Stevie Smith 1902–1971
(Born Florence Margaret Smith) English poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and scriptwriter.
Noted for her light, comic verse, Smith's work is characterized by her unique use of sound and meaning. Her poems—many of which combine elements from nursery rhymes, songs, and hymns—are characterized by a simplicity of diction and a youthful, lively wit. However, critics maintain that this uncomplicated style often belies Smith's incorporation of dark, profoundly serious themes, in particular her preoccupation with religion, suicide, and death.
Born in Hull, Yorkshire, in 1902, Smith moved with her mother, sister, and aunt to the London suburb of Palmer's Green, a place she would reside in for the rest of her life. After completing high school and attending the North London Collegiate School for Girls, she became a secretary at George Newnes, a magazine publishing firm. In her twenties Smith began to write poetry which eventually appeared in Granta magazine. She published her first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper, in 1936 and her earliest verse collection, A Good Time Was Had by All, one year later. In 1953, Smith retired from Newnes and devoted the rest of her life to writing. She died from a brain tumor in 1971.
A Good Time Was Had by All is characterized by short, humorous verse often accompanied by childlike sketches of people and animals. In this initial volume Smith incorporated themes that would be present throughout her work, primarily a rejection of traditional Christian doctrine and a lifelong preoccupation with suicide and death. Also, A Good Time Was Had by All evinced stylistic considerations that are deemed emblematic of her poetry, in particular the concise, economic use of form; the mixing of archaic and modern subjects, imagery, and language; and the use of light, amusing verse to convey dark, serious themes.
Although Smith's early poetry attracted considerable attention for its unique style and penetrating themes, critics ignored much of her later work, often categorizing the poems as insignificant. Regardless of the mixed reaction, she was commended for her use of sound and rhythm and was noted for the oral interpretation of her work, often chanting her poems or setting them to popular songs. With
the recent reissue of several of Smith's poetry collections and the publication of Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (1981) commentators have favorably reevaluated her work and have praised its truly original voice.
A Good Time Was Had by All 1937
Tender Only to One 1938
Mother, What Is Man? 1942
Harold's Leap 1950
Not Waving but Drowning 1957
Selected Poems 1962
The Frog Prince 1966
The Best Beast 1969
Scorpion and Other Poems 1972
Collected Poems 1975
Selected Poems 1978
Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (poems, essays, short fiction, and letters) 1981
Other Major Works
Novel on Yellow Paper (novel) 1936
Over the Frontier (novel) 1938
The Holiday (novel) 1949
SOURCE: "Frivolous and Vulnerable," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIV, No. 1646, September 28, 1962, pp. 416, 418.
[A major poet of the post-World War II era, Larkin was also a novelist and critic. In the following essay, he favorably reviews Selected Poems.]
Finding Stevie Smith's Not Waving But Drowning in a bookshop one Christmas some years ago, I was sufficiently impressed by it to buy a number of copies for random distribution among friends. The surprise this caused them was partly, no doubt, due to the reaction that before the war led us to emend the celebrated cigarette-advertisement 'If So-and-So [usually a well-known theatrical personality] offered you a cigarette it would be a Kensitas' by substituting for the brand name the words bloody miracle. But equally they were, I think, bothered to know whether I seriously expected them to admire it. The more I insisted that I did, the more suspicious they became. An unfortunate episode.
Not that I blame them. I am not aware that Stevie Smith's poems have ever received serious critical assessment, though recently I have seen signs that this may not be far off. They are certainly presented with that hallmark of frivolity, drawings, and if my friends had been asked to place Miss Smith they would no doubt have put her somewhere in the uneasy marches between humorous and children's. She has also written a book about cats, which as far as I am concerned casts a shadow over even the most illustrious name. Nevertheless, her poems, to my mind, have two virtues: they are completely original, and now and again they are moving. These qualities alone set them above 95 per cent of present-day output.
Her mode of writing, broadly speaking, is that of the faussenaïve, the 'feminine' doodler or jotter who puts down everything as it strikes her, no matter how silly or tragic, in a kind of Gertrude Stein-Daisy Ashford-Lorelei Lee way. This method derives from her novels, those strange monologues (beginning in 1936 with Novel On Yellow Paper, or, Work It Out For Yourself) by a girl called Pompey or Celia, who works in some office or ministry, has childhood memories of the Humber, and at times breaks out into poems that are subsequently reprinted under the name of Stevie Smith.
