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.