(1929 - 2004)
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Thom Gunn's parents divorced and his mother committed suicide, but at Cambridge his poetry found admirers. He followed a boyfriend to San Francisco where he experimented with free verse and drugs, and documented the tragedy of Aids. Some critics rejected this new direction, but at 73 his status seems assured
Saturday September 27, 2003
When Thom Gunn won the David Cohen prize earlier this year, at 73, he expressed the gentlest satisfaction, quoting Yeats as having said, "Now I'm the king of the cats", and wryly remarking, "Maybe I'm prince of the cats".
The prize marked an acceptance in Britain of Gunn's status as a major poet: a status that had, in his youth, seemed assured, when early volumes were received with excitement and Gunn's star rose alongside that of Ted Hughes.
But in the decades in between, Gunn not only relocated to America, but changed his style and subject matter - homosexuality, drugs, the dispossessed - in ways that led to a dampening of his reputation back home: as the late critic and poet Donald Davie, his early mentor, was to remark, Gunn "once had a British public but seemed later to have only a following". The prize perhaps marks a recognition that Gunn has entirely reversed this trend over the past 10 years.
Gunn was born in Gravesend in August 1929. His father, Herbert, was a journalist, and his work meant the family moved around the country a great deal until, when Gunn was eight, Herbert became the editor of the Evening Standard (and later the Daily Sketch) and they settled in Hampstead.
Gunn's mother, Ann Charlotte, had also been a journalist until the births of Thom and his younger brother, Ander. The house was full of books, mainly Ann's - "My mother was a great reader. She said she was reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when she was pregnant with me" - and it was she who first persuaded Gunn to write, to entertain her.
Shortly after the move, his parents divorced. When the second world war started, Gunn went to Bedales in Hampshire, a progressive school. "I didn't like going to a boarding school, but it was about as good as a boarding school could get. It had a wonderful library. The English teacher there, Major Geoffrey Crump, had WH Auden's anthology for schools, The Poet's Tongue. Many of these poems were quite unfamiliar, many not anthologised at all in schools at that time, and they were all printed without authors' names; those were printed at the end if you wanted to look them up. And this was really interesting poetry, not like the other stuff we had at school in Hampstead: the Dragon Book of Verse, which was very much "Horatius at the bridge". Which wasn't bad for me; but on the other hand, it wasn't very exciting."
When Gunn was 14, his mother committed suicide. She gassed herself, and had attempted to barricade the door with a heavy desk to stop the boys discovering her. Nonetheless, they did so. The incident is described in a poem, "The Gas-poker", which Gunn only felt able to write decades later:
They who had
been her treasures
Knew to turn off the gas,
Take the appropriate measures,
Telephone the police...
Gunn says relatively little about this event, which "was obviously a traumatic experience; it would be in anyone's life", but a companion piece preceding "The Gas-poker", "My Mother's Pride", is suggestive of undercurrents. A collection of his mother's little sayings, it ends simply: "I am made by her, and undone."
Gunn was by now attending University College School in Hampstead; "a nice and relaxed school. I have no complaints about it except that I didn't learn very much other than what I taught myself, though there were some good teachers". So after his mother's death, Gunn partly continued to live in Hampstead, with friends of his mother's, and partly in the country with two of his aunts.
Ander went to live with his father in Chelsea. Karl Miller, a friend of Gunn's at Cambridge, who went on to found the London Review of Books, remarks that "my impression was that Thom didn't get on with his father. He was a severe grey-headed man, not sympathetic to Thom's choices. He was a businessman, very dry and a little suspicious."
National Service was still compulsory for school-leavers: Gunn describes his own simply as "drudgery and boredom. We marched around a lot, and eventually I was part of the education corps, so I was teaching soldiers how to read and write so that was kind of interesting... some of it. What it taught me was how to deal with stupid or ignorant people being in power over me." There is a prevalence of martial imagery in Gunn's early poems; something Gunn himself did not think about until much later.
"My childhood - which I spent largely in London except during the Blitz - was full of soldiers, American, English, every other nationality. With National Service, we were all non-soldiers, we were just in for a couple of years. We weren't going to kill people - we would have been terrified of killing people! - and the people in the regular army, our sergeants, did tend to despise us, and you could see why. So, yes, isn't it interesting how many soldiers there are in my early poetry and how often I am the soldier and I'm not really sure what I'm doing? Not especially romanticised except when I think of Achilles or somebody. So it was a very ambiguous role, but it was a role that apparently I tended to see myself in, especially in that first book. And I don't think it was that conscious or deliberate. I had to think about it afterwards to find out what could have been in my mind."
He then spent six months in Paris, on a low-paying sinecure arranged by his father, before going up to Cambridge at 21. One of his friends there was Karl Miller. "Karl was my best friend for a while; I knew him very well: we were both rather difficult people, but he was very kind to me and he always had a very good mind. I'd show him my poems when I wrote them and he'd tack them up over his desk, which was very flattering."
Miller recalls that Gunn "was a good student and critic, who enjoyed the degree. Leavis was sovereign at the time. Gunn was sympathetic to Leavis but not a Leavisite. We were both involved in the same discussions and clubs and so on. I wrote a lengthy profile of him for the student newspaper Varsity." He adds, "He knew how to keep the ball in the air in terms of literary attention."
