Thom Gunn is known for writing poems that are not only concrete, but that can also be thought of as quite risky. Gunn has never been a cautious poet (Ellmann and O’Clair 1335), instead choosing to deal with subjects that are very "real," and in some cases very controversial. Gunn confronts the issue of alcoholism and its effects, not only on the alcoholics, but also on those who care about them, in his poem "Donahue’s Sister," which was published in 1982 as part of a book of poems entitled The Passages of Joy.
"Donahue’s Sister" begins with the two characters, a man and a woman (presumably Donahue and his sister), encountering each other at the head of the stairs. The first two lines read, "She comes level with him at / the head of the stairs," and indicate a sense of competition and tension between the two people. Immediately, it is apparent that there is a power struggle going on between the man and the woman. At this point, the reader has not been told the source of the competition between the characters, but there is a sense ...
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...poetry is not intellectual... rather, it explores concrete reality in a sensuous manner" (Parini 138). Gunn paints a colorful and all-too-believable picture of the effects of alcoholism. He does not attempt to pass judgment, though. He does not condemn the alcoholic, or glorify the man who tries to help her. He simply shows us an honest depiction of alcoholism, and allows us as readers to make our own moral judgments.
Ellmann, Richard and Robert O’Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.
Giles, Paul. “Landscapes of repetition: the self-parodic nature of Thom Gunn’s later poetry.” Critical Quarterly 29.2 (1987): 85-99.
Parini, Jay. “Rule and Energy: The Poetry of Thom Gunn.” The Massachusetts Review 23 (1982): 134-151.
Sanborn, Patricia F. Existentialism. New York: Pegasus, 1968.
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