I’ve always loved this poem by Stevie Smith. It speaks to something in me that’s often felt misunderstood, misinterpreted.
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning
When I first read this, I felt a sense of recognition, a feeling that I had been seen. I felt I knew what Smith was talking about when she wrote it, or, rather, that she had written it for me, about me, that she knew how I felt.
I felt known, in a way that I hadn’t previously.
For me, this is a poem about appearances, about the way people interpret one another. It’s about how two people can see the same thing, but understand it completely differently. It’s about how easy it is to misunderstand, to read something that isn’t there – it’s about how you never really know what someone else is thinking or feeling.
For me, the reason I love this poem is that I feel that Smith understands the way that a laugh can also be a scream, that you can smile while dying inside. That she understands the way you can spend so long hiding your true feelings that all anyone sees, all anyone knows, is the mask. And sometimes there was good reason to wear that mask initially; sometimes it was only having the mask that saved your life, but eventually the mask becomes a trap, locking you away from those you care about. And that’s when you end up like the man in the poem, where you’re begging for help while everyone thinks you’re having the time of your life.
Bleak, huh? But it was a realisation that made me resolve to stop being that person, to destroy the mask and to learn to ask for help, or to accept it when offered. It’s still a work in progress, of course: childhood survival techniques are hard to shake, even when you know they don’t help any more.
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