At Cambridge, Gunn had begun publishing his poems, and wrote the bulk of his first collection, Fighting Terms (1954) in his last two years there. They are startlingly assured pieces, formally controlled, metaphysical, with a subtext that only seems obviously homoerotic in retrospect.
By the time of his second collection, The Sense of Movement (1957), pieces celebrating Elvis Presley and black-jacketed bikers join those about soldiers and mythic violence. Around this time, Gunn was often photographed in a tough pose, leather-jacket and fierce stare. Later, being bracketed with Ted Hughes in a very successful joint Selected Poems in 1962 enhanced this image as well as bringing Gunn's work to a much wider audience.
Yet beneath the macho iconography come existential arguments - about will, action, self-knowledge and self-fashioning - which continue throughout Gunn's entire corpus. One of the most famous poems from the early work (which he rates less these days) is "On The Move", which takes its epigraph from The Wild Ones, and describes a group of bikers in existential terms:
At worst one is
in motion, and at best
Reaching no absolute in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not staying still.
The fierceness of these poems, which Gunn once described, regretfully, as a Sartrean fascistic tone, can also be read in terms of a self striving to define itself against its environment. There was also a rejection of some other poetic stances: modernism ("I was very much a member of my generation, and we were very tired of modernism and obscurity") and effeminacy (one of the choicest couplets remarks "I praise the overdog, from Alexander / to those who would not play with Stephen Spender").
Donald Hall first published him; Faber took him up for his second book. "Charles Monteith discovered me. I went to see TS Eliot toward the end of his life, and he said: 'No, I haven't been poetry editor for many years...' My face must have fallen, because I had assumed he was the one who chose me! And he said 'Oh, so, I didn't edit you, but I like your poetry very much', which was very charming of him."
Gunn was also associated - without his complicity - with the group of poets known as the Movement: Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Jennings, Davie, John Wain et al. Gunn has been consistently critical of the effect of Movement poetry on later English poetry. "We were allies, I guess, but really by chance, and nothing premeditated; I never did meet Larkin, ever. I never felt I was part of it. It was a journalistic thing. There were terrible limitations. Some people, like Amis, it was minor verse, like Punch or something: some of it fairly funny at the time, but it wasn't very good. Nor was Wain's. So many of them were terrible, you didn't want to be associated with them. Davie was good, and so was Larkin, and Jennings at least was interesting."
Despite the unhappinesses of his adolescence, Gunn had been happy at Cambridge, not least because he met Mike Kitay, an American, with whom he fell in love. Gunn had become aware he was gay during his teens, but did not have sex until Cambridge: "I didn't have sex with anybody while I was in the army. You don't think of yourself as being sexually desirable until somebody's in love with you."
Decades later, in his poem "Rapallo", Gunn lightly recalled the beginning of his relationship with Kitay: "That summer I was twenty-three, / You about twenty-one, / We hoped to live together, as we /(Not to be smug) have done." Gunn says: "I still live with him. Everyone admires him; he's very wise and sensible, as well as being lively."
Cambridge was an accepting environment, given that homosexuality was still illegal: "You got very good at being duplicitous in the 50s; everybody was very accepting of me, nothing was said actually, but Mike and I would get invited to parties together, which was very pleasant, so that made things very easy." Miller remembers that Gunn "was a sensitive, anxious man, discovering - well, stabilising - his homosexuality. The poetry and homosexuality progressed in tandem: it was his subject matter and that started in Cambridge. He wore lumberjack shirts, belts and buckles. He had a loud laugh, and he laughed a lot. He was liked very much."
To be with Kitay, Gunn moved to America, initially studying under the poet and critic Yvor Winters at Stanford. Although, as Miller points out, "Winters was the Leavis of the US and Thom was initially drawn by the austerity and rational approach," the transatlantic move exposed Gunn to some poetic traditions he had not encountered in England. "After I came to the US, I discovered free verse. I'd read some before: DH Lawrence for instance. But you couldn't write like him without sounding too much like him. When I got to Stanford Winters said, 'You've got to read Wallace Stevens, you've got to read William Carlos Williams', so I did."
Gunn, who feels he reinvented himself at Cambridge and then again in the US, began to write free verse. He found it difficult: "I was thinking iambically, rhythmically, yes: and when I broke the rhythm, it was just chopped-up prose, of the worst kind - I knew that was boring, and not rhythmically interesting in itself. The difficult thing about learning to write free verse is that you have to improvise what you consider to be interesting enough rhythms to exist on their own, and they have to be different for each line. So I think it's easier to write well in metrical poetry, when you can: but it's difficult changing from one to another. You have to start all over again when learning to write in a new form. The first thing you have to learn with reading poetry is to hear it. And a lot of teachers don't bother to say that, I think."
Over the next few years, Gunn produced a few books - Positives (1967), with photographs by his brother, Ander, and Touch (1967). The poet Clive Wilmer, whose tutor, Tony Tanner, introduced him to Gunn in 1964, and who has been a friend and admirer ever since, points out that several poems Gunn wrote at this time were never published in books, and many from Touch did not make it into his Collected Poems (1993). He says Gunn had a "huge uncertainty" about what he was doing as he made the transition into free verse, and that the poems "didn't cohere" into a collection, but by the time Gunn wrote Moly (1971), "although it is not in free verse, it evidently benefited from the work he'd been doing. Thom thinks it's his best book, and I do too."
