That sex and drugs go together should be no surprise to anyone, and in Thom Gunn’s poems they become dual aspects of eros: on the one hand, drugs and sex can open us up to vistas of human freedoms and discoveries; and, on the other, they can lead to darker recognitions about the world and ourselves. Gunn’s poems explore both aspects in a way that is compassionate, nuanced, and wide-ranging in scope. So let’s start with Gunn’s attitude toward drugs. I had long known that he used them—for that matter, so had I, speed, heroin, marijuana, a lot of psychedelics—and drug use was one of the bonds of our friendship. I don’t mean that we did drugs together, for we weren’t friends in that way. But I mean the psychological predisposition behind our drug use, the kinds of assumptions we shared about what drugs could teach you, how they opened up avenues of self-knowledge and wide-ranging spiritual and social understandings that would ordinarily be closed to you. You always took drugs for pleasure, of course, but part of that pleasure was the possibilities they gave you to test what it meant to be a human being. You might say that Gunn disagreed with Samuel Johnson when Johnson said that you didn’t need to experience evil in order to shun it—though Gunn never thought of drugs as evil: rather, drugs were part of the pleasure of people who have a romance with experience and, for better and worse, take seriously the choices and obsessions that such a romance involves you in, willy-nilly.
more from Tom Sleigh at Poetry here.