Leaving aside the fact that there will always be some who disapprove of Thom Gunn on principle, it would be easy to read his life and career as a cautionary tale: the young poet of prodigious assurance and power, a modern Metaphysical, who squandered his gifts on the hippydom of 1960s California, slackened his line, coarsened his feelings, and banalized his diction. Those who think this might concede that his elegies to AIDS victims in the early 1990s marked a partial return to form, followed by the unevenness of his last volume, Boss Cupid (2000).

Not surprisingly, Gunn did not see things that way. For him, the much-admired early poem “On the Move” exhibited an excessive formality and abstraction, as well as a kind of posing, from which he later sought to break free. The poems—many, ironically, in strict meter—that he wrote under the influence of drugs gave him the courage to use...


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