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Spring of 1989 I had the good luck to work as the T.A. in Thom Gunn's modern poetry course at Berkeley. Thom's lectures, like his critical essays, were probing, exacting, direct, dry, turned by wit, honed by good sense, and full of surprising insight at all points—in truth, much like his poems. The students, some fifty or so, sat alert twice a week for ninety minutes, and wrote down what Gunn said. They knew they were getting the goods. We started with Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, H. D., and Marianne Moore. I was super excited about half-way through the semester when Gunn brought copies of Mina Loy's poems to class—she was long out of print. I knew her work only from brief quotations in "Three Hard Women," Gunn's essay on her, Moore, and H. D. published the year before, and a few pages each by Yvor Winters, Kenneth Rexroth, and before them, Pound. One page Gunn distributed contained the first four poems of Loy's notorious "Love Songs" (as the sequence was known from its first publication in the inaugural 1915 issue of the little magazine, Others).

I

Spawn of FantasiesSilting the appraisablePig Cupid his rosy snoutrooting erotic garbage"Once upon a time"Pulls a weed white star-toppedAmong wild oats sown in mucous-membrane

I would an eye in a Bengal lightEternity in a sky-rocketConstellations in an oceanWhose rivers run no fresherThan a trickle of saliva

These are suspect places

I must live in my lanternTrimming subliminal flickerVirginal to the bellowsof ExperienceColoured glass

Gunn took his time reading the poem aloud. He had a wonderful reading voice—soft, warm, but flat, with a finely reined in affect, and clean at the acoustic edges of the words. The practice he had put into finding a level of projection for his own poems that conveyed a trust in the language itself to make its impact—this vocal style, as plain and modest and effective as his writing, made his reading aloud of difficult modernist poems especially useful to students, who often felt, when Gunn read to them, as if they were hearing the poems for the first time. Much of the effect relied on Gunn's intuitive timing, the way he read rhythm and syntax like a kind of counterpoint against the meter, articulating subtle hesitations: it infused the poem with the sound of spontaneous speech, which woke up students' ears.

This is surely the first erotic effect of poetry, the aural one; the first penetration that awakens desire for more, it floats through the ear canal, one of the "passages of joy," that Gunn alludes to (borrowed from Samuel Johnson) in the title of his book of poems from 1982. But Loy's "Songs to Joannes" (their original title)—"the best since Sappho," she bragged—if their acoustics arouse our ears to poetry, their subject of failed and frustrated love bites hard with satire and what Gunn calls "a quite unforced indignation at the comedy of male complacency, and not incidentally exploration of new poetic material, of which the potential excites her as a writer." The erotics of language condensed into an arousing music is even more fully charged, in Loy's poem, by the anti-erotic subject, Loy's sharpened tongue, and her edgy point of view.

Gunn lingered in his discussion of the poem on that opening image of Pig Cupid with his snout in the sexual trash. He delighted in Loy's Ovidian invention that turns the god of love from a mischievous archer into swine, sniffing through fairytale fantasies where sexual energies and feelings are sublimated and hidden. Gunn lead the students through the poem line by line, taking care to sound out the caesura marked by interlineal spacing which add so subtly to the drama of cognition and feeling. Students could hear the slant rhyme between Pig and the second syllable in Cupid; the assonance and consonance in "rosy snout / rooting erotic garbage." They could hear how the musicality crossed senses to become pungent, how Loy...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-4578
Print ISSN
0149-9408
Pages
pp. 14-27
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-06
Open Access
N
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