Poetry must be magnificently achieved, or it is negligible. Few writers manage to sustain the special verbal and emotional intensity that poetry requires across their whole career. Even great poets, like William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, often falter after a decade or two of extraordinary writing. But Thom Gunn, San Francisco’s best living poet, has kept writing in top form for five decades. Although he began with such youthful ferocity that he seemed destined to burn out early, his later work has only grown in scope and power. No other poet has so vividly captured so much of Bay Area experience—from San Francisco street life to the surrounding natural world.
Gunn’s particular genius has been to embody the human and artistic contradictions of his age. Reading his extravagantly diverse Collected Poems (1994), one finds poems on LSD, video games, and street hustlers next to lyrics on Catholic saints, Keats, and Caravaggio—all of them not only perfectly achieved but recognizably drawn from the same imagination. Gunn is the prince of paradox, the quintessential San Franciscan who still holds a British passport, a Romantic entranced by classical control, an experimentalist who never renounced rhyme and meter, and anti-authoritarian populist with mandarin standards.
When Gunn, who will read his poems at the Herbst Theater this month, first came to the Bay Area in 1954, he was only twenty-five but had already published a celebrated book of poems. Having won a writing fellowship at Stanford, the young gay poet with “a promiscuous love of experience” studied with the famously rigorous Yvor Winters. Gunn’s already incisive style sharpened under Winters’s formalist tutelage, but his tone and subject kept their rebellious edge. His second book, for instance, began with a poem in rhymed iambic pentameter stanzas about a motorcycle gang on the move.
Gunn’s greatest moment as a poet came at his most difficult time—the AIDs epidemic that devastated San Francisco. In one month alone he lost four close friends. Out of this personal and public crisis grew The Man with the Night Sweats (1992), which will probably stand as the central poetic testament of those plague years. While most AIDS poetry relied on naked grief and raw emotion, Gunn’s tough lyric meditations are simultaneously realistic and transcendent, as in his title poem, which begins, “I wake up cold, I who / Prospered through dreams of heat / Wake to their residue, / Sweat, and a clinging sheet.”
Now 70, Gunn retired last spring from U.C. Berkeley where he taught intermittently over forty years. (He willingly gave up tenure in 1966 to be free to teach under his own terms.) Looking less like a retired professor than an emeritus rock-star, Gunn still lives, as he has for decades, in the Cole Valley district. Casual, worldly, and observant, Gunn is not defiantly youthful but effortlessly ageless—not unlike the city that has been his muse.
First published in San Francisco Magazine (December 1999)