#27 “A Blank” (Thom Gunn)

Thom Gunn’s “A Blank” (note: .pdf file) is so recent a poem (from the book Night Sweats, 1992) that it’s hard to find a copy transcribed onto a website anywhere. Nevertheless, it has started to appear in anthologies, and I think it’s one of the finest poems of the late 20th century – with the caveat, of course, that I have only read a tiny percentage of late 20th-century poetry.

Backstory is important here. Night Sweats was written in the middle of the worst days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco (its setting). “The year of griefs” is a year of sickness and dying, of the decimation of a hard-won community.

Several of the poets we’ve studied this semester were gay – undoubtedly Housman, Auden, and Bishop, who lived in various depths of the closet; possibly Hughes and Dickinson, though they were arguably lifelong celibates. Gunn was openly gay. “A Blank” is the first poem we’ve encountered that uses a gay community and a gay relationship as central to its theme.

The poem starts very generally, invoking the need for “one last grief.” But what follows is hardly about grief. It is about hope tinctured by grief: hope that, in the face of the abyss, can’t be extinguished.

Gunn’s poem, with great daring and beauty, imagines a gay man whose sexual relationships are passionate but casual: he and the speaker have been lovers, which, the speaker says rather unexpectedly, means that he “did not know him well.”

The speaker’s former lover has adopted a child. In itself, this is not remarkable. What intrigues the speaker is that the new father’s passion has poured itself into caring for this child.

Rarely has parental love been connected so closely to erotic love. The connection is almost taboo: it’s almost as if the word “love” is two different, incompatible words. But the man in the poem

transposed
The expectations he took out at dark
—Of Eros playing, features undisclosed—
Into another pitch

Such is parenthood. We often see parenting as proceeding from the bright side of our beings, with our eroticism as the dark side that must at best be endured, at worst deplored. But for Gunn in this poem, the wonder of life is that the same energy informs both the lover and the parent.

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12 responses to “#27 “A Blank” (Thom Gunn)

  1. This poem was a little harder to get into that the rest. The author crosses paths once again with the person who used to be his lover. It has seemed that the lover has chosen a differnt path to take with his adopted son. He must of ached to be a father so much that he undertook the desicion by himself with no other partner. The arthor admires the fact that his old lover did so . He seems to at first be uneasy with the fact of it. Then he comes around to respect it. The love, charm, warmth that he used to receive is now given to the child. Now his lover has a mouth to feed and look after. One can no longer do as much as the things he or she did before the child. So by in a way leaving a life behind to start a new one, the arthor was cought in the storm. He too seems to be left behind.

  2. spontaneous12

    A year of grief was described as the era of the AIDS epidemic. The speaker is alone staring out the window of a bus. He is gay and has unexpectedly spotted an ex-partner of his who stopped on a corner-curb to let them pass. It gets critical because on the other side of the glass is not only his lover of two years before but also “a four-year-old blond child tugging his hand.” He is not involved with the guy anymore and actually did not know him very well. Which meant that the relationship was most likely sexually motivated and that it only for a brief amount of time. Maybe the speaker thought that the “sturdy-looking admirable young man” wasn’t so bad after all because he had opted to care for a son even though he was involved in a brief opposite sex relationship. Thom Gunn was actually openly gay but his writing was somewhat closeted. In mainstream culture, people aren’t able to be gay out in public without the threat and conflict of discrimination nowadays. The speaker realizes his ex-lover’s story. Now the ex-lover of his has moved on, and we don’t know if he did in fact entirely seek other partners but he does have a son now. The speaker is moved sincerely because his ex-lover had decided “to educate, permit, guide, feed, keep warm, and love a child to be adopted.” His ex-lover isn’t seen as a man looking for a one night stand anymore, but a father raising a young boy in a difficult society who wouldn’t completely “understand”.

