Smith, Stevie (Vol. 25)
Stevie Smith 1902–1971
(Born Florence Margaret Smith) English poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and scriptwriter.
Smith is most noted for her light, comic verse and unorthodox writing style. 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. They are not, however, whimsical or fey. Underneath their surface gaiety lurks a stunning intellectual clarity. Obsessed with thoughts of death and religion throughout her life, Smith's poems fluctuate between moods of dark, cynical speculation and frivolous abandon.
Although definitely not confessional, Smith's novels, like much of her poetry, are somewhat autobiographical. Novel on Yellow Paper, Over the Frontier, and The Holiday have as a central character a young girl who, like Smith in her youth, works in a London office and lives in a suburb with an aunt. These novels, like Smith's poetry, are full of humor but are also strung through with notes of despair and portraits of lonely people aware of the quick, sometimes brutal movement of life. With the recent republication of several of Smith's early works and the publication of Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, new comment on this unusual writer is beginning to appear. Critics are once again expressing their feeling that Smith's work is difficult to classify. Many are also reiterating the belief that it is nonetheless among the most intriguing and original of its day.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
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 without much trust in any of it, made her at once diverse and sardonic. '… we are born in an age of unrest', observes Celia, the narrator of her third novel, The Holiday (1949), 'and unrestful we are, with a vengeance.' Evidently Smith was prone to be sardonic anyway. Perhaps because her father had deserted to a life on the sea when she was young, she was quick to turn 'cold and furious' about anything selfish or unjust. Calling the heroines of her novels after Casmilus, 'shiftiest of namesakes, most treacherous lecherous and delinquent of Olympians', she seems also to have been nagged by a sense of unworthiness that may have gained strength from the same experience. In any case, fatherless, she would be 'nervy, bold and grim'; she would fend for herself. And clever as the next person, in fact cleverer, she would be nobody's fool, nor suffer foolishness. All this gives a wickedly unstable and swift slashing quality to her work. She herself is not to be trusted—except to be formidable, unpredictable, remorseless. To a degree, however, Death stood in for Smith's...
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From the first poems in [her Collected Poems], Smith's jingling eccentric rhythms and faux naifs social observations seem as finished and as edgy as the later, more familiar poems. The pieces are blunt, whimsical with an acidic toughness that belies their nursery-rhymed, chatty forms. Consciously resembling Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, Smith's poems purport to be innocent, or at least unaware of the final reaches of their suggestiveness. (Like Blake, too, she illustrates her own poems—with wobblingly childish line-drawings.) But the tightness of her forms avoids external emotionalizing or sentiment: the prancing rhythms and the obsessive, even nonsensical rhymes make the childishness of the form more penetrating, more subtly half-familiar, than a booming rhetoric or a free-verse profundity would do. And like Theodore Roethke, for instance, who in his "Lost Son" poems returns to nursery rhymes and to clinking rhythms in order to increase the terrors of childhood in the philogenic adult mind, Smith uses the childishness of the form to deal with adult obsessions. Surprisingly, the result is neither coy nor sentimental…. (pp. 448-49)
Pithy and compassionate, jauntily conversational, modest in their specific gravity and in their refusal to overreach in rhetoric or in gesture, Smith's poems stay at home, worrying the everyday circumstances and demanding a clear look at the spiritually unavoidable. And...
(The entire section is 366 words.)
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The kind of poet Stevie Smith is begins to emerge from a close look at the Collected Poems. She does not develop, in any helpful sense of the word: the first handful of poems announce her concerns as clearly as do the final, posthumous poems. The consistency of technique and craftsmanship is as sure in 1937 as it is in 1969. To say that, though, is to acknowledge the inconsistency too, in that quite often the reader is left wondering whether Stevie Smith knew or cared when she had written a poem not quite true to her Muse. The answer to that sort of nagging doubt is probably that she knew but didn't care all that much. There is a deliberate carelessness in much of her writing which reflects her own rather cavalier attitude both to the world and to poetry, and this carelessness is something the reader has to confront, because it becomes, oddly enough, one of her peculiar strengths…. Stevie Smith is sufficiently sure of herself to throw at her audience quite a lot of what, in another context, she calls 'balsy nonsense', in the knowledge that, when she has to, she can redeem herself. This process of giving with one hand what she takes away with the other operates through all her work, and it is one which is itself disturbing for readers and critics. We do, after all, like our poets to develop, and to take themselves seriously. But the tendency to see all poets in terms of growth towards maturity, however natural and understandable, is not always...
