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This article is taken from PN Review 70, Volume 16 Number 2, November - December 1989.

Loud Music, Bars and Boisterous Men Neil Powell

Though he will probably cringe at the thought, Thom Gunn is the most distinguished living English gay poet, and after Auden the most significant English gay poet of the century. That's the sort of statement to make any poet cringe, which is why I want to get rid of it at the outset. It could all too easily seem to imply that writers can be sorted by sexuality into separate compartments, or that homosexual writers address a limited constituency of homosexual readers, neither of which must be the case. Gunn's sexuality matters to his readers partly because it has been, increasingly, a major theme in his work, and partly because his writing career spans and reflects a period of profoundly unsettling changes in the complex relationship between gay men and the rest of society.

Gunn is a poet who frequently revisits his past styles and refreshes himself with disparate influences, yet his work does roughly seem to divide into three phases or movements which I'll call containment, liberation, and openness. The first phase comprises the poems in Fighting Terms (1954), The Sense of Movement (1957), and part of My Sad Captains (1961). The superficial similarities between most of these poems are immediately apparent, and they concern characteristics which his early readers would readily have identified as Gunnish (thus, ironically, labelling and placing him in a way that the content of the poems is at pains to discourage): regular, iambic verse-forms; metaphysical abstraction overlaid with echoes of Yeats ...


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