Authors: Thom Gunn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet

Identity: Gay or bisexual

Author Works


Fighting Terms, 1954, revised 1962

The Sense of Movement, 1957

My Sad Captains, and Other Poems, 1961

Selected Poems, 1962 (with Ted Hughes)

A Geography, 1966

Positives, 1966 (photographs by Ander Gunn)

Touch, 1967

The Garden of the Gods, 1968

The Explorers, 1969

The Fair in the Woods, 1969

Poems, 1950-1966: A Selection, 1969

Sunlight, 1969

Last Days at Teddington, 1971

Moly, 1971

Poems After Chaucer, 1971

Moly and My Sad Captains, 1971

Mandrakes, 1973

Songbook, 1973

To the Air, 1974

Jack Straw’s Castle, 1975

Jack Straw’s Castle, and Other Poems, 1976

The Missed Beat, 1976

Games of Chance, 1979

Selected Poems, 1950-1975, 1979

Bally Power Play, 1979

Talbot Road, 1981

The Menace, 1982

The Passages of Joy, 1982

Undesirables, 1988

The Man with Night Sweats, 1992

Collected Poems, 1993

In the Twilight Slot, 1995

Boss Cupid, 2000

Site Specific: Seventeen “Neighborhood” Poems, 2000


“My Life up to Now,” 1977

The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, 1982, expanded 1985 (Clive Wilmer, editor)

Shelf Life: Essays, Memoirs, and an Interview, 1993

Thom Gunn in Conversation with James Campbell, 2000

Edited Texts:

Poetry from Cambridge 1951-52: A Selection of Verse by Members of the University, 1952

Five American Poets, 1963 (with Ted Hughes)

Selected Poems of Fulke Greville, 1968

Ben Jonson, 1974

Ezra Pound, 2000


Thom Gunn at Seventy, 1999


Despite Thom Gunn’s assertion that “my life contains no events,” his career is of the greatest interest to students of modern poetry, since it mirrors significant cultural movements from an Anglo-American perspective. His work, likewise, reflects a fusion of the best in the modern poetic traditions of Britain and the United States.{$I[AN]9810001820}{$I[A]Gunn, Thom}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Gunn, Thom}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Gunn, Thom}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Gunn, Thom}{$I[tim]1929;Gunn, Thom}

Thom Gunn

(© Ander Gunn, courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Thomson William Gunn’s parents were of Scottish origins, both journalists with socialist sympathies. His father became editor of the Daily Sketch, a popular national newspaper. Gunn’s early years were spent moving with his father’s job until the family settled in Hampstead, London. His parents divorced in 1938; his mother died when he was fifteen. After graduating from University College School, he did compulsory National Service for two years before proceeding to Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1950.

While there, he met a group of young poets and became committed to poetry as a vocation. He was particularly influenced by the lectures of F. R. Leavis, a brilliant teacher and critic. Gunn’s first volume of poetry, Fighting Terms, consists of poetry written at this time and demonstrates the technical mastery of a wide range of verse forms typical of all of his poetry. After graduating in 1953, he received a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University in California and, quite fortuitously, found himself studying under Yvor Winters, whose influence on him was as profound as Leavis’s. It was here that the poems of his second volume, The Sense of Movement, were written. Both books he considered apprentice work, but both brought critical attention, especially to his modern subject matter (for example, members of motorcycle gangs) treated with such formal control. Winters’s insistence on a balance of “rule” and “energy” became integral to Gunn’s sensibility.

After a desultory year teaching in Texas, Gunn returned to the San Francisco area, where the burgeoning gay culture suited him. He embarked on postgraduate work at Stanford but before its completion received an offer to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1958. He was to remain attached to the faculty there, both full-and part-time, for many years.

My Sad Captains is the fruit of these years. The poet is even more the impersonal, acute, probing observer. The title poem talks of a striving for control and mastery in order to achieve objective distance; the poem can then exist unowned. Later Gunn was to admit that the process of creating a poem was as important to him as its achieved status. Nevertheless, he was concerned that his poetry lacked intensity and a “humane impulse.” A happy and creative year in London (1964-1965), however, led to Touch. Its style is simpler and the form freer without any loss of control. This concept of control is central to many of the poems, such as “Confessions of a Life Artist.” Gunn reiterates his desire to be the poet of the everyday, the here-and-now. Yet there is a wrestling with the idea of the mask or “persona,” concepts derived from William Butler Yeats and John Keats. The apocalyptic “Misanthropos” sequence, which was broadcast on the radio by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), deals with the dichotomy of passion and control as central to the human condition.

