Thom Gunn's Sense of Movement : He Left England a Generation Ago to Seek a New Life in the Bay Area. Today His Austere Poems of Love and Death Have Put Him in the Forefront of American Poetry.

Wendy Lesser is editor of the Threepenny Review. Her most recent book, "Pictures at an Execution," was published by Harvard University Press.

"I got the idea for these poems from Patricia Highsmith's wonderful article about Jeffrey Dahmer. What fascinated me--this stood out in the article--was that Dahmer got this feeling, 'I'm never going to see him again, the most important person in my life,' about the guy he had known for only 20 minutes, who was getting ready to leave. So he came up behind him and killed him. I mean, if you want to possess somebody, what better way than to kill them?"

Thom Gunn and I are sitting in a San Francisco restaurant, talking about his Jeffrey Dahmer poems, a sequence of four published under the title "Troubadour." The poems, in somewhat gruesome detail, contemplate Dahmer's murderous acts from the killer's point of view. "I rather like upsetting people," Gunn admits. "I've always had a childish desire to shock. But I didn't really think those poems would upset people as much as they did. They weren't conceived of as being about somebody crazy, but about someone who experiences the things we do, only in more extreme form. I think of them as love poems."

He published the Dahmer poems shortly after winning a MacArthur Fellowship in 1993. Perhaps, I suggest, he wanted to show that he was still allied with the "undesirables" (as he titled a book of poems about street people, derelicts and other marginal types). Perhaps he felt guilty about winning America's biggest literary prize.

"No," he says flatly. "I don't feel at all guilty about the MacArthur. I do feel guilty about having a house whenever I pass by street people. But doesn't everyone feel that way?"

There is something boyishly charming about Thom Gunn's assumption that everyone is exactly like him. But then, there is something boyishly charming about Thom Gunn in general. Though he will be 65 on his next birthday, he is still thin and energetic, bounding up and down two flights of stairs at a moment's notice to retrieve a forgotten jacket or fetch a spare copy of a poem. His face is strongly lined, and his hair is in transition from black to gray (about the stage of Richard Gere's in "Internal Affairs," a movie Gunn much admires), but with his earring, tattoo, T-shirts and jeans, he conveys the impression of someone who has never really aged. Even his laugh is sudden, open, childishly joyful--as well as loud enough to triumph over the din at any restaurant in San Francisco, his home since 1961.

Thom Gunn has always had a big, loud laugh. Karl Miller, a classmate at Cambridge University in the early 1950s (later the founder of the London Review of Books), wrote of those Cambridge days: "A great pleasure of the place was to watch Thom Gunn, of the sounding, crashing laugh and lumberjack shirts, become a poet." The lumberjack shirts have long since been discarded, and the process of becoming a poet has been satisfyingly, definitively accomplished, but the laugh remains. And these days, with the recent MacArthur fellowship and his "Collected Poems" just out, Gunn has a lot to laugh about.

The level of fame is new, but the spotlight has been on Thom Gunn from a relatively early age. By the time he was 25, he had published his first book, "Fighting Terms," and had been welcomed into the company of a new generation of British poets that included Philip Larkin, Donald Davie and Britain's current poet laureate, Ted Hughes. In 1989, a prominent critic putting together a book about British poetry since 1960 kept noticing "how insistently Thom Gunn shouldered to centre stage." At least a few Gunn poems made it into virtually every anthology of contemporary British verse, and some were even included in the standard O-level and A-level tests that determined a student's passage from secondary school to university.

If you know a privately educated Englishman of a certain age--say, 35 to 60--he will likely be able to recite from memory at least a few lines by Thom Gunn, the likeliest being a passage from the famous "On the Move." The lead poem in his second collection, "The Sense of Movement" (1957), "On the Move" describes an alluringly ominous group of Hells-Angels-like bikers:

" On motorcycles, up the road, they come: Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys. . . ."

As if to signal that he too was on the move, Gunn himself briefly rode a motorcycle (though not until after he'd written this reputation-making poem). "I rode it to show off," he now says, "and I had it less than three months. I shouldn't be trusted on the road. That's why I don't drive a car. I think my reflexes are funny."

One Englishman who has been a fan of Gunn since the 1950s is neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks. "My battered copy of 'The Sense of Movement' goes back to--let's see, 1958," he notes. "Jonathan Miller, who was a friend of mine, said, 'You must read this.' " Sacks subsequently ventured to San Francisco for a couple of years of medical training, choosing the location in part because Thom Gunn was already there. "I met him in 1961," recalls Sacks, who now lives in New York, "and I saw a fair amount of him during my brief San Francisco days, which ended in 1962. But I've kept in touch with him since. And whether as a grand poet or the best of friends, he's someone I very much love and admire."

