Gunn had been raised in Kent, England, where his parents were journalists...He arrived in America fresh from Cambridge, and his first book of poems, Fighting Terms, had been published to lively notice...When he got a look at San Francisco, he knew he’d found his place...Not only was it beautiful, in league with the 'best European cities,' he wrote to a friend, but it was 'incidentally the queerest city I’ve ever been in,' Gunn remained there for the rest of his life, living in the Haight and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, eventually six months on and six off...That letter is among the hundreds collected in The Letters of Thom Gunn,' an appealing selection of his rowdy, funny, filthy, intensely literate letters...These details, in general, won’t surprise anyone who kept up with Gunn’s poetry, which was metrically sophisticated and dealt sometimes with earthy topics such as LSD, the Hell’s Angels, sex and its itchy discontents, and gay culture writ large...This book, like Gunn’s life, puts an unusual mix of pleasures on display...On the one hand, he had indestructible appetites for sex and drugs, together and separately...Typical sentences from this book are: 'I woke up the next day surrounded by naked bodies and uniquely hungover' and 'Remind me to tell you how I lost the hair on my ass'.
The publication of these collected letters represents a welcome rebalancing. With every sentence, one feels Gunn stepping into the light ... an intimate portrait of Gunn as friend, lover and man. That’s not to say we always get the ‘real’ Gunn. This was a poet, after all, who was uncomfortable putting himself at the centre of his work ... it feels too as though the life and personality come through in the letters in a way they don’t in his poetry, particularly the earlier work ... Letter and poem complement each other; we are invited to hold them up at different angles, allowing new light to strike the page ... There is intrigue and gossip to be had, of course ... The book allows us to encounter Gunn at every stage of his life ... Moving through his life in this way is unbearably poignant. The toll of the AIDS crisis is laid out here in stark detail ... In this book, Nott and his fellow editors offer us a chance to move closer to Gunn and know him better.
One’s experience of Gunn’s poetry—which is, by turns, conversational, formal, and metaphysical, and often all three at once—is deeply enhanced by the life one discovers in The Letters of Thom Gunn (expertly co-edited by Michael Nott—who provides a heartfelt and knowledgeable introduction—and Gunn’s close friends the poets August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer). Gunn’s letters are a primer not only on literature (he taught a rigorous class at U.C. Berkeley on and off from 1958 to 1999) but on the poet himself, who had a tendency to hide in plain sight ... he reveals himself, intentionally or not, by not constantly revealing himself ... Part of the enormous debt I feel to the editors of Gunn’s letters has to do with the way they have expanded my understanding of his work. In the letters, I have discovered the person Gunn left out of the poems ... Gunn’s true self both is and isn’t in these letters. How could he not split off, given what he had seen and what he had survived? The Letters sent me back to Gunn’s poetry to find what I had been missing all along: his often unspoken understanding of the agonies of the mind and heart, as well as the joys, his sometimes childlike reach for the ecstatic. If death is the most vivid, indelible thing life offers us, Gunn’s writing asks again and again, how do we make the best of both life and death? He did the best he could with what life gave him, and I love him for it.
These letters vastly increase our understanding of his painstaking compositional processes, for many of them were written to elicit feedback on work in progress from a trusted band of first readers...Like O’Hara, Gunn disdained the literary establishment, but he cared deeply how friends, such as the literary scholars Tony Tanner and Douglas Chambers or his Cambridge friend the mercurial and fascinating Tony White, responded to his work...Reading his contributions to these epistolary exchanges, one is struck by his startling lack of hubris or defensiveness—his openness, even late in his career, to advice and criticism...Gunn’s commitment to a rigorous use of form and meter and an obtrusively literary diction slowly dissolved as he acclimated to America’s permissive poetic zeitgeist...This embrace of expanded poetic possibility matched Gunn’s determination to open the doors of perception whenever opportunity presented: he tried LSD for the first time in June 1966, and despite initially suffering from 'incipient paranoias' soon developed into a fervent advocate of the druggy utopianism symbolized by the Summer of Love in 1967...A number of poems in his collection Moly (1971) are attempts to create poetic equivalents of the trip, as well as to do justice to the ideals of the counterculture as played out in the hippie heaven of San Francisco.
