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?
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?
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.
Related Poem Content Details
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.”
Related Poem Content Details
Calling Stevie Smith's Not Waving but Drowning "the best collection of new poems to appear in 1957," Poetry contributor David Wright observed that "as one of the most original women poets now writing [Stevie Smith] seems to have missed most of the public accolades bestowed by critics and anthologists. One reason may be that not only does she belong to no 'school'—whether real or invented as they usually are—but her work is so completely different from anyone else's that it is all but impossible to discuss her poems in relation to those of her contemporaries." "Without identifying itself with any particular school of modern poetics," Linda Rahm Hallett similarly noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "[Smith's] voice is nevertheless very much that of what she once called the 'age of unrest' through which she lived." Combining a deceptively simple form and mannered language with serious themes, Smith was...
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