But during these same decades, most literate Americans--even most American fans of poetry, which is a far smaller group--had barely heard of Gunn. Poet Elizabeth Bishop, writing to her mentor, Marianne Moore, from San Francisco in 1968, felt obliged to explain who he was, even though by this time he had already published five books ("My Sad Captains" came out in 1961, "Touch" and "Positives" in the mid-1960s). "One poet I've met here, almost a neighbor, I like very much, Thom Gunn," she wrote. "His poetry is usually very good, I think; he's English but has lived here for a long time." Gunn's opinion of Bishop was equally enthusiastic. "She was jolly and hearty and liked a good joke," he remembers. "And she gave the only really good literary party I ever went to."

FROM 1972 ON, THOM GUNN HAS EKED OUT A LIVING AS A PART-TIME LECTURER in UC Berkeley's English department, having given up a tenured position there because he couldn't stand going to department meetings. He had no health insurance, no retirement plan, not even a single credit card (until, in the 1980s, he finally acquired one so he could purchase airline tickets over the phone). He lived frugally, almost never buying new clothing or hardcover books. His only tangible asset, a house in the Haight-Ashbury district, had been purchased in 1971 with a $3,300 down payment carved from his $10,000 Guggenheim grant; he shared the mortgage costs among several rent-paying housemates.

This is not, however, a tale of penurious merit ultimately rewarded, of ascetic renunciation for the good of Art. This is the tale of choices consciously made on the basis of immediate as well as lasting desires; of pleasures experienced and enjoyed; of a life explored and inhabited so as to render up its manifold possibilities. During all those years, Thom Gunn was having a ball--particularly in the late '60s and early '70s, San Francisco's hippie heyday.

"I liked LSD because it broke down categories," Gunn says now. "But that was what I liked so much about the '60s anyway. By your mid-30s, you can get a bit smug, and the '60s--and by this I mean the drugs, the concerts in the park, all of it--turned over my assumptions, delayed my middle-aged smugness a little."

The poems that came out of this period of discovery and self-discovery--poems about LSD, communal orgies, gay bath houses, rock-star deaths, fragmentary memories, nightmarish visions and the Northern California landscape, urban and rural--took up much of the space in Gunn's next three books, "Moly" (1971), "Jack Straw's Castle & Other Poems" (1976) and "The Passages of Joy" (1982).

These books did not endear him to his English public. The prevailing sense (as wittily summarized by Glyn Maxwell, a younger British poet) was that here was "a man of decorous, skillful, metrical verse who had for his own reasons become absorbed into an alien culture that gave him alien subjects (like sex), alien backdrops (like sunshine) and, most vexing of all, made his strict forms melt on the page. No longer could he be Our Man Out There like, say, Auden in New York or James Fenton in the Far East, because he seemed to have become Their Man Out There."

To an extent, this was the point of the whole endeavor: to escape being English. The freedom Gunn gained in 1960s San Francisco was in part the freedom to stop being what he had been brought up to be and become something else, something far less easily defined. He says as much in the last few lines of "The Geysers":

" torn from the self in which I breathed and trod I am I am raw meat I am a god "

Or, if not a god, then at any rate a Californian; at the very least an "Anglo American," as he now calls himself, in imitation of the models of ethnic immigration--Italian American, Hispanic American, Asian American--that can be found so profusely in California.

It's not true, however, that California made all of Gunn's British strictness melt away. As a teacher at UC Berkeley, for instance, "he was extremely rigorous," says dance critic Joan Acocella, who took Gunn's undergraduate English 100 in 1965. "He made us write a two-page paper every week--he was very strict about the two-page limit--and he always expected from us more sophistication than the other professors did. He gave us idiosyncratic material--more difficult, less lovable than the usual--and then he gave us his reasons for liking it, which were bound up with his moral personality: his reserve, his distance. I'll never forget what he taught me. He was great."

The students also found Gunn himself idiosyncratic, and that too appealed to them. Unlike the other professors, Acocella remembers, "He wore leather, he was a poet, we had heard that he was gay, and we knew that he took the bus back to San Francisco every day." (To this day, Gunn takes the bus back and forth one semester each year to teach at Berkeley. He hasn't allowed any of his recent fellowships to interfere with his scrupulous, devoted teaching; once, in fact, he nearly turned down a three-year fellowship when it seemed he would have to stop teaching to accept it.)

