Poem Guide

Thom Gunn: “From the Wave”

Touch, risk, trust, improvisation—“the intellect as powerhouse of love.”

At the time of his death in 2004, Thom Gunn was considered by many to be one of the best poets writing in English. Born in England in 1929, but a resident of San Francisco since the mid-1950s, Gunn was one of the 20th-century’s true masters of poetic form. He broke open traditional English prosody with unconventional free-verse rhythms at a time when few English poets considered such experimentation. More notoriously, he broadened the range of acceptable subjects for poetry by applying a tough, brainy style and a sophisticated sense of poetic structure to the “low” material of pop culture icons (Elvis Presley), outlaw figures (biker gangs, bums, punks), and “illicit” activities (taking LSD, homosexual trysts). The controversy was never about the appearance of slumming—after all, Gunn also wrote poems about “Jesus and His Mother,” “St. Martin and the Beggar,” and Caravaggio’s painting (“In Santa Maria del Popolo”). Rather, he refused to make distinctions between “high” and “low” culture; he avoided privileging one over the other, and wrote about whatever interested him.  

It was this refusal to discriminate between suitable and unsuitable, to indulge in convenient exclusions and received notions, that caused the controversy surrounding his work. Gunn was devoted to maintaining continuities between what appeared to be oppositions, in his life as well as in his art (England/America, meter/free verse, visionary/mundane experience). He preferred to think of himself as “Anglo-American”—a transatlantic hybrid (he never traded in his British passport, but visited England with diminishing frequency, and for shorter and shorter periods). This fusion of identity is worth keeping in mind when considering “From the Wave,” a poem about surfers, themselves a hybrid of human and wave. The poem is from the book Moly (1971), which opens with a centaur poem and is followed by another one in the voice of a sailor in Odysseus’s crew who has been turned into a pig by the witch Circe. Questions of identity and fusions of form are at the thematic heart of the book, and “From the Wave” carries the reader from heroic legend into a contemporary world still vibrant with transformational possibilities.  

Touch, risk, trust, improvisation—these are the four key words in Gunn’s body of work. While the words evoke the body at play and in relation to others, they also constitute ideas about experience grounded in physical life and emotional intimacy: as cardinal directions, they guided Gunn on the existential quest that was his whole writing life, and helped him map what he called in a later poem “the intellect as powerhouse of love.” What that means, in part, is that Gunn not only renders his experience, he tries to understand it, to interpret it in a way that reveals new depth, new dimension, and new intensity, and to do so in a manner that arrives at plausible conclusions.

“From the Wave” is a kind of imagist poem, which discovers an idea about experience in the rising shape of the wave and the surfers who ride it. Perhaps only Gunn, an English poet exploring American subjects in 1971, could fuse William Carlos Williams’s imperative “no ideas but in things” with an accentual-syllabic cross-rhymed stanza straight out of the Elizabethan songbook (WCW tried it himself, unsuccessfully, as a young man). Here are the first two stanzas:

It mounts at sea, a concave wall
      Down-ribbed with shine,
And pushes forward, building tall
      Its steep incline.

Then from their hiding rise to sight
      Black shapes on boards
Bearing before the fringe of white
      It mottles towards.

Each line of the poem is measured precisely in alternating lines of tetrameter and dimeter, but the measure is not only metrical, it’s also determined by how each line adds a piece of visual, aural, or ideational information to the incrementally growing image of the wave and the surfers, just as the wave gathers itself toward the shore. The first and third lines, the longer lines, of each stanza surge forward, while the second and fourth lines seem to pull back because they’re so much shorter: by virtue of its meter, the stanza creates a sense of the wave’s motion. The mimesis is in the meter. Rhythm, measure, and verse movement create an aural image of the wave.

The technical skill required for such effects is evident everywhere in the poem, but it wouldn’t matter unless it served the imagination. Take, for example, the second word of the poem, “mounts.” The wave mounts at sea: it’s ascending, becoming a mountain, “building tall” into a tall building. But it is an animal as well, soon to be ridden by the surfers who will “mount” it. Such wordplay is rich wit that intensifies imagination with its next fresh vision of the wave “down-ribbed with shine.” How marvelous an image! As a fusion of animal and light, the wave is supernatural, both creature and phenomenal force. The poem’s exemplary concision and compression, the muscularity of the verse that keeps us moving along its contours of sound and significance, can make such details easy to miss.

Can you hear the music in the second stanza? The three long “eye”-sounding vowels of “then from their hiding rise to sight”; the shift from short-long “ay” vowels (“black shapes”) to short-long “oh” vowels (“on boards”); the internal rhyme between “boards” and “before” that preempts and thickens the end-rhyme with “towards”—consonance, assonance, and other kinds of acoustic correspondence gather up, intensify with increase, and push forward like the wave. It is a verbal wave that represents the phenomenal one. Notice, for example, how the “black shapes” of the surfers are tucked, as a phrase, in the curl of the stanza—a concrete effect—the typographical overhang extending past the surfers like a wave crest:

Then from their hiding rise to sight
      Black shapes on boards
Bearing before the fringe of white
      It mottles towards.

