Thom Gunn, who died in April at the age of 74, was a lively Anglo-American poet with a warm heart and a cool head, a rare combination. His rigorous intelligence and sympathetic imagination are everywhere in evidence in his 12 books of poems.
Poetry on both sides of the Atlantic has been enriched by his Collected Poems, which brings together nearly four decades of work from his assured first book, Fighting Terms (1954), to his sunlit middle collection, Moly (1971), to his magisterial book of elegies, The Man With Night Sweats (1992). His final collection, Boss Cupid (2000), suggests that this excellent verse technician was, in the end, a provocative gay love poet.
Gunn was a transplanted British writer who identified strongly with San Francisco, his adopted home town. He studied with the poetic rationalist Yvor Winters at Stanford (the Library of America recently published his excellent edition of Winters's Selected Poems), who ingrained in him a permanent sense of the rigor and balance of the Elizabethan plain style. As he wrote in a tribute poem to Winters:
You keep both Rule and Energy in view,
Much power in each, most in the balanced two:
Ferocity existing in the fence
Built by an exercised intelligence.
What he concluded about his former teacher is also eminently true of himself: "For all his respect for the rules of poetry, it is not the Augustan decorum he came to admire but the Elizabethan, the energy of Nashe, Greville, Gascoigne, and Donne, plain speakers of little politeness."
Gunn was very much at home in the traditional meters of English poetry, though he also liked to experiment with syllabic stanzas and looser free verse rhythms, with what he called "openness." He had "little politeness," and part of the shock of his work is the way he employed a plain style and traditional English meters to write about the contemporary urban life he found in California -- about drugs and panhandlers, gay bars and tattoo parlors. There is a powerful dialectic -- a high tension -- running throughout his work between raw anarchistic energy and powerful intellectual control. His poems enact an ongoing struggle to keep Rule and Energy in right relation, proper balance.
Gunn insisted on the continuity between England and America, between meter and free verse, between epiphanic vision and everyday consciousness. His existential rebelliousness was tempered by a sense of our common humanity. I would say that his Elizabethan manner reached its peak in his sequence of elegies for friends who died during the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. Here is a memorial lyric for his friend Larry Hoyt, whose life was too early stilled:
I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tight: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.
He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,
Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.
(Quotations are from Thom Gunn, "Collected Poems." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 1994 by Thom Gunn.)