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An English poet who has been a long-time resident of California, Thom Gunn combines a respect for traditional poetic forms with an interest in popular topics, such as the Hell's Angels, LSD, and homosexuality. While Gunn wrote most of his early verses in iambic pentameter—a phase when his ambition was "to be the John Donne of the twentieth century"—his more recent works assume a variety of forms, including syllabic stanzas and free verse. The course of Gunn's development is recorded in Selected Poems 1950-1975, in which "the language begins as English and progresses toward American," according to Nation reviewer Donald Hall.
Gunn has said that students of his work should read Paul Giles's article "Landscapes of Repetition" in Critical Quarterly. He explained, "I find it valuable because he reads me as I would want to be read, i.e. taking my later books for themselves rather than in light of the earlier books." Of his personal life, he wrote in 1983, "I am a completely anonymous person—my life contains no events, and I lack any visible personality. My books are so commonplace that I was once mistaken for an antique hat-stand (and I was wearing no hat). I lack motivation, circumstances, viewpoints on vital subjects, and illuminating personal data." As this comment reveals, Gunn is known for his reticence—and irony.
Gunn's personal life—that of the radical nonconformist—is far more interesting than he claims. His father was a journalist and his mother was a writer with socialist sympathies. Gunn's early life was peripatetic; after his parents' divorce when he was nine, he traveled with his father to various assignments and, as a consequence, attended a number of different schools. After completing his initial schooling, he served in the British Army for two years; then he lived in Paris, where he read Proust and wrote fiction. At Trinity College, Cambridge he concentrated on writing poetry and published the collection Fighting Terms in 1954. His early poetry—with its unembarrassed presentations of love as interpersonal combat and its focus on the upheavals of war and the freedom of life on the road—was considered violent compared to the tradition of gentility that existed in the 1940s.
The young Gunn felt more at home in California, where he studied poetry with Yvor Winters and lived with his homosexual lover. Village Voice contributor Mark Caldwell claimed that Gunn's experiences have been notably less tame than his poems might suggest. "If he belongs to a nation it is San Francisco; or perhaps homosexuality is his country—but I do not find him pledging allegiance to anything except his own alert, unforgiving, skeptical independence," Hall observed in a Los Angeles Times Book Review piece about Gunn. Gunn's characteristic understatement about his life resurfaces in The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, according to Ian Hamilton in the Times Literary Supplement. "The book's effort is to present the author as reflective and benign," wrote Hamilton. "We see him as fond and skillful explicator of Hardy and Fulke Greville, and as awed apprentice to Robert Duncan and William Carlos Williams."
Gunn's masterful fusion of "modern" and "traditional" elements has brought him critical acclaim. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, M. L. Rosenthal praised Selected Poems 1950-1975, noting that "Gunn has developed his craft so that by now even his freest compositions have a disciplined music." Echoing this sentiment, New York Review of Books critic Stephen Spender suggested that the contradiction between the "conventional form" of Gunn's poems and their "often Californian 'with it' subject matter" is what distinguishes his work. Frank representations of violence, deviance, and the life of the counterculture based in San Francisco connect with "yesterday and tomorrow" in Gunn's art, remarked Charles Champlin in an article for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "It is," Spender elaborated, "as though A. E. Housman were dealing with the subject matter of Howl, or Tennyson were on the side of the Lotus Eaters."
In a Poetry article, Robert B. Shaw speculated that Gunn's fluctuation between metrical poems and free verse reflects an internal struggle: "On the one hand, the poet feels the attraction of a life ruled by traditional, even elitist values, and by purely individual preferences a private life in the classic sense, the pursuit of happiness. On the other hand, he feels a visionary impulse to shed his isolated individuality and merge with a larger whole." Commenting on the same tension in Gunn's work, Jay Parini noted in the Massachusetts Review that rule and energy, the two forces Winters once advised Gunn to keep in view, "potentially counterdestructive principles, exist everywhere in [Gunn's] work, not sapping the poems of their strength but creating a tensed climate of balanced opposition. Any poet worth thinking twice about possesses at least an energetic mind; but it is the harnessing of this energy which makes for excellence. In Gunn's work an apparently unlimited energy of vision finds, variously, the natural boundaries which make expression—and clarity—possible."
Gunn's career has been marked by constant evolution in his poems. While the poet has said he considers Fighting Terms and The Sense of Movement to be apprentice pieces, according to Blake Morrison in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, his 1961 collection, My Sad Captains, and Other Poems "undoubtedly mark a turning point" in his poetry. His early poetry exhibited formal control of style to address modern subject matters and caused him to be lumped together with poets of "The Movement," a label Gunn has always despised as a convenient way for journalists and critics to classify poets. The first part of My Sad Captains reflects Gunn's earlier, metrical style, while the second part transitions into "the new phase of syllabics and 'tenderness,'" according to Morrison. "The braggarts and tough guys who stalk the book's pages seem seedier and less confident than their predecessors," Morrison also noted, "to be pitied rather than admired. . . . Human relationships generally are revalued, the selfishness and subterfuge Gunn formerly saw dominating them giving way to the possibility of gentleness." It is also with My Sad Captains that "Gunn is for the first time attentive to the natural world," according to Morrison.
