To Dare a Future (on The Letters of Thom Gunn, edited by August Kleinzahler, Michael Nott, and Clive Wilmer)


In a 1995 letter to Belle Randall, Thom Gunn writes, “I’d say that the canon emerges largely through luck—the luck of posterity . . . Of course, I don’t rate LUCK or POSTERITY any more highly than you . . . would. It’s chancy business, and I am certain heaps of great talents have gotten lost for ever” (emphasis in the original). By any measure, Gunn has been lucky in his posterity. Since his death in 2004, there has been a flurry of publications on his life and literary production. His former student Joshua Weiner edited a collection of critical essays dedicated to his life and work, At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (2009). His friends have assembled two separate Selected Poems in the space of just ten years: the first, a slim volume, edited by August Kleinzahler in 2007, and the second, a more copious 2017 edition, with extensive biographical notes, edited by Clive Wilmer. Now, Wilmer, Kleinzahler, and Michael Nott have assembled The Letters of Thom Gunn, published in 2022. It is a monumental volume, running eight hundred pages in print, tracing Gunn’s life and career from childhood to old age. For those who already love Gunn’s poetry, it is a major event: a chance to reencounter a beloved, if elusive, literary figure on intimate terms. For those who have not yet absorbed the full force and importance of Gunn’s work, it stands to enrich and extend his legacy.

My description risks making The Letters sound more imposing than it is. Reading Gunn’s letters is a pleasure. His letters are full of wit and gossip. I read a good chunk of it at the beach this past summer. This may come as something of a surprise for readers who are only passingly familiar with Gunn’s poetry, for instance, who know him primarily through his AIDS elegies of the 1980s. They are indisputably great poems, some of the best of the century, in my opinion: formally precise, deeply felt, and exquisitely responsive to the lives that Gunn celebrates and mourns. But his poems are not—not only—elegant and reticent, formal and austere. Reading Gunn’s Collected Poems (1994), or either of the Selected Poems, one is struck by his mutability. This is a poet, after all, who studied with Yvor Winters in the 1950s, then befriended Robert Duncan in the 1960s; who wrote in strict iambic meters about taking LSD and celebrated the street life of San Francisco in slim free verse. 

In a 1989 interview with Jim Powell, Gunn argues that poets “should all be fertilizing each other. It’s not particularly profitable at this time to be separating ourselves into armed camps.” Gunn himself glides across the great poetic debates of the second half of the twentieth century, rarely troubling himself to resolve the conflicts between avant-garde and lyric traditions. And Gunn’s poems suit their occasions—rising to the austere task of memorializing the AIDS dead; equally ready to prowl the bath house. “Every now and again I ask myself whether I have any poetic theory,” Gunn comments in the same interview. “I suppose somebody could assemble one for me simply on the basis of my practice. I think it would be full of inconsistencies.” 

Nowadays, it’s refreshing to encounter a poet of such mobility, when many of our best poets are, like Gunn, moving fluidly across avant-garde and lyric modes. During his career, though, Gunn’s mobility seems to have discomfited some readers. In the 1980s, he notes in a letter to Douglas Chambers, “My inconsistencies trouble a lot of critics, I know, e.g. John Bayley, who sez I have no personality.” Gunn likely regarded Bayley’s complaint as a perverse compliment, confirmation that he had evaded the imperative to establish such a personality. In an autobiographical essay from the 1970s, he writes, “it has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.” It was a daring position to take in the 1970s during the ascendancy of confessionalism. Compared to Berryman or Lowell, Gunn’s voice is almost anonymous. He recedes into his subject matter. As he writes in a poem from the 1970s, “Transients and Residents”:

            In the letters that I send 

I imitate unconsciously the style 

Of the recipients: mimicking each friend,

I answer expectations, and meanwhile 

Can analyse, or drawl a page of wit, 

And range, depending on the friend addressed

From literary to barely literate. 

I manage my mere voice on postcards best.

This is characteristically modest; Gunn’s voice is rarely “mere.” Though he does not have the overbearing personality of a Berryman, his poems are distinctive, individual, even idiosyncratic. 

