Tuesday, 28 June 2011



29th August 1929 – 25th April 2004
Andrew Darlington pursues the essence
of a life, through the sniff of the real…

‘Walker within this circle, pause
although they all died of one cause,
remember how their lives were dense
with fine compacted differences…’
(from ‘Boss Cupid’, 2000)

Be warned. This poetry affects lives. It just does. ‘The sniff of the real, that’s what I’d like to get’ (1). This is the mythology Thom Gunn charts in a restless pursuit that begins with ‘A Sense Of Movement’ (Faber), a collection published in 1957. Some decades later he’d concede ‘although the narrow corridor appears / so short the journey took me twenty years’ (2). A journey magicing him from Hampstead Heath where he watched ‘long convoys of Army lorries coiling down Frognal’, to a Gay parade in New York strolling ‘forty blocks in full leather, freaked out on acid’ (3). From Paris where he worked on the Metros, to the promiscuous hedonism of the San Francisco bath-house scene. To eventually, ‘directed by the compass of my heart’, to a teaching post in California, recognised as the most convincing interpretive thematic link to the ‘Beat Generation’ to emerge from outside America.

Inside that first pivotal volume are powerful pieces such as “Allegory of the Wolf Boy”, “The Nature Of Action”, but especially “Elvis Presley” – about a battered forty-five rpm record on a sleazy café juke-box. A quote from it – ‘he turns revolt into style’, later provided George Melly with the title for his provocative book on music culture. But Gunn’s book also features the much-published genesis of his own future persona, “The Unsettled Motor-Cyclist’s Vision Of His Death”. This, alongside “On The Move”, and the title poem anticipate his best-known piece “Black Jackets”, about the ‘Wild One’ with ‘Born to Lose’ tattooed on his shoulder. The biker seen as symbol of speed, change, escape, and the sub-culture built around it. A transient escapology, an illusory lure into a shoddy and often violently knife-edged life-style.

Later Gunn returned, to conspire the poem “Blackie The Electric Rembrandt” about the tattooist’s cult. Universal now, back then the tattoo implied relevance to working-class culture – the body-art’s ritual barbarity, the masculine assertiveness that also gave it meaning to both Rocker and Hell’s Angel. In that otherwise safe 1950’s consumer society, the tattoo shared the same initiation-into-manhood symbolism as the high-powered chrome-gleaming motorcycle. ‘Youth is power’ (4) is indicative. James Dean’s shadow falling across post-war British austerity, poems from the same fountainhead as Stan Barstow’s ‘juvenile delinquent’ short story “The Desperadoes”. The exaggerated bravado reflected by Presley’s sensual posturing, ‘whether he poses or is real, no cat / bothers to say’ – a quote that extends its relevance to Gunn’s “Carnal Knowledge”, ‘even in bed I pose… / I wonder if you know, or knowing care’.

He explains, lucid about his selected continuum, ‘by movement I mean the sort of actions one is involved in, whether voluntarily or not, all through one’s life – unpacking in a new apartment, riding a motorcycle, writing a poem, murdering one’s Landlady. By sense I mean sensation and meaning. This is the only pun in the book’ (5). Anticipating ‘A Sense Of Movement’ had come the more embryonically formative ‘Fighting Terms’, originally published by Fantasy Press in 1954. Five years later a slightly altered version appeared through the New York-based Hawks Well press, before being eventually issued by Faber in 1962. This collection includes “The Wound”, “A Mirror For Poets”, and – looking back to classicism, “Helen’s Rape”. But, like the Wolf Boy’s lycanthropy – hidden, but genetically imprinted, the balance between staid academicism, and the ‘sniff of the real’ world of the intuitive Black Jacket cowboy is an uneasy one.

His writing is always technically competent, maintaining – more often than not, structure, style and rhyme (‘the hands explore tentatively / two small live entities’ (6)). A way of phrasing certain things in a particularly satisfying way, placed just the correct side of the line beyond which lies literary impenetrability. He avoids the more bizarre manifestations of experimentalism, yet, in the best of his pieces, retains a sense of the tactile, the real, as powerful as the revving of a 600cc Harley-Davidson. His sympathies lie not with academics, but outsiders. The experience and the evaluation are fused precariously. He quotes Baudelaire as the writer who best embodies the fusion – ‘although his ennui has now become democratic – it is no longer the poet’s prerogative’ (5). As though the ill-defined malaise of Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’ has become James Dean’s ‘Rebel Without A Cause’, or Presley’s Danny Fisher in ‘King Creole’. And, just as relevant, the British Angry Young Man movement of working class literary orientation. Infused with a Gay sensibility as natural as sweat.

