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This article is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

Thom Gunn Letters
Colm Toibin on Thom Gunn Letters, edited by Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer (Faber) £40
Colm Tóibín
Even his name was a work in progress. On a facsimile of the first folio text of ‘Julius Caesar’, he signed himself Thomson William Gunn and added the date, October 1944, which means he was fifteen. On the first page of his copy of ‘The Poems of Alfred Tennyson 1830–1863’, he signed his name T.W. Gunn and gave the address as Covey Hall, Snodland, Kent, the house where he and his brother lived after their mother’s suicide in December 1944. In August 1947, when he was seventeen, he signed his name a simple Tom Gunn on the first page of his copy of ‘The British Drama’.

His sexual identity, in these early years, was also open to suggestion. John Lehmann was the first editor outside Cambridge to take anything he had written. In his short essay in tribute to Lehmann, Gunn admitted that he had ‘conveniently blocked…from memory’ what they spoke about in 1954 when they met for the first time. But Lehmann remembered. In the middle of talk about poetry, it seems, Gunn blurted out ‘that being published nationally didn’t mean that I was going to have anything to do with London homosexuals.’ When Lehmann, who was homosexual, reminded him of this, Gunn wondered: ‘And what did I want or mean by it… I who surely knew what I was about sexually by this time, in fact going about everywhere with my lover?’

Lehmann would not, Gunn added, have recognized the remark about London homosexuals ‘as a current tag from the followers of Leavis’, F.R. Leavis being one of Gunn’s teachers at Cambridge. ‘Oh dear,’ he adds, ‘these were curious times and I was a curious person.’

As these letters make clear, Gunn came in many guises. At one moment, he is all drift and easy-going charm; at other times, he is filled with determination. He can be dogmatic, especially about poetry, but he can also be open-minded, ready to learn.

He was susceptible to influence – Leavis put a certain steel into Gunn’s soul that appears right through his correspondence. Yvor Winters’s eccentric and often intemperate views on poetry were taken up by Gunn, who studied with him at Stanford, at least for a while. Winters’ method of creating his own canon, extolling a chosen few, disliking much of what was in fashion, also made its way into Gunn’s judgements. (Twenty years after Winters’ death, Gunn wrote: ‘He has given me a strength which I do not in fact have – it is borrowed.’ Gunn was proud that he had written poems about both Winters (‘persistent, tough in will’) and Robert Duncan (‘whose great dread / Was closure’), whose influence nudged Gunn, who knew him in California, to loosen his strict use of metre and rhyme.

These were his surrogate fathers. The real one, a journalist in London, came to him in a dream in 1968, recounted to Tony Tanner, ‘where I found my mother dead. I thought callously, “Oh no, not again [underlined]. I think I’ll let somebody else find her body this time.” Which I did! Also in this dream I got on very well with my father.’

In 1955, he wrote to his brother Ander: ‘you can count me in on parricide.’ Three years later, he wrote to a friend: ‘Have you come across the Daily Sketch yet? (the world’s most unscrupulous newspaper) My father is editor of it.’ Four years later, he wrote to Robert Conquest: ‘My father died recently, and I was rather shocked that I couldn’t feel anything at all. I’d half expected I might feel something in spite of the fact that I’d never had much to do with him and he was, finally, a ruthless and self-pitying man.’

In 1976, he wrote of his stepmother: ‘she eats boys and girls live for breakfast every day.’ When she died in 1991, he wrote to his aunts, his mother’s sisters: ‘Ander wrote me to that Olive died last December. Unpleasant man that I am, I let out a whoop of delight. One less hard, cynical, unloving bastard in the world. (Hell would be too kind to her.)’

Almost a decade later, he wrote to his aunts: ‘You were very generous and kind to me in my teens. I often think of how disruptive I must have been to your lives in the 1940s, and I count myself lucky to have aunts who took me in so selflessly. Orphans are always a bore – but particularly in their teens.’

