Thom Gunn: A Cool Queer Life | Book Review

Thom Gunn

W. H. Auden once said that poets should dress like businessmen. Thom Gunn preferred leather and chains.

This sartorial rebellion signifies the way that Gunn outgrew his British poetic roots and predecessors, bringing into his poetry new material and points of view — bondage, homosexuality, the LSD experience — that had been unexplored in British (or American) poetry before him.

Gunn is a twentieth-century poet who transcended both the border between British and American poetry, and the divide between so-called academic and anti-academic poets, the cooked and the raw poetry Robert Lowell famously described in 1960.

After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, Gunn moved from the UK to the United States in 1954, the year he published his first collection, Fighting Terms. Reviewers of the book considered Gunn a member of The Movement, a loose grouping of British poets including himself and Philip Larkin, who tended to write with colloquial and straightforward diction while avoiding abstraction and using metaphor with restraint. Characteristically, Gunn vehemently denied that he was part of, or even aware of, such a movement. He did, though, admit that these poets shared “a healthy destructive attitude.”

With the help of Donald Hall, Gunn’s poetry soon began to be included in “prominent publications like New World Writing” which the poet referred to — with characteristic attitude — as “a fashionable collection of shit… but it has a fantastic circulation.”

Gunn may never have fully abandoned the received forms he cut his teeth on, but he certainly expanded them to write of taboo experiences and states of being. His poetry, and his long tenure as a university professor in California, provide an alternative example to the American-nationalist literary criticism of the Cold War that sought to claim poetic innovation as a stateside invention, the US-centric framework exemplified by Donald M. Allen’s landmark anthology The New American Poetry: 1945—1960, which included only poets with American passports.

While at first glance Gunn was a British poet who lived in and wrote about the United States, he was also something else: a “mid-Atlantic poet” as he called himself, a transnational figure. As he described: “I feel I’d never stop writing if I lived on the West coast” while “in England I’d gutter at thirty and extinguish at 40.”

While Gunn was essentially a formalist poet, he was also a poet of searching experimentation. These contradictions are the driving forces of Michael Nott’s invigorating new biography of Gunn, Thom Gunn: A Cool Queer Life.

Nott convincingly locates Gunn’s poetic doubleness in his relationships with his graduate-school teacher, the Modernist poet and critic Yvor Winters, and Robert Duncan, whom Gunn met in California in the mid-1960s, just as he was beginning his adventures with psychedelics. After Winters’ death, Gunn came under the influence of Duncan and his open-ended approach to composition: “He did not want to emulate Duncan’s process; rather, as he had with Winters’s ideas, he wanted to absorb what he found useful and discard the rest… By opening up his writing process, Thom wondered whether he could achieve something more personal within the constraints of rhyme and meter, his most comfortable form… writing about acid would require the rigor of Winters and the adventure of Duncan.”

This delicate balance of rigor and adventure aptly describes Gunn’s best poetry.

Nott’s biography is insightful about Gunn’s poetry, and unflinching in its depiction of Gunn’s restless, sometimes aggressively promiscuous sexuality, breaking through rumor to detail: “‘Thom was enamored of the subversive aura of the clubs and the whole idea of breaking sexual taboos, even if he himself wasn’t necessarily breaking them,’ recalled one fuckbuddy.”

But Gunn was doing more than trying to shock when he wrote poems about leather and motorcycles. As Nott describes, Gunn wrote to a friend in the late 1950s:

One of my problems is how to get the important sexual business into poetry… I mean one can’t write of motorcycles and hoodlums etc all the time, and there are other problems in dealing with the actual mechanics of sex. It isn’t that I don’t dare, but that I don’t have the technique yet, I think.”… Ideally he wanted to combine the “rational-statement poem” of Stevens, Robinson, and Hardy with the “near-sexual energy” of Crane or Dylan Thomas. This would “include more than the Stanford style permits.” Moreover, he wanted to write about “cities; perversion; the exhilaration after sex; delinquency” but felt he risked repetition if he did not replace “motorcycles and hoodlums” as his symbols for sex.

Gunn had good reason to be careful about the explicitness with which he explored homosexual themes: 1950s America was a time of the Lavender Scare, when more men lost their jobs for being homosexual than for being affiliated with the Communist Party. For Gunn, coming out of the closet at this time would have jeopardized not only his employment as a university lecturer, but also his visa status in the United States.

Nott details the reception of Gunn’s work, which was much cooler among British critics than American, though he was regularly, richly awarded with multiple grants and prizes, including a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” These awards continued after Gunn came out of the closet publicly and even increased with the publication of The Man with Night Sweats (1992), a collection that memorialized a generation of homosexual men decimated by the AIDS crisis and was immediately seen as a landmark book.

Scarred by finding his mother’s body after she committed suicide when the poet was 15, Gunn was restless and emotionally complicated, but seemed more untethered after retiring from teaching in 2000. His abuse of alcohol and drugs, specifically speed, increased rapidly, and when he was found dead in 2004 at the age of 74, doctors determined that a combination of drugs had done him in. Gunn had lived a full life, breaking new ground in poetry and providing a center point for the gay community in San Francisco and a large group of friends he called his family, who lived with him in a house he had purchased decades earlier.

Gunn’s life and legacy have been served well by Nott’s sensitive and very readable book, which pays equal attention to Gunn’s life, work and legacy. It’s hard to imagine a more definitive biography of this crucial poet. A Cool Queer Life will be compelling for any reader interested in Gunn’s life and writing, in gay culture in America and England, and in the transatlantic poetry of the twentieth century.

Two decades after the poet’s death, Gunn’s poetry remains bracing, groundbreaking, insightful and formally marvelous. His life is both exemplary and a cautionary tale. Ultimately, what we’re left with is his writing. Here is the opening of “The Annihilation of Nothing” from 1958:

Nothing remained: Nothing, the wanton name
That nightly I rehearsed till led away
To a dark sleep, or sleep that held one dream.

In this a huge contagious absence lay,
More space than space, over the cloud and slime,
Defined but by the encroachments of its sway.

Stripped to indifference at the turns of time,
Whose end I knew, I woke without desire,
And welcomed zero as a paradigm.

— Stephan Delbos

Thom Gunn: A Cool Queer Life is forthcoming from Macmillan