Be warned. Gunn’s poetry affects lives. It just does. The writing is not always immediately obvious. Not always gettable. Although sometimes it is. Either way, you have to work at it. Think about it. Consider it this way, then that. Half-revelation, and half-confusion. After which, just possibly, the conclusions you arrive at are still off. It’s challenging for those who prefer words to be comfortable. But it’s a worthwhile exercise, a thrill of disorientation. He captures moments of light. But sometimes they are reflections of light, at other times, opaque. He puts an altered spin on the everyday, but without the prissy chin-stroking pretensions of other poets of his time. That’s another reason for reading him. He’s not art-elitist. He doesn’t try on that ‘I’m an artist’ stuff. He takes the reader into account.

Thomson William Gunn was born in Gravesend in 1929, educated at University College School in London. And although he claims to have spent an unhazardous youth in Hampstead, in the north-west of London while ‘my family stealthily crept up from middle-middle-class to upper-middle-class’ (5), in fact his mother suicided soon after his parents divorce. When he was just a ‘skinny’ fourteen. During the Blitz he was evacuated to a school in the country ‘where an enlightened English Teacher taught from the ‘Poet’s Tongue’, a remarkable anthology edited by W.H. Auden & John Garrett’. It’s this book that provides his working definition of poetry as ‘memorable speech’. Gunn’s first real influence was Keats, followed later by Marlowe, Beddoes and Meredith. Another influence from this period re-emerges when Gunn edited the 1975 Penguin Books’ ‘Ben Jonson’ collection (he also edited ‘Selected Poems Of Greville Fulke’ for the University of Chicago Press in 1969). But, although he’d begun writing his own poetry at Cambridge University, laying down his first collection there, he was ‘part of the National Service Generation’, and it was military conscription that shifted his focus from classicism. Following his stint in uniform he found himself retaining its characteristics – ‘lack of concern with religion, lack of class, a rather undirected impatience’.

It was also at Trinity College that he met his long-term partner, Mike Kitay (‘that summer I was twenty-three, / you about twenty-one, / we hoped to live together, as we / (not to be smug) have done’). Mike was American, so there’s perhaps an additional attraction to the San Francisco and New York-based American Poetry Renaissance with its concrete city mythologies and hipster neon-mystic visions of apocalypse. But in the best of his writing such excess gets filtered through a British post-war perception of shoddy bombsite austerity and industrial working class stoicism. Indeed, Robert Conquest selected examples of his work for ‘New Lines’ (1956), the defining anthology of what was termed ‘The Movement’, alongside Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, John Wain, Donald Davie and Conquest himself. Not obvious company. But an indication of his status. Meanwhile, he travelled. Living in Rome for six months, San Antonio Texas for a year, before winding up – with Mike, in Berkeley, teaching in Stanford, California (‘England is my parent and San Francisco is my lover’). Always at ease with his sexuality, even within the claustrophobic illegality he’d left behind him, there – it came as natural as breathing.

The third collection – ‘My Sad Captains’, lifts its title from Shakespeare’s ‘Anthony & Cleopatra’, and appeared through Faber in 1961. It includes “In Santa Maria Del Popolo” observed from his travelling, the powerful “From The Highest Camp”, “Flying Above California”, and the reflective sensuality of the title poem about his peers and influences – ‘the past lapping them like a cloak of chaos, / they were men who, I thought, lived only to / renew the wasteful force they spent with each hot convulsion’. His journey to California, in a sense a pilgrimage to the germination-point of the City Lights mythology, and his subsequent disillusionment with its heroes is perhaps also in that poem. Dark-haired and bearded, Gunn could be seen as the first British intimation of the Beat Poet charisma, most effectively translating its euphoric spirit into a tactile Fifties British context. Despite the contrast between his form – and its content. With the traditional poetic structures he uses, and its keyhole-voyeuristic subject-matter. The mind’s discipline – and the body’s hedonism? Indeed, his contribution to this evolutionary liberation and democratisation of words would not to be equalled until the emergence of Michael Horovitz, Pete Brown, Dave Cunliffe, and other beatific ‘Children Of Albion’ (Horovitz later anthologised Gunn’s compulsive poem “The Bath-House” in the 1975 ‘New Departures Double Issue’).