In California, where he went in 1954, Gunn gradually created a replacement family. When he and Mike Kitay, whom he had first met in Cambridge at the end of 1952, split up as lovers, they stayed housemates, being joined by Mike’s lover Bill, and then by a couple of other gay men. In 1971, Gunn wrote to Tony Tanner: ‘I have been (not unconsciously) idealizing the situation when I was a child after Father left home – I must have found the household of my mother and Ander and me very comfortable, so comfortable in fact that I have succeeded in reconstructing it now – Mike as my mother, Bill as my younger brother.’

In ‘Lines for a Book’, included in The Sense of Movement (1957), Gunn wrote a parody of Stephen Spender’s poems:

‘I think continually of those who were truly great’:
‘I think of all the toughs through history
And thank heavens they lived, continually.
I praise the overdogs from Alexander
To those who would not play with Stephen Spender.’

Once in America, Gunn became an overdog, a tough boy. In 1984, as he plans a curriculum, he writes: ‘No Merrill or any other poet who admits going to the opera.’  Eight years later, he writes of J.D. McClatchy: ‘I am not one of his school (poets who write elegantly about opera).’

Instead, he liked the Beatles, the Stones, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, whose single ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ he thought ‘a fantastic sound. Beautiful. Best thing since The Band.’ And he liked leather and motorbikes. It was as though he had taken Leavis’s dislike of ‘London homosexuals’ to heart, and carried some of Leavis’s rigour and toughness with him as he created a new identity. (‘I have an awful tendency to transform sexual attraction into a moral value,’ he wrote to his friend Tony White in 1955.

In that same letter, he described his first motorbike as ‘positively sexually beautiful to look at… It is like bringing up a child, it constantly does things that surprise me…By the way, did you like On the Move, because I think that is better than anything else I have ever done.’

The second stanza of ‘On the Move’ begins, ‘On motorcycles, up the road, they come:/Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys’… This set a tone that Gunn would pursue in ways both hot and cold. He liked will (‘Much that is natural, to the will must yield’) and he took a huge interest in boys. He liked energy; he enjoyed working in tones that were ostensibly impersonal but contained coiled emotions and desires. As a poet, he stood back and watched.

He also like the idea of pose (‘Even in bed I pose,’ his poem ‘Carnal Knowledge’ begins). He wrote further to Tony White about his motorbike: ‘I know it’s something of a pose (even more in the U.S. than in England), but what else can one do? One can to a certain extent be what one wants to be, and though doing this may start as a pose (and finish as one, if one’s no good), there’s a chance of its becoming the real thing.’

To another correspondent in 1955, he wrote: ‘My motorcycle is wonderful. Did you see The Wild One?... Well, motorcycles are considered disreputable over here – only hoodlums ride them – and it is considered ODD for a teacher to ride one. This does much to help me feel at home in the university.’

In another letter, three years later, he wrote of motorcycles: ‘The mere riding of one is, in a strange way, a sort of controlled irresponsibility.’ While he gives the impression in some letters of enjoying total chaos and taking pure, irresponsible, hedonistic pleasure in the world, there was a side of Gunn that was in control. In later years, for example, when he was teaching semesters at Berkeley, he was not one of those stoned professors who let it all hang out. Gunn made clear to correspondents that this work engaged him fully; he postponed social encounters and drug taking until his teaching was done.

He took work seriously, but he wasn’t proud of that. In 1955, he wrote to Tony White: ‘Not doing anything makes me morose, ungrateful, arrogant, difficult to live with, etc. (Whereas working hard makes me morose, ungrateful, arrogant, and difficult to live with.)’

Sometimes, his interest in pose made him less than sensible. In 1960, he writes: ‘I have got some German motorcycle boots.’ And a week later, to Tony White: ‘I’m trying to get a Nazi belt for this friend of mine in Calif., but can’t find any nowadays. Where did you get yours and mine in England?’ In an earlier letter to White, he writes about the concept of will. It ‘is what distinguishes the existentialist from the Romantic. That would be the fine thing, for a man to be entirely will, with no emotions left. It leads to death, but a fine death.’

