The National AIDS Memorial in Golden Gate Park, where Thom Gunn wrote an epitaph for the dead. (Liz Hafalia via Getty Images)

Things Worth Remembering: An Elegy for a Young Man

Poet Thom Gunn found his greatest—and most harrowing—subject in the AIDS epidemic.

Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read from Thom Gunn’s “Words for Some Ash,” click below:

Last month we talked about the poetic elegy, which often pays homage to a specific individual. It is a form that one of the great poets of the late twentieth century—Thom Gunn—excelled at. 

Gunn grew up in the post–World War II era and was a contemporary of the poet Ted Hughes. His first writings, like “Tamer and Hawk” were tight, John Donne-like metaphysical works. And he held a fondness for carefully restrained poetical forms right to the end. 

But in the 1950s, he left England for California and stayed. There he experimented with drugs, which in turn led to an experimentation with free verse (poetry without the restraints of meter or rhyme). 

Free verse was all the rage at the time, with the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg also experimenting with the same pharmaceuticals and literary devices. Personally, I remain uncertain about the value of these creative detours. Poetry is meant to be the most distilled way to communicate. Does anyone think Ginsberg and the other Beats were able to distill their thought, or even put their fingers on it? To me, those fellows slowed thought down.

Constraints in poetry do a number of things. They discipline the writer—no small thing. They help the reader, and also, the rememberer. 

It is hard to memorize chunks of free verse, just as it is hard to remember large chunks of prose. There is a reason that almost nobody can say, “Do you know my favorite paragraph from my favorite novel?”—and then recite it.

Gunn’s period of free verse and free everything else certainly loosened him up, but perhaps it loosened him up too much. His fellow exile Christopher Isherwood complained in his diary that, while Gunn seemed to be having a whale of a time in California, he wasn’t producing much poetry. 

From Gunn’s recently published letters, we can read about how almost proud he was of this. On more than one occasion, he boasts to a friend about how good he had become at taking drugs and having sex. Perhaps he had a death wish of a kind. 

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