OCTOBER 28, 2016
THE BRITISH POET Stevie Smith has always been a puzzling figure, a British eccentric whose work whips existential grief and whimsy into a bittersweet froth. That she was an original was never in dispute. She was admired by writers as different as Sylvia Plath and Ogden Nash, as well as Marianne Moore, Seamus Heaney, and Philip Larkin — the last two with some reservations. In a mostly favorable summing-up review Heaney wrote, “Yet finally the voice, the style, the literary resources are not adequate to the somber recognitions.”
On the contrary, Smith had “literary resources” in abundance. But because her work is uneven, some poems pithy and miraculous, others seemingly tossed off, the reverse is more apt: the somber recognitions are at times not adequate to the voice and style. As in the nursery rhyme — a form with which she had some affinity — when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was … not horrid; the pejorative terms are usually naïve, slight, fey. Naïve is the least suitable. As if anticipating and preempting possible criticism, she has the heroine of her 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper, a stand-in for the author, remark, with tongue in cheek, “I certainly have a flippant and frivolous mind. […] I certainly am fundamentally not serious.”
What might appear as frivolity is actually Smith’s extraordinary gift for wordplay and her delight in linguistic acrobatics of every sort. Beneath that surface is a harsh, dark vision, which verges on tragedy, and a romantic obsession with death, the most frequent theme — and character — in her poems. “This is my earliest love, sweet Death / That was my love from my first breath.” The final poem of her posthumous collection, Scorpion (1972), was written while Smith was struggling with the brain tumor that killed her:
Ah me, sweet Death, you are the only god
Who comes as a servant when he is called, you know
Listen then to this sound I make, it is sharp
Come Death. Do not be slow.
She knew it was not up to her best work, but she wanted very badly for it to appear in Scorpion.
It’s far from unusual for poets to present themselves as “half in love with easeful death,” at least in their work. What makes Smith sui generis is how intensely death informs the poems and in how many different guises, addressed with either mild or ardent craving, on occasion a violent courting:
Wilt thou not come for calling, must I show
Force to constrain thy quick attention to my woe:
I have a hand upon thy Coat, and will
Not let thee go.
Nonetheless the poems are everywhere brimming with life and wit, and delight the ear with their changeable rhythms, their juxtaposition of high and low diction, their odd characters and often sinister fables. “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock” comes from the rumor that the titular gentleman interrupted Coleridge while he was recording his dream vision of “Kubla Khan.” The pleasure she takes in writing it is palpable:
May we enquire the name of the Person from Porlock?
Why, Porson, didn’t you know?
He lived at the bottom of Porlock Hill
So had a long way to go.
He wasn’t much in the social sense
Though his grandmother was a warlock […]
But very soon the tone darkens:
I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.
The poems in her seven collections are accompanied by Smith’s line drawings, sometimes illustrating the poem, sometimes not. The forlorn-looking, comically baffled figures are clever and amusing but also distracting and superfluous. Her British editor Diana Athill urged her to omit them, arguing sensibly that they made the poems appear like light verse, but Smith refused. Later, in 1969, when Robert Gottlieb of Knopf brought out a collection of her poems called The Best Beast, he used only a handful of the drawings, and this time Smith acceded, probably because she was eager to see the poems published in New York.
The 1960s, when Smith was in her 60s, saw the height of her renown. Public readings were just coming into fashion, or rather coming back into fashion, and she was invited to read her work all over England. She frequently read — or rather declaimed, sang, chanted, droned — her poetry on BBC Radio. In the United States today, she is probably best known for her great line, “Not waving but drowning,” also the title of her fifth collection of poetry (1957), along with the excellent 1978 film based on her life and starring Glenda Jackson, who met the poet once and took away an indelible impression.
So, as Smith herself might have judged — she was fond of assertions like “it is good,” “it is not good” — this new volume, All the Poems, edited and supplied with a scrupulous scholarly apparatus by Will May, is certainly a good thing. It is doubtful whether any poet, except perhaps Shakespeare or Homer, would be best served by a weighty volume collecting everything he or she ever produced, a kind of emptying out of desk drawers filled with uncollected and unpublished work. Happily, the gems in this volume far outweigh the lesser poems. It has the added advantage of laying bare their author, who was known to be secretive.
The first disruption in her young life was her father’s decamping when she was three. In “Papa Love Baby,” she confides:
What folly it is that daughters are always supposed to be
In love with papa. It wasn’t the case with me
I couldn’t take to him at all
But he took to me
What a sad fate to befall
A child of three.
When she was 16, her mother died of a heart attack. The loss is relived in “A Dream of Nourishment”:
I had a dream of nourishment
Against a breast […]
But in my dream the breast withdrew
in darkness I lay then
Thin as a sheeted ghost
And I was famished […]
She lived the rest of her life in Palmers Green, on the outskirts of London, with her beloved aunt, whom she relied on for stability and cared for through her old age.