I must admit I cannot remember a single thing that happens in any of them, but looking at them afresh I am struck now, as then, by the ease with which they skitter from 'Phew-oops dearie, this was a facer, and a grand new opening gambit that I hadn't heard before' to 'I feel I am an instrument of God, that is not altogether the Christian God; that I am an instrument of God that must calcine these clods, that are at the same time stupid and vulgar, and set free this God's prisoners, that are swift, white and beautiful and very bright and flaming-fierce.' The accent of The Holiday (1949) is unremittingly artificial, yet the extraordinary scene at the end where Celia writes her uncle's sermon and begins to read it to him catches the attention in a way that suggests it is a key passage:
There is little landscape where you are going and no warmth. In that landscape of harsh winter where the rivers are frozen fast, and the only sound is the crash of winter tree-branches beneath the weight of the snow that is piled on them, for the birds that might have been singing froze long ago, dropping like stone from the cold sky … The soul, frivolous and vulnerable, will now lie down and draw the snow over her for a blanket. Now she is terrified, look, the tears freeze as they stand in her eyes. She is naked in this desert, she has no friends, she is alone.
This is not the note of a comic writer, and it is a note that sounds throughout her work again and again.
When one turns to the 'poems and drawings' (it is not easy to get hold of A Good Time Was Had By All or Tender Only To One, the pre-war volumes), it is a tossup whether one is too irritated by the streak of facetiousness ('Kathleen ni Houlihan Walking down the boule-igan Ran into a hooligan' etc.) to find the pieces which carry the unique and curious flavour for which they come to be sought. There are, to be frank, a few poems in every book that should never have got outside the family. Nor do the drawings help: a mixture of 'cute' and 'crazy', they have an amateurishness reminiscent of Lear, Waugh and Thurber without much compensating felicity. But one does not have to read far before coming on...
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SOURCE: "Did Nobody Teach You?" in Encounter, Vol. XXXVI, No. 6, June, 1971, pp. 53-7.
[Enright is an English author who has spent most of his career abroad, teaching English literature at universities in Egypt, Japan, Berlin, Thailand, and Singapore. The author of critically respected works in a variety of genres, he is best known for his poetry, which is conversational in style and often reflects his humanistic values through portraits of Far Eastern life. According to William Walsh, "Enright is a poet with a bias toward light and intelligibility, " and his critical essays are frequently marked by sardonic treatment of what he considers the culturally pretentious in literature. In the...
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SOURCE: "Stevie Smith," in Eight Contemporary Poets: Charles Tomlinson, Donald Davie, R. S. Thomas, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Thomas Kinsella, Stevie Smith, W. S. Graham, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 139-58.
[In the following essay, Bedient provides an overview of Smith's poetry.]
Stevie Smith had a wonderfully various mind and her work is a forest of themes and attitudes. In large part it was her intelligence and honesty that led to this—to the protean, compound substance we all are. She was rather fierce about the truth—a modern peculiarity. The encouragement the age gives to both acceptance and doubt, the way it leaves us with the museum of everything...
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SOURCE: "A Memorable Voice: Stevie Smith," in Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980, pp. 199-201.
[Heaney is a well-known Irish poet and editor. In the essay below, originally published in Irish Times in 1976, he praises the "memorable voice " of Smith's poetry.]
Always inclined to the brisk definition, W. H. Auden once declared that poetry was memorable speech. The Collected Poems of the late Stevie Smith prompt one to revise that: poetry is memorable voice. The unknown quantity in my response to the book was the memory of the poet's own performance of her verse, her voice pitching between querulousness and keening, her...
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SOURCE: "Delivered for a Time from Silence," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1977, pp. 314—30.
[Below, Helmling commends the stylistic and thematic diversity of Collected Poems.]
Although Stevie Smith's reputation has been growing for years, her readers typically retain the impression of a talent that appeared suddenly and recently, even if their first encounters with her occurred long ago. Her simplicity, her directness, her charm, that wickedly knowing naiveté which, seeming so narrow, nevertheless embraces extremes of delight, melancholy, impatience, and anger: these things have a way of taking the mind by storm. There are other contemporary poets...