In its refusal to uphold the pieties of twentieth-century poetry, Gunn’s work is challenging, disruptive, sometimes disorienting. You will not easily mistake Gunn for any of his peers. His reputation has suffered for it. His fame peaked early, when, as Clive Wilmer writes, he was the “leather-jacketed existentialist hero the late 1950s required.” His prominence declined in the 1960s. A Cambridge-educated poet who had settled in San Francisco, he became too American for his British audience, and too formal for many American readers. After he came out in the mid-1970s, his books often received homophobic reviews, even from close friends. His reputation revived in the 1990s, following the publication of The Man with Night Sweats (1992), but often at the expense of a full recognition of his accomplishments. Kleinzahler summarizes the critical consensus: “after going to hell in America, squandering his poetic gifts, etc., Gunn was rehabilitated by the AIDS crisis and became an important poet once again.” Gunn thus remains arguably under-read, particularly the poems of his middle period. 

Likewise, his accomplishment remains arguably underappreciated. In a review of his 2017 Selected Poems, Jeffrey Myers found it necessary to proclaim that “this valuable edition places Gunn with the finest postwar British poets: Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill.” (The quote appears as a blurb for the U.S. edition of Wilmer’s Selected). It is telling that Myers would need to affirm Gunn’s position alongside Larkin and Heaney. Heaney and Larkin are well on their way to canonization. Gunn has proven more difficult to canonize, in part, because his work defies the categories through which we might canonize a twentieth-century poet—lyric, experimental, English, American, postmodernist, formalist, etc. This has been entirely to Gunn’s advantage. Gunn’s poetry has not yet sunk into canonicity: comfortable, recognizable, contained. Instead, it remains alive, expansive, teeming with possibility. Hence the profusion of posthumous publications. Readers and editors continue to return to Gunn’s work because we are not finished with it yet. The publication of The Letters of Thom Gunn might serve as a capstone, sealing the legacy of an important poet after a period in which his significance was in doubt. That is, sealing off Gunn’s legacy—resolving its contradictions, diminishing its mutability, enhancing its respectability. I suspect The Letters will have the opposite effect. As posthumous publications have accrued over the last twenty years Gunn has become, yes, a more important figure. But he has also become stranger, more dynamic, and, ultimately, more useful for poets writing today. 




By now, the broad outlines of Thom Gunn’s life are well known. (Readers who are new to Gunn will find a good review of the facts in Michael Nott’s introduction to The Letters.) From a distance, Gunn’s life has the character of a sustained adventure: a refusal to settle for anything less than a fullness of freedom and literary possibility. The reality, of course, was more mundane. Open The Letters at random and you will find Gunn describing the ordinary stuff of an everyday life. In a letter to the literary critic Tony Tanner from 1971, for instance, Gunn recounts the activities of his household: “It is 11p.m. and Mike and Bill are in the next room . . . I am on my bed just having finished your book and 2 beers.” We meet figures like Allan Noseworthy, the subject of Gunn’s 1984 elegy “Lament,” in their ordinary humanity. It’s hard not to be charmed by Gunn’s initial description of Noseworthy: “this 24 year old bar tender . . . flighty, highly strung, at times silly, but so good in every important sense . . . I’m not in love with him, let me add, though I love him a lot. On the other hand, I think I am in love with his Newfoundland.” It has the breathless energy of a schoolboy’s crush. But it is not so distant from the poetry as it might appear. Noseworthy’s dog becomes the speaker of “Yoko” in Jack Straw’s Castle (1976). And one hears, as if in a distant echo, Gunn’s description of Noseworthy in “Lament”: 

You lacked the necessary ruthlessness,

The soaring meanness that pinpoints success.

We loved that lack of self-love, and your smile, 

Rueful, at your own silliness.

Even in this moment of intense grief, there are the traces of Gunn’s early ebullience. For a poet as reticent as Gunn, this flood of personal detail comes as a revelation: one feels that one is meeting him for the first time. “I write about love, I write about friendship,” Gunn insists. In moments like this, one sees the way that love, friendship, and writing braid together to produce some of Gunn’s most distinctive and powerful work.

Yet, the editors caution, “this book does not pretend to be a biography and factual notes have been kept as concise as possible.” In part, the book’s biographical limitations come from the nature of its material. One writes letters to those who live at a distance, not those who share one’s daily life. There are no letters here to Robert Duncan, one of Gunn’s most important literary influences; as Nott notes, “he and Gunn lived . . . close to each other in San Francisco: they talked in person or over the phone.” For readers exhausted by Duncan’s voluminous correspondence with Denise Levertov and Charles Olson, this may come as a relief. Nor are there many letters to Gunn’s lifelong partner, Mike Kitay, apart from a burst in the 1960s, when Gunn was in San Francisco and Kitay working in New York.