He has it in for England. In 1957, he wrote to Donald Hall: ‘I find it difficult to know why I feel this complicated dislike of England, which is absolutely unreasoned.’  When he heard that Allen Ginsberg, whom he would later admire, was being feted in England, he wrote to Robert Conquest: ‘Howl (underlined) (apart from being nonsense) is a mere catalogue, as bad as bad Whitman (who is always bad, anyway). I must say England has gone to the dogs – first Suez, now falling for Ginsberg.’

And then there is Larkin. In 1954, he wrote to Karl Miller about Larkin: ‘The more I read him the more good I think him. He’s fifteen times as good as me.’ By 1956, he seems to have changed his mind. He wrote to Tony White: ‘The fact that one’s forced to say Philip Larkin is the best poet of our generation is quite shaking; he’s a nice, quiet poet, but of no particular importance after all.’ In 1977, he wrote of Larkin’s readers: ‘Most of those readers don’t like L for the beauty of his form (although that is what I mainly like about him) – so what do they find attractive about his most prominent attitudes – his closed mind, his sour & begrudging tone, his assumption that provinciality is a virtue?’ Twelve years later, after Larkin’s death, he wrote: ‘I have grouched about Larkin in the 70th issue of the PN Review, and grouched too much no doubt: I think that he is an exquisite poet, stylistically far better than Ted or me, for example, but disastrously limited by his choice of subject-matter – finally that choice has the effect of a kind of cowardice.’

The editors of Gunn’s letters have included a large number of letters to a few close friends, most notably Tony White, actor and free spirit, also Tony Tanner and Douglas Chambers, both critics. This gives the book an intensity, a sense of focus. With all three Gunn can write about his personal life as much as about his poetry. He can make jokes and be silly. And he can also be dead serious.

For example, in a letter to Tony White in 1955, clearly in reply to some comments on his poem ‘On the Move’, Gunn defends ‘every stanza’ of the poem. ‘They are all necessary.’ He points out that, while ‘dust’ and ‘thunder’ in the first stanza ‘are general’, they ‘are given particular reference in the second, where they are repeated.’ He tells White that he needs the first stanza because the poem ‘is also about “one” (presumably me, or anyone) standing on the edge of a Californian highway and seeing [the motorcyclists] go past.’

If the fourth stanza of the poem generalizes, he writes, ‘that’s tough. There’s nothing wrong with generalization in itself, so long as it is not vague. To generalize, one doesn’t have to be either Augustan, or like Eliot (where every abstraction is a groan).’

Almost twenty years later, in a letter to White, he has other matters to contemplate: ‘San Francisco continues absolutely outrageous. Imagine a huge old dosshouse converted into a “bath house”, and you go in there especially on a Saturday night and there are at least 300 men in towels, all so laid back in drugs they can hardly stagger. And on holiday weekends, they are served “mescalin punch.”’

To Douglas Chambers, he wrote about his reading of Heaney’s ‘Station Island’, ‘the best thing SH has done, I think’, providing a striking insight into the tone of the poem: ‘The whole thing is haunted – not by Dante, as is Heaney’s intention, but by Dante through Eliot, which I assume is unintentional. The influence especially is of the blitz ghost appearing in imitation terza rima in Little Gidding, one of the few passages in TSE that I really love. From that passage Heaney borrows a whole general tone and feeling, besides many stylistic characteristics.’

In 1969, Gunn wrote to Tony Tanner about dropping acid in a place called Kirby’s Cove. ‘I knew it would be the best trip ever, as it was. There were about 40 people there, some girls, at least one married couple, and everyone dropped and everyone went naked until it got too cold. I can’t describe how beautiful it all was…a feeling of discovery + a feeling of adequacy and delight in things discovered.’

