The Poetry Society of America, together with Poets House and The New School Graduate Writing Program, presented last evening's reading, in conjunction with the publication of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn. The editor Joshua Weiner introduced the evening with a rather formal though heartfelt speech on Gunn's work. He read Gunn's "My Sad Captains" and saluted Gunn as one too. He provided xerox copies of Gunn's revisions of that poem; what will survive of us is our handwriting. Before a mixed audience, Weiner was completely unapologetic about Gunn's homosexuality, and talked about the connection Gunn refused to deny between his head, heart and cock.
Of the seven readers, I liked Robert Pinsky's reading of Gunn best. EN said Pinsky felt the weight of the words in his mouth, and I agree. He read "Tamer and Hawk" with the rolling rhythm the lines and imagery of the poem demand. "The Gas Poker," in his mouth, was perfectly thrilling in its unforgettable final image. Before reading "A Sketch of the Great Dejection" with the philosophical seriousness it deserves, Pinsky remarked with admiration that Gunn was plain, but never obvious.
Tom Sleigh was another good reader of Gunn. He read "Saturday Night," "Yoko," ""All Do Not All Things Well," and "Memory Unsettled." Though the poems' rhetorical structure did not come through as clearly as with Pinsky, he read with a great deal of sincerity, if that is the right word. He was most comfortable with "Yoko."
Wendy Lesser read two great poems of Gunn: "Duncan" and "Lament." She read well, but her reading made me think that Gunn could only be read aloud by men. "Lament" is conceivably written by a woman, but read in a woman's voice, it sounded a little too shrill, even too sentimental. I don't think I am being sexist here. There are certain women poets who cannot be read aloud by men without losing too much. Sharon Olds, for example. Perhaps the body, and the embodied voice, in these poetries is so insistently male or female that an opposite sex reader sounds transgendered. That performance is fine if it is part of the poet's agenda, but neither Gunn nor Olds wants to be so, I think.