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"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.
The Lowdown on Stevie Smith
Poetry Foundation hooks you up with the facts on Smith's work and her reputation as a strange poet and person. Make sure to look at the "Poems, Articles, & More" tab, too, where you'll find a bunch more to explore. We promise: "Thoughts About the Person from Porlock" will knock your socks off, or at least interrupt you while you're putting them on.
Want a little more info about her life? Check this site out, and you're welcome.
The Dead Man Speaks
Trevor Howard, billed as "The Man," creepily performs "Not Waving but Drowning" in the 1978 movie Stevie. He looks awfully dry to us.
Smith Introduces and Reads "Not Waving but Drowning"
A wonderful introduction to and reading of the poem by the poet herself, courtesy of Poetry Archive. Nobody does deadpan humor like she does. And nobody has such an awesome accent.
The Poem as Folk Song
Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt and friends play "Stevie Smith," a low-fi musical interpretation of "Not Waving but Drowning." Notice how they change singers for the dead man's part. Do you feel like crying yet? (Maybe not crying, but laughing?)
Tanita Takes On Stevie
Here's another interpretation of the poem as song, this time with the sultry voice of British singer Tanita Tikaram.
Morrissey Hearts Stevie
It's hard not to hear this grim little number as a Stevie Smith tribute. It's even more ironic, melodramatic, and bitter, though, because that's what Morrissey does best. Hey, also his first name is Steven and his band was called the Smiths. Coincidence?
Could It Get More Depressing?
Yes, yes it could. On their 1979 debut album, experimental post-punk band This Heat included the song "Not Waving," an adaptation that follows the dead man's thoughts at the moment of his death. It's pretty avant-garde. Or just plain weird.
More Stevie, More Stevie!
If you can't get enough grim whimsy and British accents, you might want this recording of Smith reading over 50 of her poems.
Stevie Reads for the BBC
Here's the author reading a short story. Yep, she wrote those, too.
Smith's Illustration of "Not Waving but Drowning"
In addition to being a poet, short story writer, novelist, and reviewer, Smith illustrated many of her works. She often had to fight publishers who thought her drawings didn't fit the poems. Notice how this one seems like a deliberate contrast with the poem.
Stevie Smith, Role Model
Caitlin Kimball gives a funny account of her early love of Stevie Smith, a brief profile of the poet, and a smart reading of "Not Waving but Drowning." Inspiration for all you budding literary critics out there.
How Seriously Should We Take Stevie Smith?
Throughout her career and after her death, Smith was often considered too silly or slight to be paid much attention. This article from The Believer responds to those charges and shows why the poet should be better appreciated today, just not as deadly seriously as most poets. We're looking at you, T.S. Eliot.
Admit it, now you're a Stevie Smith fan. So of course you'll want all the poems, plus the doodles that go with them.
Okay, maybe you don't want to dive into the deep end right away. That's fine. There's always this distillation of the Stevie Smith Experience to help you get a toe in the water.
Don't Forget the Novel
Her first novel, that is, the aptly titled Novel on Yellow Paper. (She wrote it at the office in a matter of weeks on yellow carbon paper. That's what people did at work before Facebook.)
Glenda Jackson takes on the role of Smith in this movie adaptation of a popular play. The monologues come right out of Smith's letters and interviews, and Jackson (and others) give dramatic performances of the poems. It's like a night at the theater, but with more tea and sherry.