Gunn, Thom(son William) 1929-2004

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GUNN, Thom(son William) 1929-2004


See index for CA sketch: Born August 29, 1929, in Gravesend, Kent, England; died of a heart attack, April 25, 2004, in San Francisco, CA. Author. Gunn was an award-winning poet who was known for writing about such controversial themes as homosexuality, LSD use, and AIDS. Born and raised in England, he spent two years in the British Army. Enrolling at Trinity College in 1950, he discovered that his talent for writing was not in novels—he had written three unpublished fiction works—but poetry, and he published his first collection, Thom Gunn, the same year he graduated with a B.A. Moving to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, Gunn studied under Yvor Winters at Stanford and lived with his homosexual lover during the 1950s. Here he left behind more traditional poetic styles and began using free verse forms. Finding his own voice, he was praised in America for combining traditional with modern elements in his poetry, while at the same time he was criticized back in England by those who disliked his abandoning formal meter. Nevertheless, Gunn began garnering prestigious prizes in the 1950s, including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Arts Council of Great Britain Award. But Gunn did not rest on such successes, and throughout his career he experimented with new forms. With collections such as My Sad Captains, and Other Poems (1961), he clearly began to move away from his association with the other poets of the British Movement. In the 1960s, he experimented with LSD and became engrossed with the hippie counterculture, influences that are evident in works like 1971's Molly. The poems of the 1970s also saw him move away from heterosexual to homosexual subject matters, as evident in the collections Jack Straw's Castle (1975) and The Passages of Joy (1982). And with the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the poet soon became the poetic voice for this tragedy, as especially evident in his collection The Man with Night Sweats (1992). Later in life, Gunn wrote more and more frequently about mortality, a subject that is repeated in the verses found in 2000's Boss Cupid. Despite his many publishing successes, Gunn never lived an extravagant lifestyle, and, indeed, lived in communal housing in San Francisco much of the time. He earned extra income, as well, by teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was an associate professor of English from 1958 to 1966, and a lecturer thereafter until 2000. He was, furthermore, an editor of poetry collections and an essayist. Among his many other honors were the PEN/Los Angeles Prize for poetry, the Sara Teasdale prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men's Poetry. In 2003, Gunn received the David Cohen British literature award for lifetime achievement.



Chicago Tribune, April 29, 2004, section 3, p. 9.

Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2004, p. B14.

New York Times, April 28, 2004, p. C14.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 2004, p. B7.

Times (London, England), April 28, 2004, p. 26.

Washington Post, May 11, 2004, p. B7.