Re-experiencing Thom Gunn

Published in: September-October 2005 issue.


MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Thom Gunn (1929–2004) did not go well. It happened in Chicago in the late 1970’s. After sitting for hours in a smoke-filled bar, I wandered down Broadway and found him in a bookstore and took him back to my hotel—two of his books, that is: Moly and My Sad Captains. I’d recognized his name and, being new at being out, wondered if a gay poet could guide me through this strange new world, just as Robert Frost had made New Hampshire more bearable when I was in college. But Gunn’s language mystified me; his poems were complex, his syntax equally so, and, even more frustrating, there was no gratuitous sex!

My next brush with Gunn came in a report from a friend who’d met him in person on the roof of the Rainbow Cattle Company to do drugs and each other. Ten years later, another friend asked if he could bring him to a party I was hosting. Sure! A MacArthur Fellow had yet to grace my door, and now I was regretting those English courses I never took.

That was the beginning of our friendship. Our conversations were few and never about poetry, but I was also reading his work and became intrigued by his use of meter and rhyme. In an era of beat poetry and language poetry and abstract poetry that I couldn’t grasp, Gunn both challenged and comforted me with his formalism. He also excited me with his imagination, and if he didn’t have answers, he was talking about our lives in ways that I wanted to hear. But were our lives worthy of five centuries of poetic traditions? Thom believed they were.

In 2003 I chose Gunn’s work as the subject of an MFA thesis, and he was good enough to sit for an interview in September of that year. “I’ll answer any question you ask,” he said, and laughed. In his comfortable kitchen where he’d offered beer or tea, I sat at the table and Thom lay back on a bench. He interrupted answers with questions of his own, and I was surprised by how much he knew about me and how he’d fancied a prior boyfriend. What follows are my notes from that interview. I have filled in some of the gaps with material from other interviews that appear in Thom Gunn in Conversation with James Campbell and Gunn’s book, The Occasions of Poetry.

WE BEGAN at the beginning with Thom growing up with his father, Herbert Smith Gunn, a journalist with Beaverbrook Press, and his mother, Ann Charlotte Thomson Gunn, also a journalist until her pregnancy with Thom. An avid reader, he said she read all of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while she carried him. Later she would have Thom read Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and John Masefield. Like most children at this time, he studied the classics in school. He was sent away during the London Blitz, and his English teacher at the Bedales School in Hampshire introduced him to The Poet’s Tongue, edited by W. H. Auden, which included some modern poets and styles—a break with traditional texts. When he was ten his parents divorced, and in his mid-teens his mother committed suicide. It’s not clear what effect those events had on him as a writer; he wrote very little about his father and didn’t write about his mother’s death until Boss Cupid, published in 2000.

As a teenager Gunn wrote poetry and plays, and he attempted a novel. He said he destroyed the poems written during his two years in the British Army as not good, but once admitted to Cambridge he started writing poetry again, and some of those poems appeared in Fighting Terms, a book he published after graduating. At Cambridge he identified with the classic writers of English literature. “I was still influenced by dead writers—especially the Elizabethans—but they were writers I could see as bearing upon the present, upon my own activities. Donne and Shakespeare spoke living language to me, and it was one I tried to turn to my own uses.”

It was also at Cambridge that he discovered his sexuality. While he acknowledged his teenage interest in men, it never occurred to him that he was anything but straight. Attracted to soldiers, both poetically and physically, he later traced this fascination to a time just after the Blitz when he enjoyed “eyeing the well-fed and good-looking G.I.’s who were on every street, with an appreciation I didn’t completely understand.” In the poem “The Corporal,” he says that “half of my youth I watched the soldiers,” but it was their uniforms and masculinity that attracted him, not their wars. (When I asked why he never became an American citizen, he replied: “Whenever I thought seriously about it, some nasty little war would come up and I wouldn’t want to be identified with it.”)

Meeting Mike Kitay at Cambridge helped him come out. Mike was an American who was, in Gunn’s view, “far more intelligent when it came to dealing with the daily things in life.” He and Mike continued living together, often with others, for the rest of Gunn’s life. But beyond his immediate university friends, Gunn was still closeted. Finding a job in Britain or ever getting to America would have been impossible had it been known that he was gay. In his early poems he referred to Mike as “you,” as in “Tamer and Hawk,” a potent early poem:

Even in flight above
I am no longer free:
You sealed me with your love,
I am blind to other birds—
The habit of your words
Has hooded me. …

You but half civilize
Taming me in this way,
Through having only eyes
For you I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose
Tamer as prey.