The editors have further selected the letters to focus on Gunn’s literary life. (They note that this doorstopper only represents about ten percent of Gunn’s extant letters.) As Nott observes, “In the absence of a biography, it has been tempting to focus more on Gunn the man than Gunn the poet . . . [W]e . . . aim to offer a portrait of Gunn as a writer.” The Letters thus offers more than biographical detail, or salacious literary gossip—though there’s plenty of that too. A personal favorite: writing to Forrest Gander in the 1990s, Gunn proposes, “I would like sit down and talk with you for days. Another thing, I would like to get in a room with you, and lick you all over for days. Or whatever.” (I regret to inform the reader that Gander seems to have declined the invitation.) 

Instead, The Letters is a portrait of Gunn’s intellectual life, his questing engagement with the books he read and the books he wrote. One has the sense of standing alongside Gunn as he engages the problems and people who will occupy his life and poetry. In March 1954, for instance, Gunn writes to Tony White, “I go on admiring the existentialist authors, even if I can’t act completely in accordance with them—it’s my weakness as much as theirs.” He complains of Dostoevsky: “he’s one of the most poisonously persuasive of those who talk about rather than act.” There’s a touch here of naïve enthusiasm. A touch of literary fashion too. In another letter to White from the same period, Gunn announces, “So you see I’m still on the right lines as far as Thought goes.” He hastens to add: “And at least try to be as far as Life goes.” The addition is revealing. Beyond youthful enthusiasm or intellectual fashion, there’s an expectation—which Gunn applies as much to himself as to his idols—that ideas will shape the way one lives. One can draw a line from these letters to some of Gunn’s most famous poems from the 1950s, such as “On the Move,” where Gunn describes a motorcycle gang roaring past an open field. In his treatment, the motorcyclists become existentialist heroes: “Men manufacture both machine and soul, / And use what they imperfectly control / To dare a future from the taken routes,” he concludes. Reading The Letters, one often has this experience: a passage, casually tossed off amid other news, seems the seed of some question or problem that will grow into a poem. In reading it, one finds oneself returning to Gunn’s poems with a renewed sense of their meaningfulness. If “On the Move” risks a sense of abstraction, distant from the living reality of riding a motorcycle (or, for that matter, of confronting death), the letters to White remind us that for Gunn, these were issues of passionate intensity. 

“Passionate” is the word here. The poem is half Sartre, half Tom of Finland. The speaker gets lost in the “hum” of the motorcycles which “Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.” The motorcycle gang seems about to burst out of their leathers. “On the Move” suggests that the attraction of existentialism was, for the young Gunn, as much erotic as intellectual. In “Existentialism and Homosexuality,” an essay from At the Barriers, Alfred Corn notes,

Gunn . . . found in existentialism a philosophical justification for a sexual propensity. . . . Because he couldn’t in most social circumstances make his sexual orientation known, he was forced to “pose” as heterosexual. Making a virtue of necessity, Gunn could view this artificial persona as the springboard to assuming other poses not devised in response to legal or social coercion.

Reading The Letters, I often had this experience too. Bouncing between the collected poems and the letters, I’d pull down my copy of At the Barriers and flip through it, looking to confirm or challenge some sense of Gunn’s poetics. One might be best served by reading all three books in tandem, each enriching and extending the other. It helps that all three follow Gunn’s career chronologically, so that, moving between them one acquires a kaleidoscopic picture of the poet—the same ideas and experiences, reappearing in different forms and with different emphases. There are many Gunns to be found in these books and they resemble each other as brothers do, the family features rearranged, stretched, changed.

Corn says what the young Gunn can’t quite say, not yet. Existentialism is a language of liberation, however contingent and limited. Existentialism empowered Gunn “to dare a future” for himself—a queer future beyond “the taken routes.” With existentialism, it became possible to conceive a queer life in the intensely homophobic climate of the early 1950s, and, from there, to begin to conceive a queer poetry. Hence the emotive force of Gunn’s identification with the existentialists, his demand to live according to their precepts.

