Saturday, August 8, 2015

My hero / Thom Gunn by Andrew McMillan

Thom Gunn
Photograph by Alan Hillyer

My hero: Thom Gunn by Andrew McMillan

The magnetic US poet’s observations of ordinary people touched readers from all walks of life

Andrew McMillan
Saturday 8 August 2015

n the Thom Gunn archives at Berkeley, University of California, in among all the notebooks and drafts and diaries, there are fan letters. Prisoners, people dying of Aids-related illnesses, even pop stars; they all wanted to make contact with Gunn, to ask him for help, let him know how he touched them or, sometimes, just to share their own stories with him. There was a charisma and a magnetism that attracted people to Gunn, even if they had never met him.

Perhaps that’s what grabbed me, reading Gunn for the first time at 16, when he was already dead. Perhaps it was the muscular posing of the earlier poems, the untangled freedom of the middle years, the stark and haunting memorials for those who were dying in America in the 1980s and early 90s. Really, I think it was Gunn’s paradoxical ability to appear both as a figure on a pedestal, someone to be revered, a spokesperson of an annihilated generation, and as someone you felt you would be able to approach if you ever saw him in a bar.
It would be easy to imagine that a combination of Gunn’s craft and depth of subject, his radiant handsomeness and his magnetism, would put him at the head of any table where the poets of the latter half of the 20th century were gathered. Yet he is oddly forgotten, half-forgotten at least; too American in style for the English establishment, too English and reserved for the American tradition. There is no full-length biography of Gunn, nor a full critical appraisal of his work; his legacy has not sunk, but seems to flounder somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
That word “hero” suggests strong men in leather riding motorbikes over the horizon. Gunn is a hero for a different reason: for his ability to fiercely bear witness to the world around him, to remember lives that might otherwise be forgotten. He’s a man of paradoxes and hybrids, the Anglo-American, the Formal Trickster, the poet who takes ordinary people, gym owners, homeless men, anonymous bodies in bars, and turns them into literature.
  • Andrew McMillan’s Physical is published by Cape.





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