His early exposure to progressive politics is evident in Gunn’s choice of subject matter. At Cambridge he was fascinated by Sartre and Camus. He saw himself as an existential warrior with a vocabulary of will, choice, self-determination, and individualism. In “The Wound,” the opening poem of Fighting Terms (1954), Gunn is that warrior struggling with identity while recovering from an unspecified wound: “I was myself: subject to no man’s breath:/ My own commander was my enemy.” We also find images of warriors in “Captain in Time of Peace” and love as a battlefield in “To his Cynical Mistress”:

And love is then no more than a compromise?
An impermanent treaty waiting to be signed
By the two enemies?
—While the calculating Cupid feigning impartial—blind
Drafts it, promising peace, both leaders wise
To his antics sign but secretly double the spies.

On each side is the ignorant animal nation
Jostling friendly in streets, enjoying in good faith
This celebration,
Forgetting the enmity with cheers and drunken breath,
But for them there has not been yet amalgamation:
The leaders calmly plot assassination.

Borrowing the title from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Gunn portrays a young man attempting to cross the minefield of affection. Male egos are set against one another, morality against experience, and Cupid against a world of drunken celebration where lovers fearing rejection undermine their relationships.

When Kitay returned to the U.S. to serve in the Air Force, Gunn secured a fellowship at Stanford. There he studied with Yvor Winters, whose concept of poetry Gunn described (in Occasions) as “an instrument for exploring the truth of things, as far as human beings can explore it, and it can do so with a greater verbal exactitude than prose can manage. Large generalized feelings (as in Whitman) were out, and rhetoric was the beginning of falsification.” Gunn didn’t complete his degree at Stanford, finding graduate work boring and seeing the limits of Winters’ perspective. He then accepted a teaching position at Berkeley and got tenure a few years later. When it became clear that he wouldn’t complete his doctorate, Berkeley gave him “something called ‘security of employment’” that guaranteed him health and retirement benefits without requiring the degree.

His second book, Sense of Movement (1957), included poems that departed from his classical heroes, with subjects such as Elvis Presley and motorcyclists, but he continued to write in the forms and style of British poetry. Critics made much of the influence of the existentialists in his focus on the will and choice. (He had fun with the word “will” upon learning that in Shakespeare it often referred to the penis.) His strong-willed heroes include bikers as well as Merlin, St. Martin, and Jesus. The poems address the importance of action and movement rather than thought, but Gunn is careful in his assessments. In “On the Move” he favors movement: “One joins the movement in a valueless world,/ Choosing it, till, both hurler and hurled,/ One moves as well, always toward, toward.” But he concludes the poem with the enigmatic: “At worse, one is in motion, and at best,/ Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,/ One is always nearer by not keeping still.” While this poem has been widely anthologized, Gunn thought it sounded stilted and wasn’t sure that the last line meant anything: “Nearer what? Well, the motorcyclist is nearer the destination, but what’s the destination of human beings? Aha! It’s a question that seems to answer itself but doesn’t” (Campbell).

With The Sense of Movement Gunn introduced street toughs, a subject that continued to intrigue him: witness the skinhead on the cover of Boss Cupid. His initial interest came from Hollywood movies. Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones was his inspiration for “On the Move” and “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death.” He was also taken by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause—a blue-collar hero, unlike Cary Grant and the gentlemen heroes he’d known as a child.

My Sad Captains (1961) was a pivotal collection that Gunn divided into two sections, the first representing his old style, which was metrical and rational, the second his new style, which was “a little more humane” (Occasions). We see the old in “The Book of the Dead,” where Gunn uses an iambic pentameter line and a rhyme scheme of abab in the first stanza and cdcd in the second. In the title poem critics found Gunn saying farewell to Alexander, Coriolanus, and Brutus, the classical heroes of past work as they “Turn with disinterested/ hard energy.” This poem can also be read as Gunn looking back on the men he cruised in bars. “… they appear in/ the darkness … how late they start to shine!” The men are restless in their quest, “only to/ renew the wasteful force they/ spent with each hot convulsion.” At the end of the night they’re still searching, not having met a partner, so they “turn with disinterested/ hard energy, like the stars.” Gunn captures the universal experience of men who cruise: erotic desire coupled with a steely posture to cover their fear of rejection.

