The Man With Night Sweats

Thom Gunn

The Man with Night Sweats

Faber and Faber, 1992

Reviewed by Colin Bancroft

I first came across the poetry of Thom Gunn in an anthology of ‘Movement’ poetry called ‘New Lines’ edited by Robert Conquest (Macmillan, 1957). If I am honest , I didn’t pay much attention to Gunn in this volume, preferring the work of Larkin and Jennings who had been lumped together as part of a shakily connected collective. Gunn therefore had not really been on my reading radar until I picked up a copy of the Forward Poetry Anthology (1993) which included a selection of Gunn’s prize winning poetry (best collection). I subsequently found a copy of ‘The Man With Night Sweats’ in a second-hand bookshop in York and set about reading it over the course of a weekend.  The elements that first lumped Gunn together with the Movement lot of the 1950’s are evident from the get-go: high levels of formality in terms of rhyme and meter and a somewhat demotic tone permeate the collection. The poetry is taut, stripped back beyond artifice to deliver punchy but personal pieces. What engaged me the most was the variety of the themes and ideas that the collection contains, ranging from musings on ‘The Life of the Otter’ in the Tuscon Desert Museum to Odysseus’ thoughts on Hermes. It is an eclectic but stimulating collection from a poet confident enough in his greatness to wield all of the tools in a poets arsenal to full effect without worrying if they seem trite and stale. (Just to clarify, they don’t). Perhaps the most striking poems come in section 4 where Gunn addresses lost friends in a number of moving poems that act as remembrances for those taken by the AIDS virus. The collection, published in 1993 at the height of the HIV epidemic catches the zeitgeist of the moment – the fear, dread and grief of a community caught in an unprecedented situation. Gunn’s poetry, like that of all great poets, transcends the moment to offer a universality that is still as startling some 30 years after the fact.

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