  3. Thomas Gunn’s poem, “A Blank,” arouses so many thought provoking questions, reflections, and perspectives on the hotly debated and highly controversial issue of gay relationships. As I was reading Professor Morris’s commentary, I was curious to know why the title of the book was called “Night Sweats.” I just had to know the correlation between “Night Sweats” and gay people. I discovered that night sweats occur frequently in people living with HIV. I found this to be an enlightening fact because I only associated “Night Sweats” with menopausal women. I love exploring and finding information on different cultures, including the gay community. Knowledge erases ignorance, and it changes one’s perspective. Sean Penn’s performance in “Milk” and this poem “Blank” has stirred my compassion for the plight of the gay community. In some ways, I can identify with the gay community because I remember vividly the struggle of African Americans for equality in a society that refuses to accept differences in humanity. In like manner, the gay community accomplished great gains under the leadership of the gay activist, Harvey Milk, and then the community experienced great setbacks with the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. The African American community experienced great gains under the leadership of the civil rights activists such as Martin Luther and Malcolm X, and then experienced great setbacks with the onslaught of the drug and violence epidemic. Freedom and equality always come with a price. Although the poem “Blank” is about a gay relationship that once existed, I feel the poem points out elements that occur in any relationship whether it is heterosexual or homosexual. The speaker on the bus spots an old lover stopped on a coroner curb with a small child. At the time of their relationship, the child was only a blank, an idea, on an adoption form. I believe the speaker and the lover’s relationship ended because of the lover’s decision to adopt a child. The speaker seemed to have wanted sexual companionship only, but the lover wanted to express and extend his love more deeply. He wanted a family. He wanted to be a parent. I wonder if the speaker regretted his decision not to continue the relationship especially after seeing his ex-lover and the child. The child was a comforting symbol of hope and renewal in a community whose grief was profound. “Blank” also reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things.” Both deal with destruction and renewal.

  4. In the first stanza of the poem it talks about “one last grief, with one last property” which I see as seeing the former lover (the property) whom the writer had feelings for but maybe not having the same desires and expectations. The grief was the goodbye of the relationship, whether long or short plus the goodbye’s of maybe friends and other acquaintances that might have been affected by the AIDS epidemic. He calls the man with the child his friend, which means they did not part in bad terms. They did not know each other well yet had a sexual relationship, which as mentioned in class, happens in heterosexual relationships too, not just in gay relationships. There are many heterosexuals who have one night stands and are highly promiscuous. I think that when he saw this person with the child it brought back memories of the times they shared. I think what “he admired about his self-permission” (the friend’s) was the ability and the braveness, if you will, to adopt a child in such a difficult time and absolutely difficult circumstance. It took courage and I think he admired that. I think a part of him felt sad that he was not a part of that life and was not able to be a part of the “Fair-topped organism dense with charm” and maybe regretted only knowing this friend in the bedroom and not as long time partner.

  5. The thoughts that crossed my mind when reading this poem and thinking about it for not the first time since class were mixed. I realize that this poem is about a gay couple that seemed to me to have an affair that lasted some time really. It also seems to me that their affair might have been able to last if not for the thought in the others head. I can imagine laying in my lovers arms one night and talking. Just talking of the world, goals, and dreams when he suddenly says I want a child. I at this point in my life would run like crazy. I feel as though the speaker and him had this same discussion and the speaker said no way and took off. Now as years have gone by and the speaker see’s him standing on the side walk looking happy and content with his choice in life he feels remorse. I can see him, the speaker looking back into the years and then at the present and thinking I could have had that. There is almost a lonely feeling to it. I get the feeling that the speaker wishes that he had something more in his life than just a bunch of affairs with no emotional attachment and seeing this man with his kid he is reminded that there are other things out there.

  6. This poem expresses the love the man had with another man. The man he use to be with has left him for someone else. He is still in love with a man from his past. I believe the child represents the other man’s son. I think he had that son with another women or could possibly be adopted. When he sees this child it reminds him of the old times that they had together and what they could have had in the future. The man is longing for another chance with this other man. Seeing this child made him feel sad and lonely. I belive this poem was important to the author because he may have witnessed something like this before.

  7. This poem really tells a story. A very interesting story about real life, love and pain felt from a relationship. A relationship that was desired by one person but did not want all the commitments. As we were reading I couldn’t match the title with what was being said. The more I read the more I understood the title; the child was the blank, a void that was filled by his son. Some lines were very plan to understand such as “he undertook without a friend or wife” meaning he adopted this child without a friend or wife. This poem also speaks of courage and determination. He was determined to live his life and adopt a son in spite of what people think or feel. Being gay with a child can raise a lot of concerns. But I like the way he said to educate, permit, guide, feed, keep warm; a child needs all those things to survive. I really like this poem because of the title, “A Blank” what a better way to fill a void. Not only is he able to give love but receive it without any conditions.

