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Imagery can be one of the most compelling literary devices poets use to bring their poems to life. Thom Gunn is such a poet. Gunn's poetry focuses on popular topics, such as the Hell's Angels, LSD, homosexuality, and those he knew and loved who had suffered from acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Drawing from his life experience, his powerful imagery paints the very portrait that the reader sees when they read his work.
With a journalist as a father and a writer for a mother, Gunn was familiar with transposing his life of emotion and experience in writing. After his parent's divorce, at nine, he traveled with his father on various assignments attending a number of different schools. His mother later committed suicide, which did not show up in his work until the early 1990s. Eventually, after two years of service in the British Army, Gunn moved to Paris where he started writing fiction and eventually poetry.
In 1954 Gunn published his first collection, Fighting Terms. Compared to the traditional poetry of the 1940s, Gunn's work reflected on the upheavals of war, love and interpersonal combat - and was considered violent. After this publication, he emigrated to the United Stated and moved to San Francisco where he taught writing at Stanford University and later at the University of California at Berkeley, living with his partner, Mike Kitay, an American he had met at Cambridge.
Continuing the use of poetic meter, Gunn published his next milestone book, Moly in 1971. This book expressed his liberating use of LSD and the experiences that he had. "He believed that LSD had the potential to liberate a person from his or her divided condition and to free one from human limitations", (Guthmann). Gunn stayed true to his form in that his descriptions of such liberation were written only in measured poetry. "He's possibly the only poets to have written halfway decent quintain, [poetic form containing five lines] while on LSD", (Sullivan).
Gunn continued sharpening his use of the metrical forms, becoming more interested in syllabics and free verse. During the 1970s and 80s, Gunn's poems were laced with personal experiences as he wrote more about his homosexuality and drug use. Many critics felt that Gunn was wasting his poetic talents writing about these homoerotic experiences. However, he was inspired to write about what he saw. At the time, his housemate, who lived with him and his partner, was slowly dying from AIDS. Gunn stored these thoughts and emotions away later reflecting on these experiences in his work.
In 1992, Gunn's publication of The Man with Night Sweats, he expressed a collection that memorialized his friends and loved ones who had fallen victim of the AIDS pandemic. Although Gunn was HIV negative himself, he found a strong connection with people who had AIDS. He wrote of "a specific human catastrophe with the great themes of life and death, coherently, intelligently, memorably", (Academy of American Poets -- Biographies of American Poets). This collection as well as following works contained voice of directness and emotion which his earlier work did not include. Gunn received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for this collection in 1993.
As Gunn aged, his poems started to turn towards the subject of mortality. He wrote of love, it was often with a sense of irony. His 2000 publication of Boss Cupid, commented on how people often fall in love with unsuitable partners because of the god of love. He also wrote of grim subjects such as Jeffrey Dahmer, twentieth-century, gay, murderer and cannibal, in his work, "Troubadour". Writing this work from Dahmer's point of view, he exemplifies his sincere human understanding.
Gunn's writing was all personal. Following in an excerpt from his book, Collected Poems (1994). He wrote of a dinner that he had with a former student who was dying of AIDS. He was very upset because this student had great potential as a writer and he felt it was going to waist. He also had a bit of guilt that it was not himself dying.
Â Of course I simplify.
Of course. It tears me still that he should die
As only an apprentice to his trade,
The ultimate engagements not yet made.
His gifts had been withdrawing one by one
Even before their usefulness was done:
This optic nerve would never be relit;
The other flickered, soon to be with it.
Unready, disappointed, unachieved,
He knew he would not write the much-conceived
Much-hoped-for work now, nor yet help create
A love he might in full reciprocate. (Gunn 481).
It is easy to conclude that imagery was a strong point for Thom Gunn. His work was simply a reflection of the colorful life he led and how it made him feel. Although his topics were unconventional to poetry at the time they were written, they are relevant and found in many textbooks today.