Thom Gunn 1929–
(Full name Thomson William Gunn) English poet, critic, editor, and essayist.
An English poet who has lived in the United States since 1955, Gunn has combined in his writing characteristics of both formal, traditionally structured poetry and relaxed, modern free verse. Although Gunn continues to be better known in England than in the United States, he undoubtedly belongs to the Anglo-American tradition which includes such notable poets as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden.
Gunn was born in 1929 in Gravesend, Kent, England. He began writing sketches and fiction at an early age. As a student and poet at Cambridge in the early 1950s, Gunn shared many concerns with such writers as Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, and others who have been collectively referred to as The Movement. In 1954 Gunn moved to California and enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied under the poet and critic Yvor Winters. In the early 1960s Gunn taught at the University of California at Berkeley and became involved with the radical counter-culture in San Francisco. His experiences with LSD and his new insights provided the material for many of the poems in Moly and Jack Straw's Castle. He continues to live in California.
Gunn's early work displays a predilection for tightly rhymed and metered verse and a rejection of the neoromanticism favored in England in the 1940s. The poems in his first collection, Fighting Terms, were written at Cambridge and reveal his attempt at stylistic sophistication and hard realism. Although such dominant concerns as the quest for personal identity and meaning in human existence have remained constant, his topics, imagery, and style have changed. The poems comprising My Sad Captains exhibit this shift and the book is considered a major transitional point in Gunn's career. Passages of Joy, his 1982 collection, contain what many critics consider his most revealing poems up to the 1992 publication of The Man with Night Sweats. Written between 1982 and 1988, the poems in the collection range widely in style and inccorporate
both free and traditional verse grouped into four sections. The volume was awarded the Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize in 1992.
Many critics fault Gunn's early verse as affected and cerebral. As his style developed, some commentators expressed regret over his move away from formal literary traditions, though his poems are frequently praised for their heightened clarity, directness and precision of control. It has been noted that his verse has become progressively more personal and revealing; in the critically praised collection, The Man with Night Sweats, reviewers laud its unsentimental examination of the personal and social effects of AIDS, the deaths of friends and lovers, and neglected members of modern American society. He is considered an insightful and deft chronicler of contemporary culture, and his later verse is often praised for its energy and topicality as well as its exploration of such diverse themes as existentialism, identity, sexuality, the debilitating effects of AIDS on the homosexual community, and the relationship between humans and nature.