Thom Gunn
April 28, 2004 11:22 AM   Subscribe

One of the finest poets in English, Thom Gunn, has died. Along with Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, Gunn became famous as a young poet in England in the 1950s as part of "The Movement," writing fine poems in rhyme and meter. But then he fell in love with an American soldier, Mike Kitay, and followed him to San Francisco, where he crafted one of the most daringly original voices in the 20th century, handling taboo subjects like LSD, orgiastic sex, and his 50-year relationship with Kitay with the precision of a diamond cutter. Gunn lived in my neighborhood, and was a dapper, subtle, sexy and hilariously witty man until the end. Ten years ago, when I asked him what music he was listening to he replied, "Oh, Nirvana and Social Distortion. I'm a flighty teenager that way."
posted by digaman (24 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Odysseus on Hermes
- his afterthought -
by Thom Gunn

I was seduced by innocence
-- beard scarcely visible on his chin --
by the god within.
The incompletion of youth
like the new limb of the cactus growing
-- soft-green -- not fully formed
the spines still soft and living,
potent in potential,
in process and so
still open to the god.
When complete and settled
then closed to the god.
So sensing it in him
I was seduced by the god,
becoming in my thick maturity
suddenly unsettled
still being formed --
in the vulnerability, edges flowing,
myself open to the god.
posted by digaman at 11:24 AM on April 28, 2004

'The Hug' has been one of my favorite poems for a long time; ever since I saw it in my English book in high school. I'd always pictured it being about a heterosexual couple, but now that I've finally been given the back story I like it even more. It's too bad that it took his death for me to even know anything about Tohm Gunn.
posted by Alison at 11:32 AM on April 28, 2004

What a great post. Thanks, digaman. I had never heard of this man before, and now am both happy that I have and sad that it came so late. He truly was a master.
posted by lazaruslong at 11:36 AM on April 28, 2004

It's so cool he's in high school textbooks...I'd never heard of him either.

posted by amberglow at 11:38 AM on April 28, 2004

Another aspect of Gunn's life that few people know about is that he was the primary writing mentor to the young Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of "Awakenings" and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." Sorry for a self-post, but as far as I know, my 2002 profile of Sacks in Wired is the only place that Gunn's role in Sacks' development as a writer has been mentioned in print. (It's a long article -- search for "Gunn").
posted by digaman at 11:47 AM on April 28, 2004

The Butcher's Son

Mr Pierce the butcher
Got news his son was missing
About a month before
The closing of the war.
A bald man, tall and careful,
He stood in his shop and found
No bottom to his sadness,
Nowhere for it to stop.
When my aunt came through the door
Delivering the milk,
He spoke, with his quiet air
Of a considerate teacher,
But words weren't up to it,
He turned back to the meat.
The message was in error.
Later that humid summer
At a local high school fete,
I saw, returned, the son
Still in his uniform.
Mr Pierce was not there
But was as if implied
In the son who looked like him
Except he had red hair.
For I recall him well
Encircled by his friends,
Beaming a life charged now
Doubly because restored,
And recall also how
Within his hearty smile
His lips contained his father's
Like a light within the light
That he turned everywhere.

Thom Gunn
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:59 AM on April 28, 2004

These are wonderful poems. To pick one small nit with digaman, Ted Hughes was not a 'movement' poet. He and Sylvia were launched as the auccessors or antitheses of the movement.

Bob Conquest (self link) was an admirer of Gunn's too. Still is, I suppose.

I hope you get to write a longer obit somewhere, Steve.
posted by alloneword at 12:17 PM on April 28, 2004

posted by clavdivs at 12:32 PM on April 28, 2004

my favorite has to be:

Spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings:
Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.
posted by steef at 12:41 PM on April 28, 2004

Another great short one is:

Their relationship consisted
In discussing if it existed.
posted by blucevalo at 12:48 PM on April 28, 2004

The Man with Night Sweats

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
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,

A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.

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.

  Thom Gunn
posted by languagehat at 12:50 PM on April 28, 2004

posted by matteo at 1:04 PM on April 28, 2004

thank you.
posted by jann at 1:06 PM on April 28, 2004

(thanks for that correction, alloneword)
posted by digaman at 1:10 PM on April 28, 2004

That's a fantastic post: thanks.
posted by The God Complex at 2:23 PM on April 28, 2004

Thanks for this, digaman. I didn't know of him either.
posted by lobakgo at 3:42 PM on April 28, 2004

Is there an edition of his poems currently in print? I looked on Amazon and found that his "Collected Poems" is out of print and only available used.
posted by Nelson at 4:30 PM on April 28, 2004

Thank you for posting these beautiful poems.
posted by alumshubby at 4:55 PM on April 28, 2004

Re the question about Collected Poems, the most recent edition is in print and available in paperback.
posted by blucevalo at 5:20 PM on April 28, 2004

posted by kenko at 5:42 PM on April 28, 2004

History will be kinder to Gunn, I think, than contemporary literary culture. And that's a good thing. There's a physicality, a solidity to his writing that ought to endure -- something of the metaphysicals about him, writing of the point where flesh meets spirit.

Obits from the Grauniad and an especially good one, though with characteristically sniffy moments, from the Telegraph here. (The High Tory unease towards Gunn's sexuality is offset by the very charming final line: 'Thom Gunn is survived by Mike Kitay, and a cat, Rose.')

It's curious that, though he lived the majority of his life in San Francisco, he's still considered very much an English poet. The NYTimes writeup is much less satisfactory, though it's a blessing, at least, that it treats his partner as his next-of-kin. As it should be.

Who's left from the Movement now? Only Bob Conquest, I think. And of the other British poets who first made their mark in the 50s, I can only think of Geoffrey Hill among those still with us.
posted by riviera at 11:12 PM on April 28, 2004

74 years is a damn fine run, but it still makes me weepy that we lost such an incredible influence on the language and it's use. Godspeed Ted, and my deepest sympathies to Mike and his family.

posted by dejah420 at 8:55 AM on April 29, 2004

Thanks for trying, blucevalo, but that edition isn't in print.
posted by Nelson at 9:01 AM on April 29, 2004

Nelson, sorry. My bad. I should have looked more closely.
posted by blucevalo at 6:06 PM on April 29, 2004

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