Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A New Perspective

A few days ago, as part of The Poetry Project, hosted by Regular Rumination and The Written World, I shared a poem by Stevie Smith entitled "Not Waving But Drowning."  My previous post shared this poem in the context of my current stress and workload without bothering to comment on the structure or meaning of the poem itself.  As I tell my students, all reading and writing begins in a subjective place, with you orienting yourself to text and topic; however, what distinguishes a good scholar is the ability to then step back and take a more objective look at the piece, which is what I would like to do now with Smith's poem.

I love two things about this piece:
  1. The repetition
  2. It's message about perspective
In the poem, the title "not waving but drowning" is integrated into the opening and closing stanzas.  Both times it follows similar yet markedly different lines about how "far out" the speaker of the poem is.  In the first stanza, the speaker addresses the reader using the pronoun you - almost accusingly - stating, "I was much further out than you thought" (emphasis mine).  In the concluding stanza, the speaker, with an almost melancholic turn, states to no one in particular that "I was much too far out all my life." This shift in perspective from open to close is notable because the speaker is no longer focusing on an isolated event but all the events that made up her entire life.  "All my life," says the speaker, I have been the odd man out, and no one noticed, no one cared.

The question the reader is left to ask is this: Who was the speaker fooling?  Herself or those around her?  For whom did the show play out?  Is the speaker realizing for the first time that she has been hiding her true feelings, her drowning, behind a seemingly happy-go-lucky facade of waving, or is she accusing the reader of not paying close attention and mistakenly interpreting the panicked flailing of the drowning as an "all's well here!" wave?

The answer will vary depending on the reader and the reader's current state of mind as I have already demonstrated in my two different posts on the poem.  Ultimately, I think Smith is encouraging us to stop and look again from a different angle.  We may be surprised by what we see.

If you would like to join the conversation, comment below or visit Regular Rumination for information about The Poetry Project.  See a list of current participants here.


  1. Oh wonderful I had forgotten about Stevie Smith's poetry and have added her to my post too. Yes I agree with you about those lines Not waving but drowning and I was much farther out than you thought. Really draws the reader in to the mood and theme.