Image by Jorge ('J.S.') Lewinski

Not Waving But Drowning

Stevie Smith


Not Waving But Drowning

Stevie Smith


Poem introduction

People often ask poets how they write their poems and why, how the first idea comes into their heads and so on. They often ask me these questions but they are not easy to answer - and there is a serious objection too: if you brood too much about your own inspiration and other people's you will quite often find that you're unable to write at all, to put one word in front of another. It is like digging up plants to see how they are getting on: we all know what happens to the plants, they die. Well now, to come to my own poems and to try and say how and why they are written. They are written from the experiences of my own life, its pressures and fancies, and they are written to give ease and relief to me: while they are being written I'm afraid nobody else comes into it at all. I want to get something out that is working away at me. I think pressure is the operative word here: the pressure of daily life; the pressure of having to earn one's own living, possibly at work that is not very congenial; the pressure of one's relations with other people; the pressure of all the things one hears about or reads about in philosophy, history and religion for instance, and agrees with or does not agree with; the pressure of despair. And the pressure too of pleasures that take one's breath away - colours, animals tearing about, birds fighting each other to get the best bit of bacon rind. And the funniness of things too... Another thing I like doing with my poems is to illustrate them: I draw a lot and often a drawing will suggest a poem - it is often that way about. Or perhaps I may read something in a newspaper that disturbs me rather and makes me want to write about what I feel. For instance I read about a man getting drowned once - his friends thought he was waving to them from the sea but really he was drowning. This often happens in swimming baths or at the seaside - and then I thought that, in a way, it is true of life too: that a lot of people pretend, out of bravery really, that they are very jolly and ordinary sort of chaps but really they do not feel at all at home in the world or able to make friends easily, so they joke a lot and laugh and people think they're quite alright and jolly nice too but sometimes the brave pretence breaks down and then, like the poor man in this poem, they are lost.

Not Waving But Drowning

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.


from The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith (Penguin, 1972), by permission of the Executors of the James McGibbon Estate and New Directions Publishing Corporation. Recordings used by permission of the BBC.

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