More publications follow – cannibalising, and taking Gunn’s poems to a wider audience. ‘The New Poetry’, an anthology published by Penguin in 1962 through A. Alvarez (of ‘The Savage God’) includes Gunn’s “The Secret Sharer” and “Lofty In The Palais De Dance”. The latter is another well-observed eulogy to cheap Fifties life-style – the Mecca Dance-hall pick-up, while embodying greater character complexity than such an encapsulation suggests. There’s also the ‘Faber Book Of Modern Verse’ (1965) edited by Michael Roberts with Gunn’s “Innocence”, a poem dedicated to Tony White (‘he ran the course, and as he ran he grew’), and “Consider The Snail” (‘I would never had imagined the slow passion / to that deliberate progress’). Again, the sensual movement, the restlessness – ‘reaching no absolute, in which to rest / one is always nearer by not keeping still’ (7).

Jeff Nuttall described Gunn as ‘a conscious existentialist, Cambridge graduate, poet of action (who) found in the American Midwestern black-leather cowboy a naïve whose method of living provided a way out of the spiritual cul-de-sac in which intellectual life seemed caught… his most well-known poem on the subject… amplifies the pragmatic merits of the earlier hipster with an additional dynamism, the hard edge of will applied to the crucial moment, an aggressive masculinity of principle expressed in the barbaric decorations and the atmosphere of oil and petrol’ (‘Bomb Culture’, Paladin, 1970). Yet, while igniting areas of Gunn’s poetry, this fails to highlight the reason why he was infinitely more than merely an American by proxy. ‘Positives’ (Faber, 1966) has poetry matched to Ander Gunn’s photographs chronicling a working-class life through the terraces, the pubs, the adolescent lure of Rock images, through wrinkled maturity into old age. The drab monochrome illustrations exactly complement and interpret Gunn’s most precise and effective observations. Yet by contrast – and to support Nuttall’s assertion, the sleeve-art of Gunn’s record album ‘On The Move’ captures the poet in black-jacketed sub-Kerouac pose thumbing a ride from the street-corner of an anonymous mid-western town, beneath American road signs.

This duality can easily be traced further back, into the fact that so much of Fifties ‘trash-culture’ – Coca-Cola, movies, bubble-gum, Rock ‘n’ Roll – was either American or an American imitation. The album was recorded on 20th January 1959 in Oakland, and movement is its liet-motif. Predictably there’s “Black Jackets”, followed by “Market At Turk” (Market & Turk are two streets in San Francisco). He reads without exaggerated emphasis or theatrical intonation. Through “A Plan Of Self-Subjection”, “Waking In A Newly-Built House” and “Lazarus Not Raised” so the words are allowed to be naked, delivered in clear and unaffected tone. They stand the test. Hypnotise the listener. Still. ‘It seems to me a specifically contemporary subject’ he comments dismissively, ‘seeking to understand one’s deliberate aimlessness, having the courage of one’s lack of convictions, reaching a purpose only by making the right rejections’ (5).

‘Poems 1950-1966’ (Faber, 1969) anthologises Gunn’s best work from that period including “Flying Above California”. Further collections include ‘Selected Poems Of Thom Gunn And Ted Hughes’ (including the former’s “Wound”, “In Praise Of Cities”, and the tense vignette “Claus Von Staffenburg” about the attempted assassination of Hitler) and ‘To The Air’ (Godine) an anthology edited by Jan Schreibed. It’s obvious that by now America had freed up his style, with the sixties providing ‘the fullest years of my life, crowded with discovery both inner and outer’. There are attempts at free verse, although he soon returned to more formal metre. And fuller expressions of his sexuality, ‘I like loud music, bars and boisterous men’, things that help – ‘if not lose’, then at least leave behind, the self (in ‘The Passages Of Joy’). He sees the period as ‘a Dionysian experiment / to build a city, never dared before’, in which ‘I really wanted to devote myself to going to concerts in Golden Gate Park and to taking drugs’.

