Williams, and her writing has somewhat of the flavor of Plath, who owes much to Eliot, and Levertov, who owes much to Williams. Here are the four short lines of "Old Wife's Tale": "'Well, then, goodbye,' she said coldly, / 'hot men must mate.' // But the energy of injury, oh, it hurts like hate." And here she is in "Whistler's Gentleman by the Sea": "He knew himself as Sunday in a hat, / Patrolling borders of a century that / Lectured the waves and watched them shuffling back." Stevenson can also turn her wit against herself, as in the bright, concluding poem, "Postscriptum": "Now I am dead, / no words, / just a wine / of my choosing. // Drink to my / mute consent, / my rite of dissolving."
Today, we generally think of American and British poetry as approaching language in two separate ways, with the differences between the two best defined by Eliot and Williams. But with Gunn and Stevenson, we encounter a poetry that resolves these differences by using elements of each of the traditions they have rightfully called their own.