The rigor that characterized his teaching was also there, if less obviously, in his California-influenced poetry. He may have ceased to be wholly British, but he could still produce "decorous, skilled, metrical verse." Though the three books of the '70 and '80s contain a great deal of free-verse experimentation, they also contain a substantially higher proportion of rhyme and meter than most American poets were using at that time. Even in the lines I've quoted from "The Geysers," you can hear both the rhyme (of "trod" and "god") and the old-fashioned, Shakespearean iambic pentameter ("I am I am raw meat I am a god ") .

Explaining why he chose to use meter when writing about his LSD experiences, Gunn has written, "The acid trip is unstructured, it opens you up to countless possibilities, you hanker after the infinite. The only way I could give myself any control over the presentation of these experiences, and so could be true to them, was by trying to render the infinite through the finite, the unstructured through the structured."

But this particular use of structure did not appeal to those who had formerly praised Gunn's energy and adventurousness when similar metrical forms were applied to subjects like soldiers, bikers and figures from Greek myth. What really bugged the British critics was Gunn's unashamed focus on pleasure and enjoyment; "good news is no news," as one reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement wryly put it. It was not until Thom Gunn's next book, "The Man with Night Sweats" (which came out in England in 1992), that the British wanted to hear what he had to report.

"Now that HIV and AIDS have turned Gunn's home into a place to which we do send correspondents, at least when we feel up to it," the TLS review continues, "there he still is, an exceptional and fascinating poet with a formal range to rival Auden's, a sensuality equal to Ginsberg's and a profound yet daily humanity that surely surpasses that of any other poet of our times."

That ringing endorsement was sounded in March of this year, in a review of Thom Gunn's "Collected Poems." When I read the praise aloud to fiction writer Leonard Michaels, who has taught with Gunn at UC Berkeley for almost three decades, he shrugs with disdainful pity for the previously unenlightened. "Haven't I been saying exactly that all along?" he says with his characteristic Lower East Side inflections. Another shrug, as if to say, who could miss it?

Nobody, at the moment. Since 1990, when he was in the first round to receive the generous ($105,000 over three years) Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Awards, Gunn has been reaping the rewards of fame. In late 1992, a British jury awarded him the first Forward Prize, which is now England's largest poetry prize. In 1993, he won not only the Lenore Marshall-Nation Magazine Prize for Poetry for "The Man with Night Sweats" but also a five-year, $369,000 MacArthur Fellowship for a lifetime of achievement in poetry. The word "genius," in large, boldfaced type, appeared next to his picture in several Bay Area newspapers, while the Observer in London headlined its interview with him "A poet who's still firing on all cylinders" (a reference, no doubt, to those everlasting bikers). The Manhattan-based novelist and critic Susan Sontag, who serves on the board of a San Francisco literary organization called City Arts & Lectures Inc., lately advised its director to draw on local talent: "You know who you should get to speak? Thom Gunn. He's one of the two or three best poets writing anywhere in America right now."

And now, in 1994, the publication of his "Collected Poems" has already resulted in that rave review in the TLS, a public reading with U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove at Grand Central Station in New York, respectful notices in Sunday book sections across the country and--to Gunn's great delight--a one-page profile in Spin magazine, featuring a photograph that Robert Mapplethorpe took of him in 1980.

Gunn is particularly pleased by the attention from Spin because he has long been an aficionado of rock music and an avid watcher of MTV. "The people at Spin thought I was terribly old-fashioned because I read Rolling Stone," he reports with typical self-deprecation. But by anyone else's standards, Thom Gunn is frighteningly up to date. When he's not rereading Victorian novels or discovering Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" (the best book he read in 1991, Gunn alleges), he's spotting the latest good television show. " 'NYPD Blue,' of course, I adore," he says of the most recent season. "It doesn't worry me that it's violent any more than that 'King Lear' is violent. I love the way it preaches--it preaches so well." He also watches "Seinfeld" ("like everybody else") and "Beavis & Butt-head" ("I really do--I'm not just pretending") but feels that "The Simpsons," which he once admired, has "lost its edge."

Gunn habitually ferrets out the best in every genre, from Philip K. Dick to Thomas Hardy, and eagerly recommends a movie like the Harvey Keitel sleaze fest "Bad Lieutenant," praising its "hilarious Dostoyevskian humor." He refuses to distinguish between a 19th-Century novel and a recent potboiler, between a pop song and a classical composition. "I hate the distinction between high art and low art, and I have since I was in my teens. Dickens had the audience of Judith Krantz in his time--Trollope held him in rather low esteem because he was too crude and too popular," he gleefully points out.

