Thursday, September 6, 2012

Not Waving But Drowning by Stevie Smith

Posted as part of The Poetry Project hosted by Regular Rumination and The Written World

Things have been CRAZY at work. Normally by four weeks in, the students and I have established a routine and worked out the beginning of the semester kinks; however, we've been contending with new books, new software, and renovations that have disrupted the flow of the semester. Gradually, though, I see us getting in the groove.

This morning when I got up unbearably early to prepare for a day of teaching and back to back conferences, I was reminded of British poet Stevie Smith's, "Not Waving but Drowning." I had a phenomenal Brit. Lit. Poetry teacher in graduate school who introduced me to Stevie Smith and other intriguing British, Scottish, and Irish women poets. This particular poem struck me as a representation of my life in graduate school at the time. I put on the happy face; I was successful; no complaints here! But in reality I was not "waving" cheerily from the shore but drowning under a mountain of stress and research and grading. I made it though, and I think I'm better for it. I know I will say the same from the other side of this tempest I'm currently swirling in, but until then, I'm not waving but drowning.

Not Waving But Drowning
By Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Published 1957


  1. I remember feeling the same way when I was in grad school and now it seems like a dream. It couldn't have been that bad, could it?

    What struck me most were the lines in the poem where the dead man lay moaning. It's as if no one at all recognized his most dire distress.

    I just wish I could toss you a life preserver.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. My husband and I got to celebrate the birth of their first child with some dear friends this weekend, which was life-giving. That's what I love about this Stevie Smith poem. It reminds us that it's all about perspective.

  2. I'd forgotten this poem but yeah, what a good one for the start of another academic year!

  3. I've got a question for you, what separates this poem from the works of the earlier century?

    1. I actually posted my reply as a separate comment on this post - I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. What a thought provoking question! I have been considering it in the back of my mind all morning. I don't even pretend to be intimately familiar with a myriad of poetic conventions. My undergraduate work was in mostly Brit. Lit, focused on the Romantics. However, from a generic standpoint, I see "Not Waving But Drowning" to represent that darker, skepticism that characterized later 19th century, early 20th century work. Early 19th century work was more naturally and spiritually focused - at least in my experience. However, "Not Waving But Drowning" was published mid-twentieth-century as the transition from 1950s domesticity was making way for 1960s freedoms. Although the central figure in the poem is a man, the reader has to consider that Stevie Smith was a woman and the accompanying image (not included in my post) is of a figure with long hair covering its face - implying a more feminine persona. Maybe Smith was writing about the struggles she was facing as a modern woman. I realize as I am writing this though that I am considering a more American point of view in my 1950s/1960s observations. Smith was British and considered an oddity by many for her poetry, drawings, and performances. Perhaps she was merely expressing the dual facades she felt dueling within herself. Regardless of a specific interpretation, I believe readers can agree there is a personal, internal tension in this poem that is at odds with the natural, spiritual, and/or political tensions that characterized the poems of the 19th century. What are your thoughts?