Quite rightly, the focus of this well-presented and helpfully annotated selection of his correspondence – merely a tenth of all the letters which the assiduous editors have turned up – is what the introduction calls 'literary interest'...Gunn seems to have been one of those rare good writers who is almost completely self-conscious about his own processes and predicaments, and it is perhaps suggestive that many of the most illuminating passages of self-reflection here are written to people who taught literature at universities (Tony Tanner, Donald Davie, Clive Wilmer, Douglas Chambers)...At the same time, his literary evaluations could be robustly non-professional: Richard Murphy is 'an egotistical prick'; 'if there hadn’t been a Seamus Heaney, the critics would have had to invent one'; 'the new Formalists are talentless slime', and the like...Gunn comes across as performative, boisterous, amused, repeatedly anxious not to be a bore or to appear pompous, and delighted by his own candour...His love affair with San Francisco, especially its sex and drugs, comes through loud and clear; and, in contrast, the horror of the AIDS plague is vividly depicted, with Pepys-like perceptiveness, too...Gunn once told an interviewer that he led 'a very mundane, ordinary life'...I suppose the truth of that depends what you mean by “ordinary”...'It’s very good living in San Francisco', he wrote to Christopher Isherwood, 'though I do occasionally feel a bit like Lord Rochester'...'I am the W of Babylon herself,' he cheerfully admitted to another friend...He certainly threw himself into things: 'I had a 36 hour sexual epiphany with a certain John Ambrosio' is not the sort of remark you find in the correspondence of every man of letters approaching seventy. 'All this speed at my age will probably kill me soon,' he wrote in 2000, correctly.
As well as providing an intimate portrait of Gunn, the letters also give an insight into the origins of this imbalance. An unmistakable thread running through his letters is the extent to which he was forced to negotiate with a hostile culture as a poet who was a gay man ... Some of the most touching moments are found in Gunn’s love letters to his life partner, Mike Kitay, whom he met at Cambridge in 1952 and followed to the U.S. when he returned home two years later. These letters serve as an important record of how gay men constructed relationships in the pre-Stonewall era.
A criticism that’s sometimes made of Gunn’s work is that it lacks a central personality — or exhibits only the ‘donned impersonality’ that he observed (in his great poem ‘On the Move’) in the members of motorcycle gangs. The same can’t quite be said about his letters: he’s a marvellously warm and witty correspondent, and we get a strong sense of his temperament, his principles and his enthusiasms and aversions ... But there is an impregnable poise to his epistolary voice, an emotional continence that sometimes verges on chilliness. The closest he comes to displaying any real vulnerability is in his letters to Kitay, whom he showers with tenderness and endearments, and on whose company he clearly depends. But even there, the prevailing tone is more cerebral than emotional ... The suggestion of unfathomable pain lurking behind Gunn’s ‘donned impersonality’ is, as Michael Nott writes in his shrewd introduction to this book, one of the most seductive qualities of his work. But the final impression that these letters make is of a life so skewed towards self-protectiveness that — however varied its experiences and intense its pleasures — it can’t truly be said to have been lived to the full.
... the first book to present his private words for public consideration, and it makes for absorbing reading ... He would have been rightly scornful of anyone who took this material as a key to his oeuvre, but then without seeing the correspondence we wouldn’t be quite so aware of his desire to reveal himself ... Reading what Gunn didn’t choose to show to the public, and knowing what he did, it becomes clear how personal a writer he is, even when he’s seemingly at his most impersonal. The correspondence throws new light on his work by allowing us to see things other than his notorious coolness.