In a 1989 letter to A. E. Dyson, Gunn reflects, “sexuality HAS been of prime importance to me even when I seem to be speaking of something else. Nevertheless I am not only a sexual poet any more than Whitman or Isherwood are only sexual writers.” Point taken. But if Gunn’s intellectual project has a center, a single question or problem to which he returns over the course of his life, this is it: what would it mean to write a queer poetry? Gunn isn’t the only poet to ask this question in the twentieth century. But, as Brian Teare writes in “Our Dionysian Experiment: Three Theses on the Poetry of Thom Gunn,” Gunn’s struggle to develop a queer poetry mirrors the broader history of gay poetry in the second half of the twentieth century:

Gunn’s publishing career spans almost fifty years, from 1954 to 2000, seismic decades in the U.S.: McCarthyism, Civil Rights, Gay Liberation, AIDS, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and both Bush eras. Excluding selected and collected poems, he published roughly five full-length collections of poetry before Stonewall and five afterward, two of those after the full onset of the AIDS epidemic.

Gunn observed and participated in all the major moments in gay history over a fifty-year span. His poetry reflects the shifts in that history, though not in a simple or predictable way. Teare continues, 

an examination of Gunn’s notebooks reveals a more complex and ambivalent portrait of his relationship to pre- and post-Stonewall ideas of gay identity and community than a liberationist reading of Gunn’s work would suggest.

Teare describes Gunn’s progress toward a “gay literary politics” as “slow, slightly asynchronous.” He is, at times, out of step with the times. He does not cleanly renounce pre-Stonewall modes of gay life. (Indeed, the word “Stonewall” appears only once in The Letters, as an aside.) He struggles to endorse the very idea of a gay poetry. In an unpublished essay from the early 1980s, Gunn writes, “Very few poets have ever set out to be Gay Poets. . . . Why settle for part of the world when you can lay claim to the whole of it?” It is surprising to see Gunn make such an argument, given his enthusiastic participation in Gay Liberation—and given that his poems often openly celebrate queer sexuality. As Teare notes, “even after marching—on LSD and in full leathers—in New York City’s 1974 Gay Pride Parade, Gunn still had difficulty placing the terms ‘gay’ and ‘poetry’ next to each other without the terms cancelling each other out.” 

Teare’s essay is arguably the centerpiece of At the Barriers. It is an archival account of Gunn’s development as a poet, drawing on his notebooks, his published poems and unpublished drafts, and the evolving critical response to his work. It is also a deeply personal reflection on Teare’s own uneven development as a queer writer: 

Impossibly, it was possible that a boy could, first of all, grow up to be gay, and after that, become a writer; it never occurred to me that I’d have to ask myself what relationship my sexuality would have to my writing. . . . Had I access to each of Gunn’s books and to his notebooks as well, I could’ve read my way to an understanding of how I might slowly negotiate a relationship with being a poet, and later, a gay poet.

Teare’s essay does a great service by uncovering a “more complex and ambivalent portrait” of Gunn’s queer poetics. But the history that the essay offers has remained tantalizingly out of reach for readers who wish to encounter it themselves. The richness of Teare’s essay comes from the patience with which he reads Gunn’s archive. Most of Gunn’s readers have not been able to access his archive, and thus have not been able to confront this more complicated (and, potentially, more useful) Gunn on their own terms. The problems of access that Teare describes in the passage quoted above have remained acute. 

Until now, that is. Gunn’s notebooks are still unpublished. But his letters chart much of the same history. Across the letters, one finds Gunn wrestling with the tensions and contradictions Teare identifies in his essay. As early as 1952, when Gunn was in his early twenties, he writes to John Holmstrom: 

I feel I am as unreserved as I am competent to be in my poems: I only try to treat what I am sure I can deal with, and I think that my reserve is beginning to grow less. . . . To work within the limitations of one’s own sexual emotions can come later when I have tried out as many different ways as possible of expressing them. By this I don’t mean masks (in the sense of disguises) for homosexual passion; but I want to be able to write of other things, so that I can work out relationships between them and myself.