As well as his poetic experiments, Gunn also dabbled in drugs, mostly acid: several poems in Moly have appended to them the words "LSD" and the location. Interestingly, and in contrast to other writers on the drug culture, these acid poems are written in formal metre. Of the 60s and 70s, Gunn says, "They were tremendous fun. I resigned my tenure position at Berkeley: I said I wanted to devote myself to poetry. I really wanted to devote myself to going to concerts in Golden Gate Park and to taking drugs. So I did that for a few years and then I found I couldn't live on that, so I went back to Berkeley, and they very nicely took me back. I started to dribble back into teaching about 1972." He retired only recently.
The gay scene, for which San Francisco became famous, developed slowly. "It happened during the 60s; during the hippie period people weren't that good about queers. But meanwhile people were getting stronger in the bars, and there was one bar that my friend was manager of, and everyone was very fashionable there, had long hair, and it was very nice, and it was a new attitude... gay 'head' bars we called them - 'head' meant people who took drugs - and eventually this led into a feeling for political independence, and for standing up for ourselves. Gay parades started as the result of the Stonewall riots, where drag queens stood up for themselves against the police. I wasn't there, but that was rather splendid." Gunn wrote at the time of participating in a gay parade in New York and walking "40 blocks in full leather, freaked out on acid".
Decades later, after the bathhouses had finally closed, and the scene had been torn apart by the Aids epidemic, Gunn remembered the freedom of those years in a bittersweet poem called "Saturday Night" - "a poem I spent many years writing, about the Barracks" (a gay bathhouse). The poem recalls: "Our Dionysian experiment / To build a city, never dared before" in which "we translate / Our common ecstasy to a brief ascent / Of the complete, grasped, paradisal state / Against the wisdom pointing us away" before concluding "what hopeless hopefulness" and envisioning the building gutted: "And blackened beams dam up the bays of ash."
As Gunn says, "I rewrote it finally and this is the way it came out. It's meant to be sad. There was a wonderful sense of possibility and it was funny and slightly unscrupulous but it was loving as well, and everybody was so beautiful and everybody was available", (laughs), "so, I wanted to show someone who was straight, or who hadn't lived through it, how exciting it was. That's one of the things I try to do in my poetry: to show people what it's like to be something else, or to have had some kind of experience I've liked."
But during the 70s, when Gunn was becoming overt about his homosexuality (the earlier poems having used ambiguous pronouns to conceal the orientation, as gay writers from Marlowe to Auden had done), these joyful bulletins did not find universal favour. As Wilmer remarks, "The critical establishment turned against him." Reaction to these books - Jack Straw's Castle (1976), The Passages of Joy (1982) - was certainly mixed.
In England, some of Gunn's admirers were horrified by the turn his work had taken; as, in the US, was Winters. "Winters eventually turned on everybody he knew, so I knew this was going to happen, as soon as he stopped seeing much of me. Winters knew I was queer, though I never told him. A student apparently went in to Winters' office and said: 'Tell me, is Thom Gunn a homosexual?' and Winters said: 'Yes, I'm afraid so'. He felt rather as Davie did. That it was a moral flaw that would become an aesthetic flaw."
Davie, a great admirer of Gunn and his poetry, wrote an essay (reprinted in Under Briggflatts, 1989) which, in essence, argued that gay rights, and human rights, though admirable, were modern inventions, and that by subscribing to them in his poetry, Gunn was cutting himself off from the centuries of culture and thought his earlier work had accessed so successfully. Gunn remembers Davie fondly, nonetheless. "He was a very good man, and a good friend, though he disapproved of a lot of things I said and wrote. He often didn't sound off to me about them: former students have told me about him going on about Thom Gunn going off to bathhouses and writing about them! I suppose it was his religious beliefs partly, and partly a distaste, you know. It might be part of the reason he didn't like Auden..."
In his most recent book, Boss Cupid (2000), Gunn included a cheeky poem, "To Donald Davie in Heaven", in which he has Davie appearing in a dream and admitting to liking Auden "better now". It becomes a tender compliment to the undogmatic elements in Davie's criticism, his "ability to regroup / without cynicism, your love of poetry / greater / than your love of consistency". It ends with a vision of Davie hymned and hymning among similar enthusiasts, before wryly correcting itself: "But maybe less druggy, / a bit plainer / more Protestant." It becomes a poem celebrating Davie's strengths, while maintaining a respect for each man's differences. "I didn't mean it as a settling of scores. His widow liked it, she wrote to me saying she'd wondered to him once if in heaven he'd be in the same place as George Herbert - 'many mansions' - and he'd got a little prim!" Gunn adds, laughing, that "I partly wrote The Man with Night Sweats to prove to [Davie] that you could be a homosexual and write good poetry!"
In literary London, the reaction had been more brutal in some quarters. James Campbell, a friend of Gunn's, whose interview with him is published in the Between The Lines (2000) series, remembers that "it was a surprise to find someone in the top bracket had changed his shape so dramatically - not just his locale, but his nature. And it caused a reaction, especially his collection The Passages of Joy , among critics on the Review, London Magazine and similar magazines. Ian Hamilton in the TLS really disliked it. I think some of the reaction was subliminal homophobia, they were a product of their time. Gunn was a part of their world, moved to another, and now our world has caught up with it."
