Thom Gunn (1929-2004) is a poet whose work thrives on contrast and contradiction: rigour and freedom, English tradition and American idiom, strict form and free verse, intellectual discipline and physical hedonism are all held in balance in his risk-taking poetry.
Thom Gunn was one of those poets you studied at school in the 1960s or 70s if your teacher had their finger on the pulse: Plath, Hughes, Heaney and Gunn.
Gunn’s life spans so many of the major changes in Britain and the US since the war. A poet of free verse and open forms, a lover of risk and extremes, of drugs, bath houses, bars, loud music, open relationships, sex clubs., and queer culture. But at the same time he was also private, modest, legendarily polite, orderly and with old-fashioned manners; fond of cats, Henry James and domestic stability.
Having the English tradition to hand, but also the new poetry happening around him in the US, he may in that respect be the only Anglo-American poet there has been.
His first collection of poetry, Fighting Terms (1954) was published the year after he graduated. Gunn’s 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 widely praised.
Gunn left England shortly after his first book and moved with his partner, Michael Kitay, who he met at Cambridge, to California where they spent the rest of their lives.
During the 1970s and 80s, Gunn’s poems were marked by his personal experiences as he wrote more openly about his homosexuality and drug use. With the publication of The Man with Night Sweats in 1992, a collection memorializing his friends and loved ones who had fallen victim of the AIDS pandemic, Gunn received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1993.
The things that Gunn the poet accepted – mortality, ageing, the decay of the flesh – Gunn the man did not: Gunn feared old age, lost his routine, claimed he had no “juice” left for poetry. He spent more and more time taking speed and cruising in dangerous places. He died of a drugs overdose on 25 April 2004 – as Wilmer calls it, “a chosen death … chosen by a man who had earlier chosen life.”
from The Man with Night Sweats, Faber & Faber, 1992
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.
I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.