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GUNN, THOM (1929-2004) Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn's finest poems are formal masterpieces that elegantly balance emotion and reason in a chaste, plain style, although their subjects are rarely chaste or plain. Gunn inherited from William Shakespeare, John Donne, Fulke Greville, and Ben Jonson the dexterity to handle contemporary subject matter in traditional, formal verse, and from Thomas Hardy, Yvor winters, and Robert duncan, he learned to evaluate his experience rationally and expand the range of verse.
Gunn was born in Gravesend, England. At Cambridge, he attended F. R. Leavis's lectures and wrote Fighting Terms (1954). British critics connected Gunn with Philip Larkin and others who became known as part of "the Movement": These poets displayed a distaste for romanticism and modernism; eschewed rhetoric, symbolism, and allusion in favor of urbanity, rationality, and emotional restraint; and wrote using traditional forms. In 1954 Gunn received a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University and studied under Winters. Gunn received an M.A. at Stanford and taught at the University of California, Berkeley, until 2000. Gunn's many awards include the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1992) and a Lila Acheson Wallace/Reader's Digest Award (1992). His criticism has been collected in The Occasions of Poetry (1982) and Shelf Life (1993).
Gunn himself called Fighting Terms overly studious and literary, but its depiction of love as a series of military maneuvers or a game of cynical poses struck readers and critics. These formal poems with their plain-style sententiae (striking, often highly moral sayings) more closely resembled Renaissance verse than the incipient confessional and deep image modes. In "A Mirror for Poets," Gunn expresses nostalgia for the violence, misery, and politics of Elizabethan England, when there were "Wheels, racks, and fires / In every writers mouth and not mere rant."
The Sense of Movement (1957) explores self-fashioning in a world without meaning. In "Lines for a Book," Gunn sides with history's "toughs"—"those exclusive by their action / For whom mere thought could be no sat isfaction." In "On the Move," a motorcycle gang in goggles and leather jackets has "donned impersonality" and overcome existentialist doubt through force of will. They combine instinct with pose, and though restlessness may never lead to wisdom, Gunn writes that in "a valueless world," one becomes "both hurler and the hurled, / One moves as well, always toward, toward." Poets, he argues, are the toughest toughs. In "To Yvor Winters, 1955," Gunn compares Winterss training of dogs to his training of poets with a "boxer's vigilance." In Winters, power, an "exercised intelligence," keeps "both Rule and Energy in view, / Much power in each, most in the balanced two."
My Sad Captains (1961), which marks Gunn's transition away from strictly formal verse, begins with "In Santa Maria del Popolo," whose speaker waits for the Sun to light Caravaggio's painting Conversion of St. Paul and finds Saul's arms outstretched, "Resisting, by embracing, nothingness." "Innocence" explores a soldier's "Courage, endurance, loyalty, and skill" as he disinterestedly watches a Russian partisan burn in his boots. In the first section, Gunn writes in traditional metrical verse, but in the second he turns to rhymed and unrhymed syllabic verse (where the number of syllables per line is fixed but the accents vary). The nine syllable lines of "Waking in a Newly Built House" announce the change of style, if not of theme. The speaker's perception of things is a calm awareness of "their precise definition, their fine / lack of even potential meanings."
From the 1960s through the 1980s, Gunn wrote primarily in free verse. Touch (1967) contains "Misan-thropos," a poem about "the last man" to survive a nuclear holocaust. In Moly (1971), which Gunn considered his best book and most critics consider his worst, Gunn wrote poems—in metrical verse—about taking LSD. In "Street Song," which draws on Elizabethan ballads, a drug dealer entices customers to sample his wares, promising them power and access to a different world: "I'll get you anything you need," he sings, "Keys lids acid and speed."
Gunn first used explicitly homosexual subject matter in The Passages of Joy (1982); his sexuality appeared disguised in Jack Straw's Castle (1975), which includes the beautiful love poem in rhymed quatrains "The
Bed," a poem about an inept hustler at a gay bar ("Fever"), and "The Geysers," about hot springs in California. Some critics, such as Donald Davie, who praised Gunn's stoic examinations of modern life in traditional verse, attacked him for what they saw as abandoning his craft for contemporary informality and decadence. However, Gunn's experiments in style and subject matter helped prepare him to chronicle the tragedies and social changes of the 1980s and 1990s in some of the most technically and emotionally realized writing of his career.
In The Man with Night Sweats (1992), Gunn explores the pleasures of his domestic reality alongside the social ravages of AIDS. In "The Hug," Gunn celebrates friendship, not romantic love, between two men who fall asleep, drunk, and wake in a "secure firm dry embrace." The book contains excellent epigrams, including "JVC," written in memory of J. V cunningham. In exquisite elegiac verse, Gunn explores the dignity of men facing AIDS, as in "The J Car." "In Time of Plague" considers the historical coincidence of desire and death. In the heroic couplets of "Courtesies of the Interregnum," Gunn expresses guilt and relief for being "Excluded from the invitation list / To the largest gathering of the decade." Gunn continues to explore aspects of his life in formal and free verse in Boss Cupid (2000). In "Saturday Night," Gunn remembers the gay club scene of the 1970s and "Stepping out hot for love or stratagem." He regrets that the "Dionysian experiment" never built a new utopian city, but it was, at least, an attempt to translate "common ecstasy" into a "paradisal state / Against the wisdom pointing us away."
Gunn's reputation now rests on his poems about AIDS, but he will continue to be read for his formal mastery and for his rational stoicism and deeply felt emotions.
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