THOM GUNN (1929-2004)
Thom Gunn was a poet of amazing consistency, energy, and high literary style. His poems are usually formal, but without being slavishly traditional. Despite their formality, they are intimate and personal. They are also clear and highly literate. Gunn himself was clear about the fact that he used poetry as a technique of comprehension: “And so for me the act of writing is an exploration, a reaching out, an act of trusting search for the correct incantation that will return me certain feelings whenever I want them. Of course I have never completely succeeded in finding the correct incantations.”
Born in Kent, England in 1929, Gunn grew up in a traditional English atmosphere. During the Second World War he was evacuated to the English countryside and was pointedly affected by the anthology The Poet’s Tongue
, which was edited by W. H. Auden and John Garrett. As a youngster he was also greatly influenced by Keats, who lived in Hempstead where Gunn was a child and young adult. His tastes were almost predictably romantic, including a small red book of the poetry of the novelist George Meredith. Typically English, he graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1953, having thoroughly enjoyed his years there, discovering Donne and Chaucer among many others, including the lectures of the famously influential English critic F. R. Leavis. Speaking of his last year at Cambridge, Gunn reminisced: “As the year went on, I withdrew more and more from the ‘Cambridge’ I had helped create. I had fallen in love, but that is another story.”
The story was that he had met and fallen in love with the American Mike Kitay, who according to Gunn “became the leading influence on my life, and thus on my poetry. It is not easy to speak of a
relationship so long-lasting, so deep and so complex, nor of the changes it has gone through, let alone of the effect it had on my writing. But his was, from the start, the example of the searching,
worrying, improvising intelligence playing upon the emotions, which in turn reflect back on the intelligence. It was an example at times as rawly passionate as only Henry James can dare to be.”
Gunn moved to America with Kitay in 1954 and lived in San Francisco, teaching at Berkeley for many years. He often described himself as an Anglo-American poet, as his 52-year relationship with
Kitay and America would testify to. Although Gunn’s early books were critical successes, the books of his middle period were less successful, until he published The Man With Night Sweats
in 1992, which solidified his reputation as a poet of great strength and staying power. Gunn died on April 25th, 2004 in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
The photographic portraits in this exhibit were taken by LaVerne H. Clark (above, Gunn in 1972) and Lois Shelton.
Fighting Terms. London: Faber & Faber, 1962 (1954).
“My first year at Cambridge changed that, and by the end of it my emotional age had just about caught up with my actual age. In the next two years, 1951 to 1953, I wrote almost all the poems that were to be published as my first book, Fighting Terms
In 1952 my first poem to be ‘published’ nationally, ‘The Secret Sharer,’ was broadcast by John Lehmann on his BBC programme New Soundings
. I was still influenced by dead writers—especially the Elizabethans—but they were writers I could see as bearing upon the present, upon my own activities. Donne and Shakespeare spoke living language to me, and it was one I tried to turn to my own uses. Suddenly everything started to feed my imagination. Writing poetry became the act of an existentialist conqueror, excited and aggressive. … what virtues this collection possesses, however, are mostly to be found in an awareness of how far I fell short of being such a conqueror. …
(Perhaps I should here note that when Jerome Rothenberg published Fighting Terms
in the US in 1958, I had put the whole book though a rigorous revision. Then when Faber and Faber published it in 1962, I de-revised it somewhat. Several people complained about the alterations in both editions, and I can now see how I was tidying things up, something I oughtn’t to have tampered with.)
It was around the time of the original publication of this book, 1954, or perhaps a little earlier, that I first heard of something called the Movement. To my surprise, I also learned that I was
a member of it. … It originated as a half-joke by Anthony Hartley writing in The Spectator
, and then was perpetuated as a kind of journalistic convenience. What poets like Larkin, Davie, Elizabeth Jennings and I had in common at that time was that we were deliberately eschewing modernism, and turning back, though not very thoroughgoingly, to traditional resources in structure and method.”
—Thom Gunn, My Life Up to Now
My Sad Captains. London: Faber & Faber, 1961.
“In 1961 I published My Sad Captains
, the name of the title poem having been suggested by Mike. The collection is divided into two parts.
The first is the culmination of my old style—metrical and rational but maybe starting to get a little more humane. The second half consists of a taking up of that humane impulse in a series of poems in syllabics. Writing in a new form almost necessarily invited new subject-matter, and in such a poem as ‘Adolescence’ I was writing a completely different kind of poem from any I had done before. But after this book I couldn’t go much further with syllabics, even though I did write other poems in the form during the next few years.”
—Thom Gunn, My Life Up to Now
Touch. London: Faber & Faber, 1967.
In some ways the orphan of Gunn’s books, Touch
received little critical attention and is hardly ever mentioned in interviews. Its fifteen
individual poems are anchored by two long serial poems that give the volume a forbidding aspect. The poems in this volume are wrestling with what it means to be human, especially under extreme circumstances:
“Are all reduced here to one form and one size,
And here the human race, too, lies
An imperfection endlessly refined
By the imperfection of the mind.”
The vision in this volume is dark, rarely penetrated by light or lightness, sere and lonely. The poems are almost uniformly pessimistic, with only sparks of hope glinting through the gloom. Gunn commented on the poems in an attempt to provide an alternative to the bleak vision: “I do not mean that one can simply love everybody because one wants to, but that one can try to avoid all the situations in which love is impossible.” In this volume, he has assembled a host of such impossible situations.
