Saturday, September 6, 2008

“Not Waving But Drowning”

I feel I should apologize a bit for posting “Not Waving But Drowning”; not that this isn’t (in my opinion) a fantastic poem, & well worth everyone’s time, but because I feel a bit abashed to post such a well known Stevie Smith poem when so many of hers are (very sad to say) not so familiar. I’ll be sure & rectify this somewhere down the line.

For those of you who don’t know, Stevie Smith was a British poet & novelist who flourished mid-Twentieth century. She was born in 1902 & died in 1971; her publications range from 1936-1971 (as well as some posthumous collections). Smith was a formal poet, but not in any strict sense—she used form for her own ends, rather than following it slavishly. Her poems often displayed a dark humor, & she didn’t shy away from “big subjects”—God, death, & metaphysical conundrums. Critic Hermione Lee said, "Stevie Smith often uses the word 'peculiar' and it is the best word to describe her effects."

There’s a 1965 recording of Stevie Smith reading “Not Waving But Drowning” on a BBC broadcast here (requires Real Player). Actually, the availability of this recording was a big incentive for me to post this particular poem rather than another work by Smith. Although Smith stumbles at one point in the reading, I think it’s always worthwhile to hear a poem in the poet’s own voice when possible. At one time, there was a Caedmon recording of Smith reading her poetry (on vinyl), but this hasn’t been released digitally.

On the off-beat side, there’s an odd but haunting musical setting by singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt on his album “Little,” complete with banjo, violin & back-up “angel voices.” “Little” was released in 1990 & reissued in 2004. Chesnutt also set Smith’s poem “One of Many” to music; this was released on his 1993 album, “Drunk.”

Update: Eberle reminds me that Stevie Smith sometimes would sing her poems to the tune of old Anglican hymns. Sadly, I don't believe this was ever recorded. I'll be writing more about poetry & music somewhere down the line....

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.

Stevie Smith (1953)

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