Gunn, Thom

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Thom Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent, England, in 1929. His first book of poems, "Fighting Terms," was published in 1954, and Gunn was awarded a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University in the same year. From 1958 to 1966 and 1973 to 1990 he taught at the University of California, Berkeley. He received numerous awards during his life, most notably the MacArthur Fellowship for lifetime achievement in poetry in 1993. Gunn passed away in San Francisco, California, in 2004.

From the description of Thom Gunn papers, circa 1930-2004 (bulk 1950-2004). (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 311696085

Poet, born 1929, died 2004.

From the description of Typed letter signed : San Francisco, to Lee Smith, 1988 June 21. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270981907

British poet who has spent much of his later life in the United States, primarily in California.

From the description of Papers. 1951-1983. (University of Maryland Libraries). WorldCat record id: 40145118

Thomson William (Thom) Gunn was born William Guinneach Gunn in Kent in 1929. Gunn changed his name in 1949 before taking a place at Trinity College, Cambridge to read English. His first poetry collection, Fighting Terms was published in 1954. Gunn moved to Berkeley to teach in 1958 and remained in the US until his death in 2004.

Epithet: poet

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000560.0x00022c

Biographical Information

Thom Gunn [Thomas William Gunn] was born in Gravesend, England in 1929. His father, Herbert Smith, and his mother, Ann Charlotte Thompson Gunn, were both journalists. His parents divorced when he was nine. At the age of 15, Gunn and his younger brother Ander found their mother dead from suicide. Gunn served in the British Army for two years, from 1948 to 1950. After serving in the army, Gunn lived in Paris for a year and began to write seriously. He then attended Trinity College at Cambridge, where he focused on writing poetry.

Gunn's first collection of poems, Fighting Terms, was published in 1954. It was this same year he met his lover and life-partner of 40 years, Mike Kitay, who followed him to the States; the two settled in San Francisco. His adopted home in America soon became an essential part of his work. In a San Francisco Chronicle interview, Gunn said coming to America "changed everything for me."

Gunn pursued graduate studies at Stanford University with poet Yvor Winters from 1954 to 1958. Winters was to become a second father figure to Gunn, though it was a difficult relationship as Winters rejected all that Gunn wrote after 1958, calling his poetry "journalism." Gunn published his second collection of poems, The Sense of Movement, in 1957.

Gunn was offered a teaching job at the University of California, Berkeley in 1958 and left his graduate studies at Stanford, never to finish his doctorate. Aside from occasional trips to England and a year teaching in San Antonio, Texas, Gunn taught at Berkeley and lived in San Francisco until his death in 2004. What is frequently regarded as his best-known early collection of poems, My Sad Captains, was published in 1961. The ensuing 1960s and '70s were to see Gunn partaking in the counter-cultures of the hippie movement and gay liberation.

Gunn's poetry is recognized as defying any kind of easy categorization, and it was his use of LSD during the '60s that opened vistas to new possibilities in form and subject matter in his work. This newfound freedom of expression was explored in books of poems such as, Moly (1971) and Jack Straw's Castle (1976). Despite a lack of signature style, Gunn received numerous awards and prizes throughout his career, including: a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971, a coveted MacArthur Fellowship Prize in 1993, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit in 1998.

Often being described as a gay poet, Gunn was to write honestly and unsentimentally about all aspects of gay life; but his themes were of wide enough interest to appeal to a broad readership beyond the gay community. As Gunn himself described in a San Francisco Examiner interview in 1998, "Obviously, I am a gay writer because I write about gay themes, but I also write about other things and I don't want to be restricted in the way that somebody would be called a landscape painter or a writer of boys stories. I don't think I write just one kind of poem."

Gunn was to lose many friends during the onset of AIDS in the 1980s. This loss was voiced movingly, though in his characteristically unsentimental manner, in the collection of poems, The Man with Night Sweats (1992). Almost a decade later, with AIDS having shifted in the States from frightening epidemic to managed disease, Gunn explored the theme of Eros in all its sexual guises in Boss Cupid (2000).

Throughout his long career Gunn's work made little of the distinctions between high and low art, finding no subject taboo; as a result, his poetry has been praised for its contemporary and immediate qualities. Although embracing popular culture, Gunn delved deeper, with great subtlety and wit, than the surface qualities of Pop. As Gunn explained, "People tend to think poetry as existing on a different plane than the novel or nonfiction, that it is necessarily mystical or spiritual in some undefined way. But of course it's everything."

