Archival Features, First Series, Poems

Thom Gunn: “Modes of Pleasure”

This month we reach into the archives and feature Thom Gunn’s “Modes of Pleasure” which appeared in the Winter 1960-1961 issue of the magazine. It ran alongside poems by Donald Hall, Philip Levine, Vladimir Mayakovsky, William Stafford, Sister Mary Gilbert (now known as Madeline DeFrees), among others.

Thom Gunn is a poet of comradely love. He’s a metrical technician, yes, but one who puts his meter and rhyme into service of something beyond form: the obsessions of the flesh and the experiences of joy and longing.

Born in England in 1929, Thom Gunn died in San Francisco in 2004, having lived in that city for over four decades. A beloved poet and more than just a maker of poems, Gunn was a master of lyricism.

Modes of Pleasure

I jump with terror seeing him,
Dredging the bar with that stiff glare
As fiercely as if each whim there
Were passion, whose passion is whim:

The Fallen Rake, being fallen from
The heights of twenty to middle age,
And helpless to control his rage,
So mean, so few the chances come.

The very beauty of his prime
Was that the triumphs which recurred
In different room without a word
Would all be lost some time in time.

Thus he reduced the wild unknown.
And having used each hour of leisure
To learn by rote the modes of pleasure,
The sensual skills as skills alone,

He knows that nothing, not the most
Cunning or sweet, can hold him, still.
Living by habit of the will,
He cannot contemplate the past,

Cannot discriminate, condemned
To the sharpest passion of them all.
Rigid he sits: brave, terrible,
The will awaits its gradual end.

“Modes of Pleasure,” which appeared in the Winter 1960-1961 (Volume 2, Numbers 1 & 2) issue of Poetry Northwest, was also published in My Sad Captains (University of Chicago Press, 1961) and can now be found in Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems.

Modes of Pleasure” from Collected Poems by Thom Gunn. Copyright © 1994 by Thom Gunn. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.