THE MACARTHUR FELLOWSHIP and all the accompanying hoopla have not much changed Thom Gunn's essential existence, though the money will come in handy for retirement. "I always said, when people asked how I would support myself in my old age, that my public would take care of me. And now it has!" he beams. The unexpected windfall also paid for him and his lover, Mike Kitay, to take a special trip to Venice, where they hadn't been since they were in their 20s, and to Prague, which they saw for the first time and loved.

Remarking on his good fortune to a British journalist who interviewed him after he won the Forward Prize, Thom Gunn said, "I've traveled, I've been happily in love for 40 years, and I've read 'The Brothers Karamazov' three times." The joke at the end (which is only partly a joke: Gunn takes his reading very seriously) undercuts the sentiment a bit, but it is true that he has been in love for more than 40 years. He met Mike Kitay, an American studying at Cambridge, in 1952. After Kitay returned to America, Gunn went to Stanford for graduate work in 1954. The two of them eventually settled in San Francisco, where Kitay had a job scriptwriting for television.

"It is not easy to speak of a relationship so long-lasting, so deep and so complex, nor of the changes it has gone through, let alone of the effect it has had on my writing," Gunn has written about his life with Kitay. "But his was, from the start, the example of the searching, worrying, improvising intelligence playing upon the emotions, which in turn reflect back on the intelligence. It was an example at times as rawly passionate as only Henry James can dare to be." (He's not kidding about Henry James. Gunn rereads "The Wings of the Dove" every few years, and "The Awkward Age" is one of his two favorite novels from the turn of the century; the other is Rudyard Kipling's "Kim.")

A number of Gunn's poems are love poems to Kitay, including "Thoughts on Unpacking," "The Separation," "Touch," "The Hug" and a new one, "In Trust." I heard "In Trust" for the first time at a poetry reading in March in Berkeley (it's too recent even to be in the "Collected Poems") and was extremely moved by it--partly, I imagine, because I was sitting next to Mike Kitay during the reading.

Mike, who still looks very much as he did when Thom described him in "To a Friend in Time of Trouble" ("A handsome gray-haired, gray-eyed man, tight-knit") had been giving me hints about who or what was being referred to in each of the previous poems. When this poem began, he fell silent.

" You go from me In June for months on end To study equanimity Among high trees alone; I go out with a new boyfriend And stay all summer in the city where Home mostly on my own I watch the sunflowers flare. "

But if the poem begins with separation, it ends with a powerful coming together: " As you began You'll end the year with me. We'll hug each other while we can, Work or stray while we must. Nothing is, or will ever be, Mine, I suppose. No one can hold a heart, But what we hold in trust We do hold, even apart. "

Gunn and Kitay's complicated history is reflected in their domestic arrangement, which includes other people who have entered their lives along the way--Gunn's family, or "household." And this communal group is in turn embedded within the larger community of San Francisco, which Gunn also considers his home. Gunn's two "obsessions," as he self-consciously calls them, are both connected to this feeling of living within the larger civic society. "I don't like people getting movies in their own homes, and I don't like people driving around in cars," he announces. "I think people should take public transportation and be with other people in movie theaters. Merely sitting near another person on a bus or in a movie theater is good for the sense of community."

Thom Gunn's household--where, as he says in one poem, "Each cooks one night, and each cooks well"--consists, at this point, of himself, Mike Kitay, Bob Bair, Bill Schuessler and Joseph Batiste. Another roommate, Jim Lay, died of AIDS on Christmas Day, 1986. "Four of my friends died in one month," Gunn says of the epidemic that stimulated him to write the central poems in "The Man With Night Sweats." He himself is HIV-negative, a fortuitously exempted bystander to the mass tragedy, as he suggests in the poem "Courtesies of the Interregnum":

" Excluded from the invitation list To the largest gathering of the decade, missed From membership as if the club were full. It is not that I am not eligible. . . ."

In the notes at the back of "Collected Poems," Thom Gunn lists the names of the dead friends referred to in his poems about AIDS. "For the record--for my record if for no one else's, because they were not famous people--I wish to name them here. . . ." He has always had strong feelings about names, about the specific, individual identity assigned to one person and no other. "Poor girl, poor girl, what was your name?" he asks in the last line of "The Victim," his poem about Sid Vicious' murder of his girlfriend, and in the notes he supplies the answer. The actual, historical record, the particulars of an individual personality, matter to Gunn, which is one reason his memorial poems have such power.

