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Thom Gunn, 74; Poet of Realism Tackled Both the Gritty and Lofty

Times Staff Writer

Thom Gunn, the expatriate British poet who embraced the counterculture life in San Francisco and used his experiences there as the basis for some of his most memorable works, has died. He was 74.

Gunn died of an apparent heart attack April 25 at his home in San Francisco, said his longtime friend and colleague Wendy Lesser.

From the early 1950s, when he moved to California, Gunn wrote about gritty subjects -- LSD, gay sex and, later, the AIDS epidemic -- as well as more conventional topics. City life, nature, Greek mythology, family and friends were also themes.

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As a young poet associated with a British group known as the Movement, whose most notable member was Philip Larkin, Gunn was dedicated to realism in his poetry and wary of high-flown language. The 19th century English novelist Thomas Hardy was among his literary influences. Hardy’s sense of irony, his resistance to idealized characters and his bleak outlook appealed to Gunn, critics noted.

The writer was born Thomas William Gunn in Kent to journalist parents, who divorced when he was 9. His mother died several years later. Gunn and his younger brother, Ander, moved several times with their father and eventually settled in Hampstead.

After high school, Gunn spent two years of obligatory service in the British army and then went to Paris for six months. He wrote the last of three unpublished novels there.

He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1950 and published his first poem the same year in a student magazine. Finding his place as a writer was “like the elimination of some enormous but undefined problem that had been across my way and prevented me from moving forward,” he wrote of his decision to pursue poetry in “My Cambridge” (1977), a collection of reminiscences by Cambridge graduates.

In the same essay he said that, as a poet, he liked to wear a mask and pose as a character. “Viewing myself as an actor trying to play a part provided rich material for poetry,” he explained.

He published his first collection, “Fighting Terms,” in 1954, using war as a theme but avoiding romantic, heroic notions of the subject.

And if I cannot gracefully receive

When you are generous, know that the habit

of soldiers is to loot. So please forgive

all my inadequacy; I was fit

for peaceful living once, and was not born

a clumsy brute in uniform.

Gunn began his career as a poet using metered, rhymed stanzas that reflected classical English verse. As time went on, he moved toward a more relaxed approach that reviewers saw as the influence of the California lifestyle on his work. Eventually he moved back and forth between the two styles.

Gunn enrolled at Stanford University in 1954 to work on a master’s degree. Four years later he joined the English faculty of UC Berkeley, where he remained until 1966. He taught as a visiting professor there until 2000.

His second collection of poems, “A Sense of Movement” (published in 1957 in England, in 1959 in the U.S.), showed the influence of his teacher at Stanford, Yvor Winters, a rationalist who taught his students that a poem should be a statement about a human experience.

“Thom was an individualist,” said Jonathan Galassi, who edited several volumes of Gunn’s work published by Farrar Straus and Giroux. “He was a formalist when form was kind of a dirty word. And he was a great explorer of liberation, especially personal sexual liberation. He combined radical subject matter with a very structured style.”

“The Man With Night Sweats” (1992), a collection that Galassi edited, is one of Gunn’s best-known works. A tribute to friends caught in the AIDS epidemic, it is in the first person, as if their loss were his own.

I wake up cold, I who

prospered through dreams of heat

wake to their residue

sweat, and a clinging sheet.

Illness, he wrote, has left “my flesh reduced and wrecked.”

Through most of his life in California, Gunn lived in a communal household reminiscent of his earliest days in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Most recently he shared a house with three other men.

“Thom wrote about gay themes and the counterculture in a way that was surprising,” Galassi said. “It was his life, his circumstance. He was open about it.”

He was also honest about the costs. In “My Sad Captains,” a poem of 1961, Gunn described friends whose existence on the edge had caught up with them.

The past lapping them like a

cloak of chaos.

Wondering what would happen to them after they died he imagined that

They withdraw to an orbit

and turn with disinterested

hard energy, like the stars.

In a number of his poems Gunn explored his own youth. In “Hampstead: the Horse Chestnut Trees,” written in the 1980s, he describes riding downhill on bicycles with his brother, but admits that he can’t honestly recall the smells, the sounds, the range of emotions he felt at the time.

Forms remain, not the life

of detail or hue

then the forms are lost and

only a few dates stay with you.

When British critics complained about Gunn’s poetry, it was not his unvarnished subject matter that irritated them, but his disloyalty to traditional metered verse.

“At one point in the ‘70s, the British critics saw Thom as a good poet gone bad,” said Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review, an arts magazine that Gunn contributed to regularly. “Criticism never bothered him. He was happy to continue doing his work.”

In addition to his younger brother, Gunn is survived by Mike Kitay, his partner of more than 50 years.


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