From the guide to the Thom Gunn papers, 1930-2004, bulk 1950-2004, (The Bancroft Library)

Thomson (Thom) William Gunn, the Anglo-American poet and critic, was born on August 29, 1929, in Gravesend, Kent. His father, Herbert Smith Gunn, was an accomplished journalist with the Beaverbrook press. As a young journalist, Gunn's father reported for local papers like the Kent Messenger . In 1944, he became editor of the (London) Evening Standard and, in the 1950s, editor of the (London) Daily Sketch . Gunn's mother, (Annie) Charlotte Thomson Gunn, was an independent woman with socialist and feminist sympathies. She, too, worked as a journalist until the births of Gunn and his younger brother Alexander (Ander). When he turned eight, the Gunn family moved to Hampstead, a middle class neighborhood of London. Shortly after the move to Hampstead, his parents divorced, and, in 1944, Gunn's mother committed suicide.

As a child, Gunn inherited a love of reading from his mother. His father once said, "Thom was better read at eleven than most people are at thirty-five." Gunn also began writing at an early age. His early work included character sketches and a short novel he characterized as "curiously sophisticated," completed when he was twelve years old. By sixteen, Gunn was writing continuously and seriously.

After completing secondary school, Gunn fulfilled his compulsory National Service by spending two years in the British Army (1948-1950). He then spent six months working in the offices of the Paris Metro system, while he attempted to write a Proustian novel he never completed. In 1949, Gunn legally changed his name from William Guinneach Gunn to Thomson William Gunn, and, although he had always been known as Tom, he began to use the spelling Thom.

He returned to England and attended Trinity College, Cambridge University. Gunn flourished at Cambridge and connected with a group of students (including Karl Miller, Nicholas Tomalin, Mark Boxer, and Tony White) who wrote and edited the university magazine, Granta . At Cambridge, Gunn met American Michael (Mike) Kitay, who became his lifelong partner. Gunn received his B. A. in 1953. His work at Cambridge culminated in his first book of poetry, Fighting Terms (1954). Though later considered an apprentice work by most critics, including Gunn himself, the book created a stir. In Robert Conquest's New Lines (1956), Gunn was anthologized with other young British poets such as Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, and John Wain. This group became known as "The Movement," poets loosely connected by poetic style and age.

Gunn's departure for the United States in 1954 was ostensibly occasioned by his winning a graduate fellowship at Stanford University, but his relationship with Mike Kitay had led him to apply for the award. He spent a productive year in Palo Alto, California, writing most of the poetry for his second book, The Sense of Movement (1957). At Stanford, he met Yvor Winters, who became a major influence in the young poet's life and work.

In the late 1950s, Gunn began to move away from the traditional, structured metric poetry which initially brought him success. He began to experiment with syllabics and free verse. However, these years were not productive for Gunn. His busy lifestyle left little time for writing. He taught in San Antonio, Texas, and continued his graduate work at Stanford University, completing an M. A. in 1958. From 1958 to 1960, Gunn lived in Oakland and served as an instructor at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught off and on until 1999. Physically and emotionally depleted by his teaching and studies, he recharged his energies in Italy, where he spent 1959 supported by a Somerset Maugham Award. In 1960, he spent several months in Germany.

Returning to the United States in 1960, Gunn settled in San Francisco. During this period, many critics began to link Gunn with Ted Hughes, who had attended Cambridge just after Gunn. The two were considered the founders of a new school of violence in poetry, containing aggressive images and amoral subjects. Gunn's next book, My Sad Captains (1961) is divided in half. The first half further developed the "heroic manner" of The Sense of Movement, and the second experimented with freer syllabic verse.

With the publication of his third poetry collection and several years of steady teaching at Berkeley, Gunn became an established member of the American poetry scene. He no longer considered himself an Englishman abroad. Ironically, when Gunn returned to London from mid-1964 until mid-1965, he experienced a period of considerable productivity. He collaborated with his brother Ander, an accomplished photographer, on Positives (1966), a book of photographs and verse captions. The year in England also allowed him to complete his long poetic sequence, "Misanthropos," which later appeared in his next collection of poems, Touch (1967). This volume revealed Gunn's mastery of open form and his developing humanistic outlook.