In this tortured passage, Gunn is torn between two imperatives. He wants to write without reserve on homosexual themes, yet he seems to fear that “to work within . . . one’s own sexual emotions” will be a “limitation”—that the queer poet must choose between being queer and being a poet. Gunn’s “difficulty placing the terms ‘gay’ and ‘poetry’ next to each other” is evidently deeply rooted. Similar reservations pursue Gunn through the early years of his career. Preparing for a 1956 BBC broadcast of his poems, Gunn proposed “The Allegory of the Wolf Boy” for the program. “It is about queerness—or rather a certain type of queerness,” he admits, “but I think it is acceptable, because the allegory applies equally to any person who lives one life and fails to connect to the life he really wants.” For the poem to be successful as a poem, Gunn seems to say, it would need to appeal to a straight audience, on that audience’s terms. 

The point is not to blame Gunn for wrestling with the homophobias of the period, internal and external. The Letters provides a frank account of the costs of writing queer poetry in the absence of a broad, popular political movement to support poetic innovation. The need for secrecy, allegory, camouflage, weighs on Gunn. In a 1961 letter to Kitay, he admits:

No I’m not writing. The reason being almost certainly the restless depression I’ve felt this year. I have a strong desire to write openly queer poems, not for publication—or else for publication under a pseudonym. . . . At the same time I haven’t been able to find a good style; I don’t want them to be pornography, but I want them to have sex in them. Maybe these subjects are really for essays & not poems.

Watching Gunn struggle with the problem, one feels acutely the absence of Gay Liberation. In these early letters, Gunn consistently diagnoses the problem as one of style, technique, genre—the challenge of crafting a queer poetry is a matter of craft, not politics. In the absence of a broad political movement, Gunn struggles to find the language, the models, and the techniques to craft a queer poetics.

But the letters also testify to the way that poems, even coded poems, about queer sexuality can forge community. Gunn did find a way to write about queer life—even about queer sex—in his early work. In turn, early queer readers found Gunn’s poems empowering and transformative. In a 1961 letter to Kitay, Gunn describes with astonishment the effect his poetry had on the young Oliver Sacks: 

[He] says my poetry changed his life—it caused him to get a bike and wear leather, and he tears around like a whirlwind—and came out here to be a doctor, here because I live here. And he really means it, too. Funny how I’ve influenced so many people either thro knowing them or thro my poetry. This sounds mock modest, but it isn’t: I hardly feel, nowadays, like anybody could ever have affected a person in the world.

The letter alternates between a sense of profound isolation and a surprised sense of community, cemented in shared pleasure, sexual and poetic. It is a small, even closed, community, but it could be sustaining. 

It would thus be inappropriate to divide Gunn’s work in two, neatly separating his pre- and post-Stonewall books. He does not begin as a poet of the closet, then become a poet of liberation. The early poems are queer, as queer as anything he wrote after Stonewall. The terms of their queerness may be difficult to discern, and sometimes challenging for contemporary readers. Teare, for instance, notes, “Gunn’s early work evokes . . . embarrassment, irritation, uncomfortable laughter, suspicion, sadness.” One should not dismiss these feelings. Neither should one dismiss the real succor that Gunn’s early poems seem to have provided to readers like Sacks. As Teare goes on to note, his feelings about Gunn’s early poems are “in and of themselves political feelings: they describe the difference between the Gay Liberation ideal I inherited . . . and what Gunn, with his own inheritance, was able to achieve at the time.” 

Gunn’s community grew over time, perhaps most significantly with the addition of Robert Duncan. In a 1988 letter to Gregory Woods, Gunn gushes about Duncan, “He wrote magnificent gay poetry. . . . He considered the mutual love between men as proper and beautiful as any other branch of love, and wrote about it in all its variety.” For a poet who had been wrestling with how to write queer poetry, Gunn’s encounter with Duncan seems to have been revelatory: here was a poet who had been writing openly gay poetry since 1944, who had created the models that Gunn had lacked throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In “Homosexuality in Robert Duncan’s Poetry,” an essay from the late 1970s, Gunn concludes: 

Duncan started with little modern American precedent for speaking openly about homosexuality. There is now a way of speaking about it, and we may thank Duncan’s continued example more than any other that it is not a specialized speech, it is not separated from the heterosexual’s tradition.

It is a warm endorsement of Duncan’s legacy. But it also is not so far from Gunn’s 1952 letter to John Holmstrom. Gunn is still not content with the idea that a homosexual poetry would be “separated from the heterosexual’s tradition.” The discrepancy between “gay” and “poetry” remains operative for him. 

