Absurdism, Art, Books

Not Waving but Drowning

Rise from your bed of languor
Rise from your bed of dismay
Your friends will not come tomorrow
As they did not come today.

The poet of many voices Stevie Smith was an English original, both child-like and un child-like. Bordering on nonsense her poems roll with a jaunty sing-song timbre and a kick in the groin at the last.

Dear little Bog-Face,
Why are you so cold?
And why do you lie with your eyes shut? –
You are not very old.

I am a Child of this World,
And a Child of Grace,
And Mother, I shall be glad when its all over,
I am Bog-Face.

The form of many of her poems has an affinity with nursery rhyme and fairy tale. This allows her an imaginative licence to play on the uncanny found within the grip of childhood terrors and on the ambiguity of the adult world as a place of restraint and control.

Our Bog is dood, our Bog is dood,
They lisped in accent mild,
But when I asked them to explain
They grew a little wild.
How do you know your Bog is dood
My darling little child?

We know because we wish it so
That is enough, they cried,
And straight within each infant eye
Stood up the flame of pride,
And if you do not think it so
You shall be crucified.

Then tell me, darling little ones,
What’s dood, suppose Bog is?
Just what we think, the answer came,
Just what we think it is.
They bowed their heads. Our Bog is ours
And we are wholly his.

But when they raised them up again
They had forgotten me
Each one upon each other glared
In pride and misery
For what was dood, and what their Bog,
They never could agree.

Oh sweet it was to leave them then,
And sweeter not to see,
And sweetest of all to walk alone
Beside the encroaching sea,
The sea that soon should drown them all,
That never yet drowned me.

The vocabulary of her poems is simple and the tone flat. The dextrous loading of a metaphysics of despair onto children’s nursery rhythms is a comic dislocation. These are deceptive poems, more challenging that their contours indicate, with an ironic superabundance of content at variance with form. She is the poet of letter, epigram, riddle, anecdote, oration, dialogue, monologue and conversational set piece. Like nursery rhymes her poems are of the ear. She gives voice to many characters, retells tales from unusual perspectives, performs impersonations. Some voices are reliable, some disturbed, some diabolic, some chatty, some shrill, some sardonic, some colloquial, some nonchalant: Persephone, Helen of Troy, Dido, Eve, the Virgin Mary, Miles from Turn of the Screw. If the voices of her characters disarm, the same can be said of her own. When asked in the 1960s to read, on BBC radio or at festivals, Smith would declaim, sing, chant, drone, incant. Her art makes us aware of the relationship between the speaking voice, literary voice and reciting/performance voice. Hermione Lee has written about, and demonstrated how, the undercurrents of European thought and writing – Blake, Wordsworth, Moliere, Dickinson Coleridge, Shakespeare, Browning, Byron – pulsate beneath her deceptive ditties. Phillip Larkin described Stevie Smith as facetious bosh. Oh no no no, this is a poet at serious play unleashing a disarming anarchy of comedy.

My Muse sits forlorn
She wishes she had not been born
She sits in the cold
No word she says is ever told.

Why does my Muse only speak when she is unhappy?
She does not, I only listen when I am unhappy
When I am happy I live and despise writing
For my Muse this cannot but be dispiriting.

Stevie Smith was also a novelist. Her novel without punctuation printed on yellow paper Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) addressed the reader directly and had no plot. Her novels, like her poems, are of the talking voice. In a passage of her novel Over the Frontier (1938) the narrator considers, with a characteristically unusual rhythm and punctuation, how the British regard the German people (at a time when another war was fast approaching) by lingering over several George Grosz drawings:

‘But oh the tearing seering suffering of Germany after the war, the disintegration and diminution the backward journeying the fear the cringing corroding terror of poverty and hopelessness, The Old Men of 1922, the broken shamefully broken body of the shattered soldier drawn up lifted up crucified upon his crutches lifted up above the old-young child, and over it all and undertoning it all is shame and loss and flight into darkness. Oh no no no, for us there is now not this Post-War Museum at all it is not in our experience we do not wish to understand to to think about it at all, it is for us somebody else’s cup of tea that we do not even say: May it pass from us, that we do not have anything at all to do with. So victory has given us at least this that we do not have to taste this cup of tea. No. For us there is this funny ha-ha George Grosz that has his witty drawings.’