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The most striking characteristic of [Stevie Smith's] work is the rhythm, a speech rhythm slipping naturally into metre and out again, a rhythm so strong that it overrides considerations of syntax and punctuation and—in releasing language from its formal structures—finds new forms, new tones. Language thus released from traditional bonds and held tenuously in new bonds of rhythm, doggerel rhyme, assonance, and tone of voice, becomes capable of a range of expression unusual in more traditional usage—though she forfeits certain formal effects, of course.
As she treats language, so she treats our common reality. Her fanciful vision illuminates our world and elements of our common experience. It disengages emotions and situations from their actual contexts and presents them distilled in a fanciful context. Her world of fancy is not escapist. It is like a mask through which she trains her eyes on actual experience; her transmutations of actual experience clarify it with knowing innocence and seldom sentimentalize it. The fanciful world is a cruel one—of fairy tales, legends and myths peopled by princes, princesses, ogres and ghouls, neurotic animals and good spirits whose emotions and frustrations are ours. It is a world where guilt is out of place. In effect, she creates a modern pastoral. The short story poems about aristocrats or legendary people are another aspect of the same fanciful pastoralism. Her themes grow powerful through...
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The impression of Stevie Smith in [Me Again: Uncollected Writings] is overwhelming, almost too much so: it is not so much a question of her putting a head round the door and trilling Whoopee here I am again, as of plumping herself down in one's lap. That is an impression she would not have wished to make. She was not only an intensely professional writer but a sort of Parnassian, whatever contrary impression the idiom of her poems may give. Her sweetest songs were those which tell of saddest thought, but tell of it by odd contraries….
The originality of her poems seems like isolation made visible. They are childish in the sense in which Henry James's children are childish, little images of dispossession which have a quality all their own. Like such children she is never on the Side of Life, but of the fatigue which for many people is the only way of making a success of it….
From the admirable introduction by Jack Barbera and William McBrien—in itself a wholly adequate substitute for any biography—we learn that Sylvia Plath much admired Stevie's poems. The letter Plath wrote … is touching in its simple wish for contact and comfort. She was hoping, in November 1962, to move with her babies to a London flat…. It was not to be, however; Sylvia Plath killed herself three months after writing the letter….
From the editors' unobtrusive annotations to Stevie's letters we learn that she...
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She once ended a letter with 'lots of buoyant love and hollow laughter'—words that set the tone for this volume of Stevie Smith's uncollected writings. It consists of reviews, essays, poems, stories, letters and a radio play. The letters are lively, witty and affectionate; it is they, with the reviews and essays, that are the most worthwhile things in [Me Again: Uncollected Writings].
There is perhaps a little too much space given to her evocations of Palmer's Green, the North London suburb where she spent virtually her whole life and which she loved to describe. But on life within the house she is original and celebratory in her own throw-away, ironic manner. (p. 660)
[The] poems collected up here will not detract from, but will not add anything to, her reputation. So often she expected the heavy traffic of her own thoughts on the Deity, Nature, herself, to fit into a context as twee as the pram to which she whimsically, horrifically, longs to return in a poem called 'Surrounded by Children'. Writing in prose, she was prepared to push prams over cliffs. In the essay 'My Muse' she wrote: 'All the poems Poetry writes may be called "Heaven, a detail", or "Hell, a detail".' (She only writes about heaven and hell.) In a story 'Sunday at Home', the Stevie-figure says repeatedly that 'Hell is a continuation of policy'—which strikes an oddly topical note. Heaven and hell absorbed her. She said she was a...
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Stevie Smith said that she was straightforward, but not simple, which is a version of not waving but drowning. She presented to the world the face which is invented when reticence goes over to the attack, and becomes mystification. If you visited Blake and were told not to sit on a certain chair because it was for the spirit of Michelangelo, or if Emily Dickinson handed you a single flower, you needed time to find out how far the mystification was meant to keep you at a distance, and to give you something to talk about when you got home. Eccentricity can go very well with sincerity, and, in Stevie's case, with shrewdness. She calculated the effect of her collection of queer hats and sticks, her face 'pale as sand', pale as her white stockings, and also, I think, of her apparent obsession with death. She was interested in death, and particularly in its willingness to oblige, she had survived a suicide attempt in 1953, she was touched by the silence of the 'countless, countless dead': but when in her sixties she felt the current running faster and 'all you want to do is to get to the waterfall and over the edge,' she still remained Florence Margaret Smith, who enjoyed her life, and, for that matter, her success. Her poetry, she told Anna Kallin, was 'not at all whimsical, as some asses seem to think I am, but serious, yet not aggressive, and fairly cheerful though with melancholy patches'. The melancholy was real, of course. For that reason she...
