Tomorrow, October 10, is World Mental Health Day. The initiative, sponsored by the World Health Organization, encourages folks to take “40 seconds of action” to raise awareness, confront stigmas, and make connections.

Here’s my contribution: “Not Waving but Drowning” by the British writer Stevie Smith takes about 40 seconds to read.

Smith’s work is known for seeming accessible, sometimes almost child-like. In this, perhaps her most famous poem, we begin with what seems a simple, though tragic, scene: a dead man who wasn’t heard when he cried for help. Ostensibly, he has had a drowning accident. Indeed, in the middle stanza, “they” give all sorts of reasons (perhaps even excuses) for the dead man’s state–he liked to joke around, the “too cold” sea overwhelmed him.

Obviously, “they” imply, no one’s fault that he wasn’t saved.

But it’s not the coldness of the sea. In both the last 2 lines of the 1st stanza and then more emphatically in the final stanza, the dead man tells us that through his whole life he has felt adrift and alienated–the environment around him “too cold always.” No one hears him, and no one listens. Worse, his very cry for help is misread as waving.

I think of this poem often: who will I encounter today whose “larking” hides a deep void, an inner freezing? Who is drifting “too far out”? Who is feeling overwhelmed by the waves? How can I make sure that I pay attention, so that the wish for help doesn’t get misinterpreted as a wave?

It’s terribly difficult–and I know I’m no lifeguard. But if nothing else, I know I need to be intentional in making sure that the people important to me–whether as colleagues or students, friends or family–understand that they never swim alone.

Not Waving but Drowning

–Stevie Smith

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.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

3 Comments

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Wow! What a powerful little poem! Thanks, Jennifer.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Jennifer, for submitting a thoughtful poem and comments. All people inherently know the sentiment you and this poem expressed. That’s why we feel guilt when we see unjust suffering. Hopefully our pangs of guilt don’t simply lead to callousness, which is just a mask or blinder. Thanks for your contribution and the encouragement from the World Health organization.

  • Joy De Boer Anema says:

    Thanks so much, Jennifer, for this powerful poem. And thank you,too, for the way in which you are influencing students with wonderful literature and blessed insights.

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