In 2004, he died at his home in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, in the same bed he shared with Mike Kitay since 1960.
Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent, the son of Bert Gunn. Both of his parents were journalists, and they divorced when he was 10 years old. His life was marked by tragedy when, as a teenager, his mother committed suicide. It was she who had sparked in him a love of reading, including an interest in the work of Christopher Marlowe, John Keats, John Milton, and Alfred Tennyson, along with several prose writers. In his youth, he attended University College School in Hampstead, London, then spent two years in the British national service and six months in Paris. Later, he studied English literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduated in 1953, and published his first collection of verse, Fighting Terms, the following year. Among several critics who praised the work, John Press wrote, "This is one of the few volumes of postwar verse that all serious readers of poetry need to possess and to study."
Thom Gunn was an Anglo-American poet who was praised for both his early verses in England, where he was associated with The Movement and his later poetry in America. In 1950, then a student at Cambridge's Trinity College, he met his life partner, Mike Kitay, an American student. In 1954, Gunn immigrated to the US to teach writing at Stanford University and to remain close to Kitay. In 2004, he died at his home in San Francisco, in the same bed he shared with Mike Kitay since 1960.
As a young man, his poetry was associated with The Movement, and later with the work of Ted Hughes. Gunn's poetry, together with that of Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, and other members of The Movement, has been described as "...emphasizing purity of diction, and a neutral tone...encouraging a more spare language and a desire to represent a seeing of the world with fresh eyes."
In 1954, Gunn emigrated to the United States to teach writing at Stanford University and to remain close to his partner, Mike Kitay, whom he had met while at college. Gunn taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1958 to 1966 and again from 1973 to 1990.
During the 1960s and 1970s, his verse became increasingly bold in its exploration of drugs, homosexuality, and poetic form. He enjoyed the bohemian lifestyle in San Francisco so much that Edmund White described him as "the last of the commune dwellers [...] serious and intellectual by day and druggy and sexual by night". While he continued to sharpen his use of the metrical forms that characterized his early career, he became more and more interested in syllabics and free verse. "He’s possibly the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD, and he’s certainly one of the few to profess genuine admiration for both [Yvor] Winters (the archformalist) and Allen Ginsberg (the arch ... well, Allen Ginsberg)", critic Daniel Orr has written. "This is, even for the poetry world, a pretty odd background."
In classic verse forms, like the terza rima of Dante, he explored modern anxieties:
"It is despair that nothing cannot beGunn, who praised his Stanford mentor Yvor Winters for keeping "both Rule and Energy in view, / Much power in each, most in the balanced two," found a productive tension — rather than imaginative restriction – in the technical demands of traditional poetic forms. He is one of the few contemporary poets (James Merrill would be another) to write serious poetry in heroic couplets — a form whose use in the twentieth century is generally restricted to light verse and epigrammatic wit. In the 1960s, however, he came to experiment increasingly with free verse, and the discipline of writing to a specific set of visual images, coupled with the liberation of free verse, constituted a new source of rule and energy in Gunn's work: a poem such as "Pierce Street" in his next collection, Touch (1967), has a grainy, photographic fidelity, while the title-poem uses hesitant, sinuous free verse to portray a scene of newly acknowledged intimacy shared with his sleeping lover (and the cat).
Flares in the mind and leaves a smoky mark
Look upward. Neither firm nor free
Purposeless matter hovers in the dark." ("The Annihilation of Nothing")
The poet's major stylistic change in his shift toward free verse roughly within a decade that included much of the 1960s, combined with the other changes in his life — his move from England to America, from academic Cambridge to bohemian San Francisco, his becoming openly gay, his drug-taking, his writing about the "urban underbelly" — caused many to conjecture how his lifestyle was affecting his work "British reviewers who opposed Gunn’s technical shifts blamed California, just as American critics would, later on, connect his adventurous lifestyle with his more 'relaxed' versification," according to Orr, who added that even as of 2009, critics were contrasting "Gunn’s libido with his tight metrics — as if no one had ever written quatrains about having sex before".
In Gunn's next book, Jack Straw's Castle (1976), the dream modulates into nightmare, related partly to his actual anxiety-dreams about moving house, and partly to the changing American political climate. "But my life," he wrote, "insists on continuities — between America and England, between free verse and metre, between vision and everyday consciousness."
The Passages of Joy reaffirmed those continuities: it contains sequences about London in 1964-65 and about time spent in New York in 1970. The Occasions of Poetry, a selection of his essays and introductions, appeared at the same time.
Ten years were to pass before his next and most famous collection, The Man With Night Sweats (1992), dominated by AIDS-related elegies. Neil Powell praised the book: "Gunn restores poetry to a centrality it has often seemed close to losing, by dealing in the context of a specific human catastrophe with the great themes of life and death, coherently, intelligently, memorably. One could hardly ask for more." As a result of the book, Gunn received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1993. Although AIDS was a focus of much of his later work, he remained HIV-negative himself.
That year, Gunn published a second collection of occasional essays, Shelf Life, and his substantial Collected Poems. His final book of poetry was Boss Cupid (2000).
In 2003 he was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature together with Beryl Bainbridge. He also received the Levinson Prize, an Arts Council of Great Britain Award, a Rockefeller Award, the W. H. Smith Award, the PEN (Los Angeles) Prize for Poetry, the Sara Teasdale Prize, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, the Forward Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations.
Five years after his death, a new edition of Gunn's Selected Poems was published, edited by August Kleinzahler.
Burial: Cremated, Ashes given to family or friend.
Thom Gunn, 1988, by Robert Giard (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1123808)
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digital
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
CreateSpace Store: https://www.createspace.com/4910282
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Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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