Gunn met Christopher Isherwood in the mid-1950’s on a visit to Los Angeles. He’d been impressed with Isherwood’s ability “to present complexity through the elegance of simplicity, but without ever reducing it to mere simplicity” (Occasions), and his visit began an important friendship. “The writer I think I modeled myself on, always tried to model myself on after I met him, was Isherwood” (Campbell). When Isherwood began to withdraw from the friendship, Gunn assumed it was because he considered him a “brash, pushy young poet,” but after Isherwood’s death he learned that Don Bachardy, Isherwood’s partner, had developed a crush on him. “It never occurred to me at the time, as I was never interested in him.”

Gunn wrote very little during the early 1960’s. He admitted to frustration at wanting to write more passionately and not finding subjects or forms that worked. His early experiments with free verse were unsuccessful. In 1962 Faber published a volume of the collected poems of Gunn and Ted Hughes, who had followed him by two years at Cambridge. The book was a great success, selling 100,000 copies, and while the income was appreciated, Gunn disliked being labeled a “New Brutalist.” Indeed he never saw himself as part of any school of poetry. Never averse to experimenting with form, he considered himself a poet of his time.

Gunn lived in London for a year and published Positives in 1966 with his brother Ander, which was a series of photographs each accompanied by a poem. The book includes “very little great poetry, and I was never sure if I was writing poems or captions.” But they allowed him to focus on his favorite subjects: pop music, motorcycles, the subculture of tough male youths.

Free verse did not come easily to Gunn. He’d read William Carlos Williams at Winters’ urging, and he now found himself returning to Williams for inspiration, among others, as he described it:

I taught myself how to write in free verse. It was not common when I started writing. Not in England, and not in America, either. I never read William Carlos Williams until I got over here. Wallace Stevens had his collected poems published in England the year I left. I hadn’t read any Whitman. The only poet I liked I’d read in free verse was D. H. Lawrence, and I got nowhere trying to be him. He’s awfully good; he got a lot from Whitman reading him in 1916, and he wrote slavishly like Whitman … until he got his own rhythm going. That’s the thing with free verse: you’re inventing an interesting rhythm; it’s not just chopped-up prose. I learned to write it by writing in syllabics. It got me away from the iambic thump, the iambic music that seals your head, [so that]when you sit down to write something, you’re either going to write a bit of prose or something probably iambic, which is what I was always doing. So writing in syllabics and avoiding any regularity of meter did help very much. The seven-syllable line I used most successfully. It’s easy to avoid the iambic music if you take an irregular syllable line. The second half of My Sad Captains is in syllabics.

Gunn came out as gay only slowly:

My mother died when I was fifteen, and she would have taken it all right. My father was still in England and he would have been appalled and never spoken to me. We were never very close. He died in the early 50’s, and I never spoke to him about my sexuality. I didn’t come out in any real sense until what was quaintly called Gay Liberation was already going, and I can remember being in NYC in 1973. I stayed with somebody who said, you’ve really got to come on the gay parade, so I did rather reluctantly. I’m a coward, you know. Not that I had anything to be afraid of. I remember the extraordinary rush of adrenalin when we got out of Christopher Street, because it’s a gay enclave, and got onto Sixth Avenue to go uptown with all the crowds there. That was extraordinary. Fuck! I’m telling everyone I’m gay. There was a wonderful moment. I was walking with my leather friends, and I got a little ahead or a little behind to be among some of the other people in the parade. I saw this guy who looked like a bank clerk; he was from Hartford, Connecticut, and I thought, “He’s one of us too. We are all of us brothers.” After that I was rather open about it.

After coming out, Gunn became good friends with Robert Duncan, a courageous poet who came out in 1944 when he wrote an article for a periodical called Politics, edited by Dwight McDonald, about “The Homosexual and Society.” In it the writer admitted to his own homosexuality; that was unheard of. In response, John Ransom wrote to Duncan de-accepting his poems, saying they were a form of sexual advertisement. That was untrue. There was nothing sexual about any of them. He wasn’t using his poems to attract partners. I’m not searching for partners in my poetry, even when I am dealing with sexual matters.

