Biography

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Thomson William Gunn was born on August 29, 1929, at Gravesend, a small town in Kent on the Thames. His father, Herbert Gunn, was a successful journalist, and Thom Gunn had a privileged middle-class upbringing that was marred by the divorce of his parents and the death of his mother, Ann Charlotte Thomson Gunn, when Thom was twelve. The family had moved earlier to fashionable Hampstead, nearer London, and Gunn attended University College preparatory school. Gunn did not go immediately to a university after completing secondary school because he was drafted into the British army, in which he served for the required two years. He then entered Cambridge University in 1950, where he read English literature and began writing the poems that would make his reputation. The dominant figure at Cambridge during that period was F. R. Leavis, a critic who stressed the necessity of following tradition; he may have had some influence upon Gunn, but the rule of tradition was alien to Gunn’s exploratory and innovative poetry. Gunn consistently broke away from the mainstream of received critical opinion.

After Cambridge, Gunn went to Stanford University on a creative writing fellowship. At Stanford, he studied under the American poet and critic Yvor Winters. Winters had a great influence upon Gunn, especially in his belief that poetry is made up of logical propositions and moral judgments rather than emotional outpourings. Winters was a traditionalist in matters of poetic meter and form, and he encouraged Gunn to retain and perfect traditional poetic elements in his poetry.

Winters encouraged Gunn to study for a Ph.D. in English, but after two years of study Gunn became bored with the work and did not complete the degree. He did, however, accept a teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley in 1958 and remained a resident of the San Francisco Bay area. He abandoned his tenured position as a professor at Berkeley in 1966, but he continued to teach there part-time.

Gunn’s first book, Fighting Terms, was published in 1954, the year that he graduated from Cambridge. The poems are written in strict, traditional meter and form, but they deal with untraditional themes of violence and the control of the will. In 1957, Gunn published his second book of poems, The Sense of Movement. The subject was still violence and the will, but Gunn had found more appropriate and effective means to discuss it. The literary allusions in these poems were not drawn from his reading but from motorcycle gangs in California with whom he had spent some time. The reception of this book was far better than that of his first book. Critics recognized a new voice and a new subject area for English poetry.

My Sad Captains, and Other Poems (1961) was Gunn’s next book of poems, and it marks a significant change in style. The first part of the book is written in the strict meter that characterizes Gunn’s style. The second part of the book, however, is in syllabics. Gunn was not yet a free verse poet, since the syllabics did follow a regular pattern, but he was straying from the traditional metrics that were so much a part of his poetry.

In 1966, Gunn published a book of poems, Positives, that were paired with photographs by his brother, Ander Gunn. What was noteworthy in addition to the experiment in poetry and photography was that the poems were in free verse. Gunn’s progression from traditional meters and forms to free verse is representative of that of many English poets.

Touch was published in 1967, and it shows...

(This entire section contains 843 words.)

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a thematic change in Gunn’s poetry. The emphasis inTouch is on the necessity of human intercourse, which directly contrasts to the solitary exercise of the will that is so prominent in Gunn’s earlier books.

Moly (1971) was the next milestone book for Gunn. The subject is the liberating LSD experiences that Gunn had. Gunn uses meter in order to give structure to what is by its nature an unstructured experience. Gunn believed that LSD had the potential to liberate a person from his or her divided condition and to free one from human limitations, but he still insisted that the description of such a liberation occur within the traditional framework of measured poetry.

Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats (1992) deals with the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic that devastated the San Francisco area. Many of the poems are precise descriptions of the suffering and courage of those afflicted with the AIDS virus. Gunn was a homosexual, but that aspect of his identity was hidden behind the various invented speakers in his earlier poems. In Gunn’s later poems, there is a directness and emotion that is not prominent in his earlier poetry.

In 1979, Gunn published Selected Poems: 1950-1975 and in 1993, Collected Poems. The first volume is a group of Gunn’s best and best-known poems. Collected Poems, however, shows the full range and achievement of one of the most important post-World War II poets writing in English.

Gunn died in his sleep in San Francisco on April 25, 2004.

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