Aug. 1, 2001

From the Wave

by Thom Gunn

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: “From the Wave,” by Thom Gunn from The Probable World (Penguin).

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.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Madison Smartt Bell, born in Nashville in 1957. He wrote All Souls' Rising in 1996, which is about a slave revolt in Haiti.

It's the birthday of writer Amy Friedman, born in 1952 in Cleveland. After college in New York City, she helped direct Hollywood films, then moved to rural Ontario, where she began a column for the Kingston Whig-Standard, took over a sheep farm and started her novels. She is the author of Kick the Dog and Shoot the Cat, and Bogart's Eyes.

It's the birthday in Brooklyn, 1940, of poet Hugh Seidman.

It's the birthday in Wilmington, Delaware, 1937, of poet Walter Griffin.

It's the birthday in New York, 1819, of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick and Billy Budd. He shipped out as a cabin boy to support the family after his father died, and put his seafaring experiences into his first two novels, Typee and Omoo. Melville wrote nearly one sea novel a year, almost all of which failed. Moby Dick came out in 1851 when Melville was 32 years old. Not until the 1920s, 30 years after Melville's death, did it get any recognition.

It's the birthday in 1770, Caroline County, Virginia, of William Clark. Early in the 19th century, along with Meriwether Lewis, he explored the vast, uncharted territory west of the Mississippi. The Lewis and Clark expedition set out from St. Louis in May of 1804. On his 35th birthday, August 1, 1805, Clark met a group of Indians not far from the Continental Divide. He wrote in his journal: "The Main Chief immediately tied to my hair Six Small pieces of Shells resembling pearl. He is a man of Influence, Sense & easy & reserved manners .... Even though they are half-starved, living on berries & roots which they gather in the plains, those people are not beggarly but generous, and only one has asked me for anything."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »