- Diffident Jest:A Look2 Essay on Stevie Smith
In November 1962, Stevie Smith received a letter from "an addict…a desperate Smith-addict." The importunate admirer inquired as to how she might get hold of Smith's elusive first novel (having just completed her own) and hoped to arrange a meeting "over tea or coffee" in London, where she was planning to move in the new year. Smith's reply is gracious though distant; after acknowledging the difficulty of obtaining the now out-of-print novel, she gently pours cold water on the prospect of a rendezvous:
I do hope your novel goes well & I do hope the move in the New Year goes well too—if only as you suggest, so that we can meet some time.
I feel awfully lazy most of the time, even the idea of writing a novel makes me feel rather faint! And as for poetry, I am a real humbug, just write it (?) sometimes but practically never read a word. That makes me feel pretty mean spirited when poets like you write such nice letters.
The poet in this case was Sylvia Plath—the newly separated Plath who had, over the course of the previous month, composed the Ariel poems; the Plath who would, little over a month into the new year, kill herself in her freezing London flat.
A meeting with Smith, Plath thought, would "cheer [her] on a bit."
Smith was not exactly a cheering poet. Among the many things that she shared with Plath (including: a love of horse-riding, early exposure to the world of publishing, a deft hand at prose) was an abiding awareness of the destructiveness of intimacy, as well as the ability to conjure a sense of despair all the more companionable for its tenacity. Both poets toyed with death in life and art. In the summer of 1953, Smith's severe [End Page 195] depression culminated in an attempted suicide. It was in this same period that she produced the single poem on which her posthumous reputation almost entirely stands:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,But still he lay moaning:I was much further out than you thoughtAnd not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larkingAnd now he's deadIt 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 lifeAnd not waving but drowning.
"Not Waving But Drowning" shows Smith at her most tragi-comically adept. It is a poem in which the difficulty of distinguishing between depths and shallows is posed by characteristically underpunctuated lines that prove so equivocal to both eye and ear. How are we to read the "no no no" at the beginning of the third stanza? Does the absence of commas make us linger on each "no" longer or does it allow us to skip over them more spryly? Are these the lugubriously self-pitying "no"s of an admonishing spirit (keeping in mind that the collection to which this poem gives its name also includes a poem about "King Hamlet's Ghost")? Or is this the courteous stutter of someone trying to smooth over the simplest of misunderstandings? These delicate ambiguities point to the fallibility of our senses of sight and sound when it comes to detecting the undertow of sorrow.
It takes a peculiar kind of imagination to appreciate the superficial resemblance between waving and drowning—an imagination capable of abstracting itself sufficiently from the drama of a struggle for life to take up an aesthetic interest in gesture and performance. This is not, of course, the same kind of abstraction evinced by the second [End Page 196] stanza's anonymous spectators, whose measured diagnosis ("It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way") breaks the measure of the poem, adding an extra beat before the rhythm completely flatlines in the unaccented attribution "They said." The lopsidedness of the lineation and the patness of the "dead" / "said" rhyme create the air of a complacent finality—the dead...