It wasn’t until taking LSD that Gunn found new ways of expressing himself. In 1965 he told the Berkeley faculty that he wanted to devote himself to writing poetry, but his real reason was to “take acid and go to rock concerts.” Of that time he says, “These were the fullest years of my life, crowded with discovery both inner and outer, as we moved between ecstasy and understanding” (Occasions). Gunn published Moly in 1971 with poems about the street culture of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and his own drug experiences, written in rhyme. He blends the two in these lines from “Street Song”:

I am too young to grow a beard
But yes man it was me your heart
In dirty denim and dark glasses
I look through everyone who passes
But ask him clear, I do not plead,
Keys lids acid and speed.

He told me that part of the inspiration for the poem came from Elizabethan vendors who walked the streets of London selling pies. The diction is colloquial, and the meter lends itself to the quality of song. Indeed he drew a link between meter and drug use in Occasions: “Meter seemed to be the proper form for the LSD-related poems, though at first I didn’t understand why. Later I rationalized about it thus. The acid trip is unstructured, it opens you up to countless possibilities, you hanker after the infinite. The only way I could give myself any control over the presentation of these experiences and so could be true to them, was by trying to render the infinite through the finite.”

Moly is filled with the people of Gunn’s neighborhood. We find him listening to the Jefferson Airplane, watching a homeless man on the beach and the acrobatics of surfers. Moly reflects a less threatening world of connections between Gunn and the life around him. The title reflects Gunn’s affection for classical Greece. Hermes gave Odysseus the drug moly to break Circe’s spell of confinement. In “From the Wave” Gunn sees surfers dancing on waves as part of the ocean rather than as the macho conquerors of earlier works:

Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight
With a learn’d skill.
It is the wave they imitate
Keeps them so still.

By the title Gunn signalled that he was freeing himself from a poetic spell of confinement, the release he found in LSD. Contemporary authors like Mary Renault found a gay utopia in ancient Greece, but Gunn refused to go there. Rather than find a sanctuary in antiquity, he used its forms and characters to celebrate the present, so the classics became his stage set for a very American world. He never adopted radical poetic forms to express his very contemporary circumstances but continued to use forms that were centuries old. By referencing the universal stories of Greek myths, he connected his subjects to tradition without leaving California.

If Gunn was looking for utopia, it was a regained innocence that he captured in “Three,” about a naked couple at the beach with their son:

Only their son
Is brown all over. Rapt in endless play,
In which all games make one,
His three-year nakedness is everyday.

Swims as dogs swim.
Rushes to his father, wriggles from his hold.
His body which is him,
Sturdy and volatile, runs off the cold.

Runs up to me:
His hi there, he shrills, yet will not stop,
For thought continually
Accepting everything his play turns up
He still leaves it
And comes back to that pebble-warmed recess
In which the parents sit,
At watch, who had to learn their nakedness.

Written in his mid-forties, Gunn’s Jack Straw’s Castle (1975) can be read as a mid-life re-evaluation; in it the poet crosses the point of no return. Critics worried that he had failed to achieve the promised greatness of his first books by writing about his life as a gay man. With Jack Straw’s Castle he declared himself his own poet, not the golden boy of their promise.

Reading “The Geysers” in this collection was a revelation. It confirmed my own profound experience of the Geysers, a deserted Victorian spa frequented by bikers and gay men communing with nature—with a little help from psychotropic drugs. On my last trip I stumbled on two men I considered gods and was invited to smoke drugs I’d never heard of and share a stainless steel ball that got passed around the campfire mouth to mouth before going elsewhere. Thom’s description of his visit a year earlier is both majestic and sensuous. What I remembered as erotic, he gave the quality of eternity. The poem has four parts that recount a single day at the Geysers. The first (“Sleep by the Hot Stream”) is an ode to the natural beauty of the place as the narrator begins his day, opening thus:

Gentle as breathing
down to us it spills
From geysers heard but hidden in the hills.
The small flat patch of earth fed evenly
By warmth and wet, there’s dark grass fine as hair.

The second (“The Cool Stream”) takes place at the height of day and ends with this stanza:

And some are trying to straddle a floating log,
Some rest and pass a joint, some climb the fall:
Tan black and pink, firm shining bodies, all
Move with a special considered grace.
For though we have invaded this glittering place
And broke the silences, yet we submit:
So wholly, that we are details of it.