The Man With Night Sweats (1992) was the first full collection Gunn published in England for 10 years. Even those who had become critical of his free verse and libertine content, or of his attention to what they saw as trivial or anecdotal subjects, were convinced by the book. Written after the most terrible decade for gay men, especially in San Francisco, it contains a number of chiselled, honest, diligent and heart-breaking elegies. Gunn's ability to write sinewy, muscular verse about flesh and physical strength was now turned to the body's defenceless decline. The metaphors of armour that run through Gunn's proud and admiring descriptions of the beautiful and strong, or that represent a toughness of self and soul, an integrity, continue in this book: but often in terms of their failure.
The poems found, at last, a ready audience. Glyn Maxwell wrote that "the human frame, fighting its dirtiest war for years, has at last got its strongest poet in the lists". Miller points out that, in fact, Gunn has arguably always been attuned to his time: "The 50s and 60s poems - Brando, bikers, maleness - were exhilarating... It seemed fascistic to some people. Now Thom's personal demeanour was not fascistic, but he caught a mood and got his poems across. Then the Californian way of life - altered tunes and tones. Later the elegies were also an attunement to the times: people were anxious for these poems, they wanted those poems." The book received the first Forward Prize for poetry, and was followed by the successful Collected Poems.
Boss Cupid retains some of the old, militaristic metaphors, but there are, more often, metaphors of settlement, negotiation, community, even democracy. The tension is maintained, one undercutting the other; thus Gunn truly celebrates "the sexual New Jerusalem" of the 70s, while elegising it, as with this Aids memorial:
this circle, pause.
Although they all died of one cause,
Remember how their lives were dense
With fine compacted difference.
A poem about two lovers celebrates their dreams of eternal togetherness even as it tacitly suggests where things might go wrong, and ends with the lines:
tangled in mid-phrase,
As if obstructed tongues might say
"We are the same in different ways,
We are different in the same way."
It is as if the tough and armoured self that Gunn explored in his early work has finally found a way to accommodate individuality and particularity, while also celebrating community and common ground.
At 73, Gunn described the David Cohen Prize as "probably the last award I shall receive". He is not writing at the moment: "I'm very irregular in my writing. I haven't really written very much in the last two years. I usually don't after publishing a book, it kind of dries me out and I start writing poems and I think, Oh, I've already done that in my recent book."
Another friend says Gunn has talked about drying up altogether, with the words, "I've got no juice left". In his life in San Francisco, Gunn doesn't play the poet anyway. "I don't expect my friends to read me. Most of the people I know have heard I'm a writer but are not very interested."
According to Wilmer, "It's said that in the US they don't think he's quite American, in the UK they don't think he's quite English." Gunn is "still British. My status is permanent resident. Every time I feel like making motions towards becoming a citizen - which I've been very lazy about - there's some inconvenient new war, so I gave up several wars ago. I don't want to be identified: 'so, you joined that America'!"
On receiving the prize at a ceremony in London in March, Gunn said: "Writing is fun. It can be more fun than you ever imagined once you start getting it right." The unhappy adolescent has managed to have -and continue having - a supremely happy life, despite the battles the gay community in San Francisco has had to fight. And on the way he has found a way of dignifying, celebrating and sharing his pleasures and sadnesses, and those of others. In his recent poem, "In The Post Office", Gunn writes of his status as a survivor, "Recording so that I may later read / Of what has happened, whether between sheets, / Or in post offices, or on the streets".
Born: August 29 1929, Gravesend, Kent.
Educated: Bedales School, Petersfield; University College School, Hampstead; 1950-53 Cambridge University; '54-55, '56-58 Stanford University.
Career: 1958-99 lecturer, University of California, Berkeley.
Some poetry: 1954 Fighting Terms; '57 The Sense of Movement; '61 My Sad Captains; '67 Touch; '71 Moly; '76 Jack Straw's Castle; '82 The Passages of Joy; '92 The Man with Night Sweats; '93 Collected Poems; 2000 Boss Cupid.
Prose: 1982 The Occasions of Poetry; '93 Shelf Life.
'59 Somerset Maugham Award; '66 Rockefeller Award; '71 Guggenheim Fellowship;
'80 WH Smith Award; '92 Forward Prize; 2003 David Cohen Prize
A Poet's life
Reserved but raw, modest but gaudy, Thom Gunn covered an enormous amount of ground in his exquisite work and his raucous life
Monday, April 25, 2005
Happy child, shattered teen. Revered poet, reluctant celebrity. Teacher and sage, aging Peter Pan with a growling libido.
Thom Gunn, the San Francisco poet who died a year ago today at age 74, wore many skins in his lifetime and embodied wild contradictions. His poetry had a chaste reserve that reflected his Englishness, but off the page he was a merry wit who laughed loudly, told raunchy jokes and felt more at home in a leather bar than a stuffy literary function.
The author of the 1992 collection "The Man With Night Sweats" was "the best living poet in English," says author and Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser. But also uncommonly modest, unpretentious and wholly indifferent to the perks of celebrity.
He was an inveterate tomcat who continued to cruise for sex into his 60s and 70s, yet craved the stability he found in his domestic arrangement with his partner, Mike Kitay, and two longtime housemates.
Gunn may have been born to write and create dazzling images with his carefully sculpted poems, but it was early trauma -- his mother's suicide when he was 15 -- that formed the crucible of his art and shaped his life and relationships.