‘Touch’, Gunn’s next original work was produced for Faber in 1967, and includes “Berlin In Ruins”, “Confessions Of A Life Artist”, plus an ambitious poem-sequence – “Misanthropos”, which takes up one third of the book and had already been broadcast by BBC Radio’s Third Programme to enthusiastic critical reception (on 8th March 1965, read by Alan Dobie). It was followed by ‘Moly’ (Faber), which even carries references to locations where LSD ‘trips’ have ignited the poems. Critic Julian Webb finds it ‘a journey into light ending with what is perhaps the finest poem he has yet written – “Sunlight”’. He also contributes a section to ‘Worlds – Seven Modern Poets’ (Penguin Education, 1974) edited by Geoffrey Summerfield. With Gunn’s slice of the book illuminated by Abramowitsch’s photography spanning scenes from Hampstead Heath, a flight above California, Gunn in San Fransisco, and a picture of a ‘Berkeley Barb’ street-seller for sub-cultural reference. Its publication happens in conjunction with the screening of a special film shot on the Californian coast for BBC2-TV’s ‘Second House’. While bringing the imagery full circle into the post-hippie culture with brief eulogies of a Jefferson Airplane concert in the Golden Gate Park – ‘the music comes and goes on the wind, comes and goes on the brain’, and a street corner drug pusher – ‘my methadrine, my double-sun will give you two lives in your one’ (8). The Black Jacket mythology had now become the ‘Easy Rider’ cult to which Gunn could have become a minor Guru, in justification of his earlier sympathies. After all, Ginsberg was up in the hills with Ken Kesey choking back massive amounts of LSD and ritual Peyote in a ‘foolish magic’ of midnight Hell’s Angel ceremonies attempting to establish the ‘fellow-traveller’ status that had been Gunn’s preserve since 1957! Talking to Ginsberg at a City Lights reception Gunn was once even mistaken for Jack Kerouac. ‘Thom loves that story’.

Yet subsequent work would be less-well received, with sixties hedonism decaying into the ‘hot convulsions’ of Gay Bath-House culture, to which he became an equally enthusiastic participant (‘power / as beauty, beauty / power, that / is all my cock knew or / cared to know…’ ‘Boss Cupid’). Although the precision is always there, more free, but never entirely free of the self-imposed considerations of strict form, yet tilting across what he calls the ‘luminous intersection’ from intellect towards the senses, towards ‘the disobedient / who keep a culture alive by subverting it’ (‘The Passages Of Joy’). Towards the attritions of sexual love. Such incidents lead to the darker more openly Gay ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’ taking its title from a notorious Hampstead Heath cruising location, to the mixed and often confused reviews that greeted ‘The Passages Of Joy’… until the heart-breaking elegies for the plague years’ AIDS victims in ‘The Man With Night Sweats’ returned him to mainstream critical favour. Here, America is a place of loss and elegy. But his lovers aren’t seen as on their way to some kind of epiphany. They’re just trapped in the sexiness of being alive. Gunn just observes what he sees, and then renders it visible. ‘Like Catullus, a poet whom in some ways he resembles’ opines critic Helen Dunmore, ‘Gunn is engaged in an erotic, undercover war against time and death’ (‘Observer’ 28th May 2000).

Be warned. This poetry affects lives. It just does. Thom Gunn lived to be 74, yet the controversialist element remains, it’s still there alongside the ‘sniff of the real’. A poem in his final collection is written through the persona of cannibal necrophile Jeffrey Dahmer. Poems are ‘actions of a sort’ he once declared (5), ‘and by actions I may attempt to define the direction which is not mystical, or political, or necessarily one that has ever been taken before…’


‘POSITIVES’ (1967) with photos by brother Ander
‘TOUCH’ (1967)
‘MOLY’ (1971) ‘Guruish’ says Martin Amis, ‘in which Gunn seemed to have wandered into the jaws of cryptography’ (‘Sunday Times’ 12th December 1976)
‘JACK STRAW’S CASTLE’ (1976) ‘People behave or misbehave in these places. Intuition and intelligence conspire to describe and judge’ (‘Sunday Times’ 12th December 1976)
‘THE MISSED BEAT’ (Janus Press 1976)
‘UNDESIRABLES’ (Pig Press, 1988)
‘THE MAN WITH NIGHT SWEATS’ (1992) ‘The poems are fierce keepsakes, written under the pressure of emotion’ (‘Observer’ 13th December 1992), ‘Beautiful and demanding, they remind us of art’s heroism as well as its uselessness’ (Andrew Motion in ‘Observer’ 9th February 1992)
‘SHELF LIFE’ (1993) Essays
‘BOSS CUPID’ (2000) 115 pages from Faber. ‘He seemed all body, such / as normally you couldn’t touch,/ reckless and rough,/ one of Boss Cupid’s red-haired errand boys / who couldn’t get there fast enough’ (‘The Problem’)

(3) ‘MY SUBURBAN MUSE’ – autobiographical prose in ‘WORLDS’
(5) Album Sleeve notes issued through ‘LISTEN’, Marvel Press, 253 Hull Road, Hessle,
East Yorkshire. 1962

An extended and much revised version of an original profile published in:
‘ARNOLD BOCKLIN MAGAZINE no.5’ (UK – December 1975)
‘STABLE no.3’ (UK – February 1977)
‘GARGOYLE no.8’ (USA – January 1978)


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