Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294
Thom Gunn was born in England in 1929. Although he first gained recognition as a poet in the 1950’s as a member of “The Movement” in England, he has lived and worked in the United States since 1954. The poems of his first collection FIGHTING TERMS (1954) were written in formal poetic constructs while speaking to what it means to be an individual who thirsts for action. The poems do not romanticize what it entails to be the existential hero. Gunn expresses the grim reality of the contemporary world in which aggression becomes both “attractive and repellant.”
After moving to the United States, Gunn studied under the critic and poet Yvor Winters at Stanford University. Having settled in San Francisco, he has given voice to the counterculture that developed there. Gunn has defined his role as a poet as one of the rebel. He may write in tight rhyme schemes, but his subjects range from motorcycles and tattoos to rock and roll and the drug culture.
In the 1970’s, Gunn began to experiment with free verse. The collection PASSAGES OF JOY (1982) contains some of his most expressive poems. The more formal poetic constructs of his earlier career have given way here to a more casual and direct style. For the first time in this volume, Gunn writes bluntly about his homosexuality. His most recent poems detail unsentimentally with what the AIDS epidemic has done to the gay community of San Francisco.
COLLECTED POEMS chronicles the growth of a major English-language poet. Gunn has been a keen observer of the social changes having taken place over the last forty years in America. As with any poet willing to take risks, there have been some missteps, some miscalculations, but as a whole, the body of work is remarkably impressive.