He left England for California and, as an observer of gay life, became a uniquely Anglo-American poet. The new selected edition of Thom Gunn’s poetry reveals a writer as good as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney
Thom Gunn was one of those poets you studied at school in the 1960s or 70s if your teacher had their finger on the pulse: Plath, Hughes, Heaney and Gunn. He had his first collection, Fighting Terms (1954), accepted for publication while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, and brought out his second, The Sense of Movement, in 1957 – the same year as Ted Hughes’s The Hawk in the Rain. Gunn and Hughes were prolific and famous enough, in 1962, to share a joint Selected Poems from Faber. Gunn met his life partner, Mike Kitay, an American visiting student, at Cambridge, and moved with him to California in 1954. By the time Gunn died at his home in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, he had lived in the US for nearly 60 years, and had become – as he put it – an “Anglo-American poet”.
In “To Thom Gunn in Los Altos, California”, his friend Donald Davie wrote: “Conquistador! Live dangerously, my Byron, / In this metropolis / Of Finistere. Drop off / The edge repeatedly, and come / Back to tell us!”
Gunn was a lover of risk and extremes, of drugs, bath houses, bars, loud music, open relationships and sex clubs
The poems of the 1970s and 80s chronicle the hedonism of the period, but always with Gunn’s mix of rigour and freedom
Some things, by their affinity light’s token,
Are more than shown: steel glitters from a track;
Small glinting scoops, after a wave has broken,
Dimple the water in its draining back;
Water, glass, metal, match light in their raptures,
Flashing their many answers to the one.
What captures light belongs to what it captures.
There is a sudden transition:
they plunge together in a full-
formed single fury; they are grown
to cats, hunting without scruple;
they are expert and desperate.
I am in the dark. I wonder
when they grew up. It strikes me that
I do not know whose hands they are.
One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.