"Not Waving but Drowning" comes straight out of the longest, darkest night of the British poet Stevie Smith's soul. That's really saying something, too, because Smith is well known for a career's worth of gloomy and morbid lines.
She wrote the poem in 1953, during a period of deep depression. Even though she had gained some fame in the late 1930s and had recently performed her poems on three separate BBC programs, she was having trouble finding anyone to publish her new work. On top of that, she felt imprisoned by the secretarial job she had held for twenty years. Only a few months after writing "Not Waving but Drowning," she slashed her wrists in her office (source). Put in that context, this poem sure sounds like a cry for help.
But her depression isn't the only story of her life or writings. Smith has a childish and playful streak, too, which can give any topic a cheery or wickedly funny twist. The dead man of "Not Waving but Drowning" comes across a little like a whiner, and the oblivious friends seem like insensitive buffoons, making their inane comments over the man's corpse. We're given both perspectives, and invited to laugh a bit at each one, even as we sympathize with the dead man's complaint and the sadness of his death. Smith teaches us that everything—life and death—has a touch of the ridiculous.
The poem also echoes another quality of Smith's life: persistence. Just as the dead man keeps explaining his suffering, even when no one can hear him, she continued writing, even without an audience. In 1957, her new collection of poems also titled Not Waving but Drowning was finally published, and in the decade that followed she became more famous than ever as a reader (and sometimes singer) of her work. This poem remains the most popular of her writings, and she lived (unhealthy, but not unhappy) for another fourteen years.
When you get past the swimming metaphor of the poem, you'll find that the kind of isolation it describes is eerily familiar. After all, the world of social media works the same way. You have to put up a front to interact with friends, carefully selecting your profile information and status updates to make the best impression and keep people thinking that you're doing all right, that you aren't a total wacko, that you're cool.
But what if you're not all right? You either have to keep lying, or you risk reaching out with a sincere message, dreading that someone will think you're joking or that things can't be all that bad. What's worse than an LOL in response to your heartfelt cry for help? This poem is about that disconnection between what you feel and what you express, as well as what you express and what other people hear. But, more than that, it's also about the even worse fate of waiting to speak your mind until it's too late.
So if you've ever felt lonely at a party or despaired because even your best friends don't really understand you, then this is the poem for you. And if you've ever had to pretend to be happy for other people's sake, then Stevie Smith is your gal. We just hope you can learn from her example.