The surfers here are abstracted—black shapes seen from the distance of the shore—and the abstraction adds to a sense of them as emblems as well as physical figures. They begin to seem part of the larger paradox of life, the body, and the mind: stillness at the center of motion.

This paradox of stillness at the center of motion is a fundamental fact of life. The planet, by spinning on its axis, creates a force that makes the wave. The wave, a result of motion that takes the form of a poised stillness, is an image of it, too. The motion of the mind creates the force of consciousness; the poem is linguistic movement that takes the form of a poised comprehension. The apparent subject—the surfers—rides a serious and complex theme worthy of our attention. Surfer and poem are both “from the wave.”  

Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight
      With a learn’d skill.
It is the wave they imitate
      Keeps them so still.

Twenty-two words, twenty-one of them monosyllables. And a phrase such as “Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight,” with its perfectly balanced split, makes clear the potency of a consummate plain style, sensitive to rhythmic weight and acoustic duration—out of language, the poet makes what he sees in the world. Gunn is not satisfied to simply assert that the surfers imitate the wave; he shows you how, in the poise of the weight (an abstraction of the body) and the curl of the feet (physical particularity).

The poem is eight stanzas, and the rising action of the first three crests or climaxes right at the midpoint, in stanzas four and five:

The marbling bodies have become
     Half wave, half men,
Grafted it seems by feet of foam
     Some seconds, then,

Late as they can, they slice the face
      In timed procession:
Balance is triumph in this place,
      Triumph possession.

Well, it is a kind of triumph of the will, but the power is personal, the self-determination of the surfers who make an art out of their sport and the poet who makes his play in an artistic medium. If it is a triumph, the possession is fleeting, and to regain it requires continual devotion. The wave is a process, a figure of duration and of life as it gathers, takes shape, and runs itself out; to possess it is to be one with it, to ride it out with poise, balance, skill, and a sense of fun. There is, too, a patina of sex and violence in words such as “mount,” “slice,” and “possession” that conveys some of the excitement and danger of succeeding in one’s venture. Gunn injects some heat into the classicism. Here, in the climactic stanzas, the full image of the surfers as “half wave, half men” comes into being. These new types of mermen are no mere fancy—the vision is prepared for and based on observation of the world, not imaginative flight from it.

“Timed procession” is a good definition of how meter works, and you can sense, simply by listening to the poem, the dramatic significance of that sentence as it reaches the syntactic pinnacle at the word “then” in line 16, and continues over the boundary of the stanza, precisely where all the other stanzas stop with a period, to hang and then push onto the next one.   Again,

Grafted it seems by feet of foam
      Some seconds, then,

Late as they can, they slice the face
      In timed procession:

“Late” occurs in the sentence as late as it can, like the surfers who time themselves with such precision, and are also like words (black shapes) riding the wave of syntax.

The sexual connotation of such fluid possession gains definition in the sixth stanza, as a kind of postcoital relaxing.

The mindless heave of which they rode
       A fluid shelf
Breaks as they leave it, falls and, slowed,
      Loses itself.

Possession depends on procession. The best words in the best order offer a figurative logic that moves persuasively from world to image to idea.

Clear, the sheathed bodies slick as seals
      Loosen and tingle;
And by the board the bare foot feels
      The suck of shingle.

They paddle in the shallows still;
       Two splash each other;
Then all swim out to wait until
       The right waves gather.

Slick as seals, the surfers now play in the water, splashing each other in the interlude before their next adventure, when human will and body shall once again be tested. Surfers spend most of their time waiting for the right waves to gather; poets, too. But we all wait for a gathering force in our lives to carry us—in sport, in sex, in making art—to be transported into a world of legend. We all wait to be transformed, to know the continuity between visionary and everyday consciousness. Thom Gunn discovered the connection by watching surfers closely, and he discovered the rule of force that controls them, him, and all of us. He brought us all in alignment as only a great poet can. Touch, risk, trust, and improvisation.

                                             —for Craig Arnold

Originally Published: June 3rd, 2009

Joshua Weiner was born in Boston and grew up in central New Jersey. He is the author of three books of poems, The World’s Room (2001) and From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013).Weiner earned a BA from Northwestern University and a PhD from...

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  1. June 17, 2009
     Edward Mycue

    as we grow, we change--birthslug, toddler,
    child, preteen brainiac inthrough series of akwardness bootielateralliciously present
    into normatively developing willfullness (named transformations as the symbols
    of changing forms comes to a dead end).
    who we were & are will range, emerge & extend in the scale mature notions permit
    & this thom gunn embraces in his poetry.
    read in it and you'll discover your own life. edward mycue