Born August 29, 1929, the elder son of Herbert Smith Gunn, journalist, and his wife Annie Charlotte (nee Thomson), also a journalist, is there recorded as William Guinneach Gunn. There is no mention of "Thom".
According to his younger brother, the photographer Ander Gunn, he was always known as Tom, though when or why that started no one seems to know. . . . Thom's earliest extant poem, published in a school magazine, is by T. W. Gunn - before he became Tommy.
. . . in 1949, just before he left the Royal Army Educational Corps, Sergeant William Guinneach Gunn changed his name by deedpoll to Thomson William Gunn.
Why would a young man just coming of age seek legal sanction to confirm an established nickname? The answer lies, I beleive, in his relations with his parents, both of them of Scottish origin. Guinneach is the Gaelic form of Gunn and must have represented, on the part of his father, some family and local piety. Its abandonment in favour not of Thomas, as it might have been, but of Thomason, his mother's maiden name, cannot be read as other than a rejection of his father. One function of the "h" must have been to suggest that the name was not simply short for Thomas. It remains "Tom" to the ear, however, and here is the paradox - this heavily masculine nomenclature - T[h]om added to the father's forceful surname - encodes the name of the poet's adored mother. Where he seems most masculine he covertly gives his allegiance to the female.
. . . the early books were affected by Existentialism. . . . There is no compulsion on us to be kind or brave or self-sacrificing: these are a matter of choice or preference . . . . And the choice follows from an earlier one, which Sartre's essay outlines: the choice of identity. To accept an imposed identity is to suffer from mauvaise foi, bad faith.
All poets needs a Muse, not only as inspiration but as an audience of one: the person the poet imagines himself addressing. The Muse being female, the relationship is usually thought of as erotic. For gay poets, as for women, it therefore presents a problem. It clearly did for Gunn as a young man, but by 1974 he had reached a resolution. "I used to believe my muse was male: but I've come to realize that [Robert] Graves is right, that the muse has to be female. The Goddess is a mother, not a wife or a lover. The feminine principle is the source and I think it dominates in male artists whether homo- or heterosexual."
[Is this true? It does not feel true for me. Not yet? Maybe? Never?]
The poem "A Plan of Self-Subjection", in what might now be seens as elaborated code, declares Gunn's wish to emulate, among others, "Coriolanus, who I most admire". It is a very odd choice of hero: for most readers, I would guess, not even a sympathetic one. The most fiercely and insensitively macho of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists, Caius Martius Coriolanus turns out to have a weakness: a devotion to his mother exceeding love of wife or son or native land.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
TLS April 25 2008
From Clive Wilmer's Commentary "The self you chooose" on Thom Gunn: