Thom Gunn

A book of letters written by the late poet Thom Gunn has come out.

When I was in the last year or so of college at UC Berkeley – 1981 or 1982 — I took a writing class from Gunn, who taught in the school’s English department.

I count it as among my greater wasted opportunities in life. Not for anything Gunn did. I just was not prepared for a class with such an erudite and talented guy.

Gunn was British and considered then one of the great rising stars of UK poetry in the 1950s when his first book was published. A gay man, he then moved to the US, to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood, which he apparently viewed as a revelation of sexual freedom, and where he lived for the rest of his life. His poetry focused on, among other things, sex and drug use, all in well-crafted rhyme and meter. He was a master craftsman above all. The Man With Night Sweats was considered his best — a book of poems about friends who’d died of AIDS, which I bought and read long ago.

One of the beauties of attending Berkeley was the exposure to people of Gunn’s stature.

I was at the time I took his class unsure of anything I might want to do in life. My writing was mediocre. It wasn’t until I found work several years later at the Stockton Record, covering crime and writing three, four, five stories a day, with aggressive editing, that it improved.

I don’t think I’d read much of his poetry up to then. And I can’t remember what I wrote for him, other than a short story, the plot of which was so embarrassing I won’t even tell you what it is. Suffice to say that the main character jumps off a building, perhaps depressed at being written into such a lame story. The idea was then current among youthful writers that only when someone commits suicide in the story is the writing deep enough to be considered good.  Anyway, he mentioned how many of our stories ended in the narrator’s suicide. I can’t imagine how painful our work must have been for him to read.

Later, I went to ask him if my work didn’t warrant more than a C in his class, and he said no. I’m sure he forgot about me five minutes after submitting my grade for the quarter.

(Here’s a great piece about his life and death, with excellent examples of his poetry throughout.)

So I feel good that I’ve become a better writer than I was able to show him, more focused in life than I was at that time, and that I was able to create something for myself in writing that never occurred to me when I took his class.

I moved to the Haight for three years after college and saw him sitting on the stairs to his house in the sun a time or two. He was, I read, agonized by the way aging diminished his sexual and writing energy. I’m sorry to read that he was apparently a heavy user of crystal meth as a spur to maintain his sex drive the last years of his life. He died in 2004 of a heart attack at home in the Haight, at 74, due to “acute polysubstance abuse.”

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