Thomson (Thom) William Gunn, the Anglo-American poet and critic, was born on August 29, 1929, in Gravesend, Kent. His father, Herbert Smith Gunn, was an accomplished journalist with the Beaverbrook press. As a young journalist, Gunn's father reported for local papers like the Kent Messenger. In 1944, he became editor of the (London) Evening Standard and, in the 1950s, editor of the (London) Daily Sketch. Gunn's mother, (Annie) Charlotte Thomson Gunn, was an independent woman with socialist and feminist sympathies. She, too, worked as a journalist until the births of Gunn and his younger brother Alexander (Ander). When he turned eight, the Gunn family moved to Hampstead, a middle class neighborhood of London. Shortly after the move to Hampstead, his parents divorced, and, in 1944, Gunn's mother committed suicide.
As a child, Gunn inherited a love of reading from his mother. His father once said, "Thom was better read at eleven than most people are at thirty-five." Gunn also began writing at an early age. His early work included character sketches and a short novel he characterized as "curiously sophisticated," completed when he was twelve years old. By sixteen, Gunn was writing continuously and seriously.
After completing secondary school, Gunn fulfilled his compulsory National Service by spending two years in the British Army (1948-1950). He then spent six months working in the offices of the Paris Metro system, while he attempted to write a Proustian novel he never completed. In 1949, Gunn legally changed his name from William Guinneach Gunn to Thomson William Gunn, and, although he had always been known as Tom, he began to use the spelling Thom.
He returned to England and attended Trinity College, Cambridge University. Gunn flourished at Cambridge and connected with a group of students (including Karl Miller, Nicholas Tomalin, Mark Boxer, and Tony White) who wrote and edited the university magazine, Granta . At Cambridge, Gunn met American Michael (Mike) Kitay, who became his lifelong partner. Gunn received his B. A. in 1953. His work at Cambridge culminated in his first book of poetry, Fighting Terms (1954). Though later considered an apprentice work by most critics, including Gunn himself, the book created a stir. In Robert Conquest's New Lines (1956), Gunn was anthologized with other young British poets such as Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, and John Wain. This group became known as "The Movement," poets loosely connected by poetic style and age.
Gunn's departure for the United States in 1954 was ostensibly occasioned by his winning a graduate fellowship at Stanford University, but his relationship with Mike Kitay had led him to apply for the award. He spent a productive year in Palo Alto, California, writing most of the poetry for his second book, The Sense of Movement (1957). At Stanford, he met Yvor Winters, who became a major influence in the young poet's life and work.
In the late 1950s, Gunn began to move away from the traditional, structured metric poetry which initially brought him success. He began to experiment with syllabics and free verse. However, these years were not productive for Gunn. His busy lifestyle left little time for writing. He taught in San Antonio, Texas, and continued his graduate work at Stanford University, completing an M. A. in 1958. From 1958 to 1960, Gunn lived in Oakland and served as an instructor at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught off and on until 1999. Physically and emotionally depleted by his teaching and studies, he recharged his energies in Italy, where he spent 1959 supported by a Somerset Maugham Award. In 1960, he spent several months in Germany.
Returning to the United States in 1960, Gunn settled in San Francisco. During this period, many critics began to link Gunn with Ted Hughes, who had attended Cambridge just after Gunn. The two were considered the founders of a new school of violence in poetry, containing aggressive images and amoral subjects. Gunn's next book, My Sad Captains (1961) is divided in half. The first half further developed the "heroic manner" of The Sense of Movement, and the second experimented with freer syllabic verse.
With the publication of his third poetry collection and several years of steady teaching at Berkeley, Gunn became an established member of the American poetry scene. He no longer considered himself an Englishman abroad. Ironically, when Gunn returned to London from mid-1964 until mid-1965, he experienced a period of considerable productivity. He collaborated with his brother Ander, an accomplished photographer, on Positives (1966), a book of photographs and verse captions. The year in England also allowed him to complete his long poetic sequence, "Misanthropos," which later appeared in his next collection of poems, Touch (1967). This volume revealed Gunn's mastery of open form and his developing humanistic outlook.
In 1966, with the support of a Rockefeller Grant, Gunn gave up a tenured position at Berkeley. He believed that full-time teaching was not conducive to writing poetry. His experimentation with the drug LSD led to Moly (1971), the work of which Gunn "was most proud." Its themes include "metamorphosis, evolving identity, and the physical world as paradise" (Clive Wilmer, "Gunn, Thomson William (Thom) [1929-2004]," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/93565, accessed 29 July 2009]). Also in 1971, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In 1972, Gunn purchased a house in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and, with Kitay and other men, lived in what Clive Wilmer has characterized as a "gay commune." 1976 marked the release of his sixth collection, Jack Straw's Castle, in which he openly revealed his sexual orientation and explored the darker side of the life he had explored in Moly. Gunn received the prestigious W. H. Smith Award in 1979 for his Selected Poems 1950-1975 (1979). In 1982, he released The Passages of Joy, a seventh collection of original poetry, which included historical figures and gay characters and celebrated friendship. The essay collection, The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography also appeared in 1982. The Man with Night Sweats, for which he received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, appeared in 1992. This work consists of a sequence of elegies for friends lost in the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. In 1994, he published the widely celebrated Collected Poems and received a MacArthur Fellowship.
His last book, Boss Cupid appeared in 2000, about the time he retired from part-time teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. Thom Gunn died of heart failure on April 25, 2004, in his home in San Francisco, CA.