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Thom Gunn papers

 Collection 0007-LIT

Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was a British poet, whose residence was primarily the United States beginning in the 1950s. He published over thirty books of poetry, a collection of essays, and four edited collections. His work is widely represented in literary anthologies. Gunn combined an interest in traditional poetics with less traditional subjects, such as Hell's Angels, LSD, and homosexuality. The collection includes drafts, notebooks, publications, correspondence, and photographs. The bulk of the collection includes materials from his books Positives (1966) and Touch (1967).


  • 1951-1983
  • Majority of material found within 1951-1965

Use and Access to Collection

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies or digital surrogates may be provided in accordance with Special Collections and University Archives duplication policy.

Copyright resides with the creators of the documents or their heirs unless otherwise specified. It is the researcher's responsibility to secure permission to publish materials from the appropriate copyright holder.

Archival materials may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal and/or state right to privacy laws or other regulations. While we make a good faith effort to identify and remove such materials, some may be missed during our processing. If a researcher finds sensitive personal information in a collection, please bring it to the attention of the reading room staff.


2.75 Linear Feet

Scope and Contents

The papers of Thom Gunn span the period from 1951 to 1983. The bulk of the collection includes materials from 1951 to 1965. The majority consists of drafts and notes for poems published and unpublished, including loose papers and dated notebooks. The collection also contains copies of Gunn's publications and some correspondence, most notably two letters to Donald Davie. The bulk of the material relates to Positives (1966) and Touch (1967), including many drafts and notes from Gunn's most ambitious poem, "Misanthropos."


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, [, 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.


The collection has been organized into five series:

Series 1
Manuscripts, notes, drafts, and proofs
Series 2
Series 3
Series 4
Series 5

Custodial History and Acquisition Information

The University of Maryland Libraries purchased the papers of Thom Gunn in 1971, 1974, and 1983. A few items were acquired some time between 1967 and 1972.

Related Material

The Thom Gunn Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, comprise the most extensive collection of Gunn primary materials, purchased in December 2006 from Gunn's estate. Correspondence between Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Bishop may be found in the Elizabeth Bishop Papers, at the Vassar College Libraries, Special Collections. Correspondence between Thom Gunn and others may be found in the Papers of Jerome Rothenburg at the University of California at Berkeley's Bancroft Library; the David Ignatov Papers at the University of California at San Diego's Mandeville Department of Special Collections; and the William Van O'Connor Papers at the George Arents Research Library for Special Collections at Syracuse University.

Processing Information

The loose drafts, notes, and proofs in Series I were arranged according to two categories: "Poems Published in Books" and "Poems Not Published in Books." All materials related to poems published in or intended for Gunn's published book-length works were arranged together under the title of the appropriate work. The original locations of these materials were recorded on the folders into which they were placed. These materials were arranged chronologically by publication and, within each publication, in publication order. The poems not published in books were arranged according to two lists made by Gunn. The first, dated 1974 lists the individual poems chronologically. The second undated list includes two groups of poems, those produced between 1960 and 1965 and between 1960 and 1961. Drafts and notes for individual poems in these two groups were arranged alphabetically.

Because the notebooks were dated by Gunn, they are arranged chronologically. The loose materials inside the notebooks were removed, their original location was noted, and they were placed in folders corresponding to the notebooks from which they were removed. The publications were arranged alphabetically by title, and the correspondence alphabetically by author. The photographs were separated from the manuscripts into a separate series. All staples were removed and replaced with plastic clips; highly acidic papers were interleaved with acid-free paper; and photographs and fragile materials were placed in Mylar sleeves. The entire collection was placed in acid-free folders and in acid-free boxes.

Three additional photographs of Gunn, acquired separately circa 1967-1972 were incorporated into the collection in April 2010.

Guide to the Thom Gunn papers
Processed by Steve Hausfeld.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Library Details

Part of the Special Collections and University Archives

University of Maryland Libraries
Hornbake Library
4130 Campus Drive
College Park Maryland 20742