The Letters of Thom Gunn by Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler & Clive Wilmer (edd) - review by Andrew McMillan

Andrew McMillan

Confessions of a New Elizabethan

The Letters of Thom Gunn


Faber & Faber 800pp £40

‘Talk to anyone who has read Thom Gunn’, Michael Nott writes in the introduction to this book, ‘and one of the first things they’ll mention is that his poems speak to them on a personal level.’ Nott goes on to quote a fan letter received by Gunn, one of the few the poet kept. Written in the year I was born, its correspondent confesses, ‘I feel caressed by your language as I read it.’ Reader, I should admit at the outset that everything I’ve ever written has been an attempt to write a letter to Thom Gunn. I first encountered him when I was sixteen, not long after he’d died in April 2004. I quickly worked through the poems and his two books of essays, Shelf Life and The Occasions of Poetry. I made a post-university pilgrimage to the Gunn archives in Berkeley, where I felt some of his correspondence between my gloved hands. After that, though, I hit a wall. I went in search of the biographies and various other books that I was sure must be numerous. I found one collection of essays and one monograph. There seemed to be a silence surrounding Gunn, especially compared to the amount written about his peers – particularly those in the so-called Movement, that loose group of anti-modernist English poets who came to prominence in the 1950s, but also his American contemporaries.

The publication of these collected letters represents a welcome rebalancing. With every sentence, one feels Gunn stepping into the light. Nott begins with a moving description of Gunn’s ‘great, chesty, boisterous laugh’, and what follows, despite the book’s size and scope, is 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. Only late in life did he overtly address the subject of his mother’s suicide, when he was fifteen, in a poem, ‘The Gas-poker’; it was writing in the third person which allowed him to make that breakthrough. Ben Jonson, an edition of whose poems Gunn once edited, is an important figure here: Nott quotes Gunn saying that people have ‘difficulty with my poetry … in locating the central voice or central personality. But I’m not aiming for central voice and I’m not aiming for central personality. I want to be an Elizabethan poet. I want to write with the same anonymity you get in the Elizabethans.’ Nott suggests that we get a ‘staging’ of Gunn’s personality in these letters, a tailoring of voice to recipient. That certainly feels right, though 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.

Some of the rawest moments come in early letters to Mike Kitay, Gunn’s lifelong partner, whom he met in 1952 when they were both undergraduates at Cambridge and whom he followed to the USA when Kitay returned there in 1954, after which Gunn felt able to come out. ‘We can lead rich lives together if we allow each other to, my beloved,’ Gunn writes to him in 1961. ‘Oh baby, please settle for me. I’ll never be your ideal, but you’ll never find your ideal on earth.’ It’s a letter written over the course of a week, with headings marking out the different days; it ends, ‘I can’t go on like this much longer. Please, my darling Mike.’ Gunn was largely a writer of tight, syllabic poetry who aimed for a lack of ‘central personality’; the directness and freedom of expression in letters such as these offer us a side of him we rarely, if ever, have seen before. By contrast, a letter written a few months later to the Faber editor Charles Monteith sees Gunn retreating behind a mask of business, discussing what would become a well-known combined edition of his work and that of Ted Hughes, eventually published in 1962 (the footnote reveals, interestingly, that Larkin was also to be included in the project, but his publisher at the time, the Marvell Press, said no).

Elsewhere a letter to Douglas Chambers of 1980 describes the ‘hilarious’ second D H Lawrence Festival in Santa Fe, at which Gunn met Allen Ginsberg for the first time: ‘I’d always imagined he might be a bit hysterical, like some of his poetry, but he is sensible, and kind.’ Gunn was staying in a house with William Burroughs and he recalls that he ‘went around’ with him ‘quite a lot, to the conference, to gay bars, on one occasion to Los Alamos, through the most spectacular landscape I’d ever seen’, and to the ‘rather spartan boarding school’ that Burroughs had attended in 1979. This experience was worked into the poem ‘A Drive to Los Alamos’. In the poem Gunn describes driving ‘past mesas in yellow ruin,/breaking up like everything,/upward to the wide plateau,/where the novelist went to school’. 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. In 1981 Gunn complains to one of the editors of a well-known poetry magazine about what he perceives as its ‘antigay stance’. In a letter to Robert Pinsky in 1992 he describes meeting C H Sisson, who had apparently complained about his line ‘So when you gnawed my armpits, I gnawed yours’: ‘When I was introduced to him, I am sure it was not my imagination that the reason he turned away as soon as was compatible with politeness was that he detected … a really rotten armpit-smell on my breath.’

The book’s editors provide a timeline of significant life events, notes on the cast of characters in Gunn’s life (many of whom readers will recognise from fleeting or memorable mentions in Gunn’s poems) and annotations to the letters. The book allows us to encounter Gunn at every stage of his life: it opens with a letter from Thom (then Tom) to his father in 1939, when he was ten, and closes with one to his brother, Ander, sent in February 2004, just a couple of months before Gunn’s death. Moving through his life in this way is unbearably poignant. The toll of the AIDS crisis is laid out here in stark detail. In one letter to Ander written in 1987, Gunn states that three friends have just died, two of them on the same day. One of them was Norm, the titular ‘Dead Owner of a Gym’ from The Man with Night Sweats (1992); in the same letter, he describes Charlie Hinkle, whom Gunn would memorialise in ‘To a Dead Graduate Student’, being ‘in hospital, shockingly thin, and gone blind, poor baby’. It was a time that hit Gunn hard. His experiences as witness and survivor launched him into the vital final phase of his career. As the poet himself puts it in his famous poem ‘On the Move’, ‘One is always nearer by not keeping still’. In this book, Nott and his fellow editors offer us a chance to move closer to Gunn and know him better.

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