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Thom Gunn’s “The Annihilation of Nothing” and the negative capability of dream poetry

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journal contribution
posted on 2024-06-18, 20:36 authored by Patrick WestPatrick West
Dreams feature frequently in poetry as framing devices for lyrical and narrative content. By contrast, Thom Gunn’s poem “The Annihilation of Nothing” (1958) theorizes 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 categorized 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 theorized 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).

History

Journal

M/C journal

Volume

23

Season

Autumn

Article number

5

Pagination

1-1

Location

Brisbane, Qld.

Open access

  • Yes

ISSN

1441-2616

Language

English

Publication classification

C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal

Issue

1

Publisher

Queensland University of Technology