Thomson William Gunn, August 29 1929 -- April 25 2004
Link to pdf file of The Guardian obituary
Link to pdf file of the New York Times obituary
Thom Gunn, the British-born poet who made San Francisco his home for 40
years, and wrote poems that combined mastery of form with a contemporary
frankness and subject matter, died Sunday night in San Francisco. He was 74.
Mr. Gunn died in his sleep at home and was discovered at 9 p.m., said his
partner of 52 years, Mike Kitay. "I'm thinking it was probably a heart
attack, " Kitay said, "but the medical examiner won't know the cause of
death for weeks."
Members of the literary community reacted yesterday with shock at Mr. Gunn's
sudden death. "I thought he was possibly the best living poet in English,"
said Wendy Lesser, an author and editor of the literary journal the
Threepenny Review. "Unlike most poets, he was equally at home in rhyme and
non- rhyme, in free verse and patterned rhythms. He had a quiet, modest,
almost impersonal voice as a poet, but every poem he wrote was recognizably
his -- and his poems about death, particularly about deaths from AIDS, are
Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. poet laureate and professor at Boston
University, e-mailed his thoughts on Mr. Gunn from Berlin: "His poems attain
a cool clarity, an ability to be morally discerning but not judgmental;
amused but engaged." By doing so, Pinsky said, they "reflect the man's
generosity of spirit; his wickedly funny but forgiving skepticism about
literary fashions and blowhard academic critics; his kind acceptance of many
kinds of people."
"There was a special quality that had to do with the underside of life,"
said poet Philip Levine. "The characters who walked through Thom's poems --
they were everybody. He had such an affinity for the odd man out, the non-
belonger, the despised, the downtrodden. He had this sympathy and insight,
and he really humanized these people and made them loveable in his poems."
Vital and spry and endlessly youthful, "looking less like a retired
professor than an emeritus rock-star" as a local critic wrote, Mr. Gunn was
an enthusiastic advocate of his adopted city and shared a shingled home in
Cole Valley that he bought in 1971 with a $3,300 down payment.
From 1958 to 1966 and from 1973 to 1990 he taught at UC Berkeley, commuting
by bus. But he gave up a tenured position because he couldn't bear to attend
Mr. Gunn was the recipient of many literary awards -- the Forward Prize,
England's largest poetry prize, in 1992; a $369,000 MacArthur Fellowship for
lifetime achievement in poetry, in 1993; and last year the prestigious David
Cohen British Literature Prize -- but he assiduously rejected the stuffy
attitudes and behaviors of academia.
In spirit, Kitay said, he remained an "outlaw." He wore leather when he
lectured at Cal, identified with biker culture (and briefly owned a
motorcycle), tried LSD, wrote poems extolling the gay bathhouse culture of
the '70s and was an avid fan of "The Simpsons," "NYPD Blue" and "Friends."
He disliked snob-constructed divisions separating "high culture" from "low
"He was always proud, as I was, that we would go hear the Grateful Dead play
in Golden Gate Park. We loved all that," said Kitay. He was a displaced
Englishman "of decorous, skillful, metrical verse," wrote the young English
poet Glyn Maxwell, "who had for his own reasons become absorbed into an
alien culture that gave him alien subjects (like sex), alien backdrops (like
sunshine) and, most vexing of all, made his forms melt on the page."
Mr. Gunn was born in Gravesend, England, on Aug. 29, 1929. His father,
Herbert, was a Scottish merchant seaman who became a journalist. His mother,
Ann Charlotte, also a journalist, was an independent spirit who encouraged
Mr. Gunn's writing.
In an interview, Mr. Gunn said his parents divorced when he was 8 or 9. His
mother, to whom he was close, committed suicide when he was 15. He and his
younger brother, Ander, found the body, but Mr. Gunn wasn't able to write
about it until 1992, in the poem "The Gas-poker."
Forty-eight years ago
-- Can it be forty-eight
Since then? -- they forced the door
Which she had barricaded
With a full bureau's weight
Lest anyone find, as they did,
What she had blocked it for.
Mr. Gunn studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1953. He was
an early success, recognized by the critical press as part of "The
Movement," a group of poets including Philip Larkin, Kinglsey Amis and
Donald Davie. He was 25 when his first book, "Fighting Terms," was
Instead of staying on in England and reaping the rewards of early acclaim,
Mr. Gunn moved to California soon after "Fighting Terms" was published in
order to be with Kitay, an American he had met at Cambridge. For decades,
Kitay remained frequent inspiration for Mr. Gunn's work, such as the love
poems "Thoughts on Unpacking," "The Separation," "Touch" and "Hug." In a
later poem, "In Trust," Mr. Gunn reflected on the couple's abiding bond,
lasting through frequent separations:
As you began
You'll end the year with me.
We'll hug each other while we can.
Work or stray while we must.
Nothing is, or will ever be,
Mine, I suppose. No one can hold a heart,
But what we hold in trust
We do hold, even apart.
"He wrote often about San Francisco," said Lesser, "about homeless people he
had seen on the street, or the beauty of landscape, or what it felt like to
be a taxi driver in the city, even though he himself didn't know how to
Mr. Gunn also wrote about his unconventional communal household: For years
he and Kitay shared their home with close friends Bill Schuessler and Bob
Bair. Another member of the acquired family, Jim Lay, died of AIDS in 1986.
Mr. Gunn was HIV-negative.
"He loved his household and the fact that we ate together," Kitay said.
"People were always astonished that we each had our own cooking nights."
"He had a terrific sense of humor," said Levine, whose association with Mr.
Gunn dates back to Stanford University in the '60s. "He was a very pleasant
guy to be with. Very physical, demonstrative."
"He was a lovely person, always interesting and fun," Lesser said. "A great
gossip, but a bit taken aback by his own ability to make nasty comments, so
that he was always modifying them with kinder remarks. He had an excellent
memory and could remember, for instance, the names of the characters in the
books his mother read him when he was a child.
"I will remember him as a dear friend who shaped my life in literature," she
said, "and who made me understand how decent and satisfying and un-
careerist the writing life could be."
Mr. Gunn is survived by Kitay; his brother, Ander, a photographer; an aunt,
Catherine, who helped raise him after his mother's death; a niece,
Charlotte; a nephew, Will; a grandniece, Emma; and a grandnephew, Joe.
(forwarded by Thomas Evans)