Thom Gunn: “I Dozed. I Slept. My Sleep Broke on a Hug”

Photographers Unknown, Positional Images of Men

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
    Half of the night with our old friend
        Who’d showed us in the end
    To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
        Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
        Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
         Your instep to my heel,
     My shoulder-blades against your chest.
     It was not sex, but I could feel
     The whole strength of your body set,
             Or braced, to mine,
         And locking me to you
     As if we were still twenty-two
     When our grand passion had not yet
         Become familial.
     My quick sleep had deleted all
     Of intervening time and place.
         I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

Thom Gunn, The Hug, The Man with Night Sweats, 1992

Born in August of 1929 in Gravesend, a port town in Kent, Thom Gunn was an English poet. A reader of works by Keats, Milton, and Marlowe, he attended Hampstead’s University College School in his youth. Gunn spent two years in the British Army for his national service and lived for six months in Paris before entering Cambridge’s Trinity College to study English literature. 

After his graduation in 1953, Gunn, young and gay at a time when it was illegal, published his first volume of poetry, “Fighting Terms”, a collection of poetic metaphors of love and self-disclosure. Received with acclaim, the volume contains his poems “Carnal Knowledge” and the tender “Tamer and Hawk”. Gunn’s initial poetry became associated with The Movement, a group of English poets who wrote traditional, simple poems nostalgic for an earlier, more pastoral Britain. His later poetry was associated with the work of Poet Laurette of England Ted Hughes who wrote frequently about the mixture of beauty and violence in the natural world.

After his first volume was published, Thom Gunn emigrated with his life-long partner Michael Kitay, whom he had met at Cambridge, to the United States. Taking a position at California’s Stanford University to teach writing, Gunn began to study poetry with poet and literary critic Yvor Winters, a modernist poet whose clear, sharp-language work was heavily influenced by Native American poetry. He began reading and studying the works of poets Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, and William Carlos Williams, all of whom would influence his poetry. 

Gunn began teaching at the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1958, a position he held for forty-two years, with a seven year absence beginning in 1966. His second collection of poems, the 1957 “Sense of Movement”, was a winner of the Somerset Maugham Award. Contained within that volume is the poem “On the Move”, a celebration of black-jacketed motorcyclists. In 1961, Gunn published his “My Sad Captains”, a book divided in two sections. The first section contained epic poems written in heroic verse which, in its purest form, consists of two rhyming lines written in an iambic pentameter. Gunn experimented in the second section with syllabic verse where the meter of the work is determined by the total number of syllables per line, rather than the contained stresses. This juxtaposition between two poetic forms would be repeated in other Gunn collections. 

Affected by the San Francisco bohemian lifestyle of the 1960s and 1970s, Thom Gunn became increasingly bolder in his verse and began to explore themes of homosexuality and drugs. Notable collections from the period include the 1967 “Touch”, “Moly” published in 1971 and the 1976 “Jack Straw’s Castle”. While he continued to use the  sharp, metrical forms that characterized his early work, Gunn continued his experiments with the freedom of free verse.  Coupled with his writing to a specific set of images, these free verse poems with their non-rhyming lines followed the natural rhythms of speech.

In 1982, Gunn published his first collection of essays, “The Occasions of Poetry”, which included critical pieces on writers ranging from William Carlos Williams and Gary Snyder to Thomas Hardy and Robert Duncan. The volume also contained five autobiographical essays, which covered Gunn’s development as a poet and discussed the contemporary literary currents in England and the United States, places that Gunn considered as home.

Gunn lost many of his friends when the AIDS epidemic came to the gay community in the 1980s. His grief was described to a profound degree in his 1992 “The Man with Night Sweats”, a series of first person perspective poems that explored the horrors of the epidemic as seen through the eyes of the inflicted. Through these poems, Gunn described his heartbreaking personal loss. Poems contained in this collection include “Lament”, “In Time of Plague”, and the title poem “The Man with Night Sweats”. Gunn received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for this 1992 volume. Although AIDS was a focus of much of his later work, he remained HIV-negative himself. Spared from the disease, Gunn continued in his work to consider death and what it meant that he was one to survive.

Among Thom Gunn’s other works are his 1979 “Selected Poems 1950-1975”; “Passages of Joy” published in 1982; and his final book of poetry, the 2000 “Boss Cupid”, which won Publishing Triangle’s inaugural Triangle Award for Gay Poetry in 2001. This award was, after his death, renamed the Thom Gunn Award in his memory. Gunn published a second volume of critical and autobiographical essays entitled “Shelf Life” in 1993. He won many awards for his work and received fellowships from the Guggenheim and the MacArthur foundations.

Thom Gunn died in April of 2004 of acute polysubstance abuse at his home in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, where he had lived since 1960. Five years after his death, a new edition of his “Selected Poems” was republished.

Notes: In the summer 2005 edition of The Threepenny Review, there is an article written by Michael Kitay about his first meeting and life with Thom Gunn. It can be found at: https://www.threepennyreview.com/samples/kitay_su05.html

A collection of Thom Gunn’s poetry can be found at the Classic Poetry Series located at:  https://www.poemhunter.com/i/ebooks/pdf/thom_gunn_2012_8.pdf