Stevie Smith: “Not Waving but Drowning”
I’m not that interested in the lives of poets. Lord Byron may have been “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but as any product of an MFA program can tell you, a poet’s life is typically short on titillating details. Italian loafers. Yoga classes. Book signings. Yawn.
Paradoxically, one facet of literary biography fascinates me: the day job. My own interest in poetry flowered during a series of low-wage temp gigs, and many of the writers whose books I hid in my desk drawer also were no strangers to clerical tedium. The poems of Marianne Moore (secretary) and Fernando Pessoa (ad agency copywriter) were short enough to read in the lulls between ordering toner and transferring calls. What’s more, I imagined that boredom could yield poetic epiphanies. (Leave it to a postcollegiate Gen-Xer to romanticize office work, which in previous generations was an emblem of soul-crushing compromise, at least among artists. Especially among women artists.) During those hunched idylls in a cubicle, I got serious about Stevie Smith.
As is often the case with “minor” poets, Smith’s biography tends to serve as shorthand for her work, which included hundreds of sly, playful short verses. Some highlights: Born during the reign of King Edward, died during the sexual revolution. Served as the personal secretary to a publishing company executive for 30 years. Never married. Lived in the same house in suburban London for virtually her entire life. Notable for her half-sung, off-key recitations and girlish marginal doodles.
Although she reportedly avoided contemporary poetry, echoes of Smith’s favorite poets (William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge) sound again and again throughout her work. Whether they love her or hate her, people tend to use the same language to describe her. She’s eccentric: twee, terrifying, peculiar, whimsical, grim, grimsical (just kidding).
Okay, fine, she’s an odd bird, but her song is worth hearing. As “eccentric” as her light verse seems, it’s actually packed with the same cargo that was celebrated in the work of her more famous contemporaries. Bone-deep religious ambivalence? Check. Metaphysical protest? Check. Pop-cultural satire? Check. Bald sentimentality? Apocalyptic dread? Tributes to cats? Check, check, check.
In her selected poems, you’ll find a sinister but silly bit such as this:
Come out of your house
It is a fine sunny day
And I am waiting to play.
Bring the little mice too
And we can run to and fro.
(“Cat Asks Mouse Out”)
Or a real hoot with a twist of pathos, as in “Tenuous and Precarious.” Here, a grown child riffs on the conventions of schoolbook Latin to sketch a portrait of her family. As in many of her poems, Smith lampoons adult figures who nevertheless cast a dark shadow:
Tenuous and Precarious
Were my guardians,
Precarious and Tenuous,
My father was Hazardous,
Dear old man,
And you’ll find plenty of spiritual heartbreakers as well:
Oh feed to the golden fish his egg
Where he floats in his captive bowl,
To the cat his kind from the womb born blind,
And to the Lord my soul.
(from “My Soul”)
Raised in the Anglican Church, Smith borrowed the meter of its hymns, but the beat often fell away to accommodate the prissy registers of middle-class speech, as in “This Is Disgraceful and Abominable”:
Of all the disgraceful and abominable things
Making animals perform for the amusement of human beings is
Utterly disgraceful and abominable
Suspended midtrot below these lines is a crudely drawn dog. Is she putting us on? As coy and self-undermining as Smith’s poetry can be, I don’t like to call it naive. In it, you sense the subversive spirit of a woman twitching under the weight of her social station.
During decades of train rides and vigils at her desk, Smith absorbed the rhythms of workday jargon, of newspaper ads, of water cooler chitchat, and set it loose on her own tasks. Her jauntiest jingles have a sour tang that I imagine comes from her well-informed mistrust of words; as an employee of one of England’s largest publishers of pulpy “women’s magazines,” she knew how quickly a beautiful image or a bit of wisdom could become a banality. She knew how the repetition of words and phrases could create music and cast spells, and at the same time empty them of meaning. Smith’s lack of bombast and sonority, her simultaneous social unease and need to charm and hold court, her manipulation of childhood ditties—it all suggests a deep ambivalence about being “taken seriously” in a culture so often wrong about what’s really serious.
Speaking of “serious,” “Not Waving but Drowning” is Smith’s most famous poem. This twelve-line punch to the gut is one of her most sober and plainly nihilistic pieces.
The poem begins after the central drama has already taken place. We join a crowd that has gathered at the site of an accidental drowning. Nothing can be done, so our witness is essentially forensic—until the dead man’s voice floats up from the deep. The first stanza shifts quickly from event reportage to the interior monologue of the drowned man trying, even in death, to convey to the living his lifetime of desperation. It’s a grim premise: Life is a series of opportunities to be misunderstood.
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
He’s dead from the very beginning, but he continues to moan. His witnesses have failed him, so now we will take their place. The man’s words aren’t set off with italics or quotation marks, which subtly reinforces his place as the primary consciousness of the poem. A pass at rhythm, an off-rhyme (moaning/drowning), lends an air of jollity to the harrowing setup—it’s a hallmark of the macabre. But in the next stanza, the perspective shifts outward again and the chill really sets in:
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They knew him. And they knew him long enough to know his tendency toward “larking.” That’s their half-assed eulogy. (Who wants to imagine the six-word summation of his own character? It’s almost worse than imagining death itself.) And “poor chap”—oof. We’re not allowed to be haunted by the dead man’s testimony for too long before this glib epithet snaps us back to the social occasion. That third line tumbles out fast in monosyllables, like the murmuring of a crowd. Prancing around the edges of corniness, the irony is Pure Stevie: they were too cold for him. His heart broke under the strain of being misunderstood for so long, he wants to tell us. And so he does; that the dead man gets the last word is the poem’s only consolation:
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.
Language failed him. Salutations failed him. We are all odd birds, all in danger of having our gestures, habits, and roles misread, mistaken for our substance. At work, whose collar doesn’t chafe? I guess I’d argue that it’s prissiness on our part when we sum up a “minor” poet like Smith as mannered, precious, or quirky—not that those terms aren’t useful. There’s a pleasure in being held at arm’s length, in being dared to embrace—and to dismiss—a poet’s mannerisms. “The human creature is alone in his carapace,” Smith wrote. “Poetry is a strong way out. The passage that [Poetry] blasts is often in splinters, covered with blood; but she can come out softly.”