Moly. London: Faber & Faber, 1971.
“It is no longer fashionable to praise LSD, but I have no doubt at all that it has been of the utmost importance to me, both as a man and as a poet. I learned from it, for example, a lot of information about myself that I had somehow blocked from my own view. And almost all of the poems that were to be in my next book, Moly
, written between 1965 and 1970, have in some way however indirect to do with it.
Metre seemed to be the proper form for the LSD-related poems though at first I didn’t understand why. Later I rationalized about it thus. The acid trip is unstructured, it opens you up to countless possibilities, you hanker after the infinite. The only way I could give myself any control over the presentation of these experiences, and so could be true to them, was by trying to render the infinite through the finite, the unstructured through the structured. Otherwise there was the danger of the experience’s becoming so distended that it would simply unravel like fog before wind in the unpremeditated movement of free verse. Thomas Mann, speaking about how he wrote Doctor Faustus, tells of ‘filtering’ the character of the genius composer through the more limited but thus more precise consciousness of the bourgeois narrator. I was perhaps doing something like Mann.”
―Thom Gunn, My Life Up to Now
Jack Straw's Castle. London: Faber & Faber, 1976.
Jack Straw’s Castle
is a more personal book than its predecessors, and Gunn’s use of free verse echoes this emphasis on his personal life. The title poem is a serial poem which focuses on the poet’s dreams, and many of the poems seem to have dream-like origins. There is a longish poem in the voice of Gunn’s dog Yoko, focusing on the outer world as opposed to Gunn’s interior life:
“…my body in its excellent black coat never lets me down,
returning to you (as I always will, you know that)
filling myself out with myself, no longer confused,
my panting pushing apart my black lips, but unmoving,
I stand with you braced against the wind.”
The Passages of Joy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.
“It seems to me that one of my subjects is friendship, the value of friendship, it is a subject that has preoccupied me in recent years. This shows especially in The Passages of Joy
though nobody noticed it. Everybody noticed the gay poetry, but there are many poems about friendship in that book and a great many more in a new one that have to do with friendship, or imply it as a value, as indeed it is for me. And if you’re a writer and have lots of friends who suddenly die, then you’re going to want to write about it. And then, one of the oldest subjects is how you face the end. One thing I’ve been greatly struck by in the people I’ve watched die is the extraordinary bravery with which people face death.”
-Thom Gunn, "Anglo-American Poet: An Interview with Jim Powell" (in Shelf Life:
Essays, Memoirs, and an Interview
The Man with Night Sweats. London: Faber & Faber, 1992.
"Gunn’s greatest moment as a poet came at his most difficult time—the AIDS epidemic that devastated San Francisco. In one month alone, he lost four close friends.
Out of this personal and public crisis grew The Man with the Night Sweats
, which will probably stand as the central poetic testament of those plague years. While most AIDS poetry relied on naked grief and raw emotion, Gunn’s tough lyric meditations are simultaneously realistic and transcendent, as in his title poem, which begins, ‘I wake up cold, I who/ Prospered through dreams of heat/ Wake to their residue, / Sweat, and a clinging sheet.’ ”
The Man with Night Sweats
also includes a poem written here in Tucson during Gunn’s stay for his reading at the Poetry Center in October of 1972. The poem focuses on the otters at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which Gunn visited during his stay.
Boss Cupid. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
"How exciting it is, then, to see the poet push his reach and grasp even farther in Boss Cupid
. Just as rhyme and meter alternate with free verse here, so gay porn stars share space with English aunts. If Gunn includes a long poem on King David, he places one on serial-killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the same section. And isn't this shiftiness just what the title of the book implies? When we admit that Mother Venus’s sneaky son is in fact our boss, we begin to understand what Cambridge poet Tom Sleigh has admired in Gunn: 'the ability to give up the self to change in others, to change in oneself and in the world.' This process is Gunn’s true subject matter, whatever person, incident, or time period his individual poems portray.
And by submitting to changes, Gunn lets those he portrays break through the narrative framework he sets around them. After describing a friend’s frightening addiction to angel dust, he follows with a poem about the friend’s rehabilitation. A poem of fond praise for the poet’s mother’s social savvy precedes one that graphically describes her suicide. Shifting from line to line and page to page, Gunn’s subjects quote, in effect, Walt Whitman’s oft-quoted ‘very well then, I contradict myself.’
This ability to embrace contradiction reveals itself in Gunn's formal strategies. Take the way that form reflects content in ‘The Butcher's Son.’ Set in the wartime England of the poet’s youth, the poem is about an English butcher who grieves because his son is presumed dead. When the son in fact returns, showing up at a school dance, Gunn tells how much the son resembled his dad. And just as the young soldier’s features ‘contained his father’s,’ so the poem’s rangy free-verse lines contain tight rhymes that show through the prosodic surface.
But beyond his mastery of technique lies Gunn's moral yet imaginative sense of other people’s unpredictability. ‘I change, therefore I am,’ might be Thom Gunn’s revision of Descartes.
And his book enacts this process. So it is that one poem in Boss Cupid
ends with suicide, but ‘The Butcher's Son’ ends with that ‘light within the light/ That he turned everywhere.’ ”