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Thom Gunn Gets His

Back in the classroom postretirement, the poet still has a penchant for edginess.

Peter Stember

By Cynthia Haven

Thom Gunn. The poet in a black leather jacket. The bad boy of Anglo-American poetry. So the image goes.

But on this particular late-summer afternoon, the poet with the salt-and-pepper crewcut is wearing jeans and a faded green-and-black tartan flannel shirt and jeans. He is cheery and slightly round-shouldered as he pads downstairs to answer the door at his Upper Haight district apartment. It’s a week from his 74th birthday.

Cast aside images of the unsmiling, skeptical cover photo by Mapplethorpe on Gunn’s Collected Poems, or the hard-as-bullets Steve McQueen-type photos snapped by his brother Ander. Despite his reputation for not suffering fools gladly, this is a kinder, gentler Thom Gunn.

The second-floor flat is startlingly outré, and very San Francisco. The walls are covered with a large neon sign, apparently scavenged from a defunct bar or café, and eye-grabbing metal advertising from earlier decades of the last century. “It’s endless,” he had warned climbing the stairs, where rows of larger-than-life bottles ladder up like a halted assembly line—Pepsi, Nesbitts, Hires, 7-Up and Coca-Cola.

An old Wurlitzer jukebox is pushed against the far wall. It calls to mind a line from “Elvis Presley,” one of his most cited poems: “We keep in touch with a mere dime.. . .”

Gunn, born in Gravesend, Kent, and reared in London, has lived in San Francisco for more than 40 years, arriving at Stanford on a writing fellowship in 1954. He shares this apartment with longtime companion Mike Kitay and a few more friends.

“No other poet has so vividly captured so much of Bay Area experience—from San Francisco street life to the surrounding natural world,” says Dana Gioia, ’73, MBA ’77, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He calls Gunn an “antiauthoritarian populist with mandarin standards.”

The Presley poem makes Gunn wince. “It was original to write that poem at the time; it swiftly became unoriginal.” Still, it was the only poem—and he has produced some 30 volumes—quoted in full last March by the Guardian in its announcement that Gunn had won the £40,000 David Cohen British literature award, sharing the honor with novelist Beryl Bainbridge. Gunn was the first poet to receive the lifetime achievement prize whose previous winners include V.S. Naipaul, Harold Pinter, Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing.

“It was a great surprise, because I never heard of it,” he says. How will he spend it? “Oh, frivolities,” he says offhandedly. “Drink and drugs and presents for my friends.”

Gunn has been the man-of-the-moment on more than one occasion: first, beginning in the 1950s, as the poet who wrote about motorcycle gangs and rock stars in iambic pentameter. “He is clearly England’s most important export since Auden,” proclaimed the Christian Science Monitor. “Mr. Gunn is obviously aiming at work on a larger moral scale than most of his contemporaries,” said London’s Times Literary Supplement. Then, in later decades, came denunciation for “hippy silliness and self-regarding camp” from the likes of Britain’s Poetry Review.

Opinion shifted again with the onslaught of AIDS in the 1980s.

Gunn was already an established poet—but he happened also to be a gay poet living in San Francisco at the time the great disease swept over the population, taking its toll among his friends, at one point four deaths in one month.

Gunn responded with some of his most moving elegies, a poignant catalog of the dead and dying chronicled in such poems as “To the Dead Owner of a Gym,” “In Time of Plague,” “Words for Some Ash.” And “To a Dead Graduate Student”:

Your pain still hangs in air,
Sharp motes of it suspended;
The voice of your despair—
That also is not ended;

When near your death a friend
Asked you what he could do,
‘Remember me,’ you said.
We will remember you.

“As my friends died, I wrote about them. I was aware the number was adding up,” says Gunn. “We were a very protected generation. During World War II, penicillin was discovered. Things people died of in my parents’ generation, no one died of now. We didn’t naturally come across death so often.”

Gunn retired in 1999 after 40 years teaching at Berkeley (where he relinquished tenure in the ’60s to be free to work on his own terms). But on a bright autumn afternoon last quarter, in a dingy, nondescript classroom on the Stanford Quad, a dozen fortunate students are getting instruction they will long remember. Gunn is teaching The Occasions of Poetry, from 3:15 to 5:45 p.m. Wednesdays. With his trademark black leather jacket slung over his chair, he gives them Ezra Pound’s Canto XLVII as a reading assignment. “It’s enough to make one consider whether one wants this course or not,” he mutters.

“What I’m asking you to do is give it a chance,” he exhorts the class. “Read it four times. If possible, aloud. Read it the following day.”

Gunn himself remembers some inspiring teaching decades ago on the Farm, when he was a student of poet and critic Yvor Winters. He finds it impossible to describe Winters’s effect on his own work. “It’s like saying ‘What influence did your mother have on you?’ ” he says. “Winters was taken very much as a father figure by all the students who admired him—one student who fell in love presented the young man to Winters for approval. Winters was appalled. I hope they got married and are still very happy.”

As the students discuss the “edgy” names of characters in one of the poems they are reading, the rolled-up cuffs on Gunn’s white shirt inch upward, revealing one end of the long black panther tattooed on his arm. Clearly, Gunn is a little edgy himself.

For example, his most recent collection, Boss Cupid (2000), includes five controversial “songs,” as he calls them, about cannibalistic serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. By comparison, the tattoo is ho-hum; it is the artistry of renowned Lyle Tuttle of Seventh Street, who tattooed Janis Joplin, he explains. Figuring that he was probably the only instructor at Berkeley so decorated, he says, “in the third week of term, I’d roll up my sleeves, and my students loved it.They thought it was shocking.”

For this class, Gunn has chosen not to focus on the ancient greats, but rather a very young living one, Philadelphia poet Daisy Fried, whose collection She Didn’t Mean to Do It is one of two texts selected for study. It’s typical of Gunn’s hipness. “He becomes more adventuresome as he grows older and is not afraid to fall on his ass trying out something different,” poet August Kleinzaher wrote of Gunn in Threepenny Review.

Gunn says Fried is “sexy and energetic and clever.” The 20-something Fried, who has only had an epistolary friendship with Gunn to date, praises the elder poet’s poems. “They’re contentious and restless at the same time that they’re economical and restrained—how does he do that? They’re poems comfortable with the street and also with literature,” says Fried. “I get this tremendous feeling of the poet in the world, in proximity to humanity, unfiltered.”

One of the students in the class describes Fried’s poetry as “accessible,” and Gunn pounces softly, edgily, like the panther on his arm. “Accessible? A newspaper is accessible. That doesn’t make it worth reading. Lots of crap is accessible,” he says nonchalantly, and goads the class for more precision.

Afterwards, Gunn grabs the leather jacket and heads for the Oval. But not to tear off in some trendy vehicle. The San Franciscan-Londoner does not drive. Part of the deal he made with Stanford includes a large lavender car that will chauffeur him back to the Haight—casually, effortlessly steering him through the infamous rush-hour traffic.

CYNTHIA HAVEN writes on arts and letters for Stanford.

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