Tuesday, May 05, 2009

La Chascona #7: Thom Gunn

[La Chascona was the Santiago home of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda—a home in which portraits of Walt Whitman adorn the study]

Born in Gravesend, Kent, England, in 1929, Thom Gunn was the older son of two journalists who were divorced when he was 10 years old. His mother—who had inspired a deep love of literature in Thom—committed suicide when he was a teenager. It was his mother who introduced him to Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), John Keats (1795–1821), John Milton (1608–1674), and Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809– 1892).

After spending two years in the national service and six months in Paris, Gunn studied English literature at Trinity College, Cambridge. From there he graduated in 1953, publishing his first collection of verse, “Fighting Terms,” the following year. This first effort received critic accolades, seeing it as they did an important postwar literary endeavor. Receiving a one-year fellowship at Stanford University, Gunn then relocated to San Francisco, which was to be his home until he died in 2004. As a young poet in this period, Gunn’s works were associated with “the Movement,” which included his colleagues Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, and Donald Davie. Besides their appearance in the 1956 “New Lines” anthology, their common ground was based on an aversion toward romantic postures in favor of ironic detachment, reactions against modernism’s excesses, and cultivation of poetry as a disciplined craft. After his time at Stamford, Gunn taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1958 to 1966, and again from 1973 to 1990.

However, his output over the next few decades was not as warmly received as his earliest work. These included “The Sense of Movement” (1957), “My Sad Captains” (1961), “Touch” (1967), “Moly” (1971), “To the Air” (1974), “Jack Straw's Castle” (1976), “Selected Poems 1950-1975” (1979), and “The Passages of Joy” (1983). During the 1970s and 1980s, Gunn’s poems took a new turn when they began to reflect a less-than-antiseptic reflection of his homosexuality and drug use. Critics grumbled about this, asserting that he was betraying his talents. Yet this changed radically after the 1992 publication of his work “The Man with Night Sweats,” which memorialized his compatriots who had fallen in the AIDS pandemic. This work brought him the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1993 as well as favorable responses from the critics.

In these lines, one can easily see why “The Man with Night Sweats” received such acclaim:

I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet.

My flesh was its own shield:
Where it was gashed, it healed.

I grew as I explored

A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,

I cannot but be sorry
The given shield was cracked,
My mind reduced to hurry,
My flesh reduced and wrecked.

I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead

Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,

As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.

Freed by momentous societal changes wrought by the lesbian and gay liberation moment and the revolution occurring in such issues as mental health, Gunn went on to issue several more works of poetry in the following years. These emboldened books include the powerful erotic paean “Boss Cupid” (2000), “Frontiers of Gossip” (1998), and “Collected Poems” (1994). Furthermore, Gunn was showered with the Levinson Prize, an Arts Council of Great Britain award, a Rockefeller award, the PEN prize for poetry, the Sara Teasdale prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations among other honors.

Thom Gunn died in 2004 at his home in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, where he had resided since 1960.

Academy of American Poets

Poem Hunter

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