Tennessee folklorist and humorist Richard M. Gunn, more commonly known as “Pek” Gunn, born in Pinewood in Hickman County, was appointed Poet Laureate of Tennessee in 1971, and held the position until 1994.
Married early to Frances Thompson, he furthered his patronage as a Tennessean. He became a member of ASCAP (American Society Composers, Authors, and Publishers), the Tennessee Folklore Society, and a lifetime member of Alpha Kappa Si fraternity.
He released two books of poetry that successfully depicted the south. Keep on Laughin’ was published in 1963, and Tumblin’ Creek Tales in 1975. His poems can be very nostalgic for a native reader, full of fervent enthusiasm towards Tennessee culture.
A collaboration of his vivid imagery and precise diction provides a sense of culture. Gunn’s usage of traditional southern pronunciations and quirky dialects elicits an inflection of hospitality and depicts the humanity of Southerners, allowing them to shine through his poems.
Part of the territory that goes along with being poet laureate for a state is creating poetry that marks, illuminates, and emphasizes the importance of historical happenings. On March 13, 1975, “Pek” penned a poem in dedication to the bicentennial. “The Tennessee Salute” is a motivational poem referencing economic strengths and portraying the state in a subtle yet, exaggerated complimentary light.
Gunn tied this speech-like poem of dedication to the patriotic tune and revisits the empowering words of “America the Beautiful” through the mention of “fields of grain” and “purple mountains.” The line, “Tennessee, your lakes are playgrounds where the water skiers sway” embellishes the state’s abundant natural resources, bodies of water and agrarian opportunities, and makes them seem like daily adventures for its citizens, rather than a commerce benefit.
“Little Mischief” was written by Gunn when the raccoon was inducted as the official state animal.
His rhythmic phrases have often been called “Gunn shots,” reflecting his quick wit. Gunn’s poems are thought by many to have subtle religious tones. They are not brazenly Christian, but the messages he sends are often encouraging and uplifting.
In From Humble Beginnings: Songs of a Native Son, Frank Andrews, a man who knew “Pek,” dedicated a poem to him for his 80th birthday. Andrews complimented Gunn by saying, “There’ll never be another man whose pen will sing such words.”
Gunn died on February 25, 1995, at 91, of congestive heart failure.
Tumblin’ Creek Tales and Other Poems, 1963
“Keep on Laughing”: It’s Good for What Ails You!: Nostalgic Humor in Verse and Short Story, 1975
Richard M. Gunn’s “Frettin'” at Ancestry.com:
Richard M. Gunn’s page at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga: