Seamus Heaney, who died yesterday at 74, never taught at Stanford, but he did visit here at least once. I was thumbing through Stepping Stones, the book-length Q&A with the late Dennis O’Driscoll, which I purchased after he mentioned it in his second letter to me (see yesterday’s post about that brief encounter here). As with my usual impulsive book purchases, I had more money than time, so I never did more than crack the spine. I did today though, and ran across this:
O’Driscoll: Did you meet Thom Gunn?
Heaney: During my later visit, yes, a couple of times. I don’t think we encountered in 1971/2. But when I was Beckman Professor [at the University of California] in 1976, Donald Davie organized a dinner in his house in Stanford and sent Alan Shapiro to collect me and drive me down. Alan was his graduate student at the time and had a car. Thom Gunn was a guest that evening also and the whole event went off with great brio; but what I remember most was the fact that Thom had hitch-hiked down from San Francisco. No pampering there – even the bus was too much for him. I think, by the way, that I stilll like the iambic, English side of Gunn better. Fighting Terms is a terrific first book; and there are poems like “The Discovery of the Pacific” and those late Dantesque treatments of the pre-AIDS gay scene in San Francisco. He can really build the pressure when his stanzas are working for him.
It wasn’t courage only that led Gunn to thumb his way down to Palo Alto from his Upper Haight apartment. He doesn’t drive, at all. Who needs to in San Francisco, he told me. (I suppose he still could have taken some sort of bus, if there was was one … which I doubt.)
To my knowledge, I was the last person to interview Thom Gunn. The Q&A ran posthumously in the Georgia Review in Spring 2005 – alas, it’s not online. Now Gunn did teach at Stanford, briefly, for one quarter. I wrote about that here.