Although Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, is less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco, it sits alone in the landscape. The sense of ordered opulence on the campus is light-years away from the untidy, chaotic openness of the city on the bay. Of all the ghosts who wander Stanford’s halls, one of the most stern and powerful is that of the poet and critic Yvor Winters, an advocate of order and, indeed, of standing alone in the landscape. Winters was involved with the life of Stanford for almost forty years.
In 1954, soon after Thom Gunn’s first book, Fighting Terms, appeared, Winters wrote a wonderful letter to him. Aged twenty-six, Gunn was coming from England to study with him. Winters began by inviting the young poet to his house for supper as soon as he had located his lodgings in Palo Alto. “My most intimate friends are Airedales,” he wrote, “but I enjoy my poets, and during the school year I have not the time to see as much of them off the campus as I would like.”
Winters was disappointed that Gunn would see the Atlantic seaboard of the United States before he would see the West. “It is a dismal province,” he wrote,
and you will like the west the better, I suppose, for having seen the worst the first…. In California the earth is red on the western slope of the Sierras, and when you get down into the great valley, the grass will be dead and the air will be yellow. I find that I cannot endure to be far from the yellow air for very long. It is like gold to airy thinness beat, but it smells better.
Winters was right. Gunn would like the West; despite a few short absences, he was to remain in the Bay Area for the next fifty years until his death in 2004. Most of his half-century in the paradise that Winters described would be spent, however, not at Stanford where the air was yellow, but in San Francisco where the air was electric. The city’s street life and changing culture would become one of Gunn’s great subjects.
At first, however, Gunn had to be careful. In an interview he did with James Campbell, he explained that, while he had indeed come to California to study with Yvor Winters, he had left England “primarily to be in the same country as Mike [Kitay],” an American whom he had met in Cambridge, England, and with whom he spent the rest of his life. In his interview with Campbell, Gunn explained why, in his early love poems to Mike Kitay, he used “you” rather than “he” to disguise the gender of the loved one:
This was what Auden had always done. People say, “Why didn’t you come…
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