The footnote to this directs us to Gunn’s poem ‘Grasses’. It helps to know that the world was being observed here by someone on acid:

Each dulling-green, keen, streaky blade of grass
Leans to one body when the breezes start:
A one-time pathway flickers as they pass,
Where paler toward the root the quick ranks part.

Three years later, Gunn wrote again to Tanner: ‘I’ve been doing a lot of nice acid this year…I particularly like doing it around gay bars on a Saturday night. At the end of the trip you feel that as though you have an epic (underlined) behind you, the evening has been so crammed with incident and heroic action.’

He moved with equal passion from epic trips to the business of poetry. (In 1993 he wrote to Douglas Chambers: ‘I hope I never have to choose between having an imagination and having a cock, the two work so well together, rather like the two horses of the soul in Plato.’

In 1955 he wrote to Tony White about changing a line for the sake of metre. ‘You see I’m foreswearing that phoney appearance of sincerity I had from being almost unscannable.’ Ten years later, when John Lehmann wished that Gunn ‘didn’t pull my poetry-making self so far away from my life-enjoying sense’, Gunn agrees that ‘one of my troubles…is in not being able to get down on paper the whole of what I find valuable or true about what I experience. I have a great delight in the trivial and casual – things one may see on the street…But I have not yet found a good framework for these – the mere recording of them would not be very impressive.’

In Part III of ‘The Man with Night Sweats’ (1992), however, Gunn attempted to find a framework for what he saw on the street in poems like ‘Skateboard’, ‘Well Dennis O’Grady’ and ‘Outside the Diner’. In 1987, he wrote: ‘I suspect that I have been trying to get into my poetry a lot of little stories and anecdotes that most people would put into short stories and novels and essays nowadays.’

The tone in his poems became relaxed, then tightened, then relaxed even more. Like a vengeful, insistent angel, Yvor Winters looked over his shoulder. In 1966, two years before Winters’ death, his old teacher wrote to him: ‘Your dissipated adventure in syllabics (or something) has weakened the whole texture of your perceptions. Your rhythms, when I can find them, are uninteresting; the diction is genteel but unimportant. I cannot remember the poems; they blur into each other and into nothing…You simply approach polite journalism.’

Gunn replied to say that Winters was ‘probably right’ and went on: ‘I have decided to give up free verse (I gave up syllabics two years ago), since I don’t seem to be doing very well with it, and am going back to meter. But I expect the period in retraining in meter to take some time!’   

When Donald Davie sent Gunn his own version of Gunn’s ‘Last Days in Teddington’, where he ‘loosened the meter up a bit’, Gunn thought the poem was now ‘sloppy.’ This led him to conclude that ‘the rhythmic intention’ of a poem ‘has to be decided on very early.’ One can, he wrote, ‘make minor changes of rhythm, one can make such large changes as adding a stanza or deleting half the poem…but the rhythmic character of the poem is not something that can be changed like a piece of clothing.’

Just as he took on the guise of sexual tough guy, self-deprecating poet became another of his poses: ‘I have been reading the proofs of my collected poems, 500 pages of them, TWICE, looking for errors and all I have been able to see in forty years of poetry is pretentiousness, datedness, and boredom, boredom, boredom…[I] felt about as kindly to the poetry in front of me as I were Ian Hamilton.’ As we know from earlier letters, Gunn does not think much of Ian Hamilton.

Gunn’s judgements of other poets can be harsh and dismissive, or else he overpraises, especially his friends. He emerges in these 676 pages as a good-humoured, loveable, amusing fellow who enjoyed his life. In 1997 he wrote to Tony Tanner: ‘My own tendency is to be cheerful, to be evasive about ugly things and about my own troubles, to avoid talking about unhappinesses as if to disregard them would be to banish them.’

He continued having fun as he grew older. In 1996, when he was sixty-seven, he wrote to Douglas Chambers: ‘We plan on a drug marathon to bring in the New Year. That’s what I did last new years, for 3 days… If I get a heart attack, tell them all I died smiling.’

This article is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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