The letters don’t home in on a contested field of poetics, like Duncan’s and Denise Levertov’s exchanges about political writing during the Vietnam War; nor do they offer the titillation of a personal breakdown, like many correspondences of Gunn’s contemporaries; nor do they form an imaginative continuity with his poems, like the letters of Keats or Hart Crane. There’s also the fact that letter writing, as a cultural practice, was nearing extinction by the end of Gunn’s life. Doorstop volumes such as this one and James Merrill’s letters, which came out in 2021, feel like an endangered species. What Gunn’s letters do offer are fascinating glimpses into the way a first-rate poet managed to keep a precarious gift at the center of his life, while also fully living that life ... Of course Gunn saved his best stuff for the poems. He had been practicing how to do so, how to manage a life inside an art, for half a century. What the letters argue for, in the end, is the worthiness of such a pursuit, the returns of such complicated decision-making.
He’s often upbeat in these pages—it’s a little jarring to see him enthuse over There’s Something About Mary and Jurassic Park—but also prone to enervating self-doubt and depression. He’s candid about sex and aging, but largely silent about formative trauma. His self-image as a would-be Hells Angel cruising bathhouses runs aground on the reality of Gunn as a rather domestic man who cooks dinner for his housemates, fusses over his lap cat, and putters around the garden. And that reality, too, abruptly segues into another: that of the kinky sexagenarian who hosts all-night benders and speed-fueled threesomes ... The letters draw out the contradictions that made Gunn something of an anomaly: an agile poet who renovated tradition to accommodate the rude litter of modernity. They also suggest that, like most great artists, he constructed himself piecemeal over decades—a process of continuous revision marked by alternating currents of grandiosity and despair ... That he wasn’t like everybody else is what makes these letters worth reading ... An amusing subplot of the letters is how frequently—and in which direction—Gunn revises his estimation of other writers ... Nearly 20 years after his death, what endures of Gunn’s work is the plain, searching immediacy of his voice, which steadies the poems and is encountered afresh in the letters. Gunn reckons with his own contradictions—that is to say, his humanity—in lines often backlit by tragedy. Rather than succumb to dreaded self-pity or combust in self-aggrandizement, he opts for the more treacherous middle road of self-inquiry. There’s a meditative grandeur to some of his best poems, a gradual disclosure of the self that’s as much intellectual as moral. His formal courtliness and aloofness on the page are largely at odds with today’s young poets.
These letters certainly provide an eye-opening insight into the intoxicatingly (literally) liberal gay world of San Francisco in the years before, during and after the Aids epidemic ... Lots of his letters are full of all this — the simple pleasures of his daily life ... He can be hilariously rude about other writers.
Meticulously edited, introduced, and annotated by literary scholar Nott and poets Kleinzahler and Wilmer...In a comprehensive biographical overview, Nott observes that Gunn 'was not just the leather-jacket-wearing, motorbike-riding tough that he is sometimes made out to be; nor the rambunctiously laughing, happy-go-lucky bon vivant that he often showed to the world,' but a tender friend and an artist of 'literary and humane intelligence'...In letters to fellow poets, Gunn reflects on his writing process, the publication and reception of his work, his assessments of other poets, and, not least, his enthusiastic identity as a gay man, which he needed to conceal in his early poems...A detailed chronology, glossary of names, and photographs round out the volume, which is sure to please any fan of literary biography...A work of impressive scholarship.
Poets Kleinzahler and Wilmer join up with scholar Nott for this beautifully selected collection of letters by poet Thom Gunn (1929–2004)...The first presentation of 'Gunn’s private words for public consideration,' it’s filled with powerful takes on his creative process, interpersonal relationships, and day-to-day life...Gunn often wrote about his garden ('I have all sorts of herbs.... It is amazing how much better some are when fresh'); his poetic craft and workshopping of pieces; and the experience of being a gay man in the second half of the 20th century as he navigates sexual adventures and the AIDS epidemic...The editors’ footnotes are illustrative rather than intrusive, and the robust collection is packed with life and vigor...This should help bring Gunn and his work to a new generation of readers.