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Because of the play and film Stevie, many people know a bit about the poet and novelist Stevie Smith. Me Again is a good and welcome book, telling us more. Not much more, because Stevie Smith, though she wrote so clearly out of her own life, never gave much of herself away. But here are her stories and essays, her previously uncollected poems, and a few letters, all in her particular, sharpish voice, full of her particular wit and her particular loneliness….
Several of the short stories in Me Again—and they are very good, perhaps the best things in it—are classics of the visitor's point of view. Here are quarrelling, loving couples, and marvellous monstrous children; the visitor half envies and half mocks, and is glad in the end she isn't them. She loves life, but she is afraid of it; she hugs to herself the thought of death as the ill-at-ease visitor comforts herself with the thought of the door. Her humour is not quite black, but grey…. She is honest and intelligent. But perhaps she did not allow herself to experience enough; she kept herself essentially a child—a wise child, detached, alarming, sad…. Me Again is her last wave, and, like the others it is rather small, brave and moving. (p. 187)
Carole Angier, "English Miscellaneous Writings: 'Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith'," in British Book News (© British Book News, 1982;...
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The uncollected work assembled for "Me Again" is not a case of spinning a deceased artist's old notes to the milkman into timely gold. This collection, though imperfect, holds treasures….
Stevie—nee Florence Margaret—Smith constantly "blurred distinctions between one form of writing and another." She quoted her poems in her stories and essays, transplanted ideas (sometimes word for word across years) from her essays to her book reviews and drew heavily from her own life in almost everything she wrote.
The stories in "Me Again"—and these are all of Stevie Smith's stories—are an uneven lot. The opener, "Beside the Sea," has shining moments but fails in its stilted speech and obvious setups for the Stevie character, a writer named Helen, to talk her beliefs and recite her poems at a friend. "In the Beginning of the War" … is an artful piece of eavesdropping that deliciously re-creates dialogue among some liberals of the period. And it's hard to imagine a writer among us today unable to identify with Stevie/Helen's angst in "Story of a Story." Having written a thinly veiled piece based on friends ("Sunday at Home"), she not only lost the friends, she was threatened with a libel accusation….
The essays show her stunning intelligence, wit, perversity. She is sensitive, scrupulous, wise. Also smug as all get-out. She'll hang on to an idea with the grip and growl of a dog at tug-of-war, as in...
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Anyone who is what Sylvia Plath called herself—a "Smith-addict"—will find [Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith] completely absorbing….
The final item in this collection—the radio play—at first appears to be a hoax, a poetry reading masquerading as drama. Gradually, however, it transpires that the Interviewer is Death, the author's "earliest love." From then on I was spellbound. One speech begins, "There is little laughter where you are going and no warmth." It reads like a translation from Rilke. A few moments such as this fully compensate for a prevailing defect that is signaled to us by the very title of the book.
Elizabeth Lutyens said that Miss Smith adopted a "deliberate 'childish' manner," and added with some asperity, "Who in hell wants 'innocence' from an adult—or a child?" Innocence is the opposite of guilt and is commendable in a person of any age. What is difficult to stomach is tweeness—a crude and unscrupulous bid for praise or, at least, pardon by means of a parade of helplessness that relies heavily for its success on the notion that incompetence is the same as sincerity. This ruse affects Miss Smith's style rather than her thoughts, and the text is riddled with the fault…. In contrast to the sloppiness of syntax, the author's ideas are sharp—even acid…. Moreover, there are descriptions in this book that, even when clumsily expressed, are almost as evocative...
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Joyce Carol Oates
[The] heroine of "Novel on Yellow Paper" muses to herself, by way of alleviating—or tabulating—the "orgy of boredom" to which her soul is committed: though the voice, the quirky, rambling, ingenuous, stubborn, funny-peculiar voice, could as easily be that of any other Stevie Smith heroine. In fact, Pompey Casmilus—christened Patience—is the narrator of both "Novel on Yellow Paper" and "Over the Frontier"; and the slightly more subdued Celia of "The Holiday" is clearly a close relation. And each chatty voice bears a close resemblance to that of Stevie Smith's own in her numerous essays, reviews and BBC talks.
Since her death in 1971 at the age of 69, Stevie Smith has been honored by considerable acclaim, both in her native England and elsewhere. Her "Collected Poems" has been reissued several times; a handsome gathering of her short stories, essays, drawings and reviews. "Me Again," was recently published in this country; and her three novels, long out of print, have [recently] been reissued…. Though differing in virtually every other way from the late Jean Rhys and the late Barbara Pym, Stevie Smith shares with them a posthumous fame that shows no signs of abating and is certainly well deserved…. An idiosyncratic talent, invariably deemed "eccentric," very much an acquired taste: a matter, it should be said, of tone, of rhythm, of voice, that appeals to some readers immediately and to others not at all. For Stevie Smith is...
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