Despite Thom Gunn’s assertion that “my life contains no events,” his career is of the greatest interest to students of modern poetry, since it mirrors significant cultural movements from an Anglo-American perspective. His work, likewise, reflects a fusion of the best in the modern poetic traditions of Britain and the United States.
Thomson William Gunn’s parents were of Scottish origins, both journalists with socialist sympathies. His father became editor of the Daily Sketch, a popular national newspaper. Gunn’s early years were spent moving with his father’s job until the family settled in Hampstead, London. His parents divorced in 1938; his mother died when he was fifteen. After graduating from University College School, he did compulsory National Service for two years before proceeding to Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1950.
While there, he met a group of young poets and became committed to poetry as a vocation. He was particularly influenced by the lectures of F. R. Leavis, a brilliant teacher and critic. Gunn’s first volume of poetry, Fighting Terms, consists of poetry written at this time and demonstrates the technical mastery of a wide range of verse forms typical of all of his poetry. After graduating in 1953, he received a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University in California and, quite fortuitously, found himself studying under Yvor Winters, whose influence on him was as profound as Leavis’s. It was here that the poems of his second volume, The Sense of Movement, were written. Both books he considered apprentice work, but both brought critical attention, especially to his modern subject matter (for example, members of motorcycle gangs) treated with such formal control. Winters’s insistence on a balance of “rule” and “energy” became integral to Gunn’s sensibility.
After a desultory year teaching in Texas, Gunn returned to the San Francisco area, where the burgeoning gay culture suited him. He embarked on postgraduate work at Stanford but before its completion received an offer to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1958. He was to remain attached to the faculty there, both full-and part-time, for many years.
My Sad Captains is the fruit of these...
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