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SOURCE: "Stevie Smith and the Gleeful Macabre," in Contemporary Poetry, Vol. 111, No. 4, 1978, pp. 36-49.
Florence Margaret Smith, who retained her nickname Stevie throughout her adulthood and published under its androgynous rubric, reveled in incongruities. Her poetic speakers shift from male to female, conformist to nonconformist, simple to complex, and adult to child; at times, indeed they are both alive and dead. She frequently set her poems to well-known tunes and sang them rather tonelessly to willing listeners, and she often appended sketches whose relationship to the text is problematical. Her syntax is odd, her rhymes unexpected, her numbers idiosyncratic, and as a result her work is...
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SOURCE: "Daddy, Mummy and Stevie: The Child-Guise in Stevie Smith's Poetry," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1983, pp. 232-44.
Critics agree that in Stevie Smith's work "cleverness and innocence … are curiously and winningly combined." They also agree that she is a difficult writer to peg—she is "unhousled," "unplaceable," and "open to every likelihood and perhaps finally partial to none." Commentators on Smith's poetry fall back on adjectives such as "sprightly" and variations of the catch-all "charming." While they never dare utter "eccentric old dear," it seems to be on the tips of their tongues. Like most critics who attempt to deal with Stevie Smith, the anonymous reviewer...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Stevie Smith: A Selection, edited by Hermione Lee, Faber & Faber, 1983, pp. 17-31.
[Lee is an English educator and critic. In the following essay, she offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Smith's poetry.]
Like much of Stevie Smith's work, this poem ('The Hostage') makes a reasoned, humorous, and dignified case for welcoming Death, as Seneca and the Stoics did. But it is a useful starting point in other ways, too. The lady's unexplained dramatic situation ('You hang at dawn, they said') is one of many mysterious journeys, fatal or fortunate quests, in Stevie Smith's poems and fictions. Her characters are perpetually saying goodbye...
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SOURCE: "Stevie Smith," in The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Poets: Eleven British Writers, edited by Jeni Couzyn, Bloodaxe Books, 1985, pp. 33-40.
[Couzyn is a South African poet and dramatist. In the following essay, she addresses autobiographical aspects of Smith's poetry.]
Of the house in North London where she lived from her fourth birthday until her death at sixty-eight, Stevie Smith has written:
It was a house of female habitation,
Two ladies fair inhabited the house,
And they were brave. For although Fear knocked loud
Upon the door, and said he must come in,
They did not let him...
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SOURCE: "Play, Fantasy and Strange Laughter: Stevie Smith's Uncomfortable Poetry," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn, 1986, pp. 85-96.
Miss Pauncefort sang at the top of her voice
(Sing tirry-lirry-lirry down the lane)
And nobody knew what she sang about
(Sing tirry-lirry-lirry all the same)
Stevie Smith's off-key, enigmatically childish poetry has always irritated as much as charmed her critics. It fits no obvious category and, though Smith's popularity as a novelist as well as a poet has continued to grow since her death in 1971, her critical reputation remains ambiguous and unconfirmed....
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SOURCE: "Stevie Smith and the Anxiety of Intimacy," in The CEA Critic, Vol. 53, No. 2, Winter, 1991, pp. 22-31.
[Upton is an American poet, educator, and critic. In the following essay, he analyzes the defining characteristics of Smith's verse, in particular her "anxiety over intimacy and self-disclosure."]
By enacting separation and difference, Stevie Smith dramatizes a portrait of the poet as a destroyer of habitual assumptions about affiliation. Her most compelling and characteristic movements are departures rather than arrivals, endings rather than beginnings. Characteristically, her speakers demonstrate an anxiety over intimacy and selfdisclosure.
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SOURCE: "Stevie Smith's Voices," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 24-45.
[Below, Stevenson explores the modes of expression in Smith's verse, maintaining that the "multivoiced character" of many of her poems "arise[s] from her emphasis on contending voices and her echoes of specific literary traditions and texts."]
Among tales of sixties poetry festivals, jazz-infused events that sometimes drew crowds in the thousands, one finds the legend of a woman in her sixties, small and frail, wearing schoolgirl dresses and white stockings, often sharing the stage with a much younger, denim- and leather-clad male gang. Such a setting (like that of a...
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