The Letters of Thom Gunn is an entertaining cinder block of a book and a reminder that Gunn (1929-2004) was, yes, a gay hero to some and certainly a rowdy fellow but more importantly a great poet. Its 734 pages will remain on the bedside table for at least the remainder of the summer as it is, for us non-scholars, what Max Beerbohm calls a “dippable-into” volume.
Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent, and, in a reversal of the eastbound journeys made earlier by Henry James and T.S. Eliot, emigrated in 1954 to the U.S. to teach at Stanford and study with Yvor Winters. He lived in the U.S., mostly in San Francisco, for fifty years. I’m particularly interested in his relationship with Winters. Gunn’s devotion to him as man and poet will surprise some readers. In The Passages of Joy (1982) he included “To Yvor Winters, 1955,” and in 2003 edited Winters’ Selected Poems for the Library of America.
In a 1966 letter to Tony Tanner, the critic of American literature he had befriended at Cambridge, Gunn writes that he finds T.S. Eliot, dead the previous year, “rather inhumane and at worst (rather a lot of the time ) a bit boring.” He continues:
“Maybe one is wrong to make ‘humaneness’ a requirement, but I certainly find it difficult to have much liking for a writer who doesn’t possess it. Eliot is as much of an egotist as Milton, and I find it pretty well impossible to read much of Milton any more (though I would never admit this when looking for a job).”
Gunn goes on to list other poets he judges humane: William Carlos Williams, D.H. Lawrence [!], Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell and, occasionally, Ezra Pound [!!]. An odd and rather inexplicable assortment of “humaneness.” Then he tells Tanner:
“Samuel Johnson is a humane writer, and maybe a better example than any of these – because ultimately he (1) doesn’t set up his own world as the only world there is, and (2) he realizes there may be certain situations into which one must collapse into pure feeling (e.g. the famous remark about the end of Lear).”
That’s acute critical judgment. Nice to see Gunn citing the passage about Lear and Cordelia I recently quoted. In 1980, in a letter to his friend Douglas Chambers, a Canadian professor of English, Gunn explains how he arrived at the title The Passages of Joy:
“(Samuel Johnson, The V of H Wishes: ‘Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy, / And shuts up all the Passages of Joy’ . . . . Nice, since it seems to refer to the ear-hole and the cock-hole and the nose-hole as well as other possible meanings of the word passages.)”
[See The Letters of Thom Gunn, eds. August Kleinzahler, Michael Nott and Clive Wilmer; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.]