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Thom Gunn

On the move

More challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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"On the move" is one of Thom Gunn's earliest published pieces, exploring modern man's sense of alienation in the world and his lack of purpose.

A motorbike gang becomes the metaphor to explore this concept, for the bikers are a marginalised group within society -- perhaps even feared -- and ride their motorbikes with no defined purpose or goal.

They seldom know their destination. To be on the move is enough of a goal for them.


Thomson William Gunn was born in Kent (England) in August 1929, the son of a London journalist / editor and a mother -- whom he adored -- who was a left-wing socialite and an ex-journalist.

His parents would later divorce, whereupon his mother committed suicide when Gunn was just 15 years of age. The impact of this event would leave an indelible mark on the young man's mind and this would affect some of his later works.

He attended Trinity College in Cambridge, graduating with a B.A. in 1953. He recognised, however, that he was gay and so, believing he would be ostracised in England, he and his partner moved to San Francisco where homosexuality was more accepted.

He proceeded to Stanford University where he taught for a while, and graduated with an M.A. in 1958. He would then earn his primary income from teaching at the University of California at Berkeley.

This, however, was mostly on a part-time basis. Although he was a charismatic lecturer, he nevertheless resisted the temptations of pursuing a purely academic career.

Gunn is recognised as a major poet from the generation that included Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Indeed, many regard him as the finest of them all. He was also in love with the modern city, its speed and its anonymity -- and this too is reflected in his poetry.

He lacked a national identity. Although he was British, he lived in the United States and learned from modern American poetry but was never recognised as an American poet as such.

He had a relaxed manner and a raucous sense of humour. His love of vulgarity is said to have kept him youthful. He was also said to have been outstandingly handsome, something that women noticed but to their regret.

During the 1960s and 1970s Gunn, along with the hippies or bohemians of the age, explored the use of drugs -- especially LSD. Indeed, he appears to have thoroughly enjoyed the bohemian lifestyle which gave him the freedom to use drugs, practise homosexuality and, as a poet, to experiment with poetic form.

He died in April 2004 while still living in San Francisco. He was then almost 75 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh."
  • There is a distinct sexual image hidden in this line. Can you identify it? (4)

[Need help?]

"In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt -- by hiding it, robust --
And almost hear a meaning in their noise."
  • What point is the poet making when he speaks of "donned impersonality"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • The poet mentions the motorbikes, the jackets and the goggles. Why does he not mention crash helmets? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why should the gleaming jackets be "trophied with the dust"? (2)

[Need help?]

"Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, directions where the tires press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field."
  • What does the poet mean when he says, "Exact conclusion . . . has no shape yet, but . . . [the] directions where the tires press"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Is there a message in the words, "They scare a flight of birds across the field"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes."
  • One of the prescribed anthologies provides this commentary on the poem: "Humans make amazing machines . . . and even think they can make souls too." Is this actually what the poet is saying? (2)

[Need help?]

  • In what way might men manufacture their souls? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is it that men "imperfectly control"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • How do the bikers "dare a future from the taken routes"? (2)

[Need help?]

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