Photo by Jay Blakesberg
In 1994, Spin magazine ran a short article about the expatriate British poet Thom Gunn. Pretty strange, when you think about it. At the time, Gunn was already 65 years old. And though he was gay, and wore leather, and had written poems about bikers and skateboarders and acid trips and AIDS, he had also written poems about Keats and snails and cherry trees and, um, 19th-century bird watchers. Plus he tended to write a lot of his poems in rhyme and meter, and displayed only a modest interest in reading them aloud. Nor was he “confessional.” If anything, he was reserved.
So it’s hardly surprising that Gunn’s appearance in Spin has not been followed by further appearances in the pages of Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly or Maxim. And though he has lived in the Bay Area since 1954, he is not listed as a local author of note in the guidebooks. Better known in England, where he is still one of the most famous poets of his generation, Gunn has accumulated a body of work that is not only as American as it is English, but also one of the greatest literary documents produced by anyone in California during the last 45 years. From the biker gangs of the ’50s, to the psychedelic landscapes of the ’60s and ’70s, to the plague years of the ’80s and ’90s, Gunn has captured much from each of those eras in his poetry.
Poets are so rarely written about outside academia and specialist publications that, in presenting them to a more general audience, you feel obliged to exaggerate their achievements to the point where even people who hate poetry will feel guilty for not having read them. Fortunately, there’s little need for that in Gunn’s case: His work can stand on its own. I first read his poems when I was 16, and the ones that most impressed me at the time were in a book called My Sad Captains, published in 1961, when Gunn was 32. They were about California, a place I had never been, and they were suffused with a sense of light and space that felt altogether exotic to me as I stood reading them in a library thousands of miles away. One of them, “Flying Above California,” came to mind as I flew up to San Francisco to meet Gunn. The poem is filled with the excitement of the newcomer, the stranger in a strange land:
. . . I repeat under my breath
— Mediterranean and Northern names. Such richness can make you drunk.
That poem, Gunn told me when I met him late on a warm Monday afternoon at his home in Haight-Ashbury, “was about various trips, a general experience rather than one in particular. It was partly about being an Englishman in America, and just finding it so romantic and exciting. There was a time when I would read it and audiences would laugh when I said San Bernardino — as if that were a romantic place!”
Gunn laughs at the memory himself. After 46 years in the States, his accent seems as American as English, and when I ask him how often he goes back to England, the question almost seems to surprise him. (Answer: rarely.) As Clive Wilmer pointed out in the Paris Review, Gunn is a British poet who has performed the unlikely trick of turning himself into a regional, California writer. In his poetry as well as in his life, he has made San Francisco his home.
I have seen Gunn in the flesh only three times before: twice at readings, and once when I passed him at night on Christopher Street in New York. Walking along with a group of friends, snug in his trademark black leather jacket, Gunn had the relaxed but expectant air of someone looking forward to a long, highly pleasurable sojourn in the gay fleshpots of the West Village. This was in 1983, shortly before the emergence of AIDS, whose great elegist many think Gunn has become. In his poetry he has celebrated casual sex —
. . . Why pretend Love must accompany erection? This is a momentary affection, A curiosity bound to end . . .
— and mourned the passage of friends who died after long residence in what he calls “the sexual New Jerusalem,” the era of gay liberation in the 1970s. What he hasn’t done is draw a link between the two: Puritanism isn’t Gunn’s cup of tea.
Remarkably, given the number of people he slept with, not to mention his days of injecting speed with a shared needle, Gunn himself has been left unscathed by the plague — “Excluded from the invitation list/To the largest gathering of the decade” as he noted ironically in one poem. But even as he has memorialized the victims of AIDS with one hand, he has continued to write raunchy hymns to Eros with the other. His new book, Boss Cupid, is filled with them.
“I’m such a hedonist,” he says, laughing. “I remember looking up the word hedonist in the dictionary when I was about 14 and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s me! Isn’t everybody?’”