Thom Gunn’s “The Annihilation of Nothing” and the Negative Capability of Dream Poetry

Patrick Leslie West

Abstract


Introduction

Dreams feature frequently in poetry as framing devices for lyrical and narrative content. By contrast, Thom Gunn’s poem “The Annihilation of Nothing” (1958) theorises how dream, through its relationship to the states of sleeping and waking up, serves the creative process of practising poets. To this extent, Gunn is a challenging fellow traveller in the dream-poetry tradition. “The Annihilation of Nothing” is usually categorised by critics as a philosophical poem informed by Existentialist notions. This article supplements such a reading by showing how the poem’s Existentialism is related specifically to the creative process of writing poetry. Theory about the practice of writing poetry is potentially to be found as much in poetry itself as in commentary about poetry. Ultimately, Gunn’s poem sutures its philosophical concerns to the understanding of the poet’s creative process first theorised by John Keats as Negative Capability. Gunn’s poem suggests an abstract and structural approach to the use of dream to write poetry, informed by Keatsian negativity, which exploits that creatively fertile moment when sleep transforms into the waking state. Sigmund Freud’s assertion that sleep is the essential condition of dream supports the idea that, for Gunn, sleep in itself may have the power of dream for the writing of poetry. “The Annihilation of Nothing” offers practical guidance, informed by theory and philosophy, to poets keen to insert themselves into the dream-poetry tradition. Bolstering the reading of “The Annihilation of Nothing”, my article also considers an instance of Gunn’s non-fiction writing on poetry and dreams, in which he links “a series of anxiety dreams” to the writing of his poem “Jack Straw’s Castle” (1976).  

Dream Poetry and Thom Gunn 

The literature on the relationship of poetry and dreaming is massive, multi-faceted, and deeply impacted by the movement of history. A.C. Spearing’s Medieval Dream-Poetry reminds us that the literary combination of poetry and dreaming is many centuries old (Spearing passim). Since the late nineteenth century, the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have invited new ways of activating the interpretation and creation of dream poetry (Shafton passim). A more recent contribution to the field of dream-poetry studies is Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams, which foregrounds the voices of contemporary American poets reflecting on matters of poetry and dreaming through the personal essay form (Townley passim). 

In his article “Dream Poetry as Dream Work”, Richard A. Russo observes that “poets use dreams in many different ways” (13). My article works from the premise that dream-poetry can be identified and discussed even when a poet does not explicitly identify as a dream poet. The Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn (1929-2004) is not usually thought of as a dream poet; still, in an interview conducted in 1977, he states that “I think everything significant that happens to me—whether it’s an event, an idea or a dream—gets into my poetry eventually” (Scobie 13; my emphasis). Nor, so far as I am aware, has Gunn’s 1958 poem “The Annihilation of Nothing” ever been interpreted as a dream poem (Gunn, “Annihilation” 4). Framing Gunn’s poetry as dream poetry is therefore an unusual move in the appreciation of his work, which by that very token seeds fresh opportunities to contribute to the ongoing scholarly and practice-based conversations about dream poetry in general. As I will show in what follows, Gunn’s method of using dreams is very different from that of most other poets. Rather than fixating on, and elaborating, the details of this or that particular dream, Gunn works at a more general level, to explore how dreams relate to the poetic creative process. 

For this article, I am particularly interested in exploring how the powerfully activated philosophical elements of “The Annihilation of Nothing” intersect with an engagement with the craft of poetry making as this is influenced, not only by dream itself, but by the sleeping, dreaming and waking routine of Gunn as a practising poet. Additionally, I will be arguing that—against the grain of most dream poetry—Gunn tends to work with dream as a structural principle of poetic creation. This is evident not only in “The Annihilation of Nothing” but in Gunn’s non-fiction writing about the 1976 poem “Jack Straw’s Castle” (Gunn, “Jack” 48-56). This is not, however, to privilege the non-fiction voice of the poet over the voice within their poetry, in matters of theory. As much as theory about the practice of writing poetry is to be found in commentary about poetry, it is also to be found, I suggest, in poetry itself. Ultimately, Gunn contributes as much to the tradition of the poetic strategy of Negative Capability, as first theorised by the poet John Keats (“Negative Capability”), as to the tradition of dream poetry. 