Her schooling stressed the Greek and Roman classics and the tradition of British poetry. Allusions to, and sometimes direct echoes of, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and many more flutter through her poems. That “hand upon thy coat,” in the lines quoted above, recalls The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. A line from “The Boat,” “Love is not love that wounded bleeds,” immediately calls to mind Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds.” She was an inveterate reader and wrote poems in the voices of Persephone, Helen of Troy, and the boy Miles in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, among others. In “Dido’s Farewell to Aeneas,” Dido addresses Death in much the same way as Smith does: “Come Death, you know you must come when you’re called / Although you’re a god.” Her poem “Death Came to Me” might have been suggested by the famous verse of Dorothy Parker (whom she read) on the drawbacks of various methods of suicide, ending with “You might as well live.” Smith’s poem travels the same route — in a freer form — but ends with the speaker choosing a gun: “I put it to my head / And now I’m dead.”
At around 20, she got a job as assistant to the head of a noted magazine publishing firm and remained there for 30 years. The work had its longueurs, as set forth in “Childe Rolandine”:
Dark was the day for Childe Rolandine the artist
When she went to work as a secretary typist
And as she worked she sang this song
Against oppression and the rule of wrong:
It is the privilege of the rich
To waste the time of the poor
To water with tears in secret
A tree that grows in secret
That bears fruit in secret …
She used the idle hours to write, and the fruit she bore did not remain secret for very long.
In 1936, an editor at Chatto & Windus told her to “go away and write a novel,” then return with her poems. By the end of that year, she had completed the rambling, self-indulgent Novel on Yellow Paper, and later wrote two more. (She abandoned a fourth, punningly titled Married to Death.) Though Novel on Yellow Paper was enthusiastically received, even compared to Tristram Shandy, and made Smith a celebrity, it is a tedious read today, terminally arch as it is. It also has unpleasant references to Jews; for one thing, the heroine describes herself as the “only goy” at a “Jew Party.” Like many Britons of her time, she seems to have regarded Jews as exotic and other. Later in the book, after a trip to Germany, the heroine does note the cruelty of the Nazis toward Jews. Still, a number of Smith’s friends were offended and alienated. (In a letter written late in life, she acknowledges that she herself no longer liked the book.)
Her work fell out of favor in the 1950s. Depressed, she attempted suicide and was hospitalized after this breakdown. She never returned to the office again, and was free to write poetry. By the end, besides the seven collections of poetry, she had written hundreds of reviews, as well as essays and stories.
Despite the myths that surround her, until old age she was not reclusive; she visited and corresponded with many literary friends, but her emotional life centered around her poetry and her aunt. There were a few love affairs — one brief one with a German man her friends called, unjustly, “Stevie’s Nazi boyfriend.” He was, however, openly anti-Semitic and his idealization of Germany made Smith uneasy. Shortly after, she broke off an engagement, voicing her dread of suburban family life. According to her biographer, Frances Spalding, she had an affair with an unnamed woman; there were also rumors of an affair with George Orwell, a close friend. All of this appears, explicit or disguised, in her best poems, permeated with longing and loneliness.
Her work is nothing if not varied. She revels in tales of escape from the quotidian, and ruminates on the secret lives of animals — she loved cats of all sizes. “The Zoo” draws violence out of regret:
The lion sits within his cage,
Weeping tears of ruby rage,
He licks his snout, the tears fall down
And water dusty London town.
He does not like you, little boy
It’s no use making up to him,
Nor would you do if you were he,
And he were you, for dont you see
God gave him lovely teeth and claws
So that he might eat little boys.
[…] he knows the hot sun slants
Between the rancid jungle-grass,
Which never more shall part to let him pass […]
Hardly a rebel in daily life, she was enlivened by a streak of iconoclasm that emerged in essay-like poems on her unending arguments with established religion: “How Do You See,” a long poem brooding on Christianity, warns, “the consolations of religion are so beautiful, / But not when you look close.” In “I Was So Full …,” the narrator invents God and the Devil, and concludes, “Away with them, away; we should / Not believe fairy stories if we wish to be good.” Her mockery spread to the British class system, the military, conventional marriage, and family life. “There is far too much of the suburban classes / Spiritually not geographically speaking. They’re asses.”
Mockery edges into cruelty in the terse couplet “I’ll Have Your Heart”: “I’ll have your heart. If not by gift my knife / Shall carve it out; I’ll have your heart, your life.” These lines show how far she was from emotional innocence. Her most seductive poems, drawing on the losses and vicissitudes of her life, show the vulnerable, yearning heart and the hard-edged self-knowledge of this enigmatic poet. “The Orphan Reformed,” from Harold’s Leap (1950), stands as a signature poem:
The orphan is looking for parents
She roams the world over
Looking for parents and cover.
She looks at this pair and that
Cries, Father, Mother,
Likes these, does not like those,
But really she is better alone.
In 1969, Smith received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and spent 20 minutes in private conversation with the monarch. She reported in letters to friends that the Queen was gracious and “frightfully good, never a foot wrong.” Then, in typical cavalier fashion, she added, “The questions she asked rather kept us on the subject of poetry and I could not help feeling it wasn’t absolutely her very favorite subject.” The singular note coupling earnestness and sly irony reveals the inner woman. The same note sounds throughout her enduring work.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of the novels Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn, the memoir Ruined by Reading, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction. Her third collection of poetry, No Way Out But Through, will be published in 2017 by the University of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series.