Thom Gunn

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Thomson William "Thom" Gunn (29 August 1929 – 25 April 2004), was an English poet who was praised for his early verses in England, where he was associated with The Movement and his later poetry in America, even after moving toward a looser, free-verse style. After relocating from England to San Francisco, Gunn wrote about gay-related topics—particularly in his most famous work, The Man With Night Sweats in 1992—as well as drug use, sex and his bohemian lifestyle. He won major literary awards and his best poems have a compact philosophical elegance [1] .


Life and career

Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent, England, the son of Bert Gunn. Both of his parents were journalists. They divorced when he was 10 years old. When he was a teenager his mother killed herself. It was she who had sparked in him a love of reading, including an interest in the work of Christopher Marlowe, John Keats, John Milton, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, along with several prose writers. In his youth, he attended University College School in Hampstead, London, then spent two years in the British national service and six months in Paris. Later, he studied English literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1953 having achieved a first in Part I of the Tripos and a second in Part II. [2] Fighting Terms, his first collection of verse, was published in the following year. Among several critics who praised the work, John Press wrote: "This is one of the few volumes of postwar verse that all serious readers of poetry need to possess and to study." [3]

For the Scottish painter, see Herbert James Gunn

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Christopher Marlowe, also known as Kit Marlowe, was an English playwright, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. Marlowe was the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day. He greatly influenced William Shakespeare, who was born in the same year as Marlowe and who rose to become the pre-eminent Elizabethan playwright after Marlowe's mysterious early death. Marlowe's plays are known for the use of blank verse and their overreaching protagonists.

John Keats Poet

John Keats was an English Romantic poet. He was one of the main figures of the second generation of Romantic poets, along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, despite his works having been in publication for only four years before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 25.

As a young man, he wrote poetry associated with The Movement and, later, with the work of Ted Hughes. Gunn's poetry, together with that of Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, and other members of The Movement, has been described as "...emphasizing purity of diction and a neutral tone...encouraging a more spare language and a desire to represent a seeing of the world with fresh eyes." [4] [5]

Ted Hughes English poet and childrens writer

Edward James Hughes was an English poet, translator, and children's writer. Critics frequently rank him as one of the best poets of his generation, and one of the twentieth century's greatest writers. He served as Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death. In 2008 The Times ranked Hughes fourth on their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".

Philip Larkin English poet, novelist, jazz critic and librarian

Philip Arthur Larkin was an English poet, novelist, and librarian. His first book of poetry, The North Ship, was published in 1945, followed by two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), and he came to prominence in 1955 with the publication of his second collection of poems, The Less Deceived, followed by The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). He contributed to The Daily Telegraph as its jazz critic from 1961 to 1971, articles gathered in All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–71 (1985), and he edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973). His many honours include the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. He was offered, but declined, the position of Poet Laureate in 1984, following the death of Sir John Betjeman.

Donald Davie poet

Donald Alfred Davie was an English Movement poet, and literary critic. His poems in general are philosophical and abstract, but often evoke various landscapes.

In 1954, Gunn emigrated to the United States to teach writing at Stanford University and to remain close to his partner, Mike Kitay, whom he had met while at college. Gunn and Kitay continued to reside together until Gunn's death. [6] While at Stanford he taught a class called "The Occasions of Poetry". [7] Gunn taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1958 to 1966 and again from 1973 to 2000. [8] He was "an early fan" of the radical gay sex documentary zine Straight to Hell . [9]

Stanford University Private research university in Stanford, California

Leland Stanford Junior University is a private research university in Stanford, California. Stanford is known for its academic strength, wealth, selectivity, proximity to Silicon Valley, and ranking as one of the world's top universities.

Zine a small circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images usually reproduced via photocopier

A zine is a small-circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images, usually reproduced via photocopier. Zines are the product of either a single person or of a very small group, and are popularly photocopied into physical prints for circulation. A fanzine is a non-professional and non-official publication produced by enthusiasts of a particular cultural phenomenon for the pleasure of others who share their interest. The term was coined in an October 1940 science fiction fanzine by Russ Chauvenet and popularized within science fiction fandom, entering the Oxford English Dictionary in 1949.