“The Annihilation of Nothing”, Existentialism and the Craft of Poetry Writing 

“The Annihilation of Nothing” is a relatively short poem, and my reading of it for this article necessarily assumes close working knowledge of its nuances and complexities (if not its paradoxes) in the reader. For these reasons, I am including the text of the poem here, in full: 

Nothing remained: Nothing, the wanton name
That nightly I rehearsed till led away
To a dark sleep, or sleep that held one dream.

In this a huge contagious absence lay,
More space than space, over the cloud and slime,
Defined but by the encroachments of its sway.

Stripped to indifference at the turns of time,
Whose end I knew, I woke without desire,
And welcomed zero as a paradigm.

But now it breaks—images burst with fire
Into the quiet sphere where I have bided,
Showing the landscape holding yet entire:

The power that I envisaged, that presided
Ultimate in its abstract devastations,
Is merely change, the atoms it divided

Complete, in ignorance, new combinations.
Only an infinite finitude I see
In those peculiar lovely variations.

It is despair that nothing cannot be
Flares in the mind and leaves a smoky mark
Of dread.
              Look upward. Neither firm nor free,

Purposeless matter hovers in the dark.

(Gunn, “Annihilation” 4) 

“The Annihilation of Nothing” has been categorised by literary critics as one of Gunn’s philosophical poems and it is generally interpreted using an Existentialist lens. B.J.C. Hinton, for example, states that the poem “is based on an existentialist problem and adopts its terminology” (131). Additionally, “the poem is based on the paradox that nothingness, itself often a subject of terror, is seen first as comforting and then as illusory. This fusing of philosophical inquiry and genuine passion is typical of Gunn at his best, and gives the poem great force” (Hinton 143-144). 

Curiously, I have not been able to locate any reading of Gunn’s poem that unpacks what is arguably the poem’s most obvious detail: that is, the narrator falls asleep, experiences “a dark sleep, or sleep that held one dream”, then wakes up. Hinton notes that the poem’s “very title is based on terms common in [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s L’Etre et le neant” (143) but he overlooks the fact that the poem’s key term, “nothing”, is part of the narrator’s method of falling asleep: “Nothing, the wanton name / That nightly I rehearsed till led away / To a dark sleep.” When the word (“wanton name”) has served its purpose and the narrator has fallen asleep, precisely “Nothing remained”; the word has been replaced by the state it describes. Such a pointed differentiation of the word and the state invites the reader to grapple with that most intriguing of concepts: nothingness as a something that is nothing. 

The last line of the first stanza deepens the poetic meaning of nothingness in Gunn’s hands. “To a dark sleep, or sleep that held one dream” suggests an equivalence between “sleep” and “dream”. The comma before the “or” implies that a “sleep that held one dream” is just another way of saying “a dark sleep,” while the notion of “one dream” strengthens this implication—one sleep and one dream coincide with each other in their matching singularity. Dream, Gunn seems to be suggesting, is what “darkens” sleep; all the same, sleep always already retains strong cultural associations with darkness, which suggests that the poet is actually more concerned to hollow out the concept of dream, as a marker of nothingness. Dream, in this reading, thus exists in an ambiguous overlap with the notion of sleep itself; within this overlap, furthermore, dream’s nothingness consists in its absorption into sleep. 

In other words, the Existentialist philosophy of the poem is activated as a dialogue between the concepts of a dream that is nothing—one reduced, as it were, to the status of mere (dream-less) sleep—and the freshly waking state of the narrator, which identifies the period when Sartrean being rushes in to replace dream-sleep nothingness. Being and nothingness are overlaid onto, and to an extent replaced by, the twin states of waking from sleep and of a dream that, far from being any dream in particular, is characterised only as “a dark sleep”. 

When the philosophical or Existentialist framework for the reading of “The Annihilation of Nothing” is nudged to one side, though not abandoned, and the dream and waking-from-sleep elements of the poem are given their appropriate weight in the interpretation of the poem, an affiliation with the tradition of dream poetry emerges. Certainly, Gunn’s poem exhibits features linked to Sartre’s philosophical preoccupations, but its Existentialist engagement, I suggest, is narrowed to a concern with the borderline between sleep and the waking state as the condition of a certain mode of poetic creation. In this lies the connection to the tradition of dream poetry, and the distinctiveness of Gunn’s intervention into that tradition. To this extent, “The Annihilation of Nothing” straddles philosophy and the craft of poetry writing. The discussion of dream in an abstract or philosophical sense is precisely what makes Gunn’s poem a practical resource for other poets, with their own dreams to transform into poetry. Poetic creation, for Gunn, relates to the activation of those energies present at the borderline of sleep and being awake. These energies, in turn, relate to the theory of Negative Capability. 