Moreover, Gunn may be engaging in a bit of wishful thinking here. It is hard to believe that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, gay poetry had achieved the status Gunn accords to it—“not a specialized speech . . . not separated from the heterosexual’s tradition”—given the reviews he received in the period. Take, for example, Donald Davie’s review of The Passages of Joy (1982). Davie celebrates the book’s accomplishment: “The Passages of Joy is as fine a collection as [Gunn] has ever published.” But he goes on to complain: 

He is a practicing homosexual, and in poem after poem here he proves on his pulses, from experience, that so far as he is concerned homosexual practices (even, in some circumstances, of a notably promiscuous and mercenary kind) constitute “what is right.” . . . Certainly in Ben Jonson’s England such a secular experimental attitude to ethics was virtually unknown. This seems to mean that Gunn’s sympathies with any period before the Enlightenment can never be more than skin-deep.

Gunn and Davie had been friends since the late 1950s and remained friends until Davie’s death in the 1990s. In the immediate aftermath, Gunn writes Davie a surprisingly generous letter: “it strikes me that you and Duncan . . . are about the only contemporaries from whom I have much to learn.—If your letter is generous, your review is princely.” At this distance, it does not seem princely. In a later interview with Wilmer, Gunn acknowledges that he wrote The Man with Night Sweats (1992) partly in response to Davie’s accusation: “Let me say I also respect Donald so much that something that was in my mind the whole time I was writing this new book was: how can I show him that he’s wrong?” 

One might wonder why Gunn felt the need to prove the point. Davie’s argument is fallacious on its face. But readers in the present have thirty years of queer Renaissance scholarship to rely on, an advantage that Gunn lacked in the early 1980s. Gunn describes reading Bruce R. Smith’s Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England (1991)—one of the foundational texts of queer Renaissance studies—as a revelation: “Talk about the scales falling from the eyes. Why was I earlier taken in by the grave scholarly assertions that Elizabethan men spoke of passion and merely mean what we would call friendship?” In this light, Gunn’s insistence that queer poetry “not be separated from the heterosexual’s tradition” seems less objectionable. On the one hand, he has to deal with critics like Davie who suggest that queer poetry is a poetic backwater, isolated from the rest of literary history. On the other, he does not yet have the scholarly support he would need to fully recognize the ways in which the “heterosexual’s tradition” is—has always been—infused with queer energy.

Teare quotes a series of similar reviews, some of which make Davie’s seem gentle. Terry Eagleton, for instance, describes The Passages of Joy as “casual encounters and homosexual gossip, depressingly thin and banal.” Under such conditions, Duncan’s friendship must have been a refuge for Gunn, a place to carve out a shared sense of queer poetics. Duncan, too, found Gunn’s poetry and friendship exciting and inciting, pushing him to write some of the most explicitly queer poetry of his late career, for instance, “Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s Moly.” In a 1990 letter to Michael Davidson, Gunn reflects on the poems—and on Duncan’s reading of his own work: 

I still do not think that my Moly poems . . . are particularly sexual in content or implication . . . I mean, there may be implicitly gay content to these poems, but it does not seem more so than in much of what I’d written before the book. Duncan in fact chose to interpret these as gay poems, and I’m grateful indeed considering the richness of his poems that resulted.

I think most readers of Moly will have a hard time taking Gunn’s word here. The poems seem suffused with queer pleasure and longing. That may be an effect of Duncan’s reading. He accentuates the queerness of the poems, makes it palpable, so much so that it feels impossible to mistake its pulsing presence. It is the kind of misreading that might, in another literary friendship, have inspired resentment. But Gunn welcomes it, celebrates it. It helps that he likes Duncan’s poems. But he also seems to be endorsing Duncan’s practice of reading: Duncan enriches and extends his poems, suffusing them with a queerness they might otherwise disavow. 