In this piece, which concludes Tuesday, Gunn's friends, colleagues and intimates recall the polarities, the ghosts, the charms, the legacy of the man.
Michael McClure, poet: "I always saw him as a flare of testosterone as he went galumphing through the leather district at 2 or 3 in the morning and striding up the 17th Street hill on his way home after the night's adventures.".
Clive Wilmer, British poet and critic: "He had this very self-deprecating, modest, rather gentle manner. It was an odd mixture because you know there's so much in his poetry that's quite raw and violent or erotic or harsh.".
Edmund White, author: "I met Thom in the late 1970s -- we were all marching with the leather guys in the Christopher Street parade (in New York). I was instantly attracted to his warmth and masculinity. Later, when I knew him better, I was charmed by his highly idiosyncratic literary tastes and intelligence joined to this mellow leather image he projected.".
Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review: "He was an extremely modest man, if modesty can be said to go with great accomplishments and a significant amount of self-confidence. He knew he was a good poet; he didn't need scribbling critics or cramped academics to tell him so. And he famously didn't make a big deal about it.".
Billy Lux, writer-photographer: "One year, Thom's poem 'Jamesian' was part of a series of subway and bus posters in New York. The poem reads 'Their relationship consisted/ In discussing if it existed.' A friend of mine saw it on a bus once and underneath it someone scrawled, 'And I didn't get no pussy either.' Thom referred to this graffito as literary criticism and later relayed the anecdote to a packed audience in Town Hall for the 50th anniversary party of his publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The audience erupted in laughter when they heard the gay poet with a British accent recite straight black street talk."
Gunn taught at UC Berkeley for more than 30 years. A nondriver, he commuted by bus, often using the time in transit to write. .
Steve Silberman, poet and Gunn's former student: "No matter what sexual orientation you are, Thom was a babe. He was weathered and chiseled, he had the charisma of an old rock star with the delicatesse of an English gentleman, and he could quote Yeats from memory. He represented both the best virtues of civilization and the inscrutable power of staying a wild animal. I took every class of Thom's that I could, including an undergraduate survey course that I took purely so I could hear the greatest hits of English lit in Thom's voice.".
Wendy Lesser: "He was a lovely person, always interesting and fun. A great gossip, but a bit taken aback by his own ability to make nasty comments, so that he was always modifying them with kinder remarks. He had an excellent memory and could remember, for instance, the names of the characters in the books his mother read to him when he was a child.".
August Kleinzahler, poet and author: "He loved Dickens and Shakespeare, Stendhal and Baudelaire. There was a very permeable membrane between his own life and the characters in Flaubert and Dickens or whomever he particularly loved reading. Fictional characters were very alive for him -- as models, as people he probably had interior conversations with and relationships with, attitudes about."
Gunn lived in the United States 50 years and considered himself an "Anglo- American." Apart from a teaching stint in 1964 and 1965, Gunn never went back to England except to visit family. As time went on, he returned less and less..
Wendy Lesser: "He said that he had considered becoming an American citizen a number of times, but every time he got serious about the idea we did something atrocious -- like invade Iraq -- and he gave up on the idea for the time being.".
August Kleinzahler: "Oh, he loved to pretend he wasn't British. He wanted desperately to be American and Californian. He liked the vigor and spontaneity of America: James Dean, Marlon Brando, bluntness, wildness, vulgarity, rawness. He hated the idea of his Britishness, and if someone had a very posh British accent, he'd be withering. But it never faded. He was British in every way." .
Thomson William Gunn was born in Gravesend, a town in Kent, England, on Aug. 29, 1929. His father, Herbert, was a newspaper editor for the Daily Sketch and later the Evening Standard. His mother, Charlotte, whom he adored, was a former journalist, a poet and a left-wing socialite who imbued Thom with his love for literature and the arts. A second son, Ander, was born in 1931, and the family settled in the upscale neighborhood of Hampstead. .
Ander Gunn: "In those days Hampstead was a frightfully respectable place -- very conservative -- and my mother wasn't. She read the Daily Worker, the Communist newspaper and hung red flags out whenever she could in order to shock the neighborhood. That's the sort of woman she was.".
Don Doody, longtime friend and former housemate: "She had certain social obligations as the wife of an important editor of the paper. And Thom said at one point she went to dinner and wore a brooch made of diamonds and rubies in the form of a hammer and sickle. She said, 'I've got to do this, so I'll do it my way.' ".
Wendy Lesser: "He described her best, I think, in that essay where he tells about being lost in the park in London (age 4 or something), and the policeman asks him to describe his mother, and he says, 'A proud woman.' He was much closer to her than he was to his father, and (in San Francisco) he kept a picture of her, holding him as a baby, over his desk.".
Clive Wilmer: "She loved books, and Thom said that he got his love of literature from her -- and sensed that literature was not just enjoyable but important. She was very independent-minded and very attractive and well dressed. I suppose she was a kind of feminist before her time. And he obviously absolutely adored her."
She dramatized herself
Without thoughts of the dangers.
But "Never pay attention," she said,
"To the opinions of strangers."
... She was proud of her ruthless wit
And the smallest ears in London.
"Only conceited children are shy."
I am made by her, and undone.
-- From "My Mother's Pride".
