A Poet Unlike Any Other - Stevie Smith

More than with most poets, when people write and talk about Stevie Smith (1902–1971), they try to nail her down with comparisons. She is a female William Blake, an Emily Dickinson of the English suburbs, a mixture of Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and the Brothers Grimm. Her reading style, which became legendary, with her cropped hair, baleful expression, little-girl dresses, and singsong lugubrious chanting voice, was described (by Jonathan Miller) as a cross between Mary Poppins and Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III. Seamus Heaney called it a combination of Gretel and the witch. He also compared her to “two Lears,” “the old King come to knowledge and gentleness through suffering, and the old comic poet Edward veering off into nonsense.”

She is often described as dotty, batty, silly, odd, childish, droll, or “fausse-naïve” (Philip Larkin’s term). Her English quirkiness and eccentricity are played up, as in Stevie, the play of 1977 by Hugh Whitemore (made into a film by Robert Enders in 1978), with Glenda Jackson as Stevie. Some readers throw up their hands in bafflement, as she told them they would, at the start of her 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper: “This is a foot-off-the-ground novel…and if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation.”3

Other readers are indulgent and curious, but reluctant to think of her as a professional poet, more as an amateur folk artist, a hit-or-miss ingenue (or enfant terrible). Fellow poets who have taken her seriously do so for different reasons. Heaney hears the accents of “a disenchanted gentility.” Amy Clampitt sees in her “the desolation of the ordinary.” D.J. Enright says she is “somewhat Greek”: austere, severe, and “bracing.”4 In the introduction to his edition of All the Poems, an invaluable and complete collection of her poems and drawings, Will May adds to the adjectival pursuit. He calls her trenchant, dogmatic, indignant, plaintive, stoic, eerie, shrewd, self-conscious, tricky, and uncompromising.

All these adjectives point to a poet who is hard to categorize and not really like anyone else at all. They also, often, suggest a writer who has been marginalized as an oddity. Now, forty-five years after her death, bound inside this large annotated collection, she can be celebrated as a major English poet of the twentieth century. She is a writer of astonishing skill, range, comedy, and depth of feeling; she is inimitable, strange, and utterly original. With her poetry collected as a whole, it becomes more apparent too that though she is a funny writer—funny-ha-ha and funny-peculiar—her work is melancholy and despairing, full of pain, terror, and grief: “Not waving but drowning.”

As Will May makes clear both in this edition and in the book he published six years ago, Stevie Smith and Authorship,5 it has not been an untroubled path from the appearance of her first novel and her first skinny, quirky-looking book of poems in 1937, to this solid production, which at last gives her the look of a classic. Until now, Stevie Smith’s poetry has been as evasive of mainstream and academic acceptance as her life has been resistant to biographers. Tellingly, her title for her first novel was “Pompey Casmilus,” after both the ruthless Roman general and the wily, untamed messenger of the gods, alias Hermes or Mercury.

The bare facts of the life, as summed up by Will May, don’t look enticing:
Stevie Smith was born in Hull in 1902, moved to Palmers Green [a North London suburb] aged three, and lived there for the rest of her life. After school, she spent thirty years working at Newnes Publishing as a secretary to Sir Neville Pearson, and produced three semi-autobiographical novels and eight collections of poetry.
Some color can be added to this, drawing on Frances Spalding’s sympathetic biography. There was her upbringing in what Stevie Smith calls “a house of female habitation” (mother, sister, aunt) after her father, an unsuccessful shipping agent in Hull, ran away to sea soon after she was born, leaving behind “a cynical babe.” There was the death of her mother when she was seventeen, and the consoling presence of her Aunt Madge—“Auntie Lion”—who moved the whole family south, and looked after Stevie Smith until it was her turn to be looked after.

There was her dislike of her disciplinarian school, North London Collegiate, where, however, she had a useful classical education and started to write. There was her adoption of her androgynous writing name, taken from a popular jockey called Stevie Donoghue. (Her given name was Florence.) There was her opting for a dull secretarial job so that she had time to write (on yellow office paper). There was her move away from Christianity to a troubled skepticism. There were a few unsatisfactory love affairs with both men and women, and an interesting range of literary friendships (many of them wrecked by her tendency to put them into her fiction) including with George Orwell, Inez Holden, Betty Miller, Kay Dick, Mulk Raj Anand, Olivia Manning, Naomi Mitchison, Rose Macaulay, and Veronica Wedgwood.

As Will May says, although in interviews she liked to play “the unconnected and isolated figure,” she had a rapid, eye-catching career as a poet and novelist from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. Novel on Yellow Paper aroused much fascination. One poet-reader was convinced that the book, with its free-associating, meandering, quizzical voice, was by Virginia Woolf, and wrote to tell her so: “You are Stevie Smith. No doubt of it. And Yellow Paper is far and away your best book.”6 Certainly it became a cultish hit, and after that, books poured out of her: the poetry collections with their quizzical titles—A Good Time Was Had by All (1937), Tender Only to One (1938), Mother, What Is Man? (1942), Harold’s Leap (1950)—and the novels, full of angry arguments about religion, war, politics, and marriage—Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949).

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