thom_gunnIn the 1980s I had the good fortune to attend a free lunchtime poetry reading by Thom Gunn in London. I remember him for his warmth and humanity. He is perhaps best remembered for his moving and compasionate portraits of friends and AIDS victims in his 1992 collection ‘The Man With Night Sweats’.

A poem of his that has always intrigued me,however, is called ‘Lines For A Book’ from a 1957 collection called ‘The Sense of Movement’. This reflects a harsher side to his character and suggests to me that he was not really at ease with living the life as an intellectual wordsmith.

The poem is critical of living only in the mind and strongly advocates against suffering fools gladly. It resonates for me as someone who has always felt a mixture of fascination and revulsion towards macho role models which as a ‘real man’ I am supposed to admire unconditionally.

In Gunn’s insistence on action and toughness, it borders on the reactionary but is ,all the same, an honest counterargument to those ivory tower dwellers who delude themselves that high minded wisdom alone will make the world a better place. Here is the complete poem:

LINES FOR A BOOK by Thom Gunn (1929 – 2004)

I think of all the toughs through history

And thank heaven that they lived, continually,

I praise the overdogs from Alexander

To those who would not play with Stephen Spender.

The pride exalted some, some overthrew,

But was not vanity at last: they knew

That though the mind has also got a place,

It’s not in marvelling at its mirrored face

An evident sensibility. It’s better

To go and see your friend than write a letter;

To be a soldier than 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; it’s better to despise the fool,

Who may not help himself and may not choose,

Than give him pity which he cannot use,

I think of those exclusive by their action,

For whom mere thought could be no satisfaction

The athletes lying under tons of dirt

Or standing gelded so they cannot hurt

The pale curators and the families,

By calling up disturbing images.

I think of all the toughs through history

And thank heaven that they lived, continually.