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Summer 2005

On Thom Gunn

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Mike Kitay

Before I met Thom, I read him.

At the start of my first year at Cambridge, Karl Miller wrote a profile of Thom for Varsity, the university newspaper, in which he quoted a few lines, "possible his finest lines," from "The Beach Head."

I read the profile and the lines and, a few weeks later, the poem. I was smitten.

Although he included it in Fighting Terms, Thom came to dismiss "The Beach Head" as minor. I loved it then; I still do.

Before he met me, Thom saw me, onstage, playing one of the cadets in Cyrano de Bergerac. Tony White, his great friend, who was the inspiration for "The Beach Head," played Cyrano.

We finally met, Thom and I, at the Cyrano cast party on December 7, 1952.

The first time I heard Thom speak in public was the following term, when, as president of the English Club, he introduced Angus Wilson. He was nervous, of course, and awkward but charming. I'm not sure where or when he gave his first poetry reading but he was no less nervous. Afraid that, if he took the time to read slowly and pause occasionally, he'd lose the audience, he rushed. He didn't want to sound too actorish, too Dylan Thomasy. He didn't like his voice, too high and thin; his accent, too English. It was a wonder, then, to witness the Extreme Makeover: he got to be so good! His voice was high and thin but its limitations allowed him to dramatize just enough. And the accent, or the remains of it, counteracted any flatness and helped him achieve a pleasing balance of sound and sense.

What impressed me also was his manner, his remarks before and between poems. How assured he became, how funny! No less awkward but even more charming. Any occasion that was even vaguely formal made Thom uncomfortable, and I sometimes thought that the reason he appeared awkward was that he had to "dress" for readings. He always wore the same thing: a black vintage sports jacket; dark jeans; a "nice" laundered shirt (one of many given to him by me); and his boots. He couldn't not wear his boots. Casual enough but not what Thom would choose to wear. In any case, even uncomfortable, he was a pro, and either because of or in spite of that, his comments and his comments on his comments, his little asides, were not only funny, they seemed spontaneous. (Sometimes, of course, they were.) Behind a lectern, Thom, to me, was masterful. Awkward, charming, masterful, modest.

At home, if you didn't know who he was, you'd never guess. He liked to clown around. He'd do his Vincent Price limp; his Instant Face Lift; make one of many rude sounds. His energy was awesome and he did a kind of tap dance with a big finish: one hand over his head, he'd twirl around. If you didn't laugh, he'd twirl the other way and add a curtsy. Just before he swallowed a mouthful of food, he'd show it to you. YECH! The more grossed-out you were, the harder he'd laugh. Thom liked to shock. No, loved to shock. But that, of course, wasn't just at home.

After he retired, Thom kept saying how happy he was. He said it often; too often and too loudly. He wanted to have A Good Time and he wanted to have A Good Time the way he'd always had A Good Time. But he was seventy now, a seventy-year-old gay man. Healthy, yes; lucky, yes; but still...

And he couldn't write.

He enjoyed going out for lunch. And reading. Lots of that. And drinking. Even more of that. Several afternoons a week, he'd go out to his bar and stay out till dinnertime. He was flattered by the smallest attention. He needed people to think he was happy. And mostly he appeared happy, even manic. But sometimes, when no one else was around, he'd lean against the kitchen sink and bow his head and moan, "I'm old! I'm old!" I never thought I'd hear him complain like that or admit to being depressed, but in his last year or so, I did.

Thom was easily bored but slow to anger. I can't think of a time when he lost his temper. When he got angry with me, he didn't let on. He didn't like shows of emotion. He didn't like problems. And most certainly he didn't like to talk about problems, which was a problem for me: I'm Jewish.

I don't know how he referred to me when I wasn't around, but when I was, it was only by name. He hated the word "partner." He wasn't fond of "gay." I was surprised to find how many of my letters he'd kept, a poem I wrote for his fortieth birthday. If Thom was sentimental about anything, it was our cats; particularly the dead ones. After a festive meal and a few tokes, he'd begin: Which cat was it, Rhoda or Pearl, that had learned to pee in the toilet? Which was The Ugly One? The Dumb One? The One with the Most Personality? Mona? June? Roger? Remember when Rhoda OD'd on catnip and fell off the fence?

When people asked me right after he died if there was going to be a service for him, I thought: They're kidding, right? A service? For Thom? He'd turn over in his urn! But what if there had been? Would I have said anything? "Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest"? And I choke up. Because one morning, less than a year before he died, out of the overcast gray sky, Thom told me how little he liked those lines, how sentimental they were. "That may be," I said, "but they work; they make me cry." "That may be, but what do they mean? Angels! Really. Flights of angels." Well, perhaps; but I think of those lines now, and of him, and I cry.

When we were at Stanford, I directed the first act of Marching Song, by John Whiting. As the curtain opens, the characters are watching the very end of a movie. Since we, the audience, see it too, I needed a movie. Because it was silent and so short and of little consequence and I was busy rehearsing the play, I waited to the last minute to make it. Luckily, I had an agreeable cast of one: Thom. He asked me what he should do. I was distracted, trying to figure out how to use the borrowed camera. "I don't know. Whatever you feel like. Go crazy." Who knew he'd take direction so well? He ran down the ravine behind Alma Street, where we lived, pretending he was being chased, tearing off his shirt and waving it over his head and laughing that laugh.

Yes, Thom, that was great. No, Thom, you can't do it again.

I haven't been able to find that little piece of film history since we moved from North Beach thirty-four years ago. But I never throw anything away and who knows, it might turn up. I hope so. I'd love to see it again.

Mike Kitay lives in San Francisco in Cole Valley and has lived there since 1971, when it was still called the Haight.

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