Other literary forms

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Thom Gunn was best known for his poetry as well as his essays that present criticism and autobiographical information. The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (1982) collects Gunn’s reviews and essays on poets from Fulke Greville and Ben Jonson to Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. It also contains four valuable essays on the composition and inspiration of Gunn’s own poetry, including the autobiographical sketch “My Life up to Now” (1977).


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Thom Gunn was richly honored for his work during his lifetime. He won the Levinson Prize in 1955, the Somerset Maugham Award in 1959, the Arts Council of Great Britain Award in 1959, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1964, and a Rockefeller Foundation award in 1966. He won a Gold Medal in poetry from the Commonwealth Club of California in 1976 for Jack Straw’s Castle. The Passages of Joy earned the W. H. Smith Award (1980), two Northern California Book Awards in poetry (1982, 1992), and the PEN/Los Angeles Prize for poetry (1983). In 1988, he won the Robert Kirsch Award for body of work from the Los Angeles Times as well as the Sara Teasdale prize. He was honored with the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award in 1990. The Man with Night Sweats earned him the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the PEN Center USA West Poetry Award, both in 1993. He received a Lambda Literary Award in 1994 and the Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1998. He held a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1993. In 2001, he received the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry for Boss Cupid.

Discussion Topics

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What was conventional and what was unusual in the advice given to young Thom Gunn by Yvor Winters?

How does Gunn’s use of invented speakers reflect Winters’s conception of poetry?

Trace Gunn’s movement toward poems in less traditional forms.

What common characteristics of members of motorcycle gangs made them a valid subject for Gunn?

Gunn uses military metaphors even in love poems. Cite effective examples. Do you see anything precarious in this habit?


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Brown, Merle E. Double Lyric: Divisiveness and Communal Creativity in Recent English Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. Brown argues that poetry is the result of the dialectic between the poet’s thinking and speaking selves, the poem being a communal expression of that double consciousness. The theory bears fruit in the two chapters devoted to Gunn’s work. The first explores the idea of “inner community” in the long poem “Misanthropos,” the second the idea of “authentic duplicity” in Gunn’s poetry up to Jack Straw’s Castle, and Other Poems.

Gunn, Thom. “Thom Gunn.” Interview by Christopher Hennessy. In Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets, edited by Hennessy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Gunn explores his works, technical and emotional development, and the links between his sexuality and verse.

Guthmann, Edward. “A Poet’s Life, Part 1: Reserved but Raw, Modest but Gaudy, Thom Gunn Covered an Enormous Amount of Ground in His Exquisite Work and His Raucous Life.” San Francisco Chronicle, April 25, 2005, p. C1. On the one-year anniversary of Gunn’s death, Guthmann wrote a two-part profile of the poet that described his life largely through conversations with friends and colleagues.

_______. “A Poet’s Life, Part 2: As Friends Died of AIDS, Thom Gunn Stayed Healthy—Until His Need to Play Hard Finally Killed Him.” San Francisco Chronicle April 26, 2005, p. E1. The second installment in a profile of the deceased Gunn reveals much about his life in San Francisco with...

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partner Mike Kitay.

King, P. R. Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical Introduction. London: Methuen, 1979. The chapter devoted to Gunn, “A Courier After Identity,” discusses five distinct personas in Gunn’s poetic development: the “embattled” stance of Fighting Terms, “a life of action and of pose” in The Sense of Movement, the “divided self” of My Sad Captains, and Other Poems, the striving for “contact” with humankind and nature in Touch, and the “widening sympathies” of Moly and Jack Straw’s Castle, and Other Poems. An excellent overview.

Leader, Zachary, ed. The Movement Reconsidered: Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie, and Their Contemporaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. A collection of essays on the Movement poets, including one on Gunn and one discussing Gunn and Donald Davie.

Michelucci, Stefania. The Poetry of Thom Gunn: A Critical Study. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009. Michelucci finds a desire for freedom in Gunn’s early poetry that leads to his vindication of his closeted sexuality.

Weiner, Joshua, ed. At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. A collection of critical essays examine Gunn’s poetry, including “Meat,” “Considering the Snail,” and “Duncan.”


Critical Essays