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 father; she looked up to it, ran to it when she was hurt, needed its love. In Novel on Yellow Paper (1937), the heroine, Pompey, is sent to a convalescent home at age eight and there appalled by a maid's 'arbitrary' motherly feeling; 'it was so insecure, so without depth or significance. It was so similar in outward form, and so asunder and apart, so deceitful and so barbarous in significance.' Soon after, she becomes afraid for her mother, who suffers from heart disease—and terrified once again for herself, since there is nothing she can do: she is reduced to 'fury and impotence', 'a very hateful combination'. Thus startled into distrust of life, she discovers the great trustworthiness of death. 'Always the buoyant, ethereal and noble thought is in my mind: Death is my servant.' Let life do its worst, the black knight can be summoned. Indeed, what could be more liberating for the mind, keep it 'so quick and so swift and so glancing, and so proud'?
Thus allied, this clever poet was free to dance around life rather mockingly. (pp. 139-40)
Smith's combination of honesty and 'wicked bounce' makes her work a tonic. Considering the risks she ran, she wrote remarkably few poems that are clever or zany for their own sake. If her novels are too clever by half, the poems are as clever as they should be—clever beyond reasonable expectation. Much as she plays with her moods and insights, much as she remains sprightly and astonishingly inventive in poem after poem from the first volumes of the late Thirties to the posthumous Scorpion and Other Poems (1971), her work has almost always the dignity of disciplined seriousness. Of course like the sketches that often accompany them, many are slight—but they are frankly hors d'oeuvres, and justified by their unique tone or epigrammatic incisiveness. (p. 140)
Smith's secret bethrothal to death [did not] keep her from delight in life—from loving friends or the earth with 'the waters around [it] curled'. Indeed, she was blessed with a capacity for careless, innocent joy—an 'instinctuality', in words from The Holiday, that brought 'with it so much glee … so much of a truly imperial...
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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 mystery seems always to seep through the closed door, the telephone, the mailslot: Smith is, consciously, an Emily Dickinson figure, caught like Dickinson in the modern tug between the self-denigrating faith of an Edwards and the congratulatory self-reliance of an Emerson. For Smith the tension is even greater, if that is possible, because the terms of the split have become culturally more overt. In this tension she may become silly at times, but even that occasional tone of forced whimsy also bespeaks her tautly honest sense of the modern importance of the single individual. And like the obsessive internal rhyming of Sylvia Plath's best (late) poems, Smith's formal integrity saves the poems from self-indulgence and deepens the terror of the quotidian…. (p. 449)
Stephen Tapscott, "Book Reviews: 'The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1978, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 446-50.
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 illuminating: Keats has suffered because of it, so too has John Clare. Clare in fact provides a useful pointer in the argument, in that he has endured a fate similar to Stevie Smith's at the hands of critics prepared to acknowledge his presence but unwilling to absorb him into their patterns of critical discourse. You will not find Clare getting much of a mention in surveys of the Romantics and Victorians, and this is as much a hint as to his true stature as an indication of his supposedly minor significance. Furthermore, Clare evinces the same sort of inconsistency. Stevie Smith likewise stands outside any tradition of the day, and in so doing acts as a comment on what is happening elsewhere; she becomes a touchstone, just as to read Clare is to see him apart from his contemporaries and to see them in a new light.
The comparison with Clare is especially illuminating if we think of Clare's asylum poetry, where his lyricism achieves its fullest and most self-contained flight. Song after song spills out of the notebooks in a profusion that seems to challenge the rigours of critical analysis. It is in the aslyum poems that Clare comes closest to Blake. It seems to me significant that Blake, too, can be heard behind and through several of Stevie Smith's poems, and these allusions help to clarify the nature of the critical problem. For, alongside the innocence of Clare, alongside the small cluster of recurrent preoccupations which mark Clare's work and Stevie Smith's, there is the simple directness of Blake as he appears in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. (pp. 42-3)
Stevie Smith cultivates a particular type of simplicity which has its echoes of Blake especially, but the temptation to move towards greater abstruseness and complexity is always there, and a number of poems can be seen to fail when they succumb in this way: The risks of simplicity, so far as the poet is concerned, are enormous, particularly in an age which distrusts what is simple, which easily perceives when the simple becomes the simplistic. The arch, the knowing, the coy—simplicity attracts such labels. It seems to me that one of Stevie Smith's most important qualities is her...
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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...
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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...
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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)
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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',...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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