Lesson on 'Not Waving But Drowning' by Stevie Smith

Lisa Dart


In this lesson pupils will explore ways of reading poems and how ideas for poems may come from many sources. They will have the opportunity to write their own poems, but they may also enjoy writing for other audiences taking the inspiration for their writing from a poem.

  • To encourage the pleasure of reading poetry.
  • To encourage the pleasure of listening to poetry.
  • To explore ways of interpreting poetry through different readings.
  • To develop pupils’ ability to work in groups.
  • To explore ways in which poetry may lead to other kinds of writing.
Resources needed
  • Poetry Archive recording of Stevie Smith reading 'Not Waving But Drowning' and her own introduction to the poem.
  • Whiteboard or screen linked to the Poetry Archive website for viewing the picture of Stevie Smith and layout of whole page.
  • Individual hard copies of the poem for students.
  • Copies of each of the three stanzas on a page without the rest of the poem.
  • Some appropriate newspaper articles.
  • One day in the life of... examples from the papers.

Teaching sequence of activities


Begin the lesson by asking the class to discuss in pairs the following questions:

  • When and why have you ever felt lonely?
  • Do you have to be alone to feel lonely?

You may want the class to listen to the Archive recording of 'Luing' by Don Paterson, 'Curriculum Vitae' by Samuel Menashe or 'Immigrant' by Fleur Adcock and have a brief discussion of the feelings of the narrator(s) in the poem(s). Why does the speaker feel lonely? How does it feel to be an outsider?


Now give students copies of the poem 'Not Waving But Drowning', stanza by stanza. Give them the following questions to discuss without first seeing the whole poem or the title:

First stanza

  • Who is speaking in the first stanza?
  • What is the implication of what they are saying?
  • What do you imagine has happened?

Second stanza

  • Who is speaking in the second stanza?
  • What do you think has happened?
  • How does what you think happened contradict the speaker in the first stanza?
  • Why do you think the poet use such dramatically long and short line lengths in this stanza?

Third stanza

  • What might the first line of this stanza mean?
  • Why might this line be ambiguous?
  • What does the last line mean and how does it add to the sense of the whole poem?
  • What title would you suggest for this poem?

It might be a good idea to have a brief plenary to discuss responses and also to hear suggestions for the poem's title. This might be a good way to consider the merits of titles that do - or don't - use lines from poems for the title as well. What is lost? What is gained?

Then ask the students to prepare a reading of this poem in groups ready to perform to the rest of the class. It might be helpful to suggest ways in which they might do this. Ask them to consider:

  • different people reading each stanza
  • different voices reading the voice of the 'dead man' and the poem's 'narrator'
  • different voices reading the voice of 'they'
  • breaking up elements into different voices, eg the effect of each word of 'no, no, no' read by a different person
  • choral speaking - which parts of the poem might be read by everyone at the same time?

Then let the students listen to each others' readings. As they listen ask the students to concentrate on what each performance did to bring out specific elements of the poem.


Now listen to Stevie Smith's recording. Ask the students to compare Stevie Smith's reading of her own poem with those prepared by the class.
Ask them to consider the strengths and possible weaknesses of hearing poets read their own work.
(This may be a good way of introducing ideas of what may be meant by a poet finding his or her 'voice'. It should also help students to consider the importance of pauses, silences, tempo in the reading of poetry.)

Learning outcomes

  • Students will have worked together in groups to prepare a public reading.
  • Students will have listened to poetry being read aloud, both as a recording and in their groups/class.
  • Students will have begun group and /or individual responses to poems with structured teacher direction.
  • Students will have developed skills in writing poems or other forms of writing for specific audiences.

Extension Activities

Students might like to:

  • listen to the Archive recording of Stevie Smith's introduction and then write a poem from a newspaper extract following the form of 'Not Waving But Drowning'
  • write a diary account of the man who drowns
  • write the newspaper account of the 'friends' of the 'dead man'
  • write a dramatic monologue of the 'dead man' dramatising why he felt 'so far out all his life'.

Further Reading

Listen to the Poetry Archive recording of 'Mr Bleaney' by Philip Larkin and prepare a reading of the poem for the rest of the class.
Read 'The Old Fools' and 'Friday Night at the Station Hotel' in 'High Windows' by Philip Larkin.

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