Stevie Smith’s Poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’

Smith
Pictured is Stevie Smith, courtesy of Wikipedia.

I get giddy when I discover new poems, even if they’re poems that are quite famous. I can’t have engaged with every famous bit of art, right? That’s the exciting thing about life: always learning, always soaking up more awesome art.

Today’s poem I want to share is from Stevie Smith, aka, Florence Margaret Smith, an English poet and novelist between the 1930s and 1960s.

I’m attracted to Smith’s poetry because it blends two styles I like to think I play with: dark, but with bouts of levity. In my own work, particularly poetry and haiku poems, I like to dig deep into my darkness, but I also like to be playful and silly.

Perhaps her best known poem is the one I want to share with you: Not Waving but Drowning. The title tells a beautiful and dark story, but here it is in full:

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.

In the 1995, the BBC’s book program, The Bookworm, conducted a poll to discover the nation’s favorite poem, and out of 12,000 votes, this poem was the fourth most popular and liked poem.

I think this poem expresses that darkness with that bout of levity, as it were. For one, the poem seems to be describing a man drowning, obviously, but also, we get lines like, “Poor chap, he’s always loved larking/and now he’s dead.” It comes across like dark humor. I would even say sarcastic.

But it also seems to be a bit of a metaphor for life. Consider when the poem switches to the first-person at the end, “I was much too far out all my life/and not waving but drowning.” That is, it could be said that people whose lives are ended too short (by suicide) are constantly putting up red flags (signaling for help as they “drown”) that people instead mistake for “waving.” Additionally, that such a person may have lived a life too cold (“oh, no no no, it was too cold always”), or, in other words, unable to connect with people, so those other people didn’t notice the red flags? Or understand them? There’s also a desperation in the repeated use of “no” there that distresses me. Like there’s almost a sort of fatalistic inevitability to it all. That, when the ends comes, and you are also drowning, you know nobody will understand that you aren’t actually waving, but … drowning.

Perhaps it’s not that dark, though. It’s almost like the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf? That if you’re always larking and being goofy, then people won’t take you seriously? Heck, maybe it’s Smith saying, if you interject some levity into a poem, people won’t take you seriously as a poet?

There seems to be a few different ways to read this poem. Which way do you read it?

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