Writing about the friendship, Teare argues, “[Gunn’s] reciprocal and mutually influencing poetic relationship with Duncan acts as a gay alternative to heterosexual models of imitation and ‘influence,’ one based on desire, elective identification, and collaboration rather than on anxiety, disidentification, and apprenticeship.” In Teare’s telling, Duncan and Gunn’s friendship is one of their great bequests to contemporary queer writers. They create models of queer friendship, queer pedagogy, even queer intertextuality. Indeed, one might take Teare’s essay as evidence for the continued power of their example. “Our Dionysian Experiment” is itself an exercise in queer intertextuality on the model of Gunn and Duncan’s friendship. He engages Gunn and Duncan as peers and collaborators; the three work together to articulate a queer poetics. The essay has its moments of disappointment and critique, but its spirit is one of friendship and admiration. There is no Oedipal conflict here, no anxiety of influence. If Gunn and Duncan fail “the Gay Liberation ideal,” they also complicate that ideal, mark its limitations. As Teare writes, “though poets like Gunn and Duncan were bound up in the historical categories that defined the times and communities in which they lived, they were not necessarily bound by them . . . they chose to move differently through history.” And, by the strength of their own example, they invite their readers to “move differently” through the history of their own moment. The Letters renews this invitation. It is not a history of queer poetics. Not exactly. Instead, it is an impulse that keeps that history in motion. 




I first read Gunn’s work when I was in my early twenties. In the decade since, his poems have become part of the rhythm of my life—every few years, I sit down and re-read him, front to back. Every season of my adult life has been touched by his work. When I first read him, he helped me to see Philadelphia, the city where I lived then, as a space of poetic possibility. Place has been at the center of my work since. When I read him again in my late twenties, he helped me make sense of the canon, the tradition—what to do and how to live with poets like Shakespeare, Donne, and Jonson. When I read him now, I see his reticence and compassion as a model for writing about the deaths and illnesses that more and more envelop my life. Each time I read Gunn’s poems, I encounter something, indeed, someone different: he changes as I change; he grows with his readers. The world I occupy as a poet and thinker is, in part, a world that Gunn created. 

There are few poets who stand up to this kind of sustained re-reading. Gunn’s work does stand up to it, in part because of the capaciousness of his vision. Before reading The Letters, I would’ve felt like I could enumerate the boundaries of that vision: Yvor Winters and Robert Duncan, Ben Jonson and Basil Bunting. But The Letters makes what seems settled unsettled again. It’s not that Gunn becomes a different poet. Work through The Letters and Winters and Duncan are still major figures, axes around which Gunn’s poetry turns. Instead, it feels as though the space within those axes has become almost unbearably lush. Reading The Letters is a bit like wandering in a vast garden—there are so many routes, so many details to draw one’s attention. The route I’ve taken here is hardly the only path, not even the only path for readers who are interested in Gunn’s queer poetics. That is the volume’s richness, its gift to Gunn’s readers. It delays closure, the moment when Gunn’s work hardens into a finished thing. 

In “Duncan,” Gunn’s elegy for his friend and fellow traveler, he describes the poet as an old man, devastated by kidney failure and dialysis: 

He was now a posthumous poet, I have said

(For since his illness he had not composed)

In sight of a conclusion, whose great dread 

Was closure

Gunn and Duncan had different relationships to closure: unlike Duncan, Gunn revised his poems, treated poems as discrete objects, rather than indefinite series. Yet, Gunn may be looking forward here to his own death, the sealing off of his own career. He continues: 

            his life soon to be enclosed

Like the sparrow’s flight above the feasting friends,

Briefly revealed where its breast caught their light,

Beneath the long roof, between open ends,

Themselves the margins of unchanging night.

Most readings of the poem focus on the sparrow, naturally enough. It’s taken from the Venerable Bede, stripped of its religious context to frame an image of almost existential bleakness—life, being a moment of light framed by “the margins of unchanging night.” After reading The Collected Letters, one might focus equally on “the feasting friends” who watch the sparrow’s trajectory, dazzled by its brilliance. His letters testify to the sustaining power of friendship. Friendship carries Gunn through the whole of his career, from his struggles to forge a queer poetics through the AIDS crisis. The Letters suggests that Gunn’s life was rarely a lonely progress, the quest of an isolated existentialist hero. Rather, it is more like the banquet he describes in “Duncan”: friends, feasting together, aware of the margins of night that surround them, yet dazzled by the beauty that flashes within their small cone of light. For those who come after Gunn, the Letters are an invitation to join this banquet. The wine is flowing and the company is good. If you look up, you will see Gunn arc above you, luminous and mobile, as dynamic as a sparrow and, even now, as resistant to repose. 


*An essay-review of The Letters of Thom Gunn. Edited by August Kleinzahler, Michael Nott, and Clive Wilmer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022. 800 pp. $45.00.


Toby Altman is the author of Discipline Park (Wendy’s Subway, 2023) and Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017). He has held fellowships from MacDowell, Millay Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Beloit College.