The language of the third section (“The Geysers”) shifts from the elegiac to the hard, with words like “pocked,” “cinderfield,” and “searing column.” Approaching a geyser, Gunn is confronted with a raw force not under his control:

A cinderfield that lacks all skin of soil,
It has no complications, no detail,
The force too simple and big to comprehend,
Like a beginning, also like an end.
No customs I have learned can make me wise
To deal with such. And I do recognize
—for what such recognition may be worth—
fire at my centre, burning since my birth
under the pleasant flesh. Force calls me to force.
Up here a man might shrivel in his source.

Gunn identifies the fire “burning since birth” in the fourth section (“The Bath House”) as a fierce erotic energy. The evening begins in the hot baths with the “drifting fume of dope,” “moonrays slope,” and “candleflicker.” The poet is surrounded by other men, both gay and straight, and women of various ages.
Bodies locked soft in trance of heat not saying much
eyes empty
Other senses breaking down to touch

Uncertain, he finds himself becoming part of a communal orgy:

Not certain
Who I am or where
Weight of darker earlier air

The body heavily buoyant
Sheathed by heat
Hard, almost, with it
Upward, from my feet
I feel rise in me a new kind of blood
The water round me thickens to hot mud
Sunk in it
passive plated slow
Stretching my coils on coils
And still I grow
and barely move in years I am so great.

I exist I hardly can be said to wait.

The form of this section is far looser than the previous three, ranging across the page, and leaving the control of the left margin. Most sentences end without a period.

In the final section Gunn turns to memories of childhood in “Autobiography,” “Hampstead, the Horse Chestnut Trees,” and “That Road Map.” “Courage, a Tale” is a light-hearted poem about a young man and masturbation. In keeping with the sense of time passing, “The Cherry Tree” portrays the life of a tree through the course of a single year as metaphor for a lifetime.

In 1982’s The Passages of Joy, Gunn is fully out. In “Bally Power Play” he gives us a man playing pinball in a gay bar. “Selves” is a long poem to an artist, Bill Schneussler, whom Gunn describes as a “vulnerable and tender man / I have dreamed about / three nights running.” “The Menace” is a long poem about a night of cruising in the meatpacking district, meeting a man, playing in the backroom of a bar, and attending a drag show.

Gunn didn’t publish again for another ten years. During that time San Francisco became the epicenter of hiv/aids in America. Many of the Gunn’s friends became sick and most of those died. He had his own sense of what was going on: “I think the reason it hit us so hard, for our generation and subsequent generations: we hadn’t known death. My parents knew friends who died of diphtheria. In the late 40’s antibiotics were invented, so we didn’t see contemporaries of ours dying except in freak things like traffic accidents. It was uncommon for young people, and suddenly it became all the rage. The first few years of AIDS were deeply shocking.”

The Man with Night Sweats, published in 1992, was Gunn’s most celebrated book, winning several prizes and ultimately landing him a MacArthur “genius” award. Gunn recounted one response to The Man With Night Sweats by an anonymous reviewer in The Economist, who “seemed to like it more than my earlier work because instead of celebrating gay sex, I was writing about tragedy. That seemed to satisfy him more.” The collection, written in four parts with both traditional and free verse, opens with erotic poems about men he had met, such as this from “The Hug”:

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.

In “Odysseus on Hermes, his Afterthought” Gunn portrays an older man’s infatuation with a younger, handsome god. This story is both true to classical material and an opportunity for Gunn to suggest something about himself.

The second section is a single poem “A Sketch of the Great Dejection” in which the narrator finds his body and spirit failing:

Having read the promise of the hedgerow
The body set out anew on its adventures,
At length it came to a place of poverty,
Of inner and outer famine
Where all movement had stopped

As he sits in a graveyard contemplating his life and death he comes to appreciate the self-knowledge that comes from it:

My body insisted on restlessness
having been promised love,
As my mind insisted on words
having been promised the imagination.
So I remained alert, confused and uncomforted.
I fared on and, though the landscape did not change,
It came to seem after a while like a place of recuperation.

After a third section that includes a poem to the dying Christopher Isherwood, the book’s title poem opens the fourth section, just as night sweats announce an HIV infection. In “In Time of Plague,” the narrator tries to get into the minds of two attractive men who want him to “stick their needle” in his arm. He loves “Their daring, their looks, their jargon/ and what they have in mind.”

My thoughts are crowded with death
and it draws so oddly on the sexual
that I am confused
confused to be attracted
by, in effect, my own annihilation.

“Lament” is a three-page poem that tracks the illness and death of a friend in iambic pentameter.