Ruth Townsend, childhood friend and next-door neighbor: "She doted on Ander, who seemed younger than his years, but Thom she treated as a trusted companion. One was aware that her life had complications and her husband was rarely in the home and seemed very separate from the life the boys had with their mother. He had relationships outside his marriage with Charlotte." .
Clive Wilmer: "I think (Gunn's father) was often drunk and angry. Very harsh, I think. Thom had some sense of his being brutal to his mother.".
Ruth Townsend: "Although we were growing up in the shadow of World War II, I can't remember it putting many restrictions on our activities. We rambled all over Hampstead Heath, which was only five minutes from our homes. Our favorite playgrounds were the two churchyards on either side of Church Row, strictly out of bounds. They were overgrown with wildflowers and roses in summer, and we would stalk the visitors to graves and make up wonderful tragic stories about their lives.
"Thom seemed to have a wisdom and maturity beyond his years, a fierceness of observation. I can remember he could give an account of an event in minute detail. ... We used to be given tickets to first nights in London, and Thom would sing opera in the underground because it would resonate down the tunnels. And do these extraordinary little pantomimes."
By 1940 the marriage of Herbert and Charlotte was falling apart. .
Ruth Townsend: "Charlotte fell in love with a tall, sad-eyed man called Joe Hyde. To Thom and I, it seemed like a maison de trois. There seemed to be a tolerant understanding between the three adults of the household, but to neighbors it appeared shocking and something to gossip about."
In 1944, when Thom was 15 and Ander 13, Charlotte Gunn took her life by inhaling fumes from a gas poker, a device that was used to light coal in the days before central heating..
Ander Gunn: "We were upstairs in the same room and it was all quiet downstairs. We went downstairs and there was a note pinned to the door of the sitting room saying, 'Don't try to get in. Get Mrs. Stoney,' who was the charwoman employed by my mother to clean the house. We pushed the door open with great difficulty because it had a bureau and several other things pushed against it.
"And there she was lying on the floor with a gas poker rigid over her face with a rug over her mouth. And the place was full of gas. It was all packed with newspapers to stop the gas from getting out. Rigor mortis had set in, and we turned the gas off and opened all the windows. It was terrible, really."
In a 1999 interview with British author and critic James Campbell, Gunn said, "I wasn't able to write about it till just a few years ago. Finally I found the way to do it was really obvious: to withdraw the first person, and to write about it in the third person. Then it came easy, because it was no longer about myself. I don't like dramatizing myself."
The children went to and fro
On the harsh winter lawn
Repeating their lament,
A burden, to each other
In the December dawn,
Elder and younger brother,
Till they knew what it meant.
-- from "The Gas Poker" .
Ander Gunn: "So he obviously was deeply affected by this. Well, he would be. She was his mentor, wasn't she? She was everything to him. I was much more separate from it all. He was her, almost. He was what she wanted to be.".
Ruth Townsend: "Our idyllic childhood seemed to come to an abrupt closure. The carefree days changed dramatically and a kind of awkward embarrassment, if short-lived, developed between us. At this point, Thom seemed to retreat from our adolescent intimacy and retire into a world of his own, like some damaged creature hurt beyond help and condolence.".
Ander Gunn: "It wasn't really discussed. We were whisked off to stay with the aunts. We never went to the funeral or anything. ... When I went to see Thom in 1984, he said he'd only just stopped dreaming about his mother. Which I thought was terrible -- the fact that he was always dreaming about her after all those years that had gone by. Poor bloke."
The death of his mother never left Gunn and in fact formed him as a poet. .
Clive Wilmer: "I think it's very, very important for his poetry in this way: He became withdrawn and self-conscious and anxious about showing affection and risking affection. ... But then, it also becomes a theme in the poems how you break out of the loneliness into contact." .
Wendy Lesser: "Maybe it helped him prefer impersonality (in his poems), a certain coolness of touch, rather than intensity or melodrama. It obviously contributed, at least indirectly, to his ability to become the great poet about death -- AIDS death, and other kinds of death -- that he was.".
Clive Wilmer: "I think one of the key poems here is a poem called 'Touch, ' which he wrote in the late 1960s, which I think is his masterpiece. It's about going to bed with somebody and you get into bed naked, but as if it had a sort of layer protecting you against contact. And then gradually the warmth of contact breaks through that and you become human."
What I, now loosened,
sink into is an old
big place, it is
there already, for
you are already
there, and the cat
got there before you, yet
it is hard to locate.
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.
-- from "Touch"
VOICES FROM A CLOSED ROOM
Thom Gunn began military service in 1948 and enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1950. Even as an undergraduate, he made a strong impact with his writing and in fact saw his first collection of poems, "Fighting Terms," published before he graduated. In 1952 he met and fell in love with Mike Kitay, an undergrad from New Jersey studying at Cambridge.
Mike Kitay: "It was quite innocent. I played a cadet in "Cyrano" at the Amateur Dramatic Club, and we were introduced at the cast party at the end of the term. Thom was a big shot already in Cambridge, and I was a little intimidated. I was 21 and I was all nerve endings. I guess I didn't know that love could be that strong and sort of take you over. ... I'd 'found it' and here I was so young, really."
In 1954, Kitay returned to the United States for military duty. Gunn followed, studied poetry under Yvor Winters at Stanford and taught for a year in San Antonio, where Kitay was stationed. By 1957, they were living together in Palo Alto; three years later they moved to San Francisco. Gunn adored the city, identifying with its wildness and renegade charm, and in the '60s embraced the liberties of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture.