Negative Capability in “The Annihilation of Nothing” 

To continue to unpack Gunn’s lesson in poetry-making, I underscore how odd it is, in the first place, that Hinton links Gunn’s poem to a work of prose philosophy by Jean-Paul Sartre rather than to a more poetically cognate antecedent. A more appropriate companion text to Gunn’s poem than Sartre’s Existentialist masterpiece, I suggest, is the poetic strategy known as Negative Capability. The Glossary of Poetic Terms managed by the Poetry Foundation discusses Negative Capability in terms of “the artist’s access to truth without the pressure and framework of logic or science” and defines it, in part, as “the [poet’s] power to bury self-consciousness [and] dwell in a state of openness to all experience” (“Negative Capability”). The poet John Keats was, of course, the first to articulate the theory of Negative Capability (“Negative Capability”). 

What evidence is there that Negative Capability, rather than Existentialism, is a more relevant accompaniment to Gunn’s poem? Stanzas two and three describe the nothingness of a dream that is only “a dark sleep” through reference to “a huge contagious absence” and to the comment “And welcomed zero as a paradigm.” Notice what is happening here. The absence is deemed “contagious”, and a “paradigm” is usually defined as a typical example or pattern of something. What appears to be going on here is an attempt to show how creation is triggered by concepts aligned with negativity, such as absence and zero. Such concepts further align, like unconscious sleep itself, with Keats’s “[buried] self-consciousness”. 

In mirror image, the same pattern shows up later on in the poem. Whereas the first three stanzas of “The Annihilation of Nothing” detail the descent into sleep, dream and nothingness, the stanzas after the fourth stanza are all about the creation that occurs upon waking, at the end of dream, with the advent of what might be called (creative) somethingness. Crucially, this period of creation possesses an element that mirrors the “contagious absence” and “zero as a paradigm” gestures from earlier in the poem. Previously, nothingness was expressed as a prompt to creation (“contagious” and “a paradigm”); here, in a 180 degree switch, somethingness is only indirectly expressed by reference to its polar opposite. The key line is “It is despair that nothing cannot be.” Creation is shadowed by a sort of negative energy; it comes about only through the annihilation of nothing, or “in [self-?] ignorance”: “The power that I envisaged, that presided / Ultimate in its abstract devastations, / Is merely change, the atoms it divided / Complete, in ignorance, new combinations.” The negative with a positive charge has been replaced by the positive with a negative charge, twin movements which reassert Keats’s theory of poetic creation. Nothingness prompts the creation of somethingness while somethingness always retains its debt to nothingness. 

Negative Capability thus tarries between the lines of “The Annihilation of Nothing.” Creation simmers away even in the midst of nothingness and absence (in the early stages of the poem), without the support of self-consciousness. Reversing and reinforcing this, the activism of poetic creation (which is conventionally based in self-consciousness) is strangely inverted in the final sections of the poem, where the somethingness of poetic creation is figured merely as a by-product of the “despair that nothing cannot be.” In fine, Gunn’s poem transfigures Existentialism in such a way that it produces a new version of Keats’s theory of Negative Capability. And Gunn’s intervention is precisely a theoretical intervention, to the extent that it produces transferable knowledge, about the production of poetry, related to how the writing of poetry may be structured in relationship to the division—at heart Existentialist—between sleeping (configured in Gunn’s poem as a new form of dreaming) and creatively waking up. 

There is an interesting crossover here between Gunn’s poem and Freud’s idea from The Interpretation of Dreams that “at bottom dreams are nothing other than a particular form of thinking, made possible by the conditions of the state of sleep” (Freud 510, fn. 1; my emphasis second). As part of his contribution to a theory of the creative practice of poetry writing, Gunn draws out something not always given its due weight in Freudian theory: that is, the crucial if not essential connection between sleep and dream. It is this connection, I suggest, that Gunn sees as vital to the practice of writing poetry in the tradition of dream poetry. The moment of waking from sleep is when (dream-like) Negative Capability may be most fruitfully activated. Indeed, Gunn comes close to suggesting, in “The Annihilation of Nothing”, that whether one dreams or not is inconsequential, so long as one has—quite mysteriously—“a dark sleep.” The sleep state itself—necessarily accompanied by the waking from sleep—may possess the creative power of dream when it comes to the writing of poetry. 

