Sunday Night Journal, July 8, 2018
Sunday Night Journal, July 15, 2018

52 Poems, Week 28: Not Waving but Drowning (Stevie Smith)


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.


If Stevie Smith were a band, she would be considered a one-hit wonder, and this poem the one hit. Anyone who's read much 20th century poetry has probably encountered it. It makes a good many appearances in anthologies. But as with many bands known to the public for only one hit song, there is a great deal more to her work. I haven't read much more of it than this, but from what little I have read I'd say it's not unusual: sharp, dispassionate, dark, somewhat or more than somewhat bitter. As it happens I recently read several others in an anthology I re-discovered (of which more in another post). There's one relatively long one which is sort of a mock letter which seems to contain nothing but very mundane sentences from a letter, but which somehow ends up having an odd and powerful punch. I'm thinking I may order her Selected Poems.

She seems to have had her career mostly outside of the literary-academic world. You can read more about her here, at the Poetry Foundation (which is a great site), and at her Wikipedia page. I note with interest that there is a film based on her life in which Glenda Jackson plays her. That seems just about perfect. You can read several more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation page. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

You can hear Smith briefly discuss and then read the Not Waving but Drowning poem here.

She has a sort of wanness in her voice that I can't imagine Jackson capturing.

That link doesn't seem to work; try this one instead.

That's great. Thanks. Yeah, now that I hear her actual voice Glenda Jackson doesn't seem quite so right. But Roger Ebert calls it one of her greatest performances.

Looks like the movie is available on YouTube. But not anywhere else.

Her introductory comments made me think of Robin Williams.

Here is the movie. You can see the Glenda Jackson version of the audio clip at 46:50.

I like this poem, but when I read it, I can only think about the time that my sister and I sat by a pool watching my 3 year old, who was drowning, but even though we were both looking right at her, it somehow did not register that that was what was going on. It hit us both at the same moment and she was duly saved. It was odd, though.


That's chilling. I've seen several articles in the past few years alerting people to the fact that most drownings are in fact pretty quiet affairs, not the thrashing and screaming that's sometimes depicted.

Robert, your link to the movie doesn't work. The one in my comment does. I don't know what the deal is with those "" links that you sometimes get in YT sharing URLs. I think I just copied mine from the browser's address bar.

Smith's reading of the poem is way better than the one in the movie, by an actor, not Glenda Jackson, whom I feel I should recognize but don't. I watched the couple of minutes leading up to that, and it sounds like some of the dialog might be quotes from Smith's poems. Looks interesting anyway. Too bad it's YouTube video quality.

That's Trevor Howard who recited the poem in the movie.

I just spent a few minutes hopping around in the movie it on YouTube, and, gosh, it looks mighty depressing.

Well, that would be fitting. I don't think she was a very happy person.

I watched The Third Man again a week or two ago. That's probably why Trevor Howard seemed familiar, even though he's 30 years older.

The things you can find at the BBC -- like this video clip of W. H. Auden and Smith singing and chatting together in an Edinburgh pub in 1965. Looks as if she did have some happy moments, at least.

Yes indeed. Though most of that was unintelligible to me. "Duty was my lobster"?

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)