Thin and relatively fit despite his 71 years, Gunn still looks like a hedonist. He sits on a couch in his living room dressed in ancient blue jeans, black motorcycle boots, and a T-shirt featuring a very buff male torso cut off at the neck — just where his own neck appears, in fact. His sparse gray hair is cropped short and clings just a little grimly to his scalp. Naturally, to someone accustomed to viewing an author’s face through the delayed chronology of book-jacket photographs, he looks diminished. Still, if the last traces of youthfulness have finally bid Gunn farewell (for a long time he looked far younger than his years), everything about him, from the fading panther tattoo on his forearm to the glimmer of gold in his ear, tells you that he once had it, and still identifies with it strongly.
Born in Kent in 1929 to a journalist father and a mother who committed suicide when he was 15, Gunn made his name as a poet early. His first book, Fighting Terms (1954), was published when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge. His second, The Sense of Movement (1957), appeared when he was already in California, and it made him famous. His nearest rival on Britain’s Hot Young Poets chart was Ted Hughes, who wrote brooding hymns to the animal world and would later marry Sylvia Plath. For a while, even though they barely knew each other, the two men were so closely linked in the public imagination that one critic jokingly referred to them as “Ted Gunn.” But once Plath committed suicide, Hughes’ fame, not to mention his Bluebeard-like notoriety on American campuses, totally eclipsed Gunn’s.
In any case, Gunn was no longer in England. At Cambridge he had fallen in love with an American student named Mike Kitay. After Kitay was drafted into the Air Force, Gunn won a fellowship at Stanford University and followed him out to the States. Gunn likes to describe himself as having been “just a timid little English boy” at the time, but one suspects he’s being disingenuous. His poetry was filled with a youthful bravado so militant it bordered on fascism. In a notorious poem, “Lines for a Book,” he praised “all the toughs through history” from Alexander the Great on down. In “On the Move,” a meditation on a Hell’s Angels–type motorcycle gang, he sang the existential delights of endless, even aimless movement. And after hearing Elvis on a jukebox in a Texas bar, he composed a 16-line poem in his honor. It reads like a creaky period piece now, but at the time it felt daring. Gunn wasn’t the first English poet to move to America — Auden had been living in New York for 15 years by the time he arrived — but Gunn was the first (and perhaps still the only one) to sound as if he’d gone native.
The big thing happening in San Francisco when Gunn arrived was the Beats, but Gunn, like most Americans, first found out about them in the pages of Lifemagazine. When he finally got round to reading them, he wasn’t too impressed. So what was he doing that was different from the Beats, I ask. How did he see himself as a poet?
“I think I thought of myself as being Baudelaire or somebody,” he laughs self-deprecatingly. “Treating the urban scene with rhyme and meter. I liked the slight whiff of the satanic about Baudelaire, which is not what I admire about him now. But I also liked the fact that he wrote about sleeping with whores and stuff. I thought that was great. Better than T.S. Eliot, who wrote about sleeping with whores, but not as though he slept with them!”
***For several weeks I have been reading the poetry of my juniors. Mother doesn’t understand, and they hate Daddy, the noted alcoholic. —from “Expression”
Gunn’s house, a few blocks off Haight Street near Golden Gate Park, is an unpretentious three-story affair with a kind of arty working-class atmosphere. There’s an antique jukebox in the living room, and huge old beer-bottle signs decorate the walls. The second time I visit, I find Gunn has traded in his jeans and boots for shorts and flip-flops, and a T-shirt with a picture of a motorcycle on it. This time we talk in his workroom, a small third-floor room at the back of the house that overlooks neighboring rooftops. It’s here that Gunn keeps his books of poetry. The living poets go in a bookcase on the left, the dead poets in a bookcase on the right. Otherwise the room is dominated by a collage of clippings and pictures and post â cards that spans two walls. Porn shots mix freely with photos of friends, post cards of literary greats like Baudelaire and Hardy, movie stars like Keanu Reeves, and a close-up shot of Pete Sampras’ legs. It seems an apt metaphor for Gunn’s own approach to things — mixing and matching, inserting pop culture into high culture, refusing to make distinctions between the two.