Remembering Poet Thom Gunn

By John R. Killacky

This is not a dry, academic look at Thom Gunn’s life: the biographer supplies a loving — though at times unflinchingly honest — view of the self-punishing poet.

Thom Gunn: A Cool Queer Life by Michael Nott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 720 pp, $40

Michael Nott’s Thom Gunn: A Cool Queer Life contains a treasure trove of illustrative backstories as it probes the life and literary accomplishments of a prolific, acclaimed, and controversial poet. Nott was a co-editor of The Letters of Thom Gunn (2022), and in this compelling new biography draws on that research, as well as on interviews as well as excerpts from the artist’s notebooks and diaries.

Gunn published over 30 books of poems, two collections of essays, and edited four collections of poetry. He was the recipient of numerous awards and prizes for his achievements in literature. Mid-career, he became a queer icon when he eulogized friends lost to AIDS and celebrated gay sexuality via his “Leatherman” persona. He died of “acute polysubstance abuse” in 2004.

Gunn’s early poetry was erudite, witty, and elegantly wrought, but it was usually coolly detached, framed in meter and rhyme. As he progressed as a poet, he experimented with free verse and syllabic friskiness, juggling tradition and innovation as he merged high and low themes.

He was born in England in 1929; both parents were journalists. At the age of 15, he and his younger brother Ander found their mother dead — she had committed suicide. It took him over 50 years to address this obviously profound loss in his work. In one of his last poems, “My Mother’s Pride,” Gunn wrote, “I am made by her, and undone.”

Gunn was educated at Cambridge University and wrote his first collection of poems while still an undergraduate. There he met his life-partner Mike Kitay, an American theater artist. They moved to California in 1953 and settled in the Bay Area. A Guggenheim Foundation fellowship gave him the financial wherewithal to put a down payment on their Victorian House in San Francisco’s Upper Haight neighborhood.

Gunn taught at UC Berkeley from 1958 to 1999, but it was only for one term each year so he could focus on writing. California themes and urban landscapes infused his poetry: drug taking, gay sexuality, and hypermasculine bikers in leather were lyrically portrayed. He also published critical essays on a variety of poets he admired, Ben Jonson, William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Ezra Pound, Christopher Isherwood, Elizabeth Bishop, and Marianne Moore among them.

Despite his considerable success as a poet, Gunn struggled with writer’s block after completing each of his volumes. “I don’t usually feel fully alive unless I am in the middle of writing,” he told a friend. During these dry periods, Nott describes how Gunn would lose himself in sexual cruising and escalating drug use. This mode of escape became increasingly complicated (and physically challenging) as he aged, beset by worries he was becoming less desirable.

Gunn Thom

Queer icon Thom Gunn. Photo: Body

In 1992, Gunn published an elegiac collection, The Man With Night Sweats, that grappled with the AIDS pandemic. In one poem, he laments: “Now as I watch the progress of the plague, / The friends surrounding me fall sick, grow thin, / And drop away.” The book became his most acclaimed achievement, hailed as a poignant testament to the power of art to speak to unbearable loss. The following year Gunn was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant.

Gunn’s final book of poems, Boss Cupid, was published in 2000, the year after he retired from teaching. His recreational use of crystal meth had by then spiraled into full addiction — according to his housemates. Gunn was increasingly tweaked during encounters with the “homeless speed freaks” he picked up for sexual encounters. In 2004, they found Gunn dead at the age of 74.

Nott’s scholarship is extremely impressive: he provides 144 pages of footnotes, attributing his sources to interviews, letters, notebooks, and diary entries. But this is not a dry, academic look at Gunn’s life:  the biographer supplies a loving — though at times unflinchingly honest — view of the self-punishing poet. On top of that, we are taken into the artist’s compositional process — drafts and unfinished works are probed insightfully.

Often reticent, Gunn warned critics and (perhaps) future biographers, “I don’t like dramatizing myself.” In A Cool Queer Life, Nott has created an illuminating theatrical framework in which to chronicle Thom Gunn’s private life, adding resonance and significance to his beautiful poetry.

John R. Killacky is the author of because art: commentary, critique, & conversation.

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