The same passion for specificity also explains another, very different aspect of Thom Gunn's character: his enormous congeniality as a gossip. He remembers every tidbit of information ever passed on to him, every remark ever made to him, and by whom, and he can retrieve it at exactly the pertinent moment in a conversation. "I'm the soul of indiscretion," he confides, and then listens eagerly to the next gossipy secret.

That is one side of Thom Gunn. The other side is just the opposite: a man who deeply believes in the virtues of impersonality. In an essay called "My Life up to Now," Gunn comments on the fact that he is very consciously "a rather derivative poet" and then goes on to say that "it has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot's lovely remark that art is the escape from personality."

The same idea informs his poem "Expression," which complains about "the poetry of my juniors," in which "Mother doesn't understand,/and they hate Daddy, the noted alcoholic." Tired of this confessional mode (the mode of much contemporary American poetry, from Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath onward), the poem's speaker goes to an art museum, where he seeks out a medieval Italian painting of the Virgin and Child. The poem ends:

" The sight quenches, like water after too much birthday cake. Solidly there, mother and child stare outward, two pairs of matching eyes void of expression.

ON THE ASSEMBLAGE-STYLE WALL of Thom Gunn's second-floor study, amid cutout pictures of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, antique postcards of nude bodybuilders and assorted posters, clippings and visual paraphernalia, is a photograph that doesn't go with the rest. In it, a beautiful dark-haired woman holds a pretty blond baby, both of them staring outward at the camera. I have been in the study before, to pick up a book or admire the view out the back window, but I have never before noticed the photograph. Now, however, we are spending longer than usual here, because Thom Gunn is giving a tour of the house to Tony Kushner. (Kushner, in town to give a lecture following the great success of "Angels in America," told me that the person he most wanted to meet was Thom Gunn, so I arranged a lunch. In Kushner's view, "He is certainly one of the greatest poets in the English language. I find his work very scary and disturbing and sexy and beautiful.")

"Who's that?" I say, pointing at the photograph.

"That's my mother," says Thom. "With me, as a baby."

Thom Gunn was born in 1929 in Gravesend, a town in Kent. His father, the son of a Scottish merchant seaman, was a journalist who became quite successful, eventually editing a newspaper, the Daily Sketch. Gunn's parents were divorced when he was 8 or 9, and he was on fairly distant terms with his father after that, but even before the divorce he was closer to his mother. His given name, Thomson, was the name of his mother's family, and he identified with that side of his heritage. "My mother was one of seven children, all girls," Gunn has written, "and all of a very independent turn of mind." One of Thom's childhood memories is of his mother "wearing an orchid pinned by a brooch in the shape of a hammer and sickle. From this distance the combination sounds like a cliche of the '30s, but it wasn't: Other women wouldn't have done something so outrageous." He also recalls being lost at the age of about 4 in Kensington Gardens (by this time, the family had moved to London), and being asked by a policeman to describe his mother. "A proud woman," the little boy answered.

When Thom was 15, his mother committed suicide; he and his younger brother found the body. For most of his writing life, he could not directly address this fact. In his one published fragment of autobiography, the tragedy takes place between sentences, as it would in an E.M. Forster novel. Then, in 1992, Gunn published a poem called "The Gas-Poker," which begins:

" Forty-eight years ago --Can it be forty-eight Since then?--they forced the door Which she had barricaded With a full bureau's weight Lest anyone find, as they did, What she had blocked it for.

The two boys who are the poem's "they"--"Elder and younger brother"--go outside to walk and cry and try to understand what has happened to them. Then:

Coming back off the grass To the room of her release They who had been her treasures Knew to turn off the gas, Take the appropriate measures, Telephone the police.

Borrowing the strategy he used in the poems about LSD, Gunn has relied on rhyme and meter to organize an experience that would otherwise be incomprehensibly, uncontrollably painful. "Take appropriate measures": It's in the very impersonality of the phrase (echoing, as it does, the expressive "who had been her treasures") that the sense of personal loss comes through most strongly.

"The surprising thing about one's dead," Thom Gunn said to me many years ago, "is that your relationship with them can change over time. Even after they've been dead for years, you still find your feelings about them changing, or growing. And that makes them seem to alter, too."

I ask him recently if he still feels that way. "Yes," he says. "Yes. Exactly. The longer people are dead, the more your relationship with them changes."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°