Thom Gunn was an Elizabethan poet in modern guise, though there’s nothing archaic, quaint, or sepia-toned about his poetry. His method was dispassionate and rigorous, uniquely well suited for making a poetic record of the tumultuous time in which he lived. Gunn’s dozens of brilliantly realized poems about nature, friendship, literature, sexual love, and death are set against the ever-changing backdrop of San Francisco—the druggy, politically charged sixties and the plague years of AIDS in the eighties. Perhaps no contemporary poet was better equipped—by temperament, circumstance, or poetic gift—to engage the subjects of eros and thanatos than Thom Gunn. This new Selected Poems, edited and with an introduction by the poet August Kleinzahler, supplants the 1979 Selected, presenting more of the later work and providing a fuller retrospective account of the breadth and magnitude of Gunn’s extraordinary achievement.
“Raw anarchistic energy and powerful intellectual control . . . [Gunn’s] existential rebelliousness was tempered by a sense of our common humanity.”—Edward Hirsch, The Washington Post Book World“'I wake up cold, I who / Prospered through dreams of heat / Wake to their residue, / Sweat, and a clinging sheet. / My flesh was its own shield: / Where it was gashed, it healed,' wrote Thom Gunn in his late, great poem about AIDS, 'The Man With Night Sweats': 'I cannot but be sorry / The given shield was cracked / My mind reduced to hurry, / My flesh reduced and wrecked.' August Kleinzahler's selection leans toward the American in Gunn, or perhaps the Elizabethan: formal, playful, daring, always inventive and rhythmic. We see a great poet, and one far removed from 'the motorcycle boy,' as Philip Larkin called him. 'I am the eye / that cut the life / you stand you lie / I am the knife,' Gunn wrote in his poem for Robert Mapplethorpe. Such wit and elegance.”—Richard Rayner, Los Angeles Times “Almost all of Gunn’s virtues are on display [in Boss Cupid]: his playful metrical dexterity, his unflinching celebration both of beauty and of its transience.”—Paul Gray, Time“Gunn allows his patterns of meter, rhyme and stanzaic form to emerge organically from the material . . . One can almost follow this happening on the page, observation finding its proper rhythm, emotion its spiritual level, the poet discovering new moods, new modes of reflection.”—William Deresiewicz, The New York Times Book Review“The tone of sadness Gunn strikes so repeatedly and so well is always mixed with something else, and it's the combination that makes the poetry human and distinct. I feel, reading Thom Gunn, that I am in touch with the complete person—a man lustful but not childish, loving but not deluded, sad but not overcome.”—Reed Woodhouse, The Boston Book Review“All good poets find strains and paradoxes within the language they learn to wield, but Thom Gunn (1929-2004) found more than most. He became a poet of chaste self-control who could celebrate lust; a painstaking inheritor of English verse traditions who moved to America and embraced the freedoms of the late 1960s; an emigre who portrayed, in heartbreaking stanzas, the London of his childhood, and a man enthusiastic about San Francisco, his adopted home. This relatively slender volume shows his spare technique and his powers of observation, his chiseled stanzas and his careful, even humble, attention to plain speech—virtues, above all, in The Man With Night Sweats, perhaps the finest of the many poetic responses to HIV and AIDS, and the work for which Gunn, in the United States, remains best known . . . Kleinzahler—an internationally admired poet who lives in San Francisco—portrays his late friend, in his preface and through his selections, as a craftsman, a poet of cities and friendships, of self-chastisement and 'impersonality,' of memory and grief.”—Stephen Burt, San Francisco Chronicle"This new collection has that perfect, jacket pocket-fitting size, little more than a hundred pages. It traces the arc of a career with wisely spaced, representative snapshots. And the intro by Kleinzahler—who counts Gunn as a strong influence—is worth the price of the book alone."—Richard Wirick, The Second Pass "Hailed as one of the most promising English poets of his generation for his first collection, Fighting Terms (1954), Gunn fell off the British poetical map after his only slightly less well-received follow-up, The Sense of Movement (1957). By then, he had removed himself physically from his homeland to San Francisco, where he lived out his life, slowly becoming the most important gay poet in English of the twentieth century. Editor Kleinzahler notes Gunn’s splash debut and peremptory early dismissal but demonstrates that Gunn’s work steadily improved and never diminished. He continued to emulate the elegance of the Elizabethan lyric, the plain style of Ben Jonson, Baudelaire’s interest in the urban demimonde, and the devotion to honesty and art of his American teacher, Yvor Winters (Gunn published a superb selection of Winters in 2003). While he kept his personality out of the poems—I in them is an observer, more empathic as the years go by—he never parsed his feelings but described what his senses told him so as to vividly conjure the moment and its significance. He became a nonpareil poet of death in the midst of life, and the selections here from The Man with Night Sweats (1992) outweigh the rest of the literature about AIDS, in particular. He is also a great poet of love (read 'Touch') and more."—Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)