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File Thom Gunn’s Life Under the Tortured Poets Department

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THOM GUNN: A Cool Queer Life, by Michael Nott One version of the life of Thom Gunn might go like this: After a childhood spent in an erratic orbit of Fleet Street journalism, Gunn developed into a remarkably assured young writer and had immediate success as a poet, first in Britain, then in the United States.

Openly gay despite the dangers of that identification in the second half of the 20th century, he led a scruffy, cheerfully louche existence (loads of sex with dubious characters, piles of drugs, often with the same dubious characters) while writing poems of elegant astringency.

Gunn taught at several universities with conscientiousness, he plunged into leather dive bars as if they were all about to close forever, and he earned a devoted battalion of advocates who viewed him as a world-class writer who, rare among world-class writers, didn’t court the favor of people who use descriptions like “world-class writer.” He died as a prize-bedecked iconoclast, a near contradiction that suited him down to his panther tattoo.

Another version might go like this: A precocious poet but also a haunted, depressive young man, Gunn crossed the Atlantic in 1954 and found companionship and acceptance, particularly in San Francisco, his longtime home.

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