Stevie Smith was an English outsider of the literary world of her time, the period that went from the 1930s to the 1960s. In fact, neither did she belong to any literary movement nor did she follows other poets’ vision of poetry. In her personal style, she illustrated her poems and gave them a nursery rhyme-like cadence which created some innocent atmosphere. However, the topics were sometimes shocking for the intensity, sense of humor and detachment they were dealt with. The poem Not Waving, But Drowning, written in 1957, is a clear example: it consists of three quatrains with a rhyme scheme ABCB which confers a sense of musicality which, in some way, is in contrast with the story told and the meaning expressed.

Saying and seeing the pain

A poet can take something from real life, turn it into something different and take it back to real life. This is the case of Not Waving, But Drowning. In fact, Smith wrote the poem after reading about a man who went to the seaside with his friends. When the man waved from the sea as a request for help, they thought he was greeting them and, as a result, he died. 

However, Smith is capable of turning the real situation into a powerful metaphor of what happens in life: on the one hand, she shows that when some people are in distress, they do not express their pain, instead, they show that they are totally fine, maybe for fear of incomprehension or judgment or because they sometimes feel that until they say it out loud, the suffering won’t be that real.

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.

On the other hand, the poet appeals to friends’ responsibility of taking care of someone so as they can recognize the pain they seem to be hiding.

In the second quatrain, in fact, his friends are thinking about the cause of the man’s death, however, in the last stanza, he takes the floor again and contradicts them:

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.

In this way, Smith seems to suggest a people’s behaviour but also a way to overcome it. On the one side, we should be open and talk to someone we trust about what we are facing; on the other side, we should be attentive to our friends’ feelings. In fact, we all happen to experience both the poor man’s r and the friend’s role in real life. 

The English confessional rapper Loyle Carner homaged Stevie Smith by naming his 2019 album Not Waving, But Drowning. In a precise track, the listener can hear in the background the poem and Smith’s idea about it.