The effect of flow in her prose delineates her vision of the world. Like George Grosz and Edward Lear, Stevie Smith drew drawings in a quirky, disjointed, original and superfluous line, doddle-art. She accompanied her verse with disorientating, sketchy, forlorn-looking, baffled, distorted, unsettled people. Diana Athill, her publisher, urged her to omit them as accompaniments to her verse to avoid risking the whole thing becoming like a nursery book (and thus vulnerable to dismissal as light verse). But Smith refused to yield and took great care in matching her drawings to poems.

They killed a poet by neglect
And treating him worse that an insect
They said what he wrote was feeble
And should never be read by serious people.
Serious people, serious people, I should think it was serious to be such people.

In a review of C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader Smith wrote: “could anything be better than to start off with a fine picture of a sailing ship on the rough sea coming suddenly alive and sucking in the children?”

She wrote, in an Observer article in 1969, “If there wasn’t death, I think you couldn’t go on”.

Do take Muriel out
She is looking so glum
Do take Muriel out
All her friends are gone.

And after too much pressure
Looking for them in the Palace
She goes home to too much leisure
And this is what her life is.

All her friends are gone
And she is alone
And she looks for them where they have never been
And her peace is flown

Her friends went into the forest
And across the river
And the desert took their footprints
And they went with a believer.

And they are gone they were so beautiful
And she can not come to them
And she kneels in her room at night
Crying. Amen.

Do take Muriel out
Although your name in Death
She will not complain
When you dance her over the blasted heath.

Smiths is a no-nonsense nonsense, a high pitched desolation, a playful existentialism of lethal lullabies. She exhibits the austere, bracing greek virtue of death as a remedy and then loads them onto nursery rhythms as caustic grief. Her delicate complexity, brevity and flippant style invites a complicity in the assertion that death and life are inextricable. With wintry happiness and bleak gaiety and a sour tang this is her dance macabre. She makes a dignified and intellectually rigorous case for life as perpetual swan-song. Frivolous with death and flippant with life hers is a disconcerting child-like comic poignancy. It is perhaps not surprising that Sylvia Plath was a devotee (“I better say straight out that I am an addict of your poetry” – letter 1962). Smith said:“I like life. I adore it, but only because I keep myself well on the edge. I wouldn’t commit myself to anything. I can always get out if I want to”.

Her most celebrated poem Not Waving but Drowning (1957) brings some of these themes together with lightning fast changes of voice and a deliberate comically matter-of-fact confusion of the tragedy of drowning and the triviality of waving.

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.

In the first stanza the central drama has already taken place: a narrator informs us of the impossible situation that the man is both dead and moaning. The third and fourth line shift within the same sentence to the interior monologue of the dead man (but without quotation marks). The second stanza interweaves for three lines a third voice (again without quotation marks) that the fourth line attributes to ‘they’, a faceless crowd. There is no punctuation in the runaway overloaded third line between him and his eliding cause and effect suspiciously closely together. Are ‘they’ diagnosing a heart attack in cold water or could it just be their cold reaction to his larking? The final stanza reverts to the disembodied voice of the dead man and his testimony from beyond life. This is not a man in the sea dying, but in the grave already dead; this is a poem not about a man in water but about his whole life. Did he live his life in desperation at being misunderstood? As no one seemed to hear him in life, did they misinterpret his entire existence? Did his heart break under the strain of his larking being misread? His explanation has come too late. They said it was too cold for him at the last, but it was too cold for him always.

Stevie Smith’s ironic and penetrating art is a prolonged rumination upon how to keep ones head above water. We live in a culture that misunderstands the serious and the comic. Her novel Married to Death was never published.

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One thought on “Not Waving but Drowning

  1. Pingback: Volume 1, Issue 1 – Notes on Lost Time

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