Thom(son William) Gunn 1929–
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. His subjects range from metaphysical conceits to motorcycle gangs and LSD, and at the center of his work there is a tension between constraint and energy that Gunn describes in Moly (1971) as "a debate between the passion for definition and the passion for flow." As a student and beginning 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. Like Movement poetry, 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 (1954), were written at Cambridge and reveal his attempt at stylistic sophistication and hard realism. Gunn's admiration for the man of action, which recurs throughout his career, is evident here in the many images of soldiers and war. In 1954, Gunn moved to California and enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied under the poet and critic Yvor Winters.
Gunn's life in the United States has strongly influenced his work. 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, as well as his philosophical approach. His second collection, The Sense of Movement (1958), like Fighting Terms, displays a formal construction and examines the existential premise of a valueless world in which the individual creates meaning through willed action. However, the influence of American culture begins to emerge and in Gunn's next collection, My Sad Captains and Other Poems (1961), this influence becomes explicit.
My Sad Captains is divided into two thematically and stylistically different sections and is considered a major transitional volume. The first half continues in the mode of Gunn's previous volumes, stressing violence, roughness, and action with tight, formal control. The second section marks the beginning of Gunn's movement from metrical verse to syllabics and eventually to even more relaxed free forms. The change in technique is mirrored in the emergence of new poetic concerns: Gunn's metaphysical contemplations are abandoned in order to record experiences in and perceptions of the physical world. Nature begins to figure prominantly and Gunn's combative stance toward the world is softened. The poems begin to express a recognition that emotional contact between humans is both possible and desirable. Gunn's next collection, Touch (1968), expands on this sense of hope and possibility. The poems are written mostly in free verse or a combination of free verse and syllabics, a style which is seen to reflect Gunn's developing optimism.
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 and Other Poems (1976). This was a period of almost ecstatic discovery for him, and these two volumes reflect his growth as he embraces the community of humankind while also acknowledging the pain and trauma of deeply sharing oneself.
The Passages of Joy (1982) contains what many critics consider his most revealing poems. They explore his English heritage, and in several poems Gunn speaks openly, for the first time, about his homosexuality. As Gunn's style continues to relax, some critics express regret over his departure from formal literary traditions, but his poems are frequently praised for their heightened clarity and directness and for the precision of Gunn's control. In 1982 Gunn also published his first collection of essays, The Occasions of Poetry. This volume contains critical analyses of the work of other poets as well as autobiographical pieces. 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.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27.)