Audience enjoys works of respected poet Gunn

Adam Ptashkin

In his poem “Human Condition,” Thom Gunn wrote, “I am condemned to be an individual.” The line sums up one aspect of his poetry: It often examines the emotions of nonconformists.

Gunn spoke Thursday night in Harris Hall as part of his role as a writer-in-residence at Northwestern’s Center for Writing Arts.

Reading from his work, the 71-year-old poet touched on the highlights of counterculture in the United States, including the drug culture of the 1960s.

Gunn, who last spoke at NU in 1981, was born in Gravesend, England, and moved to San Francisco in 1954, where he lives now.

He has published more than 30 books and countless essays in the United States and Britain, with publication dates ranging from the 1950s to 2000. Last year, his “Boss Cupid” received critical acclaim.

Speaking Wednesday night, he described the experiences that have inspired him, from the 1965 “summer of love” in San Francisco and his own LSD usage to the Vietnam War.

A trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., inspired him to write “Painting by Vuillard,” one of the poems Gunn presented as he gave the audience a taste of the poetic phases of his career.

In that poem, which is based on a painting of two old women, he writes that, “age is not simpler. Or less enjoyable, not dark … A young woman whose T-shirt bears the defiant word WHATEVER, and wrinkled folk with visored hats and cameras are vivid … as pungent and startling as good strong coffee tastes.”

After his own decades-long career, Gunn continues to work, write and teach. During his visit to NU, the Cambridge-educated poet and former University of California at Berkeley professor also will lecture a writing class on Friday and deliver a speech over the weekend.

Joshua Weiner, a visiting assistant professor of English, introduced Gunn.

“He’s important because as a young man he mastered traditional styles but later opened his work to new forms,” he said. “His body of works makes manifest the full range of formal adventures available in the forms of poetry.”

Based on his literary stature and ability to morph his poetic style over his career, Gunn is “great model for students,” Weiner said.

Students responded enthusiastically to Wednesday night’s reading by Gunn, a past winner of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award.

“I feel he made the reading real personal and casual. I really enjoyed the reading,” said Beatrice Holden, a Weinberg junior.

Speech junior Leigh Jansson said: “It’s neat to study someone in class and then hear a poet interpret his own work. You can’t get any more heartfelt than reading your own work.”

After his reading, Gunn said all 50 people in the audience were receptive.

“The audience was very bright and sympathetic and you really bounce off a sympathetic audience,” he said.