In April 2004, he died of acute polysubstance abuse, including methamphetamine, at his home in the Haight Ashbury neighbourhood in San Francisco, where he had lived since 1960. [10]

Poly drug use refers to the use of two or more psychoactive drugs in combination to achieve a particular effect. In many cases one drug is used as a base or primary drug, with additional drugs to leaven or compensate for the side effects of the primary drug and make the experience more enjoyable with drug synergy effects, or to supplement for primary drug when supply is low.

Methamphetamine Type of synthetic drug

Methamphetamine is a potent central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that is mainly used as a recreational drug and less commonly as a second-line treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obesity. Methamphetamine was discovered in 1893 and exists as two enantiomers: levo-methamphetamine and dextro-methamphetamine. Methamphetamine properly refers to a specific chemical, the racemic free base, which is an equal mixture of levomethamphetamine and dextromethamphetamine in their pure amine forms. It is rarely prescribed over concerns involving human neurotoxicity and potential for recreational use as an aphrodisiac and euphoriant, among other concerns, as well as the availability of safer substitute drugs with comparable treatment efficacy. Dextromethamphetamine is a much stronger CNS stimulant than levomethamphetamine.


During the 1960s and 1970s, his verse became increasingly bold in its exploration of drugs, homosexuality, and poetic form. He enjoyed the bohemian lifestyle in San Francisco so much that Edmund White described him as "the last of the commune dwellers [...] serious and intellectual by day and druggy and sexual by night". While he continued to sharpen his use of the metrical forms that characterised his early career, he became more and more interested in syllabics and free verse. "He's possibly the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD, and he's certainly one of the few to profess genuine admiration for both [Yvor] Winters (the archformalist) and Allen Ginsberg (the arch ... well, Allen Ginsberg)", critic Daniel Orr has written. "This is, even for the poetry world, a pretty odd background." [11]

Edmund White American novelist and LGBT essayist

Edmund Valentine White III is an American novelist, memoirist, and an essayist on literary and social topics. Much of his writing is on the theme of same-sex love. His books include The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), his trio of autobiographic novels, A Boy's Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), and his biography of Jean Genet.

Syllabic verse is a poetic form having a fixed or constrained number of syllables per line, while stress, quantity, or tone play a distinctly secondary role — or no role at all — in the verse structure. It is common in languages that are syllable-timed, such as Japanese or modern French or Finnish — as opposed to stress-timed languages such as English, in which accentual verse and accentual-syllabic verse are more common.

Free verse is an open form of poetry which in its modern form arose through the French vers libre form. It does not use consistent meter patterns, rhyme, or any musical pattern. It thus tends to follow the rhythm of natural speech.

In classic verse forms, like the terza rima of Dante, he explored modern anxieties:

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.

"The Annihilation of Nothing"

Gunn, who praised his Stanford mentor Yvor Winters for keeping "both Rule and Energy in view, / Much power in each, most in the balanced two," found a productive tension – rather than imaginative restriction – in the technical demands of traditional poetic forms. He is one of the few contemporary poets (James Merrill would be another) to write serious poetry in heroic couplets – a form whose use in the twentieth century is generally restricted to light verse and epigrammatic wit. In the 1960s, however, he came to experiment increasingly with free verse, and the discipline of writing to a specific set of visual images, coupled with the liberation of free verse, constituted a new source of rule and energy in Gunn's work: a poem such as "Pierce Street" in his next collection, Touch (1967), has a grainy, photographic fidelity, while the title-poem uses hesitant, sinuous free verse to portray a scene of newly acknowledged intimacy shared with his sleeping lover (and the cat).

The poet's major stylistic change in his shift toward free verse roughly within a decade that included much of the 1960s, combined with the other changes in his life his move from England to America, from academic Cambridge to bohemian San Francisco, his becoming openly gay, his drug-taking, his writing about the "urban underbelly" caused many to conjecture how his lifestyle was affecting his work. "British reviewers who opposed Gunn's technical shifts blamed California, just as American critics would, later on, connect his adventurous lifestyle with his more 'relaxed' versification," according to Orr, who added that even as of 2009, critics were contrasting "Gunn's libido with his tight metrics as if no one had ever written quatrains about having sex before". [11]

In Gunn's next book, Jack Straw's Castle (1976), the dream modulates into nightmare, related partly to his actual anxiety-dreams about moving house, and partly to the changing American political climate. "But my life," he wrote, "insists on continuities between America and England, between free verse and metre, between vision and everyday consciousness."