Don Doody, who in the '60s managed the Stud, the definitive South of Market bar: "At that time acid was very big in San Francisco. Thom very much liked tripping -- the exploratory aspects of it and the pure sensation as well. He has a book of poems called 'Moly' -- and Moly is LSD.".
Something is taking place.
Horns bud bright in my hair.
My feet are turning hoof.
And Father, see my face
-- Skin that was damp and fair
Is barklike and, feel, rough.
See Greytop how I shine.
I rear, break loose, I neigh
Snuffing the air, and harden
Toward a completion, mine.
And next I make my way
Adventuring through your garden.
-- from "Rites of Passage" .
During the '60s, Gunn and Kitay shared a flat on Filbert Street in North Beach. In 1969, Gunn invited Bill Schuessler, a friend from Wisconsin who had visited two years earlier during the Summer of Love, to move in. Schuessler fell in love with Kitay.
Bill Schuessler: "It was the happiest time in my life, really. It was a wonderful time to be alive in San Francisco. But it was more than that: I was wildly in love with Mickey (Kitay). And Thom became almost like a father figure to me because he was always looking out for me. Which was incredibly strange -- or nice -- given that Mickey was his lover. It sounds like incest, but we all got along together."
In 1971, when property values in Haight-Ashbury hit rock bottom, Gunn bought a two-flat Victorian on upper Cole Street with a $3,300 down payment and combined the two units. For the next 33 years he shared the house with Kitay, Schuessler, and an assortment of friends and companions. Gunn refused to play landlord or exploit the property for profit; he rented only to friends.
Edmund White, author: "He seemed the last of the commune dwellers. Mind you, though I was younger, I was living in the same manner. I suppose you could say we were all bohemians -- not interested much in money, jealous of our free time, serious and intellectual by day and druggy and sexual by night. It was a good combination of elements that was later discredited by a medical mishap, AIDS, and all the tragic consequences it brought to our community."
Mike Kitay: "Thom loved his house and loved the fact that we ate together. People were always astonished that we all had our designated cooking nights. Thom had Tuesday and Thursday, I cooked Wednesday and Saturday, Bill had Friday and Bob (Bair) had Sunday and Monday. Thom often said he was the worst cook of the house, and nobody argued with him."
August Kleinzahler, poet and author: "It was an unusually stable domestic situation by any standards. Rather rigid. If someone defaulted on cooking obligations, it would be an issue. And I think in his last few years Thom was more erratic at keeping up his end of things 'cause his life was becoming more disordered."
Bill Schuessler: "It was like any other family. We'd sit down and talk about what happened during the day. What's important, who called and what you can't cope with. It was always a unifying thing because it was family. ... Often people would come to dinner who wanted to talk seriously about the arts or whatever, and if Thom felt there was any kind of pretension they didn't have a chance. He would switch it all to silly talk or gross jokes. We called it 'Thom talk.' And they went away unfulfilled. He was just a large character."
Clive Wilmer: "It seemed to me like an extremely good arrangement. Thom had a study as well as a bedroom -- so that he had that privacy which is essential to a writer, but was able to step out of that privacy into communal life. He liked his home. He was keen on gardening. He liked cooking. He liked cats.
"The impression the poetry gives is of somebody who's rather bohemian and unconventional and daring and adventurous. And I think he was all those things to some extent. But he was also significantly not those things a lot of the time. He was very much given to habit and punctuality and he thought that his writing depended on that."
Starting in the mid-'60s, Gunn's relationship with Kitay became "familial, " as he described it. Both men had several other sexual partners but remained devoted to each other..
As you began
You'll end the year with me.
We'll hug each other while we can.
Work or stray while we must.
Nothing is, or will ever be,
Mine, I suppose. No one can hold a heart,
But what we hold in trust
We do hold, even apart."
-- "In Trust," one of Gunn's last published poems .
In the 1980s and early '90s Gunn saw dozens of friends die from AIDS. In his collection "The Man With Night Sweats" (1992) he memorialized those friends and relied, as Lesser wrote, "on rhyme and meter to organize an experience that would otherwise be incomprehensibly, uncontrollably painful.".
His gifts had been withdrawing one by one
Even before their usefulness was done:
This optic nerve would never be relit;
The other flickered, soon to be with it.
Unread, disappointed, unachieved,
He knew he would not write the much-conceived
Much-hoped-for work now, nor yet help create
A love he might in full reciprocate.
-- "The J Car," dedicated to Charlie Hinkle .
Gunn was HIV-negative. The AIDS toll devastated him, and yet his own sexual compulsion never waned, even into his '60s and '70s.
Mike Kitay: "What was that? If you find out, I'd like you to let me know because I don't know. It seemed to me something besides libido. There's something there that's bottomless, that no amount can fill up."
Don Doody: "He laughed about what he would call gerontophiles -- lovers of old men. He had never expected by the time he was 70 that there would still be young men who were interested in him. ... He aged beautifully. He aged like Cary Grant. And he always had a good facial structure -- good bones, as they say. And sparkling eyes and very witty." .
Affectionate young man
Your wisdom feeds
My dried-up impulses, my needs
With energy and juice.
Expertly you know how to maintain me
At the exact degree
Of hunger without starving. We produce
What warmth we can.
