Collections of selected works necessarily reflect the biases of their editors, and in his picks, August Kleinzahler aims to highlight the work of Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn — who died five years ago last month — which support his contention that Gunn's mastery brightened rather than dimmed over a half century of publication. While Kleinzahler is not entirely successful in his endeavor, his selections do show Gunn at his best, addressing life with metrical dexterity and lively, yet controlled wonder.
Kleinzahler takes a different view of Gunn's canon than most, and he admits this in his introduction: "The truth is that the trajectory of Gunn's career can be easily enough charted and does not at all resemble what the self-perpetuating notions contend." Those notions claim that Gunn peaked as a young poet devoted to Elizabethan aesthetics, but as he became increasingly enamored of LSD, crystal meth, and the San Francisco bar scene, his work suffered.
For his selections, however, Kleinzahler focuses primarily on Gunn's work post 1970, with only two poems drawn from Gunn's acclaimed debut collection, Fighting Terms. Despite this directed gaze, many of the included mid-career poems — e.g., "At the Centre," which describes a rooftop LSD trip — do nothing to dispel Gunn's popular reputation.
Still, the collection also houses some lovely reflections. "Last Days at Teddington" describes, in iambic quatrains, a summertime domestic garden. Gunn's great strength as a poet, as evidenced in this poem and throughout the collection, was, perhaps, his understated sincerity; Gunn deemphasized his ego despite his engagement of intensely personal subject matter. In this way, Gunn avoided the grandiose while maintaining emotional weight. Even with his descriptions of friends dying of AIDS in his 1992 collection The Man with Night Sweats, his focus remained outward rather than on the internal turmoil which no doubt accompanied the events he witnessed.
In the poem "On the Move" from The Sense of Movement, Gunn writes, "One joins the movement in a valueless world,/Choosing it, till, both hurler and the hurled,/One moves as well, always toward, toward." Gunn did seem to be moving relentlessly toward, even if the destination was not always apparent — and this is what Kleinzahler makes most clear.