Gunn, Thom(son William)
GUNN, Thom(son William)
Nationality: British. Born: Gravesend, Kent, 29 August 1929. Education: University College School, London; Trinity College, Cambridge, B.A. 1953, M.A. 1958; Stanford University, California, 1954–55, 1956–58. Military Service: British Army, 1948–50. Career: Member of the English department, 1958–66, visiting/senior lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1975–99. Poetry reviewer, Yale Review, New Haven, Connecticut, 1958–64. Awards: Levinson Prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1955; Maugham Award, 1959; Arts Council of Great Britain award, 1959; American Academy grant, 1964; Rockefeller award, 1966; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1971; W.H. Smith Award, 1980; Sara Teasdale prize, 1988; Los Angeles Times Kirsch award, 1988; Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Writer's award, 1990; Forward Prize, 1992; MacArthur fellowship, 1993; Lenore Marshall prize, 1993. Address: 1216 Cole Street, San Francisco, California 94117, U.S.A.
(Poems). Oxford, Fantasy Press, 1953.
Fighting Terms. Oxford, Fantasy Press, 1954; revised edition, New York, Hawk's Well Press, 1958; London, Faber, 1962.
The Sense of Movement. London, Faber, 1957; Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1959.
My Sad Captains and Other Poems. London, Faber, and Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Selected Poems, with Ted Hughes. London, Faber, 1962.
A Geography. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1966.
Positives, photographs by Ander Gunn. London, Faber, 1966; Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1967.
Touch. London, Faber, 1967; Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1968.
The Garden of the Gods. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pym Randall Press, 1968.
The Explorers. Crediton, Devon, Gilbertson, 1969.
The Fair in the Woods. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1969.
Poems 1950–1966: A Selection. London, Faber, 1969.
Sunlight. New York, Albondocani Press, 1969.
Last Days at Teddington. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1971.
Moly. London, Faber, 1971.
Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 5, with others, edited by Dannie Abse. London, Corgi, 1971.
Poem after Chaucer. New York, Albondocani Press, 1971.
Moly, and My Sad Captains. New York, Farrar Straus, 1971.
Mandrakes. London, Rainbow Press, 1973.
Songbook. New York, Albondocani Press, 1973.
To the Air. Boston, Godine, 1974.
Jack Straw's Castle. New York, F. Hallman, 1975.
Jack Straw's Castle (collection). London, Faber, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1976.
The Missed Beat. Sidcot, Somerset, Gruffyground Press, and West Burke, Vermont, Janus Press, 1976.
Games of Chance. Omaha, Abattoir, 1979.
Selected Poems 1950–1975. London, Faber, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1979.
Bally Power Play. Toronto, Massey Press, 1979.
Talbot Road. New York, Helikon Press, 1981.
The Menace. San Francisco, Man Root, 1982.
The Passages of Joy. London, Faber, 1982; New York, Farrar Straus, 1983.
Sidewalks. New York, Albondocani Press, 1985.
Lament. Champaign, Illinois, Doe Press, 1985.
The Hurtless Trees. Privately printed, 1986.
Night Sweats. Florence, Kentucky, R.L. Barth, 1987.
Undesirables. Durham, Pig Press, 1988.
At the Barriers. New York, NADJA, 1989.
Death's Door. N.p., Red Hydra, 1989.
The Man with Night Sweats. London, Faber, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1992.
Collected Poems. London, Faber, 1993; New York, Farrar Straus, 1994.
Boss Cupid. London, Faber, and New York, Farrar Straus, 2000.
The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, edited by Clive Wilmer. London, Faber, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1982; revised edition, Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1985.
Thom Gunn in Conversation with James Campbell. London, Between the Lines, 2000.
Editor, Poetry from Cambridge 1951–52: A Selection of Verse by Members of the University. London, Fortune Press, 1952.
Editor, with Ted Hughes, Five American Poets. London, Faber, 1963.
Editor, Selected Poems of Fulke Greville. London, Faber, and Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1968.
Editor, Ben Jonson. London, Penguin, 1974.
Editor, Erza Pound. London, Faber, 2000.*
Bibliography: Thom Gunn: A Bibliography 1940–1978 by Jack W.C. Hagstrom and George Bixby, London, Rota, 1979.
