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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.

One Englishman who has been a fan of Gunn since the 1950s is neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks. "My battered copy of 'The Sense of Movement' goes back to--let's see, 1958," he notes. "Jonathan Miller, who was a friend of mine, said, 'You must read this.' " Sacks subsequently ventured to San Francisco for a couple of years of medical training, choosing the location in part because Thom Gunn was already there. "I met him in 1961," recalls Sacks, who now lives in New York, "and I saw a fair amount of him during my brief San Francisco days, which ended in 1962. But I've kept in touch with him since. And whether as a grand poet or the best of friends, he's someone I very much love and admire."

But during these same decades, most literate Americans--even most American fans of poetry, which is a far smaller group--had barely heard of Gunn. Poet Elizabeth Bishop, writing to her mentor, Marianne Moore, from San Francisco in 1968, felt obliged to explain who he was, even though by this time he had already published five books ("My Sad Captains" came out in 1961, "Touch" and "Positives" in the mid-1960s). "One poet I've met here, almost a neighbor, I like very much, Thom Gunn," she wrote. "His poetry is usually very good, I think; he's English but has lived here for a long time." Gunn's opinion of Bishop was equally enthusiastic. "She was jolly and hearty and liked a good joke," he remembers. "And she gave the only really good literary party I ever went to."

FROM 1972 ON, THOM GUNN HAS EKED OUT A LIVING AS A PART-TIME LECTURER in UC Berkeley's English department, having given up a tenured position there because he couldn't stand going to department meetings. He had no health insurance, no retirement plan, not even a single credit card (until, in the 1980s, he finally acquired one so he could purchase airline tickets over the phone). He lived frugally, almost never buying new clothing or hardcover books. His only tangible asset, a house in the Haight-Ashbury district, had been purchased in 1971 with a $3,300 down payment carved from his $10,000 Guggenheim grant; he shared the mortgage costs among several rent-paying housemates.

This is not, however, a tale of penurious merit ultimately rewarded, of ascetic renunciation for the good of Art. This is the tale of choices consciously made on the basis of immediate as well as lasting desires; of pleasures experienced and enjoyed; of a life explored and inhabited so as to render up its manifold possibilities. During all those years, Thom Gunn was having a ball--particularly in the late '60s and early '70s, San Francisco's hippie heyday.

"I liked LSD because it broke down categories," Gunn says now. "But that was what I liked so much about the '60s anyway. By your mid-30s, you can get a bit smug, and the '60s--and by this I mean the drugs, the concerts in the park, all of it--turned over my assumptions, delayed my middle-aged smugness a little."

The poems that came out of this period of discovery and self-discovery--poems about LSD, communal orgies, gay bath houses, rock-star deaths, fragmentary memories, nightmarish visions and the Northern California landscape, urban and rural--took up much of the space in Gunn's next three books, "Moly" (1971), "Jack Straw's Castle & Other Poems" (1976) and "The Passages of Joy" (1982).

These books did not endear him to his English public. The prevailing sense (as wittily summarized by Glyn Maxwell, a younger British poet) was that here was "a man of decorous, skillful, metrical verse who had for his own reasons become absorbed into an alien culture that gave him alien subjects (like sex), alien backdrops (like sunshine) and, most vexing of all, made his strict forms melt on the page. No longer could he be Our Man Out There like, say, Auden in New York or James Fenton in the Far East, because he seemed to have become Their Man Out There."

To an extent, this was the point of the whole endeavor: to escape being English. The freedom Gunn gained in 1960s San Francisco was in part the freedom to stop being what he had been brought up to be and become something else, something far less easily defined. He says as much in the last few lines of "The Geysers":

"\o7 torn from the self in which I breathed and trod I am I am raw meat I am a god\f7 "

Or, if not a god, then at any rate a Californian; at the very least an "Anglo American," as he now calls himself, in imitation of the models of ethnic immigration--Italian American, Hispanic American, Asian American--that can be found so profusely in California.

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