Reading: Tamer and Hawk by Thom Gunn

Thom Gunn (1929-2004), another much-honored poet, who started out using iambic pentameter, borne out of an ambition to be the John Donne of the twentieth century, writing about topics such as LSD, Hell’s angels or queer culture. Later, he wrote no less heart-felt poetry in freer forms. For him, “Writing poetry has in fact become a certain stage in my coping with the world” and “His identity is his resistance to the limitations of identity.” Here is an observation about a hawk who choses to be tamed:

Tamer and hawk

I thought I was so tough,
But gentled at your hands,
Cannot be quick enough
To fly for you and show
That when I go I go
At your commands.

Even in flight above
I am no longer free:
You seeled me with your love,
I am blind to other birds—
The habit of your words
Has hooded me.

As formerly, I wheel
I hover and I twist,
But only want the feel,
In my possessive thought,
Of catcher and of caught
Upon your wrist.

You but half civilize,
Taming me in this way.
Through having only eyes
For you I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose
Tamer as prey.

It is clear what is going on, and the punch line shouldn’t be too hard to understand: The hawk experiences himself as caught upon the wrist of the tamer, and integrates that into his life story as a hunter by projecting his agency onto it: he chooses tamer as prey. Perhaps we should say that the hawk is fully, not half, civilized, that this is what being civilized is all about: choosing your tamer as prey.

The language in the first is carefully romantic and would be considered kitsch by some critics I reckon. Redoubling of I go I go, to be gentled as a verb, the alternating rhyme and the musical trimeter rhythm – nice that someone still writes like that in the twentieth century.

The word ‘seeled’, not sealed, and the metaphor of the habit (cloaK) that has hooded him produces the image of a monk, who is devoted to a greater love than what the mundane realm can offer him.

The third stanza sees the hawk behaving as formerly, but re-interpreting his ‘possessive thought’ (meaning: to be possessed by his own thought as well as wanting to possess things) to understand his relation to the tamer.

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