Revisiting British poet Thom Gunn

Thom Gunn | New Selected Poems

Edited by Clive Wilmer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

British poet Thom Gunn was recognized as a unique talent from his very first collection “Fighting Terms” which was published while he was still studying at Cambridge in the early 50s. Gunn bucked the poetry trends of the time of deconstructed free verse. He made his name as a contemporary classicist and avoided what Gunn referred to as “confessional” free verse of famous contemporaries Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Robert Lowell, among others.

Even as he resisted “dramatizing” himself as so many other poets did in his era, he was, without doubt, a visceral poet who chronicled his life and times.

The full range of Gunn’s aesthetic is explored in- Thom Gunn – New Selected Poems, chosen by his lifelong friend and poet colleague Clive Wilmer who along with selecting the perfect poems that represent different aspects of Gunn’s best work, Wilmer writes an in-depth biographical essay and backstories of his creative journeys.

Gunn’s style was one of an ‘anonymous’ poetic auteur, closer to Elizabethan masters John Donne, Dante and Shakespeare. Gunn literary persona was reserved, objective and philosophical. A wry and compassionate observer, he used both naturalized meter and lyrical syntax and aspired to achieve clarity through “imagery and discourse.”   He grew up in England during WWII and Gunn later wrote that a key motif was that of a soldier.   

Gunn: “I was 16 at the end of WWII, so my visual landscape was full of soldiers. Of course, I became a soldier for two years  in the national service so that was another kind of soldier.”

Gunn would let long periods go by before he assembled a collection of poems he judged as worthy of publication.  Later in his career, Gunn also embraced free verse, but never abandoned structure and never repeated himself.  

It is apparent that obvious that Gunn was not living in some literary ivory tower, he was engaged with the world, and primarily the gay world as the main theme, less obliquely than other famous gay poets.

It was no accident that Gunn eventually met and befriended British expat Christopher Isherwood in California, along with becoming an intimate friend, Gunn admired Isherwood’s ‘transparency’ of his writing.

After falling in love with a handsome dramatic actor at school who was straight, they became friends and colleagues.  Gunn soon fell in love with Mike Kitay, who became his lover and lifelong companion even when they were no longer sex partners.   Gunn and Kitay left England to live the gay life in San Francisco.

The Hug” a very private remembrance of sleeping with Mike Katay, couldn’t, in fact, be a more intimate self-portrait and completely universal in its impact.

He observes and documents life in San Francisco and the gay and straight street life.

The Difference” is an equally intimate scene of a brief encounter with a trick, that is given equal philosophical importance. Especially in a time of grief, as his world was under attack from an unknown pathogen and a rabidly anti-gay government who did not care how many  GLBT Americans suffered or died.

Gunn never wrote with more craft, passion, and artistry as he responded to what was happening to his gay brothers during the AIDS epidemic. In the midst of the AIDS crisis, Gunn produced his most significant work.

Gunn became a writer warrior and his poetry in the AIDS era was the work of an ‘artist as a witness’ to his life and perilous times. He was among the earliest major writers to use their medium to report the impact of AIDS on gay America with his collection “The Man With Night Sweats.” These poems are among some of the most powerful literary work by gay writers documenting the personal loss and social impact on the gay community.

Gunn wrote many elegies for friends who had died of AIDS, of the impact of the epidemic in San Francisco. Gunn stated that he never felt that there was really a gay ‘community’ until he saw how GLBT people came together to help each other from the beginning of the epidemic, creating services to care for HIV/AIDS patients and grassroots support networks and AIDS activism. Wilmer writes that Gunn, from a literary standpoint, rose to the occasion and also produced the most powerful and well-crafted verse of his life.

Indeed, the poems and elegies written during this period are profound, well-crafted and most vitally exemplar of an artist as a witness to history. 

Poignantly, during the AIDS crisis, Gunn writes ‘The Gas-poker’ a poetic verite of his mother’s suicide, which took place when the poet was just 15.  He and his brother rushed to save her in a barricaded room, after they read her suicide note, tried to break down a door to get to her, but it was too late. 

His literary accolades include fellowships from the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Levinson Prize, the W.H. Smith Award, the Sara Teasdale Prize, et. al. Wilmer’s volume is a rediscovery of this gifted British poet whose work belongs in the pantheon of vital gay American literature.

Gunn, Wilmer reports, was also a beloved and respected professor at the University of California-Berkeley. Still, in the US Gunn enjoyed the academic or popular success he previously achieved in England.  This volume goes a long way in correcting that.