  8. Thom Gunn’s “A Blank” starts out in a way that made me think it was going to be describing that “one last grief” and be another one of those ‘sad’ and ‘depressing’ poems, when in fact, it turned out to be a particularly passionate one about the relationship of a child and single parent and the speaker’s marvel about life. I’m very certain that many of us get caught in thoughts about what those people’s lives from our past relationships are like nowadays when they are no longer with us. Many emotions can be stirred when we encounter a person we were once intimate with. In this case, the speaker catches sight of a ‘friend’ he once shared his bedroom with accompanied by a “…child tugging his hand”. The speaker then comes to realize that his ex-lovers’ choice to adopt a child made him feel complete when he stated that he “…chose to do this with my life” and is totally conscious of the act of parenting. Maybe the speakers’ lover decided to end the relationship because he was ready to be a parent and the speaker did not want to accept the responsibility to “educate, permit, guide, feed, keep warm, and love a child…” who was adopted with this man he didn’t not ‘know well’. To me it seems as if the speaker is astounded by the fondness of the father toward the son, and what was once a blank on a form is now flesh, real, alive… full of love. No more is the ex-lover looking for a relationship based on sex, but is now fulfilled with a relationship of love and parenthood.

  9. I really like this poem because people can understand it and relate to it even though it was written many years ago. This poem maintains your attention all the way to the end by giving you a bit of foreshadowing every now and then. While this poem was being read I found myself having vivid images about the poem and I think that is something that only good poems can accomplish. I think the poem talks about two guys who had some type of relationship and one of them wanted to go ahead and start a family. The speaker in the poem maybe did not like that idea so somehow along the way they both lost communication with each other. Some time later, the speaker saw the other man holding the hand of a boy and both were standing by a street light. This shocked the speaker because he could not believe that the other man had actually given love and friendship up in order to have a “family” of his own.

  10. I like the way this one is written because it feels more like reading a story than a poem. I disagree that it was hard to get into and rather felt the opposite because they gave enough details to be able to picture the situation. I also did not think that adopting a child was a preemptive thought leading to the separation of the two characters. Because it states that they did not know each other very well, I got the feeling that he had no clue the other man would adopt and was taken aback by the sight. When he says “I chose to do this with my life,” the speaker goes on thinking about his admiration for such an act. To me, it was as though he almost wishes that he himself could do something so drastic. He mentions the child as being “a blank,” in reference to the thought that the boy was just an idea but is now very real. It starts me wondering if perhaps he realizes that things, which are only an idea to him now, could eventually become reality, though that does take a long stretch from the words of the poem.

  11. At a glance “A Blank” is a story about a man on a bus whom passes a former lover that now has a son. The story seems very simple and doesn’t open much for interpretation. I was thinking about the title and the coorilation between it and the boy. I think it is very interesting that many things we do in life involve a sort of application to own. Then I started to think of what sort of questions there would be on such an application for the ownership of a human. Furthermore a little child whom cannot care for itself. The sort of decision made by a gay man to bring another person into their life is interesting to me. I think that when thinking about it you have to consider the thoughts and feelings of the individual you are adopting. At a certain point in their life your going to have to explain to them that you are different and that they where adopted. Then I started to think of the effect that would have on someone. Would they grow up like you? Would they despise you for bringing them into a life like that? Or would they be fine with it all and just love you no matter? It is impossible to know these things as they vary from case to case. I would like to think though that no matter what the decision made was the right one for the man and the son. I also like that the two have no sort of tension between each other and the man has no regrets about his past. All in all I really enjoyed this poem and happily welcome it in the countdown!

  12. This is probably one of the saddest poems we read. I think it’s hard enough to be rejected by a lover, but even harder when the person you loved turns out loving someone else instead. Even though the type of love the speaker and this man shared is different from the love the man shares with his “new” son it still hurts when it taken away from you and given to someone else. Several thoughts ran through my head about why this situation occurred. Could it have been that in 1992 adoption by gay men wasn’t legal and so the man had to change his lifestyle in order to be able to fulfill his dream of being a father? Perhaps the man was with the child was closeted or in denial. The man in the bus was not closeted or he simply just didn’t want kids. I enjoyed this poem even though it was a sad one because it was real. This is an issue that I’m sure occurred for more than one person. Even heterosexual couples sometimes split up because they disagree on whether or not they want to have children. This reminds me of a similar story in our current pop culture with Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt. Heidi wants children (many children) while her new husband does not. Will their story end the same as the couple in the poem? Will they end up living separate lives?

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