Edmund Gordon

Sun, sex and acid: Thom Gunn in California

When the celebrated British poet moved to San Francisco in 1954 he wrote ecstatically about his marvellous new life. But was he protesting too much?

Sun, sex and acid: Thom Gunn in California
Thom Gunn, photographed in San Francisco in 1996. Credit: Chris Felver/Bridgeman Images
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The Letters of Thom Gunn

Edited by Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer

Faber, pp. 734, £40

San Francisco is a fantastic place... it’s terribly sunny... I am having a splendid hedonistic time here... I find myself continually going to marvellous orgies where I meet unbelievably sexy people... I dropped acid for Christmas Day... had sex for SIX HOURS... Then to New York, which I’ve never enjoyed so much... Some of the people I met introduced me to cocaine (one of the people was a singer for a pop group called Looking Glass), and that is a fine drug... Life is such fun here... I had an extraordinary three-way with two guys I met in a bar... I am really pretty happy... I’ve been doing a lot of nice acid this year... It was absolutely brilliant — a five-way on my 64th birthday. Age is apparently exactly the same as youth... I can hardly imagine a life more to my taste than mine.

Reading The Letters of Thom Gunn in locked-down London — the rain pummelling the windows, my children interrupting me every few pages with another querulous demand or howling grievance — I did sometimes wonder if I was wringing the absolute maximum amount of pleasure from my own life. Gunn was such a dynamic, stylish figure that it’s hard not to feel a little dull by comparison. His early work, collected in books such as Fighting Terms (1954) and The Sense of Movement (1957), is as sleek and subtly engineered as a flick knife, and he looks, in photos from those years, like he might well have been carrying one (all denims and leathers and Teddy Boy glower).

After leaving Cambridge in 1953 he swiftly established a reputation as one of the leading British poets of an exceptional generation, his only real peers being Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. But a steady plod towards the literary establishment didn’t interest him much, and the following year he moved to California with his partner Mike Kitay. His more free-form later work, especially Moly (1971), much of which was written under the influence of LSD, and his Forward Prize-winning collection The Man with Night Sweats (1992), with its heart-rending elegies for friends who’d died of Aids, brought him considerable fame, and in 1994 he was offered the Queen’s Medal for Poetry (he turned it down). He died in 2004, just shy of his 75th birthday, from heart failure occasioned by what the coroner described as ‘acute polysubstance abuse’.

A criticism that’s sometimes made of Gunn’s work is that it lacks a central personality — or exhibits only the ‘donned impersonality’ that he observed (in his great poem ‘On the Move’) in the members of motorcycle gangs. The same can’t quite be said about his letters: he’s a marvellously warm and witty correspondent, and we get a strong sense of his temperament, his principles and his enthusiasms and aversions.

But there is an impregnable poise to his epistolary voice, an emotional continence that sometimes — as in the eerily formal note he wrote his stepmother following his father’s death in 1962 — verges on chilliness. The closest he comes to displaying any real vulnerability is in his letters to Kitay, whom he showers with tenderness and endearments (‘my sweetheart’, ‘my darling baby’, ‘my beloved husky man’), and on whose company he clearly depends. But even there, the prevailing tone is more cerebral than emotional. ‘You always credit me with lack of feeling because I don’t show feeling,’ he writes to Kitay in 1963. ‘I’m sure my feeling threshold is much higher than yours, but also I don’t particularly want to show it.’

The criticisms that Gunn most frequently makes of others are that they’re egotistical or self-pitying, and he’s always on his guard against these vices in himself:

This is a highly egotistical letter, so I’d better stop before there’s any more of it...Quite an egotistical letter, this. Throw it away ... At least I’m not falling into Self Pity. Barrenness, yes, but not self pity... I try not to complain about anything ...

And no wonder: if he’d entertained self-pity for a moment, you get the sense that it might have consumed him. On 28 December 1995, he wrote to his brother: ‘Typing that date, I realise it is 51 years since the event that altered our lives.’ He meant their mother’s suicide, by gas, when they were 14 and 12 respectively. He only once approached this traumatic episode in his work— in ‘The Gas Poker’, published in his final book, Boss Cupid (2000) — and then only by writing about himself in the third person.

Aside from that oblique remark to his brother when he was 64, and a callow, blustering joke to an aunt when he was 15 (‘I woke up in the morning feeling quite prepared to follow Mother to the grave!’), it hardly features in his correspondence either. But it’s tempting to suspect that his entire life was constructed so as to avoid dealing with the emotional fallout. Whatever else sex and drugs might be, they’re always holidays from ordinary feeling — as Gunn was self-critical enough to recognise. ‘I like loud music, bars, and boisterous men,’ he writes in the sequence ‘Transients and Residents’, before coolly stepping back to comment:

You may from this conclude I like the things

That help me if not lose then leave behind,

What else, the self.

The suggestion of unfathomable pain lurking behind Gunn’s ‘donned impersonality’ is, as Michael Nott writes in his shrewd introduction to this book, one of the most seductive qualities of his work. But the final impression that these letters make is of a life so skewed towards self-protectiveness that — however varied its experiences and intense its pleasures — it can’t truly be said to have been lived to the full.