Not Waving but Drowning

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.

Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning” from Collected Poems of Stevie Smith. Copyright © 1972 by Stevie Smith. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Source: New Selected Poems (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1988)

Writing Ideas

1. Think of a situation or time when you felt particularly misunderstood. Try to write a poem that alternates your point of view with the point of view of those around you. How do they perceive and misperceive your actions?

2. The people around the drowned man believed that “he always loved larking”, meaning he enjoyed taking adventures; write a poem that imagines an episode from one of the drowned man’s adventures. How might his feelings contrast with his behavior?

3. “Not Waving but Drowning” takes place in the aftermath of the man’s death. Write a poem that takes place just after an important or traumatic event. How does the crowd feel or react? What about the person, or people, involved in the event itself?

 

Discussion Questions

1. Who is the speaker of the poem? Who does the speaker align himself or herself with—the drowned man or the gathered crowd?

2. What is the effect of repetition in the poem? By altering the first stanza’s final phrase, what does Smith suggest about the life of the drowned man?

3. Smith’s poem asks us to think about the ways in which we misunderstand or misread the people around us—what opinion does the gathered crowd seem to have of the drowned man? Does the poem suggest that they ever know the truth about him? Can you imagine the type of person he was from the poem’s brief descriptions?

Teaching Tips

1. Before teaching, read the poem guide to “Not Waving but Drowning.” Have students think-pair-share a time when things went wrong because their words or gestures were misunderstood by others.

2. Have students read the poem several times. Then have them rewrite the lines of the poem as a script, indicating the speaker of each of the lines. In their character descriptions, they should indicate the relationship to the victim that each speaker might have. For example, “stranger in the crowd,” acquaintance,” etc. Ask who says the lines, “I was much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning.” Have students share their findings and discuss various readings of the poem. Ask what does this startling image and the observers’ reactions challenge us to think about?

3. After students have had a chance to read “Not Waving but Drowning” for themselves, ask them to read Caitlin Kimball’s poem guide, engaging with the author’s interpretation critically. Ask them to mark striking passages, especially those with which they agree or disagree. Have students discuss their findings and ask what aspect of the human experience does this poet challenge us to examine? Students may share personal observations of the ways in which people are misinterpreted or how signs of struggle are often misread.

4. Have students view Pieter Bruegel’s painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and read W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and discuss how the painting relates to the poem. Then have them examine the difference between this commentary on an unnoticed drowning and Stevie Smith’s. Ask why did these poets choose such a subject? Why did Pieter Bruegel? Why might this subject be important to these three artists? What might this discussion suggest about the way artists see their role in our lives? Ask students to consider how they see the role of artists in our lives.

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