d. 25 April 2004
The Anglo-American writer Thom Gunn was a major gay poet and a perceptive critic of gay poetry.
Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent, and educated at University College School, Bedales and Trinity College, Cambridge. After coming to the United States in 1954, he studied at Stanford and taught at the University of California, Berkeley. He won a number of prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the W. H. Smith Award, the Forward Press Award, and the MacArthur Prize.
Gunn's poetry has a popular reputation for sex and drugs and leather. This comes largely from the repeated anthologizing of his early poems from the collections Fighting Terms (1954) and The Sense of Movement (1956). In both books, a heroic masculine posing is celebrated as preferable, existentially, to the dull passivity of conformity. His leather boys in the poem "On the Move" are "always nearer by not keeping still." The voice of "Carnal Knowledge" admits that "even in bed I pose."
Posing does not disappear entirely from Gunn's later poems; there is often the sense of looking at looking at looking. And this perspective is exacerbated in the collections after Moly (1971) by hallucinogenic drugs' revelation of a self that can no longer be hidden in a costume.
Probably his greatest poem is the title work of the collection Jack Straw's Castle (1976), a poem in which his poetic ego descends into the maelstrom of dream worlds and nightmare visions: "But night makes me uneasy: floor by floor / Rooms never guessed at." In this maelstrom, Charles Manson (Gunn's one-time neighbor) says to him, "dreams don't come from nowhere: it's your dream / He Says, you dreamt it."
Gunn returned to this experience of nightmare vision with more sense of irony in another long poem, "The Menace," in the next collection, The Passages of Joy (1992). There "the one who wants to get me" turns out to be the reflection of himself in a store window and leads to a comic reflection on our construction of ourselves.
Constant in Gunn's poems from Touch (1967) onward, however, is what one critic has called "imaginative naturalness and greater openness of feeling." This increased naturalness entailed both a loosening of the traditional poetic forms with which he began to write and a greater freedom with the life of the senses and with feeling.
In the title poem, "Touch," a warmth surfaces from "the restraint of habits" and "the black frost / Of outsideness." And twenty-five years later, this warmth reappeared, in a poem addressed to his more-than-forty-years lover, recalling "the stay of your secure firm dry embrace."
From his embrace of the physical came both an ability to risk and some of the finest gay elegies ever written: the poems that give the title to The Man With Night Sweats (1992).
Once again, these poems are characterized by the contemplation of AIDS sufferers contemplating the bodies that they thought they knew. Here the bodily shields are now cracked and the pleasures "the hedonistic body basks within / And takes for granted" have gone away. But so have we who are left:
dizzy from a sense
Of being ejected with some violence
From vigil in some white and distant spot.
The loss is not simply personal but also of a community that Gunn describes as having been a "supple entwinement of the living mass." We are the Holocaust survivors filing past what leaves us "less defined," "unconfined," and "abandoned incomplete." And yet the greatness of these poems, as works of art, contradicts their ostensible theme of loss.
As a major gay poet, Gunn's influence can be seen on such other gay poets as Edgar Bowers, Michael Vince, Jim Powell, Robert Wells, and Gregory Woods.
But he was also a prose writer and critic of great distinction who wrote some of the most intelligent criticism of such gay poets as Whitman, Ginsberg, James Merrill and Robert Duncan.
Collected Poems and a collection of prose, Shelf Life, were published in 1994. Frontiers of Gossip appeared in 1998 and Boss Cupid in 2000.
Gunn died in his sleep at his home in San Francisco on April 15, 2004. He is survived by his companion of over 52 years, Mike Kitay.