Gunn’s other, more instrumental mentor was Yvor Winters, whom he met when he moved to the United States to study at Stanford. Winters – “a kind of American Leavis”, in Gunn’s words – was a poet and teacher who promoted a rational, anti-romantic approach to literature. “I believe that literary work, insofar as it is valuable, approaches a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth,” Winters wrote, setting the pattern for Gunn’s work. In a 1969 letter to the poet Donald Hall, Gunn further clarifies his own aims: “My difference from most good people is that I am not primarily interested in capturing the thing itself or the experience itself. and producing it on its own terms, I’m interested in Why it seems important. To answer this question, Gunn uses the so-called simple style of poetry, which, as its name suggests, is clean, flexible verse that seeks to communicate something essential about the world. Under Winters’ guidance, Gunn traced lines between classical poetry and the work of modernists such as Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens.
A fun subplot of the letters is how often and in what direction Gunn revises his estimate of other writers. In a 1973 letter shortly after WH Auden’s death, Gunn praised his expatriate colleague as “the poet who has most profoundly influenced me”. A decade later, his tone hardens: “Now I find that I think very little of Auden… He’s just not a very serious poet. In 1954 he dismissed Marianne Moore as a “typical woman writer”, only to discover, in 1986, how “splendid” her work was. In 1956, Philip Larkin was “a nice quiet poet, but of no particular importance after all”, while two years later he was the only British poet living with Ted Hughes whom Gunn measured up to. Verdicts parade like barbed wire through the letters: WB Yeats (“irritating” and “pompous”); TS Eliot (“boring” and “inhuman”); Charles Olson (“inflated reputation”); Walt Whitman (“always bad”); Sylvia Plath (“disjointed” and “hysterical”); Adrienne Rich (“her poetry bores me”); John Ashbery (“you don’t even want want to know what he means”); Seamus Heaney (“I think it was invented by a committee of teachers with a sense of high fashion”).
Along with this literary education, Gunn articulates his sexuality and romantic potential. He knew he was gay early on, although his acknowledgment of this fact grew more brazen as cultural trends changed. In a 1952 letter to Karl Miller, a Cambridge schoolmate (and future founding editor of the London book review), Gunn writes about a girl he could have easily seduced. “It didn’t seem worth the experience if it were to be so sad,” he notes, adding, “It’s a shame to be perverted.” In December of that year, he met a young American, Mike Kitay, who was studying English at Cambridge. The following May, Gunn declared his love in effusive notes, and that summer the couple embarked on a European tour. “If he were a girl, it would be so much easier! I would marry her and everything would be resolved,” Gunn wrote to his friend Tony White.