Why Thom Gunn is the poet laureate of male desire

Gunn's formal craft and intelligence is up there with the best of our 20th-century poets.

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There is a particular kind of sadness that comes with discovering a writer who is already dead. I never met Thom Gunn. The Anglo-American died in 2004, and it wasn’t until 2005 or 2006 that I discovered his Collected Poems and his final volume, Boss Cupid.

Such a moment feels like buying a huge, rambling house only to discover that you actually own just the room you’re standing in. Every so often, there will be a new discovery, perhaps an unseen poem that a scholar digs up from beneath the floorboards, but this is the sum total of it – there will never be anything new again.

What we have instead are new editions and newly edited versions of these writers’ work that offer moments for reappraisal, fresh ways to see, the way that we might shift the furniture in a room of the house we have always lived in to experience every­thing as though for the first time. The new Selected Poems of Thom Gunn, edited by Clive Wilmer, offers the opportunity for uninitiated readers to be introduced to Gunn and for others to remember and reconsider a man who was once at the centre of postwar British poetry but who hasn’t yet attained the posthumous reputation that he deserves.

Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent, in 1929. One of the things that marked his young life, though not something he wrote about publicly until his final collection, was the suicide of his mother in 1944. Included in this volume, in complete form, is the heartbreaking teenage diary entry that Gunn made upon discovering his mother’s body. The entry begins matter-of-factly, which only adds to its pain:

Mother died
at 4.0 A.M, Friday
DECEMBER 29th
1944 –

She committed suicide by holding a gas-poker to her head, and covering it all with a tartan rug we had. She was lying on the sheepskin rug, dressed in her beautiful long red dressing gown, and pillows were under her head.

This incident is one that Gunn would not tackle head-on, though there are arguably allusions to it throughout his work, until he turned it into a third-person narrative in “The Gas-poker” in his final collection:

The children went to and fro
On the harsh winter lawn
Repeating their lament…

After national service and a little time working in Paris, Gunn went to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1950. Here Gunn met Mike Kitay, the man who would become his life partner, and had his first collection of poems, Fighting Terms, accepted for publication by Fantasy Press. That book was published in 1954; the same year, Gunn went off to Stanford University in California on a graduate fellowship. He lived in the United States until his death in 2004.

In that very brief biography, I’m drawing mainly on the work that Wilmer has done for his introduction to this new volume. There is no full-length biography of Gunn; to my knowledge, there are only two full-length books on him, one a collection of essays by Joshua Weiner, At the Barriers, and the other the The Poetry of Thom Gunn: A Critical Study by Stefania Michelucci. Compare that to the raft of biographies and critical studies of Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin, and you will see that something is clearly amiss.

Why has Gunn’s reputation suffered in comparison to those of his contemporaries? There isn’t a clear answer. His early work was lauded; his late collection The Man with Night Sweats won the Forward Prize in 1992; and he is what could be called a “poet’s poet”.

Reading Gunn when I first did, as a 16-year-old newly-out teenager in South Yorkshire, I was initially drawn in by Gunn’s writing on male desire and the male body (I went back later for the more formal elements, the syllabics, the tightness of form). There is the sexual sublime that Gunn reaches for in his work; while for the Romantics the sublime might have been an engagement with the vastness and wildness of a landscape, Gunn locates it in encounters with lovers or strangers, a striving towards and never quite achieving transcendence of the self (the body is ultimately too solid: “My flesh was its own shield/Where it was gashed, it healed”). With the arrival of Aids, that idea of encountering something beautiful but potentially deadly, inherent in the Romantics’ idea of the sublime, also comes to the fore (“I am confused/ confused to be attracted/by, in effect, my own annihilation”).

I also loved the casualness of some of the encounters and the breadth of the community that Gunn was able to capture in his poetry. There are a couple of poems from his final collection, Boss Cupid, that didn’t make the cut of Selected Poems, which exemplify this, such as this moment with a homeless man in “Office Hours”:

First saw him     
on the street in front, in the
bar’s garbage, identifying
unfinished beers and swigging              
what was left of them

[…]

“Hitched up from New Orleans,”
he said, “Here, wanna feel it?”
It was already out
pushed soft into my hand. It was
a lovely gift to offer an old
stranger without conditions

And in “Front Bar at the Lone Star”, Gunn writes, after playfully recasting an overweight bar patron as an object of desire:

The point of the heart-
shaped Raphael face
gave way to
the sporty chin
of the Gibson girl.
Styles change.
The democracy of it:
eventually everyone
can hope for a turn
at being wanted.

That final thought could be a manifesto for what I wanted to explore in his work.

Early on, Gunn found himself one of the poets included in “the Movement” – a term first coined by the Spectator literary editor J D Scott in 1954, and then marked by the New Lines anthology edited by Robert Conquest in 1956. The Movement corralled poets such as Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie and Elizabeth Jennings together, with the sequel, New Lines 2 in 1963, expanding the group to include Anthony Thwaite, Hugo Williams and Ted Hughes.

The pairing with Hughes for the Faber dual edition in the 1960s brought together two young male poets engaging with violence and masculinity, both with the Classics sitting just underneath their work, often in tight, muscular poems.

