According to the American Encyclopaedia, Stevie Smith was known for her “lively, often irreverent wit, unexpected turns of phrase, and unsentimental views of the human condition” (American Encyclopaedia, 65).
Florence Smith was born in 1902 in Hull, England. However, she and her family moved to London in 1906 after her father left. Unusually, she stayed in the same house until she died in 1971. She went by the nick-name 'Stevie' for much of her life and, despite some romantic relationships, she never married. For 30 years, Smith earned a living working as a secretary, though she retired while still in her early fifties after attempting suicide while at work (BBC).
For Smith, getting her work published required great persistence. According to World Authors, when in 1935 Smith attempted to have her poetry put into print, she was advised to “go away and write a novel” (World Authors 1333). Her first published piece was a novel, called Novel on Yellow Paper. She went on to publish two further novels, and many poetry books.
Her collections include A Good Time Was Had By All which was published in 1937, and Not Waving But Drowning which was published in 1957. During the sixties, Smith’s poetry grew in popularity and she became a well-known and quirky performer. She was also a frequent performer on BBC radio. In 1962, her book Selected Poems was being widely discussed, in particular regarding how her poetic style crossed over between both her verse and her prose (World Authors 1333).
Although much of it appears simple, Stevie Smith's poetry delves bravely into vast and haunting subjects. Set in gloomy suburbia, her work refers to the dissatisfied, the worthless and the lonesome. Her most well-known poem, “Not Waving But Drowning” is a perfect example of such writing.
“Not Waving But Drowning” depicts a man lost at sea, with both a literal and a metaphorical meaning.
There are numerous contradictory emotions in this poem. In the final line of stanza two, for example, the "They" appear to consider the deceased man with half-hearted, and rather false, sympathy. They discuss his death as a factual and without sentiment. The dark topic is shown in a very bland fashion. The voice of the poem appears to have marginally more sympathy, but no particular sentiment is clear. She speaks a little of his unhappiness in the first lines of the poem, "Nobody heard him, the dead man, / But still he lay moaning" (Smith). The narrator does not tell the narrative but, instead, tells it through the “they” and the man himself (Tiedemann). The dying man’s desperateness overpowers the narrator's unresponsiveness to produce a moving piece of poetry.
Smith has used many poetic devices within “Not Waving But Drowning.” There are clear examples of rhyme. Take the first stanza as an example, with its ABCB rhyming scheme. Furthermore, Smith has used alliteration (kyrene), for example in the second stanza, “he always loved larking” (Smith).
One device which is particularly interesting is Smith’s use of metaphor. To begin with in the piece, the cold water and being far from shore are literal truths. However, when the dying man states that it was “always” cold and that he was too far from the shore “all my life,” the metaphors start to shine through. The man is now speaking about the course that his life has taken up until his death; he is telling us that he has always felt hopeless and out of his depth.
Stevie Smith was a unique and exciting poet and performer. Her most famous poem, “Not Waving but Drowning” seems to summarise how Smith felt for much of her life: that she was alone and floating out to sea. There are so many examples of her work which are unlike any other; in fact, there are too many to mention, but I would recommend everyone to look her up. Although her life came to an untimely end, as a result of a brain tumour, her work is likely to live on for many more years to come.
American Encyclopaedia. “Stevie Smith.”
BBC. “Stevie Smith Biography.” 2012. Web. 17 April 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/poetryseason/poets/stevie_smith.shtml
Kyrene. “Glossary of Poetic Devices.” Web. 17 April 2012. http://www.kyrene.org/schools/brisas/sunda/poets/poetry2.htm
Smith, S. “Not Waving but Drowning.” Poem Hunter. Web. 17 April 2012. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/not-waving-but-drowning/
Tiedemann, L. “Not Waving but Drowning Analysis.” Yahoo Voices. 2009. Web. 17 April 2012. http://voices.yahoo.com/not-waving-but-drowning-analysis-3019427.html
World Authors. “Smith, Stevie.”