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About this poet

On August 29, 1929, Thom Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent, England, the older son of two journalists. His parents were divorced when the poet was ten years old, and his mother committed suicide while he was a teenager. Before her death, his mother had inspired a deep love of reading in him, including affection for the writings of Marlowe, Keats, Milton, and Tennyson, as well as several prose writers.

Before enrolling in Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1950, he spent two years in the national service and six months in Paris. In 1954, the year after his graduation, Gunn's first poetry collection, Fighting Terms, was published. The book was instantly embraced by several critics, including John Press, who wrote, "This is one of the few volumes of postwar verse that all serious readers of poetry need to possess and to study." Gunn relocated to San Francisco and held a one-year fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied with Yvor Winters.

Over the next few decades, he published several collections that were not as warmly received as his earliest work, including The Sense of Movement (1957), My Sad Captains (1961), Touch (1967), Moly (1971), To the Air (1974), Jack Straw's Castle (1976), Selected Poems 1950-1975 (1979), and The Passages of Joy (1983).

During the 1970s and 80s, Gunn's poems were marked by the poet's personal experiences as he wrote more openly about his homosexuality and drug use. Many critics believed he was betraying his talents. But with the publication of The Man with Night Sweats in 1992, a collection memorializing his friends and loved ones who had fallen victim of the AIDS pandemic, critics were reminded of Gunn's early promise. As Neil Powell wrote of 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." Gunn received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for the collection in 1993.

He went on to publish several more books of poetry in the United States and Britain, including Boss Cupid (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), Frontiers of Gossip (1998), and Collected Poems (1994). He has also written several collections of essays, including The Occasions of Poetry (1982; U.S. edition, 1999).

Gunn's honors include 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.

Thom Gunn died on April 25, 2004, in his home in San Francisco.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Fighting Terms (1954)
The Sense of Movement (1957)
My Sad Captains and Other Poems (1961)
Selected poems by Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes (1962)
Touch (1967)
Moly (1971)
To the Air (1974)
Jack Straw's Castle (1976)
Selected Poems 1950-1975 (1979)
The Passages of Joy (1982)
The Man With Night Sweats (1992)
Collected Poems (1993)
Collected Poems (1994)
Frontiers of Gossip (1998)
Boss Cupid (2000)

Essays
The Occasions of Poetry (1982; U.S. edition, 1999)

Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

Black Jackets

Thom Gunn, 1929 - 2004
   In the silence that prolongs the span
Rawly of music when the record ends,
   The red-haired boy who drove a van
In weekday overalls but, like his friends,

   Wore cycle boots and jacket here
To suit the Sunday hangout he was in,
   Heard, as he stretched back from his beer,
Leather creak softly round his neck and chin.

   Before him, on a coal-black sleeve
Remote exertion had lined, scratched, and burned
   Insignia that could not revive
The heroic fall or climb where they were earned.

   On the other drinkers bent together,
Concocting selves for their impervious kit,
   He saw it as no more than leather
Which, taut across the shoulders grown to it,

   Sent through the dimness of a bar
As sudden and anonymous hints of light
   As those that shipping give, that are
Now flickers in the Bay, now lost in night.

   He stretched out like a cat, and rolled
The bitterish taste of beer upon his tongue,
   And listened to a joke being told:
The present was the things he stayed among.

   If it was only loss he wore,
He wore it to assert, with fierce devotion,
   Complicity and nothing more.
He recollected his initiation,

   And one especially of the rites.
For on his shoulders they had put tattoos:
   The group's name on the left, The Knights,
And on the right the slogan Born To Lose.

From Collected Poems by Thom Gunn, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1994 by Thom Gunn. Used with permission.

From Collected Poems by Thom Gunn, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1994 by Thom Gunn. Used with permission.

Thom Gunn

Thom Gunn

The author of many collections of poetry, Thom Gunn's The Man with Night Sweats is a collection of poetry memorializing his friends and loved ones who had fallen victim to AIDS

by this poet

poem

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
    Half of the night with our old friend
        Who'd showed us in the end
    To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
        Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke
poem
I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat 
Wake to their residue, 
Sweat, and a clinging sheet. 

My flesh was its own shield: 
Where it was gashed, it healed.

I grew as I explored 
The body I could trust 
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,

A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the
poem

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