-- from "American Boy".
In his last five years, Gunn suffered serious writer's block for the first time in his life. "I've got no juice," he told Wilmer.
Wendy Lesser: "It did not make him happy, but he did not rail against it; he accepted it, though not with pleasure. He would have preferred to be writing. A couple of times I tried to get him to do some prose (for the Threepenny Review), as a lead-in to resuming poetry, but it didn't really work. "
August Kleinzahler: "I think he also got despondent about not being able to be as much of a sexual buccaneer. Not being as attractive or having the stamina. ... Thom very much disliked, perhaps feared, the idea of slipping into decrepitude, and lived his last few years accordingly. He got bored upon retiring; that, along with his depression about not writing and aging, resulted in his increased intake of drugs and alcohol."
Mike Kitay: "Thom had this myth that San Francisco was full of gerontophiles. He'd go on the bus and say, 'Oh this guy couldn't take his eye off my crotch.' And he'd go to the bars, and of course some of these 'gerontophiles' are very anxious to have drugs. It was like he didn't want to face the fact that he's 70, 71 and these kids are 23, 24 and 25 and maybe they want something from him!"
August Kleinzahler: "He wasn't mixing with a great crowd. His sexual partners were people younger than himself who were semi-homeless, had drug problems. Rough. ... And I think he did make a New Year's resolution that he would behave better. But he loved his time with these naughty boys, and he wasn't about to give that up."
Gunn's sexual exploits accelerated in tandem with increased use of alcohol and methamphetamines -- crystal meth. Crystal can stimulate the sex drive and enhance stamina but is also highly addictive. On the gay dance-club circuit, crystal abuse is an epidemic.
Billy Lux: "He kept his freak on in a big, big way, doing three-day speed and sex binges when he was in his 70s. PNP, or party and play, it's called. I think one of these party-and-play episodes might have killed him. Although I wasn't part of that whole scene, I did, in a way, admire his aggressive pursuit of sensual pleasure. I just wish he was still around to relay his latest sexcapade in a letter or a poem or over lunch at Zazie's."
Mike Kitay: "It was terrible to behold. He would stay awake and Thom would be just out of it. Out of it."
Bill Schuessler: "There was an eventual loss of communication, even though we tried an intervention. Each one of us in the house talked to him individually and then together -- although it wasn't until that Sunday morning that we had decided whether or not we had done enough. We all three were going to tackle him to the ground and make him get straight and talk to us."
On April 25 of last year, a Sunday morning, Gunn received a visitor early in the morning.
Bill Schuessler: "Bob, being in the front room, heard the doorbell -- I'm guessing it was 6 a.m. -- and Thom going up and down the stairs. He heard voices. At the time we had a note on the door that said 'Please do not ring the doorbell before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m.' So obviously Thom must have known somebody was coming over. From there on we don't quite know what happened because there were times when none of us was home on that Sunday.
"Starting around midday, I had felt there was something terribly wrong and I went down to the garden in back and looked toward Thom's window. The blinds were drawn. I went indoors and said, 'Has anyone heard from Thom?' and Bob and Mike said, 'Well, we heard voices in there.' You could hear the TV going, so we assumed he had a guest. He never watched TV alone."
At 8 that evening, no one had seen Thom all day. Bob Bair went into Gunn's room and found him. He was pronounced dead at 8:58 p.m. At first, his death was attributed to a heart attack. An autopsy was performed and a medical examiner's report dated Sept. 17, 2004, lists "acute polysubstance abuse" as the cause of death.
Bill Schuessler: "I started to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and told Bob to call 911. It was amazing -- they were over here within two or three minutes. They knew he was dead. He'd been dead for quite a while. Bob said, 'This is Thom Gunn, the poet.' And one of the firemen said, 'Oh, my brother took a course from him.' "
Wendy Lesser: "I don't know how the reading public will remember him, except that I'm sure his poems about death, particularly 'Elegy,' will be read as long as people read poetry in English. I will remember him as a dear friend who shaped my life in literature and who made me understand how decent and satisfying and uncareerist the writing life could be."
Philip Levine, poet: "The amazing thing was that he was able to come to America and write American poetry. The poetry really seems to be about the American city as much as anything that anyone else wrote in our generation. Also, I think there were very few poets of my generation who kept writing a mixture of traditionally metric poems and free verse. He wrote them all with such technical mastery. I mean the guy was so good at what he did."
Steve Silberman, poet and former student: "He had the virtuosity of a great jazz musician who can play the changes of a ballad to break your heart while choosing chords that hint at an infinite musical universe. ... He taught me the deepest truths of literature by embodying them, and maintaining a salty sense of humor about the ways in which he was gloriously fallible and human."
At the home on Cole Street, says Schuessler, "Our lives have totally changed." And yet, he, Kitay and Bair continue to share dinner each night, rotating cooking chores, maintaining the same ordered domesticity that was so important to Gunn. In a poem dedicated to his brother, notable for the sentimental voice that broke through his customary reserve, Gunn described the warmth of those gatherings..
And while food lasts, and after it is gone,
We'll talk, without a TV on,
We'll talk of all our luck and lack of luck,
Of the foul job in which you're stuck,
Of friends, of the estranged and of the dead
Of living relatives instead,
Of what we've done and seen and thought and read,
Until we talk ourselves to bed.
-- "An Invitation"