Saturday, January 06, 2007

Poems for Pleasure 6

Poems for Pleasure 6

Another poet I quite like is Stevie Smith (1902-1971), the British novelist and poet.  A lot of her poems tend to be dark and somewhat bleak.  No wonder indeed as her father ran away from home, never to return, when both his business and his marriage failed.  Stevie was only 7 or 8 at this time.  Also she was a sickly child and suffered from tuberculous peritonitis at 5 years of age.  All her life she felt deeply abandoned because of this.  In consequence of all the above a lot of her poems deal with sickness and death.  One is reminded here of the great Irish poet Seán Ó Ríordáin, all of whose poems bear the mark to some degree or other of his suffering from tuberculosis.  Her most anthologized poem, my favourite, is “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.

As you can see, or hear if you read this poem aloud, that it is bleak, dark, yet strangely or peculiarly humorous.  The critic Hermione Lee says of Smith: "Stevie Smith often uses the word 'peculiar' and it is the best word to describe her effects."  This is undoubtedly a peculiar poem and a brilliant one for all that. Its short, dark, humorous story concerns a man whose thrashing - whilst drowning in the sea - is mistaken for waving by people on the shore.  Also Smith allows us to “hear” the dead man speak which is an unusually good device.  It is also clear that this is a metaphor for any situation in which a cry for help is misinterpreted or ignored by friends and family.  The final two lines always stick in my throat, but they are really brilliant.  They are a good caption almost for the picture of a lot of modern life.  Of how many people would it be true that they might say on their deathbed:  “I was much too far out all my life/ And not waving but drowning.”

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