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This report is taken from PN Review 158, Volume 30 Number 6, July - August 2004.

Thom Gunn (1929-2004) Clive Wilmer

Thom Gunn, who has died aged 74, was a major poet from the extraordinary generation that included Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Geoffrey Hill. Though in later years he attracted less admiration than some of his coevals, he was regarded by a minority as the finest of them all.

He was first and foremost the poet of the modern city. In love with its speed, anonymity and unpredictable eroticism, he could communicate the intense excitement a traveller feels on reaching a new town as night is falling. He enjoyed this power to excite - and at times to shock - but there is always more to his poems than sensation. They are also attempts to understand experience: which is to say that he was, for all his outrageousness, a complex and subtle moralist. Much of his emotional power derived from what might seem its opposite: his control of form and his subtle verbal intelligence. There was always a sense of strong emotion contained and a powerful intellect brooding over feeling.

He became famous young, but his celebrity declined in middle age. One reason for this is that, though self-consciously modern in his life, he stood aside, as a writer, from the currents of his time. He disliked the cult of personality, preferring to keep a distance from his subject-matter; he once praised William Carlos Williams for caring more for his subject than for himself. Moreover, he lacked a national identity, something poets need if they ...


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