Obituaries: Thom Gunn, Leo Postman
05 May 2004
The renowned poet Thom Gunn, a former teacher of creative writing at Berkeley, died April 25 of a heart attack at his home in San Francisco. He was 74.
A British expatriate educated formally at Cambridge and Stanford, Gunn emigrated to the West Coast in the 1950s, embraced the freedoms of the San Francisco counterculture, and made them the subject of much of his art. He taught at Berkeley from 1958 to 1966, gave up his tenured position in the English department (accounts say he “hated meetings”), then taught in the department as a lecturer for several decades, until 2000.
More rock star than professor in appearance, as one critic has described him, Gunn was a rigorous teacher with a larger-than-life persona in the classroom. David Gewanter, an associate professor of English at Georgetown University who earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at Berkeley, recalls a handsome and thin man with neatly pressed cowboy shirts, pointy boots, a small earring, and a massive tattoo on his forearm (“You’d see a bit of it, and never more”). “Thom was always polite, delighted at raucous jokes and banter, kept his silence but had a loud, boisterous voice…. He became a cult figure amongst the writers-manqué.”
Under his tutelage, students got “no free-verse circus,” but initially, at least, much “practice in strict verse forms” and encouragement in reaching for “clarity and spareness of poetic statement,” recalls Ralph Rader, professor emeritus of English. “His students appreciated his discipline and care and rated him very highly as a teacher.”
At home with formal rhyme as well as free verse, Gunn wrote of themes common to most poets — family, nature, friends — but also about LSD, bikers, the gay bathhouse scene, AIDS, rock stars, and serial killers. His students, likewise, were free to address a full range of subjects, though never to “take advantage of human stories for aesthetic effects” or to “‘score points’ off of people’s problems,” Gewanter recalls.
Gunn was born in Kent, England, in 1929 to journalist parents who divorced when he was nine. Six years later, his mother committed suicide by inhaling gas — an event he wrote of decades later in an autobiographical poem, “The Gas Poker.” After completing the British equivalent of high school, Gunn did two years of required service in the British army and lived in Paris for six months. In 1950, then a student at Cambridge’s Trinity College, he published his first poem, in a student magazine, and met his life partner, Mike Kitay, an American.
Gunn moved to the West Coast in 1954 — the same year he published his first collection — to work on a master’s degree at Stanford. He was hired at Berkeley four years later. “His moderate workday habits were ‘balanced,’” says Gewanter, by “an entirely wild nightlife, one that poked holes in — or simply stabbed — the lineaments of bourgeois life.” He never owned a car and rode the “F” bus between campus and San Francisco, where he lived for years in a communal household in the Haight and hung out with bikers, “non-belongers,” and “odd men out” — people he “humanized and made loveable” in his writing, says fellow poet Phillip Levine.
Perhaps his best-known collection, The Man With Night Sweats (1992), is a tribute to friends touched by AIDS. According to Gewanter, “He held this stunning book in his drawer for 10 years, because he didn’t want to be without poems once this book came out. When he finally published it, he had two more manuscripts done.” In its title poem, Gunn wrote in the voice of an AIDS patient:
I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead
Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
Hardy, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Sartre were early influences on Gunn’s work, as was his teacher at Stanford, Yvor Winters; he liked Ben Jonson as well as Robert Duncan. In all he published more than 30 volumes in the United States and England.
His admirers were many. Gunn won high honors on both continents — among them Britain’s £10,000 Forward Prize, the David Cohen British Literature Prize, and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. His reading audience has been said to be split, notes Gewanter, “between those who loved the formal rigor, those who appreciated the nobility and candor of gay life expressed, those who loved the radical sense of vision and experience from California, those who wanted more from the best formalist in English…. Those audiences are now united in being separated from him.”
Thom Gunn is survived by his partner, Mike Kitay; his youngest brother, Ander Gunn of Penzance, England; an aunt, and several nieces and nephews.
— Cathy Cockrell
Leo Joseph Postman, professor emeritus of psychology and a dominant figure in the study of human memory, died on April 22 of heart failure at his home in Marblehead, Mass. He was 85.
Postman was “a major theoretician in the development of the theory of forgetting,” said friend and colleague Donald Riley, professor emeritus of psychology. “His contributions were monumental.”
Postman was listed in a 2002 article in the Review of General Psychology as one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the last century.
“Within the field of human memory, the range of his contributions has been vast,” wrote one of his former students, Geoffrey Keppel, professor emeritus of psychology, in recommending Postman for the Berkeley Citation. Postman received the award, the highest honor given to Berkeley faculty and staff, upon his retirement in 1987.
In 1961, Postman founded the Institute of Human Learning at Berkeley, which lives on today as the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, a center devoted to an interdisciplinary study of the mind and the brain.
Postman primarily studied perception, learning, and memory. He participated in the beginnings of the “new look” school of perception that emphasized the role of cognitive factors such as emotions and expectations in determining what people perceive.
His main interest, however, was forgetting. Based on studies he began in 1958, he became known as the principal spokesman for and architect of modern interference theory, the only comprehensive account of forgetting that exists today. The theory, Keppel wrote, holds that forgetting is the result of interference from a variety of sources, including past memories, various aspects of the current memory, and new memories acquired subsequently — that is, a dynamic interaction of the entire memory system, past and present.
Postman also was sensitive to the weaknesses of the theory, and spent the last part of his career investigating the mechanisms that conserve memory in the face of interference. Much of this research was conducted at the institute he founded and directed until 1977.
Postman, who also served as chair of the Department of Psychology for several years in the late 1950s, had a reputation for excellence in teaching, emphasizing clarity and organization.
Born June 7, 1918, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Postman moved at an early age to New York City, obtaining his B.S. from the College of the City of New York in 1943 and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1946. He taught at Harvard from 1946 until 1950, interrupted by one year at Indiana University, and joined the Berkeley faculty in 1950.
In his first years at Berkeley, Postman was recognized nationally as a major figure in the field of perception and the role of motivation in perception. His research shifted, however, and he embarked on a long series of studies on learning with and without the intent to learn (the latter being what is referred to as incidental learning). He later switched to the study of forgetting, which he pursued until his retirement.
A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Psychological Association, he also served in 1968 as president of the Western Psychological Association, and in 1974 received the Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists for outstanding achievement in experimental psychology.
Postman was married for 58 years to Dorothy Lerman Postman, who for many years worked with her husband at Berkeley and shared his love of psychology and of reading. They met when, as a graduate student teaching assistant, he graded her psychology paper. The couple moved to Marblehead a decade ago. In 2003, Dorothy Postman, who had a B.A. from Radcliffe College and an M.A. in psychology from Wellesley College, died after a long illness. Leo Postman leaves a sister- and brother-in-law, Lorraine and Edward Berman, of Marblehead, a niece and three nephews.
He was buried at Temple Sinai in Danvers, Mass., on April 25.
— Robert Sanders