Thom Gunn(1929-2004) English poet and his important works

Thom Gunn(1929-2004) was an English poet. He was born in Gravesend and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a contemporary of Ted Hughes.

His first volume of poems, Fighting Terms (1954), earned critical acclaim for combining vigorous contemporaneity with learned metrical verse. After leaving Cambridge, he followed his lifelong partner Mike Kitay to California, taking up a Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford University.

His second collection, The Sense of Movement (1957), shows the distinct influence of Yvor Winters, whom he met at Stanford. It retains Gunn’s characteristic tensions of theme and style, however, marrying Winters’s rationalist precision to treatments of American pop culture (notably the motorcycle rebel). In 1960 he settled permanently in San Francisco, and embarked upon a full-time career as a writer.

My Sad Captains (1961) is a consciously transitional volume: the first half reasserting Winters’s ‘technique of comprehension’, only for the second to introduce a more open syllabic style which would inform all of his subsequent work. Moly (1971) is predominantly the result of LSD experiences in the late 1960s, prompting a seemingly counter intuitive return to formal metrics.

A much more angst-ridden volume, Jack Straw’s Castle (1975), is based on a recurrent nightmare. With the explicit treatment of his homosexuality in The Passages of Joy (1982), his critical reputation reached its lowest ebb. He was characterized by some as a rigorous intellectual poet who had descended into hippyish frivolity. His rehabilitation came with The Man with Night Sweats (1992), a frank and moving series about friends who were victims of AIDS, acknowledged as an exemplary poetic response to the epidemic.

The Collected Poems (1993) contains all but the work of Boss Cupid (2000), his final volume of ‘survivor’ poems. His celebration of men of action (and violence), his gallery of heroes (ranging from Elvis Presley to Caravaggio), together with his rational, laconic, colloquial manner provide an interesting synthesis of the English Movement and elements of American Beat poetry. Collections of occasional prose include The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, ed. Clive Wilmer (1982), and Shelf Life (1993).

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