Not Waving but Drowning

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"Not Waving but Drowning" is a poem by the British poet Stevie Smith. It was published in 1957 as part of a collection of the same title.[1] The most famous of Smith's poems,[2] it gives an account of a drowned man whose distressed thrashing in the water had been mistaken for waving.[3] The poem was accompanied by one of Smith's drawings, as was common in her work.

The poem's personal significance has been the topic of several pieces of literary criticism because Smith was treated for psychological problems. She contemplated suicide at the age of eight after what she described as a difficult childhood and her struggle with the fact that her father abandoned her.[4]


Like many of Smith's poems, "Not Waving but Drowning" is short, consisting of only twelve lines. The narrative takes place from a third-person perspective and describes the circumstances surrounding the "dead man" described in line one. In line five the poem suggests that the man who has died "always loved larking," which causes his distress signals to be discounted.[2]

The image that Smith attached to the poem shows the form of a girl from the waist up with her wet hair hanging over her face. Although the image goes with a poem about a man drowning, the girl's expression appears incongruous with the text of the poem as it forms what Severin describes as a "mysterious smile".[5] Jannice Thaddeus suggests that the speaker of the poem, like other figures in Smith's works, changes from male to female as part of a theme of androgyny that exists in many of the poems found in Selected Poems.[6] The sketch differs from the poem in that the figure is of a woman rather than a man, and Smith scholar Laura Severin suggests that the figure might be Mary, a character in another poem by Smith entitled "Cool as a Cucumber." The drawing was used as the accompanying image for the poem "The Frozen Lake" in Selected Poems, a self-edited compilation of Smith's works published in 1962.[5][7]

While Ingrid Hotz-Davies suggests that the "drowning man" is Smith herself, she also states that there are problems with reading the poem as a cry for help due to the humorous tone of the poem yet at the same time she also notes that the representational form of the poem "may easily be misread as a friendly wave of the hand".[2] The poem's simple diction led Clive James to suggest that Smith attempted to write the poem so that the diction appeared ignorant of poetic convention yet was carefully crafted to appear more simple than it was.[8] James describes the relationship between Smith and the speaker in "Not Waving but Drowning" by saying, "her poems, if they were pills to cure Melancholy, did not work for [Smith]. The best of them, however, worked like charms for everyone else."[8]

Other media[edit]

Featured as a song title on the 1973 album 'Mantle Pieces' by English Singer Songwriter Clifford T. Ward.

Potentially used as inspiration to the Manic Street Preachers song ‘Ready For Drowning’ which uses the phrase “We’re not waving, we’re drowning”

The poem was performed as part of the 1976 album Tears of Steel & the Clowning Calaveras released by Australian singer Jeannie Lewis (Track 4b), and recited by two actors: Lex Marinos as the "Narrator" (...but still he lay moaning), and Nick Lathouris as the "Dead Man" (I was too far out...).

St. Louis post-rock band Foxing uses the line "I'm not waving, but drowning," in the song 'Inuit', off their record The Albatross.

Australian ambient and alternative music group Not Drowning, Waving takes their name from the poem.

The underground '90s emo-hardcore act I Hate Myself recorded a song with the same name on their album 10 Songs. A track on Julian Cope's 1991 album Peggy Suicide was titled "Not Raving but Drowning" after the poem.[9] The poem was also set to music by singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt on his debut album Little with a spoken introduction from a Stevie Smith recording.

Singer and songwriter Tanita Tikaram set the poem to music in her song titled "Not Waving but Drowning" which appeared as a b-side to her single "I Might Be Crying."

Kirsty Maccoll also has the lyric "And are you just waving or drowning?" in her song Innocence.

The electronic music group Orbital recorded a song entitled "Waving Not Drowning" for their 2001 album, The Altogether.

Erin McKean wrote a short story entitled "Not Waving But Drowning" which was published in Machine of Death, a collection of short stories. In it she talks of the poem and the author.

P.O.S wrote the song "That One" with the hook “I’m not waving I’m drowning.”

Belgian filmmaker Elias Grootaers made a film in 2009 entitled "Not Waving, But Drowning" recording the experience of Indian refugees during their arrest and detention by the harbour police in Zeebruges, Belgium.

Composer Nina C. Young set the poem in a piece scored for solo viola, piano, and mixed choir.[10]

English experimental post-punk band This Heat paraphrase the title and theme of the poem in their song "Not Waving" off of their 1979 self-titled debut.

Canadian filmmaker Lindsay McIntyre made a film in 2005 called "Not Waving But Drowning" wherein a character reflects on the poem, its origins and meaning.

Filmmaker Devyn Waitt wrote and directed a film called Not Waving But Drowning that stars Adam Driver from the HBO TV show Girls, Vanessa Ray from Pretty Little Liars, Megan Guinan, Isabelle McNally (daughter of restaurateur Keith McNally), and Lynn Cohen from Catching Fire. The film premiered at Sarasota Film Festival in 2012, it was produced by Nicole Emanuele.

The title "Not Waving, But Drowning" was also used for a Drum & Bass track by High Contrast, along with being implemented into the song. It was released as part of his album, The Agony & The Ecstasy in 2012.[11]


  1. ^ Sternlicht, Sanford V.Stevie Smith. Twayne Publishers (1990) p. 63.
  2. ^ a b c Hotz-Davies, Ingrid. "My Name is Finis: The Loneliness of Stevie Smith". Rodopi (1994) p.233.
  3. ^ Rose, Gillian. Mourning becomes the law: philosophy and representation. Cambridge University Press (1996) p.38.
  4. ^ Walsh, Jessica. "Stevie Smith: Girl Interrupted"Papers on Language and Literature" Vol.40.
  5. ^ a b Severin, Laura. Stevie Smith's Resistant Antics. Univ. of Wisconsin Press (1997) p.71-72.
  6. ^ Thaddeus, Janice."Stevie Smith and the Gleeful Macabre," Contemporary Poetry Vol. 111, No. 4, 1978, pp. 36-49.
  7. ^ Smith, Stevie. Collected PoemsNew Directions Publishing (1983) pp 393-396.
  8. ^ a b James, Clive. As of This Writing. W. W. Norton & Company (2003) p.127.
  9. ^ Liner notes to album Peggy Suicide by Julian Cope.
  10. ^ Composer website (Nina C. Young):
  11. ^ Hospital Records: High Contrast - The Agony & The Ecstasy:

The History Boys- p34

External links[edit]