From the Wave

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Thom Gunn, “From the Wave” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 2009 by Thom Gunn. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux .
Source: Selected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009)

Writing Ideas

  1. Choose a sport or outdoor activity that you might not consider the stuff of poetry. Like Gunn, describe a particular instance of the sport or activity in a formally compelling way.
  2. Circle all Gunn’s verbs. What do you notice about them? What work are they doing in the poem? Either replace Gunn’s verbs with your own to make a new poem, or use them to write a new poem (keep them in the same order as they appear in “From the Wave”).
  3. “From the Wave” is written in a rhyming stanza. Figure out the meter as well as rhyme scheme and use it as a formula for your own poem. Take one of Gunn’s lines or images as your title.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where is the poem syntactically contorted? What effects do inversions like those in stanza two create?
  2. How is the poem a single image and how is it composed of a series of images? What visual cues does Gunn include and when? Think about how linguistic choices—verbs, adjectives, syntax—create or delay what and when you “see” the wave.
  3. Think about Gunn’s title: what might the preposition “from” signify? Where does the perspective the poem takes up seem to be positioned? 

Teaching Tips

  1. Thom Gunn was well known for writing about non-traditional subjects in traditional poetic forms. Use Gunn’s poem to think about subject matter, style, and signature. Ask students to guess when “From the Wave” was written, or the kind of poet who wrote it. What assumptions about era or author do they make based on the poem’s style? When they consider its subject matter? Before reading Joshua Weiner’s poem guide, have students find a few other poems by Thom Gunn, either from the Poetry Foundation Archive or anthologies or other websites. What does this poet seem to be interested in? What is surprising or unusual about his work? Have students keep a list of subjects, forms, and styles. Ask them to think about Gunn’s signature—that is, what are the defining characteristics of his poems? If they had to help someone pick out a Thom Gunn poem from a line-up, how would they describe it? Have students read Weiner’s guide or Gunn’s biography. End class by asking students to think about what is unusual or defining about their own poetry. What is their poetic signature?
  2. Use “From the Wave” to get students thinking about prosody. Have them read Weiner’s guide critically: do they agree with this claims for the poem’s metrical effects? In pairs, ask students to suggest alternative readings of the poem’s meter. Have students read Gunn’s poem aloud a few times in pairs. Don’t hold back! Ask them to think about how rhyme and meter build a kind of dramatic arc into the poem itself. Have them keep track of where the meter rises and falls: where do they see the most exciting moments of the poem occurring? How does the poem itself cue where and when their own voices should modulate? Have students then attempt to stage dramatic, not-so-dramatic, and “flat” or affect-less readings of the poem. What do their voices want to do? In conclusion, you might have students each try the third writing idea from above.