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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.

It's not true, however, that California made all of Gunn's British strictness melt away. As a teacher at UC Berkeley, for instance, "he was extremely rigorous," says dance critic Joan Acocella, who took Gunn's undergraduate English 100 in 1965. "He made us write a two-page paper every week--he was very strict about the two-page limit--and he always expected from us more sophistication than the other professors did. He gave us idiosyncratic material--more difficult, less lovable than the usual--and then he gave us his reasons for liking it, which were bound up with his moral personality: his reserve, his distance. I'll never forget what he taught me. He was great."

The students also found Gunn himself idiosyncratic, and that too appealed to them. Unlike the other professors, Acocella remembers, "He wore leather, he was a poet, we had heard that he was gay, and we knew that he took the bus back to San Francisco every day." (To this day, Gunn takes the bus back and forth one semester each year to teach at Berkeley. He hasn't allowed any of his recent fellowships to interfere with his scrupulous, devoted teaching; once, in fact, he nearly turned down a three-year fellowship when it seemed he would have to stop teaching to accept it.)

The rigor that characterized his teaching was also there, if less obviously, in his California-influenced poetry. He may have ceased to be wholly British, but he could still produce "decorous, skilled, metrical verse." Though the three books of the '70 and '80s contain a great deal of free-verse experimentation, they also contain a substantially higher proportion of rhyme and meter than most American poets were using at that time. Even in the lines I've quoted from "The Geysers," you can hear both the rhyme (of "trod" and "god") and the old-fashioned, Shakespearean iambic pentameter ("I am I am raw meat I am a god ") .

Explaining why he chose to use meter when writing about his LSD experiences, Gunn has written, "The acid trip is unstructured, it opens you up to countless possibilities, you hanker after the infinite. The only way I could give myself any control over the presentation of these experiences, and so could be true to them, was by trying to render the infinite through the finite, the unstructured through the structured."

But this particular use of structure did not appeal to those who had formerly praised Gunn's energy and adventurousness when similar metrical forms were applied to subjects like soldiers, bikers and figures from Greek myth. What really bugged the British critics was Gunn's unashamed focus on pleasure and enjoyment; "good news is no news," as one reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement wryly put it. It was not until Thom Gunn's next book, "The Man with Night Sweats" (which came out in England in 1992), that the British wanted to hear what he had to report.

"Now that HIV and AIDS have turned Gunn's home into a place to which we do send correspondents, at least when we feel up to it," the TLS review continues, "there he still is, an exceptional and fascinating poet with a formal range to rival Auden's, a sensuality equal to Ginsberg's and a profound yet daily humanity that surely surpasses that of any other poet of our times."

That ringing endorsement was sounded in March of this year, in a review of Thom Gunn's "Collected Poems." When I read the praise aloud to fiction writer Leonard Michaels, who has taught with Gunn at UC Berkeley for almost three decades, he shrugs with disdainful pity for the previously unenlightened. "Haven't I been saying exactly that all along?" he says with his characteristic Lower East Side inflections. Another shrug, as if to say, who could miss it?

Nobody, at the moment. Since 1990, when he was in the first round to receive the generous ($105,000 over three years) Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Awards, Gunn has been reaping the rewards of fame. In late 1992, a British jury awarded him the first Forward Prize, which is now England's largest poetry prize. In 1993, he won not only the Lenore Marshall-Nation Magazine Prize for Poetry for "The Man with Night Sweats" but also a five-year, $369,000 MacArthur Fellowship for a lifetime of achievement in poetry. The word "genius," in large, boldfaced type, appeared next to his picture in several Bay Area newspapers, while the Observer in London headlined its interview with him "A poet who's still firing on all cylinders" (a reference, no doubt, to those everlasting bikers). The Manhattan-based novelist and critic Susan Sontag, who serves on the board of a San Francisco literary organization called City Arts & Lectures Inc., lately advised its director to draw on local talent: "You know who you should get to speak? Thom Gunn. He's one of the two or three best poets writing anywhere in America right now."

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