Our Dionysian Experiment: Three Theses on the Poetry of Thom Gunn

Brian Teare

in At the Barriers

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print July 2009 | ISBN: 9780226890432
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226890371 | DOI:
Our Dionysian Experiment: Three Theses on the Poetry of Thom Gunn

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By examining the creative and critical oeuvre of Thom Gunn, with particular emphasis on his notebooks and his work's critical reception, which, when read side by side, allow us to witness a kind of interior/exterior dialectic concerning the terms “gay” and “poetry.” Ultimately, it is the author's contention that, when taken together—Gunn's publication record and its critical reception, his development in his notebooks of a distinctly gay poetics, and his relationships with mentors Yvor Winters and Robert Duncan—all tell an exemplary story about the tension created, sustained, and sometimes resolved by the close proximity of “gay” to “poetry.” And though this chapter is foremost a story about Gunn's own poetry and his development as a gay poet, this story might also be read as representative of aspects of both poetic and gay histories in twentieth-century Anglo-American literature. In light of this dialectic between the evolution of Gunn's work and its interpretation by his critics, the chapter suggests that Gunn's career so expertly elicits from twentieth-century critical discourse the shifting historical definitions of “gay” and “poetry” for the following three reasons: To put the argument about Gunn's style another way, the distinction between homosocial and homosexual is “a strategy for making generalizations about, and marking historical difference in, the structure of men's relations with other men.”

Keywords: Thom Gunn; Dionysian experiment; poetry; gay culture; homosocial; homosexual

Chapter.  25434 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (Poetry and Poets)

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