In 1966, with the support of a Rockefeller Grant, Gunn gave up a tenured position at Berkeley. He believed that full-time teaching was not conducive to writing poetry. His experimentation with the drug LSD led to Moly (1971), the work of which Gunn "was most proud." Its themes include "metamorphosis, evolving identity, and the physical world as paradise" (Clive Wilmer, "Gunn, Thomson William (Thom) [1929-2004]," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, [, accessed 29 July 2009]). Also in 1971, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In 1972, Gunn purchased a house in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and, with Kitay and other men, lived in what Clive Wilmer has characterized as a "gay commune." 1976 marked the release of his sixth collection, Jack Straw's Castle, in which he openly revealed his sexual orientation and explored the darker side of the life he had explored in Moly . Gunn received the prestigious W. H. Smith Award in 1979 for his Selected Poems 1950-1975 (1979). In 1982, he released The Passages of Joy, a seventh collection of original poetry, which included historical figures and gay characters and celebrated friendship. The essay collection, The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography also appeared in 1982. The Man with Night Sweats, for which he received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, appeared in 1992. This work consists of a sequence of elegies for friends lost in the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. In 1994, he published the widely celebrated Collected Poems and received a MacArthur Fellowship.

His last book, Boss Cupid appeared in 2000, about the time he retired from part-time teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. Thom Gunn died of heart failure on April 25, 2004, in his home in San Francisco, CA.