“Jack Straw’s Castle” and Dream-Poetry Structure 

Further theoretical knowledge may be harvested from another moment in Gunn’s discourse, in which he responds to an interviewer’s question about the process of writing “Jack Straw’s Castle”. As suggested above, I do not see a distinction, and certainly not a hierarchy, between theory about poetry writing to be found within poetry itself and theory about poetry writing constructed within a non-fictional context, as in the interview containing this exchange: 

WS [W.I. Scobie]: Why are there so many references to rooms in your poetry—not only rooms, but dungeons, cellars, cells—confining spaces?

TG [Thom Gunn]: While I was writing Jack Straw’s Castle I was moving from a house I’d lived in for ten years into this place [Gunn’s house in San Francisco], and I had a series of anxiety dreams. I had moved into the wrong house. I had moved in with the wrong people. Once to my horror I found I was sharing an apartment with [Richard] Nixon. Very often I would keep discovering new rooms in the house that I’d known nothing about. All this became very much the scheme for the nightmare world of Jack Straw’s Castle. (Scobie 11; my emphasis) 

Gunn’s theoretical attitude to dream in this non-fiction commentary bears similarities, I suggest, to his theorisation of dream in “The Annihilation of Nothing”. Rather than stressing the content of his “anxiety dreams” (for example, individual houses or Richard Nixon), Gunn characteristically emphasises the structural aspect of dream. His choice of words is significant: Gunn’s dreams become a “scheme” for the production of poetry. Granted, the content of “Jack Straw’s Castle” does include many references to rooms and the like, but Gunn segues, in this interview extract, from content to form. Notably, in this context, “Jack Straw’s Castle” is divided into eleven sections, as if the poet (in writing the poem) and the reader (in reading it) were moving from one section to the next the way one moves from one room to the next. (It is perhaps no coincidence that Gunn’s best-known poem is entitled “On the Move”.) The Existentialist and person-focused structural approach to the writing of poetry of “The Annihilation of Nothing” is replaced here by a more formal type of structure. 

Conclusion 

This article has attempted to locate Thom Gunn within the tradition of dream poetry even as he challenges the mainstream of that tradition. His challenge lies in how he constructs dream as a structural prompt to the writing of poetry, in a way that departs from the more familiar dream-poetry approach of elaborating the lyrical or narrative content of this or that particular dream. Gunn is both a practitioner of dream poetry and also, in the footsteps of John Keats and others, a theorist of the writing of poetry. Theory about the practice of writing poetry is potentially to be found as much in poetry itself as in commentary about poetry. The main focus of the article has been Gunn’s poem “The Annihilation of Nothing”. My intent has not been to show that the Existentialist reading of this poem is wrong, so much as to show that it must be supplemented by attention to the poem’s concern with dreaming, sleeping and waking and, by extension, to the specific Existentialism of the practising writer of poetry. Read this way, the poem presents itself as a text in the tradition of Negative Capability. 

References 

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Basic Books, 2010. 

Gunn, Thom. “Jack Straw’s Castle.” Jack Straw’s Castle. London: Faber and Faber, 1976. 48-56. 

———. “On the Move.” Poetry Foundation, 1957. 3 Feb. 2020 <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57037/on-the-move>.  

———. “The Annihilation of Nothing.” Poetry 93.1 (Oct. 1958): 4. 3 Feb. 2020 <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=27820>. 

Hinton, B.J.C. The Poetry of Thom Gunn. M.A. thesis. Faculty of Arts, Birmingham University, 1975. 3 Feb. 2020 <https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/5366/1/Hinton1975MA.pdf>.

“Negative Capability.” Glossary of Poetic Terms. Poetry Foundation, 2020. 3 Feb. 2020 <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/negative-capability>. 

Russo, Richard A. “Dream Poetry as Dream Work.” Dreaming 13.1 (Mar. 2003): 13-27. 3 Feb. 2020 <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1022134200865>. 

Scobie, W.I. “Gunn in America.” London Magazine (Dec. 1977): 5-15. 

Shafton, Anthony. Dream Reader: Contemporary Approaches to the Understanding of Dreams. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. 

Spearing, A.C. Medieval Dream-Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. 

Townley, Roderick. Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. 


Keywords


Dream Poetry; Existentialism; Negative Capability; Thom Gunn



Copyright (c) 2020 Patrick Leslie West

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