The Passages of Joy reaffirmed those continuities: it contains sequences about London in 1964–65 and about time spent in New York in 1970. The Occasions of Poetry, a selection of his essays and introductions, appeared at the same time.

Ten years were to pass before his next and most famous collection, The Man With Night Sweats (1992), dominated by AIDS-related elegies. [11] Neil Powell praised the book: "Gunn restores poetry to a centrality it has often seemed close to losing, by dealing in the context of a specific human catastrophe with the great themes of life and death, coherently, intelligently, memorably. One could hardly ask for more." As a result of the book, Gunn received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1993. [3] Although AIDS was a focus of much of his later work, he remained HIV-negative himself. [10]

That year, Gunn published a second collection of essays with an interview, Shelf Life, and his substantial Collected Poems, which David Biespiel hailed as a highlight of the century's poetry: "Thom Gunn is a poet of 'comradely love.' Compassion has always been his domain and his work's principal emotion. If 20th century verse written in English can be seen as a battle between memory and voice - between the phenomena and its history, on the one hand, and the poet's conviction and feeling about it, on the other - then Gunn's importance lies in the accuracy with which he unifies the language and emotion of experience. You're not sure where one ends and the other starts. The result is that his poems find the limits of their imaginative territory and then push beyond that." [12] His final book of poetry was Boss Cupid (2000). [3]

In 2003 he was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature together with Beryl Bainbridge. He also received the Levinson Prize, an Arts Council of Great Britain Award, a Rockefeller Award, the W. H. Smith Award, the PEN (Los Angeles) Prize for Poetry, the Sara Teasdale Prize, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, the Forward Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. [3] He won Publishing Triangle's inaugural Triangle Award for Gay Poetry in 2001 for Boss Cupid; following his death, the award was renamed the Thom Gunn Award in his memory.

Five years after his death, a new edition of Gunn's Selected Poems was published, edited by August Kleinzahler.


The San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley consists of four works of art along Ringold Alley honoring leather culture; it opened in 2017. [13] [14] One of the works of art is metal bootprints along the curb which honor 28 people (including Gunn) who were an important part of the leather communities of San Francisco. [14] [13]


Literary works

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  1. British Poetry: Since 1945 . Great Britain: Penguin Classics. 1971. p. 143. ISBN   014042122X.
  2. Chainey, Graham (1995). A Literary History of Cambridge (Revised Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 271–2. ISBN   0521482445.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 Web page titled "Thom Gunn" at the website of the Academy of American Poets retrieved 12 July 2009
  4. Norton Anthology of English Literature
  5. Norton Anthology of English Literature
  6. Thom., Gunn, (2007). The man with night sweats (Pbk. ed.). New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. ISBN   9780374530686. OCLC   138338588.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  7. "Stanford Magazine - Article". Retrieved 5 October 2017.
  8. Web page titled "In Memoriam, Thomson Gunn" retrieved 9 January 2018.
  9. Reed Woodhouse, Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945–1995, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, ISBN   1558491325, p. 64.
  10. 1 2 Biespiel, David, "A Poet's Life Part Two", San Francisco Chronicle, 26 April 2005, retrieved 17 July 2009
  11. 1 2 3 Orr, Daniel, "On Poetry" column, "Too Close to Touch", New York Times Book Review, 12 July 2009 (published 9 July online), retrieved 12 July 2009
  12. Guthmann, Edward, "Thom Gunn, poet of comradely love", San Francisco Chronicle, 8 August 1995
  13. 1 2
  14. 1 2 Paull, Laura. "Honoring gay leather culture with art installation in SoMa alleyway – J". Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  15. 1 2 Cox, Michael, editor, The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN   0-19-860634-6

Further reading