From the guide to the Thom Gunn papers, 1951-1983, 1951-1965, (Literature and Rare Books)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Sitwell, Edith, 1887-1964. Autograph letter signed : Renishaw Hall [near Sheffield], to Jane Clark, 1958 Sept. 14. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf Sky Gilbert Collection. Four Different Kinds of Water, or, Life Without Muscles / a theatrical fantasy inspired by the paintings of David Hockney ; poetry by Thom Gunn ; scenes by Sky Gilbert - script. University of Guelph. McLaughlin Library
referencedIn Coleman Dowell Papers, 1925-1993 Fales Library & Special Collections
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. Collage from the office walls of poet Thom Gunn [graphic]. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Parnassus: poetry in review records, 1971-1996 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
creatorOf Thom Gunn papers, 1951-1983, 1951-1965 University of Maryland (College Park, Md.). Libraries
referencedIn Jupiter Recordings Ltd. Jupiter Recordings Ltd. records, 1955-1970 (majority 1958-1963) University of Maryland (College Park, Md.). Libraries
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. [Manuscript notebook] / T. Gunn. Amherst College. Library
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. Office files of The American Poetry Review, 1979. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
creatorOf Personal and writers' correspondence Gregory-Hamilton British Library
referencedIn Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis papers, Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
creatorOf Sky Gilbert Collection. Life Without Muscles / inspired by the paintings of David Hockney ; poetry by Thom Gunn ; written and directed by Sky Gilbert, 1983 - house program. University of Guelph. McLaughlin Library
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. Photographs from the Thom Gunn papers [graphic]. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Cleverdon, Douglas. Papers, 1953-1973. Indiana University
referencedIn Records. Libraries Australia
creatorOf MS Mus. 1530. Michael Hurd Papers: Letters from correspondents Dehn-Hughes; 1950-1999, n.d.ff. 160. 360 x 275mm.includes:ff. 1-12. Michael Hurd, composer and author: Paul Edward Dehn, writer: Letters from Paul Edward Dehn to Michael Hurd: 1950-1955. ..., 1950-1999 British Library
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. Autograph and typed letters signed (ca. 26) : San Antonio, Texas, etc., to Oscar Mellor, 1953-1956. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Uncollected Poems British Library
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. Typed letter signed : San Francisco, to Lee Smith, 1988 June 21. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn The Review of Contemporary Fiction/Dalkey Archive Press : records, 1980-1990 Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. Thom Gunn papers, circa 1930-2004 (bulk 1950-2004). UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Postcards from Thom Gunn British Library
referencedIn Jack W. C. Hagstrom (AC 1955) Correspondence with or about Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, Marianne Moore, Dave Smith and Richard Wilbur, 1958-2002 Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
creatorOf Randall, Belle,. Belle Randall collection of Thom Gunn letters, 1960-2006. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Writings and enclosed material by others, Gunn-Heaney, approximately 1992 British Library
creatorOf Woodberry Poetry Room (Harvard College Library). Poems, 1896-1967. Houghton Library
creatorOf Thom Gunn papers, 1951-1983, 1951-1965 University of Maryland (College Park, Md.). Libraries
creatorOf Thom Gunn papers, 1930-2004, bulk 1950-2004 Bancroft Library
creatorOf Poetry Book Society. Poetry Book Society records, 1962-1970 (majority 1966-1970) University of Maryland (College Park, Md.). Libraries
referencedIn Donald Davie papers, 1926-1995, 1970-1990 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Chambers, Douglas. Douglas Chambers papers. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
referencedIn New Directions Publishing records Houghton Library
referencedIn Additional poems, 1896-1967. Houghton Library
referencedIn Stanford, Donald E. (Donald Elwin), 1913-1998. Donald E. Stanford papers, 1933-1985. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn John Hollander Papers, circa 1950-2007 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Rich, Adrienne Cecile. Papers, 1927-1999 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Rothenberg, Jerome, 1931-. Jerome Rothenberg papers, 1944-1985. University of California, San Diego, UC San Diego Library; UCSD Library
referencedIn New Yorker records New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Woodberry Poetry Room collection of poems, 1896-1967 Houghton Library
creatorOf Parker, Derek. Collection, 1955-1970. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. Thom Gunn letters : San Francisco, Calif., to John Haffenden, 1979-1980. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Poetry Book Society. Poetry Book Society records, 1962-1970 (majority 1966-1970) University of Maryland (College Park, Md.). Libraries
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. Thom Gunn letters, 1968-1969. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Jordan Davies. Papers, 1979-1987. Washington University in St. Louis, .
referencedIn Unterecker, John, 1922-1989. Papers, 1961-1987. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn Woodberry Poetry Room (Harvard College Library) poetry readings, 1931- (ongoing). Woodberry Poetry Room, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
creatorOf Gunn, Thom. Thom Gunn manuscripts of poems, 1952-1984. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn John Eugene Unterecker Papers, 1961-1987 Columbia University. Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Lewis, Janet, 1899-1998. Janet Lewis papers, 1964-1989. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Thom Gunn Bibliography Papers, 1940-2006 Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
referencedIn Edward James Hughes Papers, 18 Dec 1890-20 Mar [2005] British Library: Western Manuscripts
creatorOf Moss, Howard, 1922-1987. Papers, ca. 1935-1987, bulk (1961-1987). New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Felver, Christopher, 1946-. Christopher Felver portraits of poets, authors, and artists [graphic] / photographed by Christopher Felver. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf A. W. RUSSELL AND RUTH PITTER CORRESPONDENCE. Vol. III (ff. 183). Correspondence of A. W. Russell; 1967-1969, n.d. The names of the writers and recipients are given in the index to the present catalogue.includes:ff. 1-11 John Leslie Thomas Arlott, wr..., 1967-1969 British Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Bunting, Basil. person
associatedWith Burden, Carter, person
associatedWith Chambers, Douglas. person
associatedWith Cleverdon, Douglas. person
associatedWith Davie, Donald. person
associatedWith Duncan, Robert Edward, 1919- person
associatedWith Fantasy Press. corporateBody
associatedWith Felver, Christopher, 1946- person
associatedWith Gilbertson, Richard. person
associatedWith Gunn, Ander. person
associatedWith Haffenden, John. person
associatedWith Hagstrom, Jack W. C. person
associatedWith Hall, Donald, 1928- person
associatedWith Hollander, John. person
correspondedWith Jordan Davies. corporateBody
correspondedWith Jupiter Recordings Ltd. corporateBody
associatedWith Larkin, Philip. person
associatedWith Lewis, Janet, 1899-1998. person
associatedWith Lowell, Robert, 1917-1977. person
associatedWith Mellor, Oscar, person
associatedWith Moss, Howard, 1922-1987. person
associatedWith New Directions Publishing Corp. corporateBody
correspondedWith New Yorker Magazine, Inc corporateBody
associatedWith Olson, Charles, 1910-1970. person
associatedWith Online Archive of California. corporateBody
associatedWith Parker, Derek. person
correspondedWith Parnassus: poetry in review corporateBody
associatedWith Pinsky, Robert. person
associatedWith Poetry Book Society. corporateBody
associatedWith Pound, Ezra, 1885-1972. person
correspondedWith Randall, Belle, person
associatedWith Rich, Adrienne Cecile. person
associatedWith Rothenberg, Jerome, 1931- person
associatedWith Scwires, Norman. person
associatedWith Scwires, Norman. person
associatedWith Sitwell, Edith, 1887-1964. person
associatedWith Sky Gilbert Collection. corporateBody
associatedWith Sky Gilbert Collection. corporateBody
associatedWith Smith, Lee, person
associatedWith Stanford, Donald E. (Donald Elwin), 1913-1998. person
associatedWith University of California, Berkeley. Dept. of English corporateBody
associatedWith University of California, Berkeley. Dept. of English corporateBody
associatedWith Unterecker, John, 1922-1989. person
associatedWith Winters, Yvor, 1900-1968. person
associatedWith Woodberry Poetry Room (Harvard College Library). corporateBody
associatedWith Wordsworth, William, 1770-1850. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
California--San Francisco
English poetry
Poets, English
Poets, English
Poets, English
Poets, English
Gay authors
Gay men
Gay men
Gay men's writings


Birth 1929-08-29

Death 2004-04-25





Ark ID: w6zw1kwj

SNAC ID: 23520876