In hope still, courteous still, but tired and thin,
You tried to stay the man that you had been …

No respite followed: though the nightmare ceased,
Your cough grew thick and rich, its strength increased …

We talked between our sleeping bags, below
A molten field of stars five years ago:
I was so tickled by your mind’s light touch
I wouldn’t sleep, you made me laugh too much …

You never thought your body was attractive,
Though others did, and yet you trusted it
And must have loved its fickleness a bit …

In 2000, Gunn published Boss Cupid; it would be his final book. Two poems exemplify his humor and wisdom. The first is a small untitled poem about a small girl who asks her mother, “what do we think about God?” She gets a brief, surprising answer:

The little cousin dashed in
from her friends outside:
“Mother, what
do we think about God?”
My aunt’s brisk answer:
“We think God is silly.”

My cousin dashed back
with the news.

Gunn described himself as “an atheist who admits to the supernatural,” and in this poem he dealt quickly with a subject that’s had theologians chattering for lifetimes. As if compelled to comment, he communicates in as few words as possible and is done.

“American Boy” is an appropriate coda for Gunn’s life as a gay man in a culture that dotes on youth. The poem employs a rhyme scheme (abbcdca) of his own making. He structures the poem formally in each stanza with lines that alternate in length, growing longer up to a forceful last line with four beats. Unafraid to look at his age and potent desires, he begins the poem finding camaraderie with the beloved: “… we both still/ Warm to the naked thrill/ Precisely of that strangeness that has made/ For such self-doubt.” Without flinching, he finishes tenderly: “Expertly you know how to maintain me/ At the exact degree/ Of hunger without starving. We produce/ What warmth we can.”

Gunn typically revealed himself in what he chose to describe, more often the storyteller than the actor in his poems. An example is “The Life of the Otter, Tucson Desert Museum,” where he plays with gender. The otter is first described as a skater with “hands behind her back.” Gunn then brings our attention to its male genitalia, bestowing them with classical grandeur—an imaginative leap, as genitals are not obvious on male otters. The otter’s aggressive play is the center of the poem, as, for Gunn, play was an essential element of survival.

“The Gas Poker” describes a suicide:

Forty-eight years ago
—Can it be forty-eight
Since then?—they forced the door
Which she had barricaded
With a full bureau’s weight
Lest anyone find, as they did,
What she had blocked it for.

The tone withholds sentimentality, and the narrative is strengthened by ordinary words, powerfully connected: “They who had been her treasures/ Knew to turn off the gas.” The final stanza echoes the title and closes with beautiful diction and clear syntax.

One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.

Gunn wrote this poem 48 years after his mother’s death and finally settled on the third person. His reluctance to put himself in his poems reflects a shyness about emotional matters rather than a poetic stance and led him to describe his world in his poems without actively participating in it.

Gunn expressed concern that readers made too much of his sexuality:

A poem’s truth is in its faithfulness to a possibly imagined feeling, not to my history. In my early twenties I wrote a poem called “Carnal Knowledge,” addressed to a girl, with a refrain making variations on the phrase “I know you know.” If the reader knew I was a homosexual he would be likely to misread the whole poem, inferring that the speaker would rather be in bed with a man. But that would be a serious misreading, or at least a serious misplacement of emphasis.

More important to understanding Gunn are his fusion of modern and traditional elements, his aggressive use of poetic forms, and his renegade’s fascination with unpopular topics. Gunn sought to discover truth from his experience through poetry, describing events and people he encountered, strangers and lovers alike, bringing qualities of compassion and curiosity to both.

Gunn was a skilled craftsman who homed in on the particulars of experience, both sensual and intellectual. His poems explore intimate questions that he faced as a man, as an intellectual, and as a foreigner in America. When his poems were characterized as dispassionate and even “cold,” he didn’t disagree: “I don’t want to be cold, but I think I am. I don’t get emotional like Hart Crane or Dylan Thomas. … I’m not a romantic.” In personal conversations he was equally unlikely to discuss his emotions other than to say that he found them confusing.

Living close to the street and forsaking the plumage of celebrity, Gunn remained the man he had wanted to become, a poet’s poet. I like to think he enjoyed tweaking the establishment by applying traditional forms to his nonconforming life. If he never lived up to the promise detected by early critics, that’s because he remained one of us. We are a new community, one without much known history and one just creating its pantheon of heroes. Gunn merits a place high up on Parnassus.


C. Q. Forester is a writer based in San Francisco.