Critical Studies: By the author, in Occasions of Poetry, 1982; "Landscapes of Repetition" by Paul Giles, in Critical Quarterly (Manchester), 29(2), summer 1987; in Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-Eroticism Modern Poetry by Gregory Woods, New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1987; in "Thom Gunn at Sixty," supplement edited by Clive Wilmer, in PN Review (Manchester), 16(2), 1989; in Three Contemporary Poets: Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, and R.S. Thomas edited by A.E. Dyson, London, Macmillan, 1990; "Sense of Movement" by Wendy Lesser in Los Angeles Times Magazine, 14 August 1994; in Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism edited by James Acheson and Romana Huk, State University of New York Press, 1996; "How to Live, What to Do," by Deborah Landau in American Literature: A Journal of Literary History (Durham, North Carolina), March 1996; in The Mortal Limits of Poetry and Criticism edited by Robyn Wiegman, Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1997; in Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain, New York, Haworth, 1997; "Thom Gunn at Seventy," in Agenda, 37(2–3), autumn/winter 1999.* * *
In one of his early poems Thom Gunn observes, famously, that Elvis Presley "turns revolt into a style." Elaborating this in the poem's final stanza, Gunn provides a peg on which we can, if we like, hang the immense variety of his own work:
Whether he poses or is real, no cat
Bothers to say: the pose held is a stance,
Which, generation of the very chance
It wars on, may be posture for combat.
A "pose"—apparently superficial, possibly a matter of advertising, of presenting the self for sale—solidifies into a "stance," a relation between the self and the world that has a more achieved and focused integrity. And this, as a "posture for combat," may embrace a political or philosophical relation.
The title of Gunn's collection Moly takes its name from the herb that Hermes offered Ulysses to keep him proof against transformation into one of Circe's pigs. And while Gunn has not, of course, transformed himself into a pig, he has certainly never protected himself against the processes of metamorphosis. Geographically, he has moved from England to America, more specifically from 1950s Cambridge to 1960s San Francisco; metrically, he has moved from highly disciplined traditional forms, through syllabics, to a very loose kind of free form; and thematically, he has made use of such widely varied influences as French existentialist thought and American lysergic acid. And even emotionally and sexually, Gunn has moved from poems overtly addressed to women to openly frank homosexual poems. He is, altogether, a poet difficult to get clear and difficult to get whole.
There is also the further difficulty that, if one appreciates the strenuous energy under control, the formal stanzaic grandeur of poems like "On the Move" or "In Santa Maria del Popolo," it is difficult not to feel that the later work is often sentimental or downright silly. (The latter criticism seems almost mild against the poem "Listening to Jefferson Airplane," which reads in its entirety, "The music comes and goes on the wind, / Comes and goes on the brain.") But one can be generous even about these poems perhaps, if one sees Gunn's whole enterprise as a series of poses creating a stance of combative self-definition in relation to society and to the world. The poems' posturing may then be seen as a kind of moral assertion. Gunn's ultimate "carnal knowledge," in the well-known poem of that title, is that "even in bed I pose." And knowledge of oneself, as well as of others, is an infinitely recessive series ("You know I know you know I know you know," contained only by its pentameter bounds) in which one is what one presents oneself as. Gunn's poems are, as he has himself described some of them, "a debate between the passion for definition and the passion for flow."
Some of Gunn's later poems are an explicit examination of these processes and passions. The sequence "The Geysers," for instance, situates Gunn in a state between sleep and waking, between water and air, in the bathhouse of the geysers in Sonoma County, California. The poem mimics the processes occurring on the frontiers of consciousness:
I am part of all
hands tear and twine
oh, the yield
what have I slept?
my blood is yours the hands that take accept …
torn from the self
in which I breathed and trod
I am raw meat
I am a god
Some of Gunn's best effects are achieved, as they are here, when language, still disciplined and restrained, spreads and spills to accommodate the phases of "definition" and "flow." In the act of love and in sleep these processes are at their most immediate, for one is both defined in one's own being and involved in the being of others. The act of love and the moment of sleep are returned to again and again in Gunn's work, and they come together at the conclusion of the marvelous poem "Touch":
What is more, the place is
not found but seeps
from our touch in
continuous creation, dark
enclosing cocoon round
ourselves alone, dark
wide realm where we
walk with everyone.
In The Passages of Joy the clearest new note is that of nostalgia, as the poet growing older in America remembers his past in England. The sequence "Talbot Road" is that and is also an elegy for his friend Tony White. It crosses the experiences of childhood with a maturing sexuality in a way that brings together again in Gunn's work the processes of definition and flow, of innocence and experience, as when, for instance, Hampstead Heath is viewed as both the theater of childhood games and of homosexual sex:
In a Forest of Arden, in a summer night's dream
I forgave everybody his teens.