For more than 40 years, award-winning poet Thom Gunn (born 1929) has concentrated on traditional form and, in contrast, on modern themes like LSD, panhandlers, and homosexuality. Born in England, he has spent most of his life in America, writing in traditional verse about American issues and subjects.
Thom Gunn was born Thomas William Gunn in Gravesend, England. His father, Herbert Smith, and his mother, Ann Charlotte Thompson Gunn, were both journalists; they divorced when Gunn was nine. Gunn traveled with his father, moving from town to town, and served in the British Army for two years, from 1948 to 1950. After serving in the army, Gunn lived in Paris for a year, beginning to write there, then moved to Trinity College at Cambridge, where he focused seriously on writing poetry.
California Liberated Style
Gunn published his first collection of poems, Fighting Terms, in 1954, the same year he began graduate study at Stanford University with poet Yvor Winters, who was known as a stern poetic rationalist. Gunn decided to settle in San Francisco, and became a resident of California in 1954. Gunn studied at Stanford from 1954 to 1955 and again from 1956 to 1958, publishing his second collection, The Sense of Movement, in 1957.
His new home became an essential part of his work; the discipline and structure that characterized his early work began to combine with "Californian 'with it' subject matter, " according to New York Review of Books critic Stephen Bender. In a San Francisco Chronicle interview, Gunn said coming to America "changed everything for me." He began reading free verse-Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams-and embraced American culture. "I saw there were other things you could do. I started out with heroic stuff; full of Shakespearean-like heroes. Gradually, by the time I was living in San Francisco, I could write a poem called 'Taylor Street' about an old man sitting in a doorway." But Gunn's focus on form remained: "Whether describing the countryside of his native England or an acid trip in his adopted California, Gunn's poems have a singular purity of measure and tone, " reported Publishers Weekly.
My Sad Captains, published in 1961, marked a turning point in Gunn's work from metrical to more lyrical language, and a turn towards the subject of nature. My Sad Captains is frequently regarded as his best-known early collection. Originally, Gunn was associated with Philip Larkin and other poets of the Movement, who began to publish during the fifties and who rejected the Romantic excesses as well as the modernist revolution led by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. The Movement, according to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, "sought greater concreteness and a less high-flown diction for poetry."
The link between Gunn and the Movement, however, Gunn himself referred to as "categorizing foolishness." In an interview with Contemporary Authors, Gunn proclaimed that he was "not a member of the Movement, and I don't think the Movement was a movement; I think it was simply a period style that extended way beyond the people who were supposed to be involved with it." Throughout his career, Gunn has clearly defied any kind of easy categorization.
Counter Culture Influenced Poetry
Settled in San Francisco, Gunn continued to write, and began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley in 1958 after graduate studies at Stanford. Aside from occasional trips to England and a year teaching in San Antonio, Texas, Gunn has taught at Berkeley and lived in San Francisco ever since.
"In the 1960s and '70s, Gunn was part of the pleasure-seeking culture of the hippies and gay liberation, " wrote San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jesse Hamlin. This culture included experimentation with LSD, which Gunn believes "increased the subject matter" of his poetry, giving him "more of an accepting attitude towards the world."
Writing About AIDS
When AIDS struck San Francisco, Gunn lost many friends to the disease. He voiced his opinion and vision of the epidemic in the clear and unsentimental manner characteristic of his work, particularly in poems like "The Man With Night Sweats" and "In Time of Plague." Poetry's David Spurr wrote that Gunn "follows erotic impulse as well as disease-the pleasures and pains of the body-as a kind of corporeal index to the news of life and death." But the poet did not actually plan to write "The Man With Night Sweats." As he confessed to Hamlin, "I was writing about friends as they were dying, but I didn't realize the poems would have the impact they all did coming together. I was so impressed by the way people face death. So few people feel sorry for themselves, or whimper. I hope I can have such bravery, whatever kind of death I eventually have."
But Gunn resists being identified with any particular group. According to William Logan of the New York Times Book Review, Gunn writes "of America without being of America." Gunn said, "Being English is very important to me since I spent my first twenty-five years in England. On the other hand … living in America is very important to me too, since I have spent more than half my life in this country." Interestingly, after more than 40 years of living in America, Gunn has chosen to remain a resident alien, perhaps attesting to his firm desire to remain an outsider. However, he does show preference for the writing of his adopted home: "I find most English poetry terribly timid, " he told Contemporary Authors. "American poetry is much more interesting."
Collected Poems is Acclaimed
With the release of 1994's Collected Poems, Gunn seems to have "made a peace with art, its beauty and inherent artifice, " according to Publishers Weekly. The collection reads as a personal retrospective of San Francisco. Especially at the beginning of the collection, Gunn "brings to demotic experience his finely-honed meter and incisive rhymes, " wrote Tillinghast. "The balanced caesuras, the Augustan assurance of verse, are worthy of Alexander Pope, the subject matter is Big Brother and the Holding Company territory." Halfway through the book, though, Gunn began experimentation with free verse that was indicative of the chaotic, wild atmosphere of San Francisco in the 1970s.
When Gunn began to write about AIDS in the 1980s, his work became more compassionate, yet still unsentimental, and clear-headed. Tillinghast observed that "the poet is human enough to feel consoled, while at the same time having enough wry self-knowledge to undercut that consolation." And Publishers Weekly opined that Gunn "avoids both naive realism and modernist self-referentiality." Most remarkable about this collection of poetry is the "care, both in the making of the poem and in the concern for people." He addresses both the city of San Francisco and its citizens with "an intelligence and a warmth superior to those of virtually any other gay poet, " observed Booklist. The people who inhabit Gunn's poems, however, are a part of the world he seeks to subvert. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, poet Donald Hall wrote that he did "not find [Gunn] pledging allegiance to anything except his own alert, unforgiving, skeptical independence."
Further Reading on Thom Gunn
Contemporary Authors, New Revisions, Volume 33, Gale 1991.
Booklist, April 15, 1994, p. 1503.
New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1992; May 29, 1994.
Poetry, February 1995, p. 289.
Publishers Weekly, February 28, 1994, p. 77.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 1996, p.D1.