Stevie Smith: like all great poets, she invites contradictions

The editor of The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith says she teaches us to listen to the ordinary, but to hear in it something extraordinarily unexpected

Like all great poets, Stevie Smith invites contradictions. She is refreshingly no-nonsense, but her poetry sometimes flirts with it. Her own life seems appropriately matter-of-fact: she was born in Hull in 1902, moved to Palmers Green aged three, and lived there for the rest of her life. After school, she spent 30 years working at Newnes Publishing as a secretary to Sir Neville Pearson, where she produced three semi-autobiographical novels and four of her eight collections of poetry. Yet while she played the unconnected and isolated figure in interviews, ferried in from an unliterary suburb, no writer was better served by choosing not to have an agent, a truth of which Smith was wryly aware.

The editor who once told her to ‘go away and write a novel’ when faced with her unpublished poetry in 1935 offered better advice than he knew: Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949) gave her the opportunity to create the nearest the period could ever come to Wordsworth’s Prelude. Her gift for self-fashioning turned Florence to Stevie in the 1920s, and then Stevie into Pompey Casmilus, the arch, brittle and conspiratorial protagonist of her first two novels. Hiding amongst the glittering conversational set-pieces of the first book (women’s magazines, anti-Semitism, the ironies of staging Euripides at a girls’ school) there is a poet eager for us to ‘get the first look in’ at her work. While Smith distanced herself from her novels later in her career, they alert us to the careful moves her poetry makes in situating her story. ‘Reader, before you condemn, pause’ she cautions in Infant, with a line that pauses, knowingly, after it has as good as condemned us.

Contradictions abound, too, in the timbre of her poems. Early critics detected both the visionary power of William Blake and Emily Dickinson and the epigrammatic comedy of Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash. Her work is distinctive, but it jangles with a range of voices and registers. She is pitch-perfect in her ventriloquism, whether voicing the distracted evasions of the English upper class, the self-satisfied entitlement of the literary critic, or even the harmless vanity of a preening bull. Not since Keats has English poetry had a voice who can make archaism so energetic (her closing rhyme of ‘death/saith’ at the end of The Bereaved Swan is her affectionate gesture to The Eve of St Agnes).

Elsewhere, allusion can be a more tricky customer. The three roots for Smith’s poems which make their presence most felt above ground are classical tragedy and epic (especially Dante, Euripides and Racine), French symbolist poetry (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud), and the ‘rag-bag’ of quotations and biblical verse that came from school and home. Smith was schooled (and schools us) in the Palgrave Treasury tradition: Browning, Blake, Clare, Cowper, Shelley, Tennyson and Wordsworth in particular. Yet her use of allusion flits between misremembered quotation and deliberate reversal. Tennyson rhapsodises The Dying Swan in full-throated apostrophe, and Smith replies with the stubby monosyllables of The Bereaved Swan:

The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with eddying song.
(Tennyson, The Dying Swan)

On a lake
(Smith, The Bereaved Swan)

Romantic swansongs have their place, but more interesting to Smith are those left behind who have to ‘go on’. While the swansong risks self-indulgence and sentimentality, Smith’s bereaved swan gives up the right to compassion. The voice of the abandoned is less grief-stricken than caustic.

Her rhymes are also never quite at home: an early uncollected poem satirises a girl who ‘only censures or approves / In pompous hesitating sixth form syllables (Portrait of a Fool). The poem teases us for our tacit disapproval of the half-rhyme, and draws further attention to its excess of syllables. Sometimes Smith’s idiomatic rhymes are themselves hired out from her poetic ancestors. Suburb warns us we will ‘die remembering’ when the time comes from our ‘dismembering’, which seems to be half-remembering Robert Browning’s ‘disemburdening’ from Fra Lippo Lippi. Yet Smith’s rhymes also wander far from home for other reasons: many of her poem performance drafts find her vacillating between two words close in sound but opposite in sense. Do Take Muriel Out! finds its protagonist led out by a ‘deceiver’ or a ‘believer’, depending on when Smith reads the poem, and to whom. The speaker in Look look is either waiting ‘happily’ or ‘impatiently’.

Smith cares a great deal how her poems will be read, remembered and sung, yet can be disarmingly off-hand about whether they’ve been published before, where the epigraphs might come from, or whether they should be collected in a book. Both on page and stage, Smith delighted in revising works for various audiences. A gathering of schoolchildren would prompt a careful reselection and rewriting of particular lines, although someone as clear-eyed about the savagery of infanthood as Smith often created her most uncompromising poems for her youngest audiences. When selling individual poems to British and American newspapers, she changed words, titles or illustration to dodge copyright issues. Putting together a new collection would then present her with the challenge of deciding between numerous versions of a poem. At times, her choices were pragmatic: which newspaper could supply the original illustration or copy first would determine which version made the proof. Yet she could be categorical, threatening to leave publishers when they refused to include drawings alongside her poems, as Diana Athill nearly found to her cost. She adopted a series of postures towards her editors, from the author-in-distress, under siege from proliferating versions of poems and drawings, to the obstinate star pupil.

Smith well understood the dangers a collected poems might present for poets who dared to gamble with tone, rhyme and metre. While Smith would blanch at a reviewer comparing her to Thomas Hood, her 1940s radio programme on his collected poetry sounds a telling posthumous caution; ‘certainly not a heavy volume in the intellectual sense, but be careful how you skip, you may miss something good, suddenly, unexpectedly’. Her own poetry teaches us to listen to the ordinary, but to hear in it something extraordinarily unexpected.

The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith, edited by Will May, is published by Faber

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