The volume Moly reflects for the first time Gunn’s immersion in the hippie culture of the 1960’s. A modern phenomenon is explored through classical images, especially of Circe and centaurs. By this time Gunn had met Robert Duncan, one of the first American poets to express poetically a homosexual orientation to love. Jack Straw’s Castle reflects a little of this new influence as well as the search for community so strong in the 1970’s. The title poem is a self-exploration; in it the poet is his own castle, including the cellars. Verse forms are considerably looser, and free verse is employed successfully.

Much of The Passages of Joy is about his relationships, gay or otherwise, and in most cases they are celebrated frankly. There is much greater obvious involvement with life and living than in his earlier poetry. The title poem refers to lines in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Gunn creates a tension between the futility of human desire and the joy to be found in accepting the transience of human experience. This tension is explored in the final sequence, “Transients and Residents.”

The Man with Night Sweats, published in 1992, explores the ravages of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) as it has affected Gunn’s friends and community. The cycle of the 1960’s and 1970’s hippie and gay scenes is completed by the dying of his old friends and companions. Gunn refuses to write propaganda or dwell on disease; he emphasizes human heroism and loss. Classical verse forms contain great intensity, and Gunn emerges as survivor. In 1993, Gunn selected what he considered his best work to date for his Collected Poems.

Gunn has always been a difficult poet to categorize. He himself has claimed to be a derivative poet, and his acknowledged list of influences is long indeed–from John Keats and William Butler Yeats to William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. He rejected attempts in the 1950’s to include him in “the Movement,” a designated group of antimodernist British poets including Philip Larkin. An early collaboration with Ted Hughes proved ephemeral–the two poets moved in almost opposite directions. Although he has embraced American culture and experience, there is still a British reserve in his expression. His achievement is certainly considerable in the conjoining of such diversity; its limitations may lie in the inability to express the spiritual or to speak beyond the specifics of observed and felt experience.

BibliographyBrown, Merle E. Double Lyric: Divisiveness and Communal Creativity in Recent English Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. Brown argues that poetry is the result of the dialectic between the poet’s thinking and speaking selves, the poem being a communal expression of that double consciousness. The theory bears fruit in the two chapters devoted to Gunn’s work. The first explores the idea of “inner community” in the long poem “Misanthropos,” the second the idea of “authentic duplicity” in Gunn’s poetry up to Jack Straw’s Castle, and Other Poems.Eagleton, Terry. “Myth and History in Recent Poetry.” In British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey. Oxford, England: Carcanet, 1972. Gunn’s poetry up to and including Moly is, along with Donald Davie’s poetry, the centerpiece of this discussion of the importance of myth to contemporary poets’ relationship to history (and relative “histories”). Eagleton defines myth in the loose sense of Gunn’s Sartrean existentialism, as well as the stricter, traditional sense of Greek mythology.King, P. R. Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical Introduction. London: Methuen, 1979. The chapter devoted to Gunn, “A Courier After Identity,” discusses five distinct personas in Gunn’s poetic development: the “embattled” stance of Fighting Terms, “a life of action and of pose” in The Sense of Movement, the “divided self” of My Sad Captains, and Other Poems, the striving for “contact” with humankind and nature in Touch, and the “widening sympathies” of Moly and Jack Straw’s Castle, and Other Poems. An excellent overview.Klawitter, George. “Piety and the Agnostic Gay Poet: Thom Gunn’s Biblical Homoerotics.” Journal of Homosexuality 32, nos. 3/4 (1997): 207-232. Examines the way in which Gunn has relied on biblical stories throughout his writing career to carry gay-themed poems.Landau, Deborah. “‘How to Live. What to Do.’: The Poetics and Politics of AIDS.” American Literature 68, no. 1 (March, 1996): 193. Examines the work of four poets–Gunn, Timothy Liu, Paul Monette, and Mark Doty–to theorize their distinct aesthetic responses to the AIDS crisis.Wilmer, Clive. “Definition and Flow: Thom Gunn in the 1970’s.” In British Poetry Since 1970: A Critical Survey, edited by Peter Jones and Michael Schmidt. Manchester, England: Carcanet, 1980. This study in influence examines the reasons for Gunn’s drift away from the “monumental qualities” of metered and syllabic verse (Yvor Winters and Ezra Pound) to the modern “fluidity” of free verse (D. H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams). Wilmer concludes that Gunn’s compromise shows his capacity for change, the essential quality of “a living civilization.”Wilmer, Clive. “Thom Gunn: The Art of Poetry LXXII.” The Paris Review 37, no. 135 (Summer, 1995): 142. Uses an interview with Gunn to analyze his writing method, his influences, and several poems.
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