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Stevie Smith’s and Karl Shapiro’s Poems Comparison


Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” (1953) and Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck” (1942) differ from each other in form, style and subject. Smith’s poem relates the last thoughts of a drowned man while Shapiro’s reflects on a traffic accident. Smith’s poem is almost light-hearted in the way it reads and less poetic in the sense that it employs a freer form than Shapiro’s, which uses meter and imagery to achieve what Smith does use dialogue and punctuation. Smith’s subject is loneliness, Shapiro’s is the random nature of death and tragedy. There is no mention of suicide in either poem and yet, as this essay will show, they can be read as centering on the theme of unintentional or unconsciously motivated suicide.

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Main Body

“Not Waving” presents an allegorical situation in which a dead man, just pulled out of the water, thinks his last thoughts in response to comments from the people who have gathered to view his corpse. To these people, the drowned man had been “larking” (Smith) by swimming far out into the sea. In fact, the man’s larking had always been a desperate bid for understanding on the part of the people who knew him, and it is suggested that his larking grew so extreme that it killed him. Even then he failed to gain his friends’ love and understanding, and in death has to listen to them gloss over his death as a heart attack, when actually it was caused by a broken heart.

Catherine Civello says that the friends’ “metaphorical deafness” and the fact that the drowned swimmer had been “too far out” from his group of friends, shows the lack of communication and spiritual alienation of the subject (59). Smith’s poem was inspired by St. John of the Cross who felt abandoned by God and Man (Spalding 212), a state with which Smith found it easy to identify. She herself grew suicidal at times, feeling completely misunderstood, especially when friends found her poetry too flippant and her drawings, which accompanied her poems, irrelevant. In fact, Smith tried to commit suicide two months after completing this poem (Civello 59), indicating that she too had tired of trying to make her friends see that she was not waving but drowning.

Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck” describes exactly that but poetically, using tight meter and illustrative images to “evoke most vividly a scene of carnage” (Shaw 175). The ambulance’s bell is like the one used in last rites while the ambulance “floating down” is an angel coming to collect the souls of the departed which “wings in a heavy curve” to enter the crowd that has gathered around the bodies. Blood has pulsed out of the victims to pool in the street and all the ambulance men can do is put the mangled corpses in the back of the “little hospital” (Shapiro). The bell chimes once more to announce the assumption, the doors are closed “as an afterthought,” since nothing can save or protect the bodies, and the remains of human beings are removed from the scene.

The narrator surveys the scene of the accident, reflecting on the haphazardness of tragedy. He and his companion are in a state of derangement but matter-of-fact cops are cleaning up the scene and taking notes, or hanging warning lights from the wrecks. The narrator and his companion feel wounded by what they have seen, their throats “tight as tourniquets,” their feet “bound with splints” (Shapiro) as they try to cope with the possibility that their death, too, will be as random and as meaningless. In the end they decide that to make sense of traffic deaths would require metaphysics or even the occult.


Suicide, on the other hand, “has caused” and would therefore keep the narrator’s view of life intact. The question of who shall die might, in this case, be answered by pointing to the recklessness, perhaps even the abandonment of hope on the part of the drivers involved and asking if they, too, were out too far, not driving too fast but trying to die “across the expedient and wicked stones” (Shapiro) just as Smith’s subject sought refuge in the cold waters from that sense of being abandoned by God and Man.

Works Cited

Civello, Catherine A. “Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving but Drowning’.” The Explicator, 1983.

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Shaw, Robert Burns. Blank Verse. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2007.

Spalding, Frances. Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography. London: faber and faber, 1990.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 28). Stevie Smith’s and Karl Shapiro’s Poems Comparison.

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"Stevie Smith’s and Karl Shapiro’s Poems Comparison." StudyCorgi, 28 Oct. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Stevie Smith’s and Karl Shapiro’s Poems Comparison." October 28, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Stevie Smith’s and Karl Shapiro’s Poems Comparison." October 28, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Stevie Smith’s and Karl Shapiro’s Poems Comparison." October 28, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Stevie Smith’s and Karl Shapiro’s Poems Comparison'. 28 October.

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