The poet Thom Gunn was well-established in the English department at U.C. Berkeley when I passed through it in the late 70's, but I never met or studied under or otherwise encountered him. In fact, it was not until the last 7 or 8 years that I started reading his poetry in any quantity. I pulled down my copy of his Collected Poems on Sunday evening, to add it to the reading/rereading stack by the bed, and learned only yesterday, as I was catching up again with a number of poetry weblogs, that he had died on Sunday at age 72. There are any number of citations, quotations and appreciations of his work accumulating online on the occasion of his passing -- e.g., these from Mike Snider and Jonathan Mayhew.
Some poets -- Dryden springs to mind -- emerge as primary eyewitnesses to their period. It was Thom Gunn's fate, surely unlooked for, to become one of the foremost chroniclers of the AIDS pandemic as it had its way with countless friends and acquaintances in the San Francisco gay community. The poems from that time -- most notably in his 1992 collection The Man With Night Sweats (also included in the "Collected") -- tie in to the centuries-long line of English elegists.
Gunn studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford in the late 1950s, and the two seem to have approved of one another. Gunn recently edited the new American Poets Project volume of Winters' Selected Poems, and included a poem "To Yvor Winters, 1955" -- there are Airedales in it -- in his 1957 collection, The Sense of Movement. More details on the Winters connection come from the Guardian's obituary:
It was primarily to be with Mike Kitay, his lifelong partner, that Gunn applied for a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University, California, which he was awarded in 1954 and where he worked with the great if wayward poet-critic Yvor Winters.
The juxtaposition of Gunn's metaphysical Englishness with Californian life and Winters' reaching is very evident in his second collection, The Sense Of Movement (1957), an exciting, deliberately provocative book whose distinctive energy comes from an apparent tension between form and content: traditional poetic structures and intellectual abstraction are deployed on subjects which include Hell's Angels, Elvis Presley, and a keyhole-voyeur in an hotel corridor.
Winters included his student compatriot Gunn in the relatively short list of contemporary poets whose work he found tolerable in his excellent study of the short poem in English, Forms of Discovery, and in the companion anthology Quest for Reality he reprinted this poem, which opens Gunn's 1961 collection My Sad Captains and is illustrated here with the painting to which it refers:
In Santa Maria del Popolo
Waiting for when the sun an hour or less
Conveniently oblique makes visible
The painting on one wall of this recess
By Caravaggio, of the Roman School,
I see how shadow in the painting brims
With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out
But a dim horse’s haunch and various limbs,
Until the very subject is in doubt.
But evening gives the act, beneath the horse
And one indifferent groom, I see him sprawl,
Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,
Where he has fallen, Saul becoming Paul.
O wily painter, limiting the scene
From a cacophony of dusty forms
To the one convulsion, what is it you mean
In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?
No Ananias croons a mystery yet,
Casting the pain out under name of sin.
The painter saw what was, an alternate
Candour and secrecy inside the skin.
He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent
Young whore in Venus’ clothes, those pudgy cheats,
Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,
For money, by one such picked off the streets.
I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel
To the dim interior of the church instead,
In which there kneel already several people,
Mostly old women: each head closeted
In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.
Their poor arms are too tired for more than this
-- For the large gesture of solitary man,
Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.