Another change in course came after Gunn had experimented with LSD and the hippie counterculture during the 1960s, as can be seen in his 1971 collection, Moly. The title comes from the name of the herb Ulysses used to prevent Circe from turning him into a pig; and there are a number of poems in the collection that describe Gunn's LSD experiences, but the work is also notable for marking the poet's full transition into free verse. However, Gunn has noted that taking drugs during the 1960s did not influence his style. "I had already learned how to write free verse in America [before the publication of Molly]," he told Billy Lux in Gay and Lesbian Review. "I started out writing in meter and rhyme in England. But in dealing with the experience of the infinite, I needed to filter it through a finite form, otherwise the whole thing would just drift away. . . . It was very good for me to face the problem in composition of writing about untenable experiences, experiences beyond the ordinary, hallucinatory things."
In addition to moving from a classic, metrical style of poetry to free verse, in the 1970s Gunn moved from addressing love poems to women to frankly homosexual verses in Jack Straw's Castle. By the time of the 1982 publication of Passages of Joy, his poetry was unabashedly homoerotic, but was also tinged with a melancholy air. As Gay and Lesbian Literature contributor Michael Bronski wrote, "the sadness evident in some of Gunn's earlier poems—the poet's response to the human condition—has evolved to reflect an acceptance of life's difficulties—tragedy touches the lives, albeit in small ways, of almost everyone."
When the 1980s brought the AIDS epidemic to the gay community, Gunn lost many of his friends to the disease. His grief over these losses is, according to many critics, profoundly described in his award-winning book The Man with Night Sweats. An Interviews with Poets critic commented that while some critics had complained that Gunn had been "squandering his talent" by writing about his drug and gay experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, they were "obliged to reconsider" that assessment with the release of The Man with Night Sweats. While the verses contained here often describe heartbreaking personal loss, the poems are never self-indulgent and "never moralistic," asserted David Ferry in the Boston Review. Nation critic Robert Pinsky similarly wrote that "even when it has the power to make a reader weep, the writing itself is not dabbing righteously at its eyes. Celebrated poems like 'Lament,' 'In Time of Plague' and 'Courtesies of the Interregnum' have so much dignity along with their force that they do credit to the readers who have made them something like classics already." "Here is a poet without vanity," commented Henri Cole in another Nation review, "—the aberration afflicting so many of us—whose poems consider instead those lives that, like branches, crisscross his own. 'Writing poetry has in fact become a certain stage in my coping with the world,' he tells us, 'or in the way I try to understand what happens to me and inside me. Perhaps I could say that my poetry is an attempt to grasp, with grasp meaning both to take hold of in a first bid at possession, and also to understand.'"
As Gunn has aged, his poems have turned increasingly to the subject of mortality. When he writes about love it is more often with a sense of irony, as in his 2000 publication, Boss Cupid. Gunn often wryly comments on how the god of love often aims his arrows at arbitrary targets, thus causing people to fall in love with unsuitable partners. The poet also writes about those things that get in the way of love, and a number of the poems touch on grim subjects, such as in "The Butcher's Son" in which a father dies believing, incorrectly, that his son has died in the war, or "Troubadour," about twentiety-century murderer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. However, "in contrast to . . . The Man with Night Sweats," observed Phoebe Pettingell in New Leader, "which bleakly elegized the AIDS epidemic, Boss Cupid usually manages a laugh in the face of adversity. Gunn uses humor the way he uses rhyme and meter: to give form to fear and emptiness so dreadful that they threaten to overwhelm thought and emotion." As with The Man with Night Sweats, Boss Cupid was also highly praised by reviewers. Paul Gray wrote in Time that "almost all of Gunn's virtues are on display here: his playful metrical dexterity, his unflinching celebration both of beauty and of its transience." David Kippen concluded in the San Francisco Chronicle that "Gunn's a romantic at heart, but throughout [ Boss Cupid] . . . he's wise to the not always welcome ways and times that Cupid picks to boss us around."
Neither British nor American, Gunn has resolutely evaded easy classification throughout his career as a poet. "The point is not legalities of citizenship (Gunn remains a resident alien, fitting a poet both domestic and estranged)," Hall observed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "but that he may not be labeled by nationality or anything else. His identity is his resistance to the limitations of identity. He belongs to uncertainty, exploration, movement and ongoingness. . . . Here is the man without conventional supports who refuses title and easy chair, political party and national identity."