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Thom Gunn's Sense of Movement : He Left England a Generation Ago to Seek a New Life in the Bay Area. Today His Austere Poems of Love and Death Have Put Him in the Forefront of American Poetry.

August 14, 1994|WENDY LESSER | Wendy Lesser is editor of the Threepenny Review. Her most recent book, "Pictures at an Execution," was published by Harvard University Press.

"I got the idea for these poems from Patricia Highsmith's wonderful article about Jeffrey Dahmer. What fascinated me--this stood out in the article--was that Dahmer got this feeling, 'I'm never going to see him again, the most important person in my life,' about the guy he had known for only 20 minutes, who was getting ready to leave. So he came up behind him and killed him. I mean, if you want to possess somebody, what better way than to kill them?"

Thom Gunn and I are sitting in a San Francisco restaurant, talking about his Jeffrey Dahmer poems, a sequence of four published under the title "Troubadour." The poems, in somewhat gruesome detail, contemplate Dahmer's murderous acts from the killer's point of view. "I rather like upsetting people," Gunn admits. "I've always had a childish desire to shock. But I didn't really think those poems would upset people as much as they did. They weren't conceived of as being about somebody crazy, but about someone who experiences the things we do, only in more extreme form. I think of them as love poems."

He published the Dahmer poems shortly after winning a MacArthur Fellowship in 1993. Perhaps, I suggest, he wanted to show that he was still allied with the "undesirables" (as he titled a book of poems about street people, derelicts and other marginal types). Perhaps he felt guilty about winning America's biggest literary prize.

"No," he says flatly. "I don't feel at all guilty about the MacArthur. I do feel guilty about having a house whenever I pass by street people. But doesn't everyone feel that way?"

There is something boyishly charming about Thom Gunn's assumption that everyone is exactly like him. But then, there is something boyishly charming about Thom Gunn in general. Though he will be 65 on his next birthday, he is still thin and energetic, bounding up and down two flights of stairs at a moment's notice to retrieve a forgotten jacket or fetch a spare copy of a poem. His face is strongly lined, and his hair is in transition from black to gray (about the stage of Richard Gere's in "Internal Affairs," a movie Gunn much admires), but with his earring, tattoo, T-shirts and jeans, he conveys the impression of someone who has never really aged. Even his laugh is sudden, open, childishly joyful--as well as loud enough to triumph over the din at any restaurant in San Francisco, his home since 1961.

Thom Gunn has always had a big, loud laugh. Karl Miller, a classmate at Cambridge University in the early 1950s (later the founder of the London Review of Books), wrote of those Cambridge days: "A great pleasure of the place was to watch Thom Gunn, of the sounding, crashing laugh and lumberjack shirts, become a poet." The lumberjack shirts have long since been discarded, and the process of becoming a poet has been satisfyingly, definitively accomplished, but the laugh remains. And these days, with the recent MacArthur fellowship and his "Collected Poems" just out, Gunn has a lot to laugh about.

The level of fame is new, but the spotlight has been on Thom Gunn from a relatively early age. By the time he was 25, he had published his first book, "Fighting Terms," and had been welcomed into the company of a new generation of British poets that included Philip Larkin, Donald Davie and Britain's current poet laureate, Ted Hughes. In 1989, a prominent critic putting together a book about British poetry since 1960 kept noticing "how insistently Thom Gunn shouldered to centre stage." At least a few Gunn poems made it into virtually every anthology of contemporary British verse, and some were even included in the standard O-level and A-level tests that determined a student's passage from secondary school to university.

If you know a privately educated Englishman of a certain age--say, 35 to 60--he will likely be able to recite from memory at least a few lines by Thom Gunn, the likeliest being a passage from the famous "On the Move." The lead poem in his second collection, "The Sense of Movement" (1957), "On the Move" describes an alluringly ominous group of Hells-Angels-like bikers:

"\o7 On motorcycles, up the road, they come: Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys. . .\f7 ."

As if to signal that he too was on the move, Gunn himself briefly rode a motorcycle (though not until after he'd written this reputation-making poem). "I rode it to show off," he now says, "and I had it less than three months. I shouldn't be trusted on the road. That's why I don't drive a car. I think my reflexes are funny."

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