Their poetic trajectories went in different directions as the central grouping of the Movement gave way to other voices in the latter half of the 20th century. Gunn developed into something more free and rebellious, less concerned with flexing muscle and manliness, while Hughes, ultimately, became the symbol of the establishment as poet laureate. When I was searching through Gunn’s archives in Berkeley on a quasi-pilgrimage after I left university, I saw a letter from Hughes encouraging Gunn to come back to England. It was a suggestion that he never took up.

Why should Gunn have a better reputation? On one level, his formal craft and intelligence is up there with the best of our 20th-century poets; if his earlier poems sometimes feel a little like formal exercises, despite their excellent execution, his later work loosens up (as Gunn’s life did to a certain extent) but still retains an enviable tightness and coherence.

One of the issues could lie in his transatlantic existence. I remember once sitting next to a well-known literary scholar who, when I mentioned Gunn, said, “Oh, but he’s so terribly American, isn’t he?” That response could sum up why Gunn might not be as well known as he should be: he finds himself stranded somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, seen in Britain as having let his style slacken, and in America as being perhaps too English, too rigid and impersonal.

It isn’t just this trans­atlantic status that presents a problem for posterity. Gunn in those early days did everything right for someone who would eventually accede to a central place in the canon: showing promise, gaining a big publisher, putting his work in conversation with the history of poetry in terms of both form and content. Perhaps content is crucial here. There is a case to be made that what Gunn was looking at in some of his work, particularly in those middle collections that found little favour with the English literary world, has been a contributing factor, too.

In his introduction, Wilmer recounts how Gunn and Mike Kitay attended “free rock concerts in Golden Gate Park” in San Francisco, where they “experimented with the mind-expanding drug LSD”. Gunn was also “growing away from armoured solitude”, which involved “becoming more openly promiscuous, a development that was eventually to loosen his relationship with Mike Kitay”. The house that Gunn bought on Cole Street in Haight-Ashbury, then an ungentrified, hippie part of San Francisco, became, “in effect, a gay commune” where Gunn and Kitay “expanded their relationship to include other men, their own relationship ceasing to be sexual”.

Gunn, startlingly ahead of his time, called it “a queer household”. He later reflected on that time in his autobiographical essay “My Life Up to Now”: “Everything that we glimpsed – the trust, the brotherhood, the repossession of innocence, the nakedness of spirit – is still a possibility and will continue to be so.”

The book that brought him back into the critical embrace of the English establishment was The Man with Night Sweats, a collection that contained his elegies for his friends dying of Aids. As a survivor of that time who witnessed so many of his friends and acquaintances die, he is a vital witness, memorialising not just individuals but an entire section of society. Indeed, the arc of his final collections feels like an observation of the creation, destruction and then eventual renewal of a community.

Casual readers might know Gunn for two reasons: his poem “The Hug”, which has become his most anthologised, and the joint edition with Ted Hughes that has been studied in many schools. In this Selected Poems, it is great to see the span of Gunn’s work, from his early muscular, masculine poetry such as “The Wound” or “Tamer and Hawk” to the looser, more experimental ideas of sequences such as Jack Straw’s Castle and the heartbreaking elegies, and out the other side where, having been “crowded with death” for so long, Gunn is finally able to confront the suicide of his mother in two poems.

In the light of his sexuality, it is interesting to read the poems he wrote before he was “out”. “Tamer and Hawk”, for example:

Even in flight above
I am no longer free:
You seeled me with your love,
I am blind to other birds –
The habit of your words
Has hooded me.

Or another poem from his first book, “Carnal Knowledge”, with its repeated refrain of “You know I know you know I know you know”. This linguistic conceit comes back repeatedly: in a much later poem, “My Mother’s Pride” (“I am made by her, and undone”), and in “Jesus and his Mother” (“I am my own and not my own”). The cohabiting of opposite ideals within the same line seems somehow to reflect the paradoxes of Gunn the man: English and American, traditional Elizabethan and sexual hedonist.

With a book of selected poems, just as with a prize shortlist, it is always easy to point out the absent works. I miss some of the funnier poems from Boss Cupid, or Gunn’s meditations on doing drugs and ageing. Wilmer has rightly gone for Gunn’s best poems, but even in those that lack technical accomplishment, there is still much nourishment.

The trajectory of poets’ reputations is often similar. If they are lucky enough to be lauded in their own time, as Gunn was – albeit sporadically – there is often a movement of celebration and remembrance in the years immediately after their death. There then follows a fallow period, the poet and their work wintering away, going unnoticed (I lost count of how many articles or ideas I threw around in 2014 to try to mark the tenth anniversary of Gunn’s death). Then, hopefully, the poet re-emerges, becomes renewed, and their reputation grows again. This Selected Poems is the first step towards the rehabilitation of Gunn into the national consciousness.

In the title poem of The Man with Night Sweats, Gunn writes of hugging himself: “As if hands were enough/To hold an avalanche off”. Gunn knew only too well the transience and fragile strength of the self and how it might achieve a greater permanence in poetry than in person.

Selected Poems of Thom Gunn
Edited by Clive Wilmer
Faber & Faber, 336pp, £16.99

Andrew McMillan is a poet and the author of “Physical” (Jonathan Cape)

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire