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.
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...
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The publication of Collected Poems established Thom Gunn as a major English poet. He wrote with great skill and precision in traditional and experimental styles. Moreover, he refused to be fixed in one poetic mode or subject. He constantly explored and found new styles and subjects for his poetry. His unique accomplishment was to retain the grace and force of tradition while transcending its thematic confines.