In ‘The Letters of Thom Gunn,’ an Unusual Mix of Pleasures

Selected and edited by August Kleinzahler, Michael Nott and Clive Wilmer
734 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $45.

Thom Gunn bought his first motorcycle, a secondhand Harley, in Texas during the spring of 1955. He was teaching in San Antonio before going to study writing at Stanford.

Gunn had been raised in Kent, England, where his parents were journalists. He arrived in America fresh from Cambridge, and his first book of poems, “Fighting Terms,” had been published to lively notice. When he got a look at San Francisco, he knew he’d found his place.

Not only was it beautiful, in league with the “best European cities,” he wrote to a friend, but it was “incidentally the queerest city I’ve ever been in.” Gunn remained there for the rest of his life, living in the Haight and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, eventually six months on and six off.

That letter is among the hundreds collected in “The Letters of Thom Gunn,” an appealing selection of his rowdy, funny, filthy, intensely literate letters.

He basked in the city’s gay scene, and he grew up with it in a way. He had an eye for dive bars and motorcycles; riding one, he said, was “a sort of controlled irresponsibility.” He developed a look: German motorcycle boots, tight leather pants, fringed jackets, a pierced ear and a tattoo of a panther on a forearm.

It was if he’d stepped, steaming, out of a Tom of Finland drawing. “My definition of tit for tat,” he wrote, is: “You lick my tattoo while I handle your nipple.”

In the summer of 1967, the Summer of Love, a friend came across Gunn in Golden Gate Park, this book tells us in a footnote. It was very hot, and Gunn was otherwise shirtless in a chain mail vest. “There was his hairy chest and then hot metal burning into his skin, his flesh,” the friend reported. “He was trying to look very nonchalant but he was obviously being crucified. It was horrible. But he wouldn’t take it off because it would’ve spoiled the whole look of the thing.”

These details, in general, won’t surprise anyone who kept up with Gunn’s poetry, which was metrically sophisticated and dealt sometimes with earthy topics such as LSD, the Hell’s Angels, sex and its itchy discontents, and gay culture writ large.

Gunn was not a confessional poet. These letters have been anticipated, by many, because he rarely spilled his guts on the page. There’s been no biography. These letters are what we have, and they don’t disappoint.

Gunn’s relationship with England was tangled. He kept up with his peers there. (One of his important early books, published in 1962, was titled “Selected Poems by Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes.”) We witness him develop his poetic voice in these letters. He welcomed criticism from friends, and often held his poems for a long time as he revised them.

He read everything and everybody. He could be sharp about other poets. He called J.D. McClatchy’s work “boring,” for example, and asked a friend, “Shall I be honest with him, and suggest he change his life?” About Louise Glück: “Every poem she has ever written consists of whining — and yet it is the Higher Whining.” About Forrest Gander: “Forrest Gander sounds like an airport.”

Gunn never seems cruel because a) he was funny and b) he so frequently revised his opinions. A poet he pokes one minute will be one he learns to delight in a few years later.

This book, like Gunn’s life, puts an unusual mix of pleasures on display. On the one hand, he had indestructible appetites for sex and drugs, together and separately. Typical sentences from this book are: “I woke up the next day surrounded by naked bodies and uniquely hungover” and “Remind me to tell you how I lost the hair on my ass.”

On the other hand, he met his life partner, Mike Kitay, at Cambridge. They were together until Gunn’s death, at 74, in 2004. These letters, for all their promiscuity and turbulence, are a hymn to stability. Gunn and Kitay lived in the same house in the Haight for more than 30 years.

Other men lived with them. It was a big family, with lovers cycling in and out. When AIDS arrived, Gunn and Kitay had room to care for sick friends. “It does seem to have been a good idea,” Gunn wrote in a 1998 letter, “to assemble a family in which the children will not disappear into college or marriage.”

The joys of a long-held house are acknowledged. Gunn stares at the lemon tree in his yard, fully grown and bearing fruit, and recalls that a friend first grew the seed 25 years earlier, in a pot on the kitchen table of an old apartment.

Other enthusiasms are entertained. Gunn loved movies, all kinds. “Drugstore Cowboy” is so excellent, and so true to the experience of drug users, he wrote, that “you are happy to be a member of the human race that produced it.”

His crush on Keanu Reeves is a small, sunny theme in these letters. Gunn called him “a complete darling.” Later, after Reeves had appeared in a string of mediocre films, Gunn wrote: “I am beginning to think that Keanu doesn’t really care about his career at all, he’s looking for someone like me but can’t find him. Hey Keanu, I’m here! HERE! If you ring my doorbell I’ll show you all round the house!”

He was committed to music, high and low. “Eleanor Rigby” almost made him weep. He saw Hendrix live and attended Altamont. I had to laugh when I read, in a 1975 letter: “Did I tell you about BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN? 2 records, and the best new singer since — who shall I say? Elton John maybe.”

Gunn did not have an especially wide correspondence, at least as demonstrated in this dense collection of more than 700 pages, which the editors tell us is about one-tenth the total. Most are to the same handful of friends. There are rocket-like cameos. The best belongs to the young Oliver Sacks, whose full name was Oliver Wolf Sacks. He was a fan of Gunn’s.

Here’s how he’s introduced, in a 1961 letter: “There is a queer, colossally big London Jew called Wolf, a medical student, and a friend of Jonathan Miller, who says my poetry changed his life — it caused him to get a bike and wear leather, and he tears around like a whirlwind.”

Sacks and Gunn were briefly lovers, then lifelong friends. Gunn watched with a mix of pleasure and awe as Sacks’s career as a neurologist, naturalist and writer developed.

Gunn had flinty good looks. He had no trouble, to his satisfaction, picking up men, even into his 70s. It was the drugs that did him in. He died from what a coroner called “acute polysubstance abuse.”

This was pretty much how he wanted to go out. “I can hardly imagine,” he wrote in a letter when he was in his mid-60s, “a life more to my taste than mine.”