Born Thomson William Gunn, Thom Gunn grew up in the London suburb of Hampstead Heath, “forever grateful” that he was “raised in no religion at all.” During the Blitz, he read John Keats, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and George Meredith, who have all influenced his verse in various ways. His parents—both journalists, although his mother had stopped working before his birth—were divorced when he was eight or nine. After two years in the British army, Gunn went to Paris to work in the offices of the Metro. He attended Trinity College, University of Cambridge, during the early 1950’s; there he attended the lectures of F. R. Leavis and began to write poetry in earnest, publishing his first book, Fighting Terms, in 1954, while still an undergraduate. He worked briefly on the magazine Granta and, as president of the English Club, met and introduced Angus Wilson, Henry Green, Dylan Thomas, and William Empson, among others. Here he also became a pacifist, flirted with socialism, hitchhiked through France during a summer vacation, and met Mike Kitay, his American companion, who influenced his decision to move to the United States.
After graduation, Gunn spent a brief period in Rome and Paris. At the suggestion of the American poet Donald Hall, Gunn applied for and won a creative writing fellowship to Stanford University, where he studied with the formalist poet and critic Yvor Winters. After a short teaching stint in San Antonio, Texas, where he first rode a motorcycle (“for about a month”), heard Elvis Presley’s songs, and saw James Dean’s movies, Gunn accepted an offer to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1958.
Gunn returned to London for a year (1964-1965) just as the Beatles burst on the scene. Back in San Francisco, he gave up tenure in 1966, only a year after it was granted, and immersed himself in the psychedelic and sexual revolution of the late 1960’s. While teaching at Princeton University in 1970, Gunn lived in Greenwich Village when the first art galleries began to appear in SoHo. He moved to San Francisco and began his tenure at University of California, Berkeley, first as a lecturer and then, beginning in 1973, as an associate professor of English. He continued to teach on a part-time basis to allow him, as he says, to write relatively unfettered by academic demands. Gunn died in San Francisco on April 25, 2004.