Thom Gunn devoted himself to a life of hedonism…and horticulture

A very promiscuous poet: Thom Gunn left Cambridge to embrace the freewheeling counter-culture of San Francisco. And as a new biography reveals, even as the Aids crisis unfolded, he devoted himself to a life of hedonism…and horticulture

  • Biography gives insight into gay world of San Francisco before Aids epidemic
  • Thom Gunn from Kent, moved to the U.S after falling for an American student
  • Poet penned letters about his life including drug addiction and sex sessions 



Edited by Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer (Faber £40, 800 pp)

Revered by trendy English teachers, the poet Thom Gunn was always cool.

Cruising round San Francisco on his Harley-Davidson in tight Levi’s and a leather biking jacket, writing exquisitely crafted poems from a daringly gay perspective, he brought a whiff of Californian subversiveness into the British classroom of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He was the ideal poet for exams, as you could always waffle on about his perfect scansion.

If our headmasters or headmistresses had read his collected letters, I’m not sure they would have allowed his poems anywhere near fifth-formers.

Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer have compiled letters written by Thom Gunn (pictured) for a biography that gives insight into the gay world of San Francisco before the Aids epidemic

Gunn was perpetually high on drugs, and after hallucinating for extended periods, addicted to six-hour or sometimes 12-hour sex sessions with men he had only just met in leather bars, often several of them at once.

Of the male appendage, he wrote to one friend that they are all as unique and individual as snowflakes. He was speaking from limitless experience.

These letters certainly provide an eye-opening insight into the intoxicatingly (literally) liberal gay world of San Francisco in the years before, during and after the Aids epidemic.

Of a typical Thanksgiving at home: ‘I had Don staying with me, and also a splendid man from Los Angeles whom I’d met a few weeks before, a rather sexy university professor.

‘And then Don’s ex-lover and Cecil Beaton’s ex-lover, who are lovers for the moment, came over, and we had lots of Dexamyl and beer and turkey and apricot wine and grass. Waves of sheer love pulsed around and one by one we collapsed on the floor in sheer wiped-outness.’

He ushered in the New Year 1997 (when he was 68) with a drug and sex marathon with a 41-year-old.

To one friend he quoted words he’d seen on the wall of a gay bar: ‘We are the people our parents warned us against.’ This gives us a rare glimpse of his conventional English childhood, which he left firmly behind him and rarely talked about.

Born in Gravesend, Kent, in 1929 to middle-class divorcing parents, that childhood came to an abrupt end one morning in 1944 when he and his younger brother Ander found their mother dead in the kitchen, having taken her own life by inhaling gas.

Thom Gunn (pictured) who was born in Gravesend, Kent, in 1929, moved to the U.S after falling in love with an American student called Mike Kitay

The boys were taken under the wing of various aunts and friends until Gunn did national service and went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he fell in love with an American student called Mike Kitay. Kitay was the reason why Gunn travelled to the U.S. The pair would live together in San Francisco for the rest of Gunn’s life. ‘I love you so passionately, so utterly, my darling,’ he wrote to Mike. But not, as we’ve seen, monogamously. What paradise life could be for a young, successful gay poet in San Francisco in those pre-Aids years!

Taken on by Faber in 1956, the darling of the poetry establishment on both sides of the Atlantic, Gunn raked in money from teaching at American universities (mainly Berkeley) and giving lucrative poetry readings.

He and Mike bought a fine house with a big garden where they grew hollyhocks, poppies and foxgloves, as well as fruit and veg, and had an endless stream of mostly male friends to stay: a domestic paradise of friends and gardening, with a side-order of drugs.

Lots of his letters are full of all this — the simple pleasures of his daily life. As he wrote to his brother: ‘When I was little I hoped to have a really dramatic life, but Mother’s suicide changed all that.’

He can be hilariously rude about other writers. Auden is ‘a flabby dilettante, complacent and trite’. Lawrence Durrell’s poems are ‘a ghastly pretentious mess’. T.S. Eliot is ‘a bit dull most of the time’. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is ‘inconceivably awful’.

THE LETTERS OF THOM GUNN Edited by Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer (Faber £40, 800 pp)

It’s somehow typical of his good luck that he manages to get through the whole Aids epidemic — and barely toning down his sex life — without ever testing HIV positive.

Over a single month of 1986 he lost four friends, one of them, Charlie, aged just 30, and another, Jim, fading away to skeletal death upstairs in Gunn’s house. Gunn immortalised the terror of it all in his 1992 book of poems The Man With Night Sweats.

‘Their deaths have left me less defined,’ he wrote. Each death was a diminishment of the ones who didn’t die.

Yet as he cruised towards the millennium, gentrification took hold all round their neighbourhood, meaning he and Mike were sitting on a goldmine by the early 1990s, and Gunn was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship worth $369,000 (£264,000).

Not a bad life for a bookish, garden-loving, drug-addicted, quite lazy poet. He celebrated his 64th birthday with an orgy: ‘Absolutely brilliant.’

He wrote to his brother on the 51st anniversary of their mother’s death: ‘I can hardly imagine a life more to my taste than mine.’

Yet when he retired from teaching at Berkeley in 1998, he seemed to become rather a pitiful figure, sitting at home and lusting after the Latino workmen in the next-door yard who were enlarging the deck for some Yuppies.

He still liked being treated purely as a sex object by men such as bikers and truckers who had no idea that he was a minor celebrity. And still the sex went on — as well as the sudden windfalls. Aged 74, he was paid $80,000 (£57,000) to teach for one hour per day for one semester at Stanford University.

His last letter in this volume is to his brother in February 2004, who continued to send him marmalade from England every year. Two months later, Gunn would die of a drugs and alcohol overdose: ‘Acute polysubstance abuse.’

As one of the editors of these letters, Clive Wilmer, put it, it was ‘a chosen death, but chosen by a man who had earlier chosen life’.

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