The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith
A lengthy book of poems like Stevie Smith’s Collected Poems does not invite critical evaluation, nor does it invite interpretation. The poems have proved themselves, individually and collectively, by surviving newspaper publication in England and by retaining sufficient readership despite the frequency of her book publications to warrant, now, a collection by a highly respected press. Interpretation seems wholly beside the point, for the poems generally mean what they say, and say smartly what they mean.
Because Stevie Smith (Florence Margaret Smith) herself regularly engaged in criticism as a book reviewer, she would doubtless overlook, if not condone, almost any intelligent response to her life’s work. What she would not stand still for is an effort to make of her work what it clearly is not and was never intended to be. More than one spitefully stinging poem in the present collection zeros in on the critic and his pretensions. “Souvenir de Monsieur Poop,” for instance, gives us the “self-appointed guardian of English literature” for whom Housman is the most recent writer to be tolerated. To discover in these poems, or these books, that Stevie Smith belongs among the immortals Monsieur Poop would go to the stake for—Shakespeare, Milton—would invite an angry spirit to intervene.
Stevie Smith wrote entertaining, often seriously questioning, often ironic poems. People liked them even when they were the butts of the joke. Some of the poems are difficult, some are allusive, but none is pretentious. Most are fun, whether or not they are funny.
Stevie Smith may have been the last of a breed of professional but nonacademic writers who were able at once to control their language and to treat serious topics in ways readers could understand and engage with, and to do so with sufficient flair to win, and hold, a public. Today’s writing and writers seem, increasingly, to come from the schools where “creative writing” is taught. Smith fared well without such training, probably reading instead of talking about “techniques.” Her readability, proved by the fact that she was, and is, widely read, may depend upon her knack for rhyming and her willingness to suggest popular tunes to accompany her songs. (Such skills appear “exercises” to the earnest student of creative writing who may never realize how fitting a poem to a popular air may set up all kinds of formal and emotional tensions.) Smith could use the “more fashionable” forms in vogue, as well as traditional ones typically learned in school. Always, her form seemed right—never a ready-made container for her words and ideas.
Smith was close to the speech rhythms of English and the patterns the English ear could hear. She knew enough to establish patterns and enough to break those patterns when she delivered her climactic punch. As a woman printing her work in the weeklies and Sunday papers, she recognized that self-expression could not come before communication. Her disdain for conventional punctuation forced her readers, probably more then than now, to second-guess her intentions; rarely, however, does her work lack a comma when it serves her purpoe. Not given to following trends or picking up fads, she helped establish sounds which are distinctly English, not merely British; even her earliest poems stand up for today’s readers. The passage of time has scarcely eroded her points, nor do British expressions or “cute” words get in the way.
The years in which Stevie Smith published most of her work saw no comparable popular poet at work in the American press, though some poets have regularly printed their work in newspapers in both countries. Edgar Guest’s platitudes wilt before Smith’s uncompromising scrutiny of life. James Metcalf and other impressionistic poets typically lack verbal energy and wit; their sentiments come out as humorless, their verses self-important. Perhaps the American tendency to syndicate poets and place their works in papers all over the nation made the difference. Smith wrote for papers and editors she herself read, and regular appearance of her work in those papers developed her following. One can imagine the American Dorothy Parker appearing in certain East Coast papers, but one cannot imagine her work appealing to rural or laboring sections of the country. Parker’s type of wit, her double-edged irony, and her recognition of the absurdity both around her and in her seem to provide the best American parallel to Stevie Smith’s verse.
Call it vers de societe; call it commercial, or topical. None of that matters, for Smith has begun to entertain her third generation of readers. That word “entertain” does not imply mindlessness; some of her greatest contemporaries, Graham Greene, for instance, produce “entertainments.” James MacGibbon writes in his Preface to her Collected Poems that Stevie Smith took great pleasure in her last years that she was so often invited to read at clubs and at schools. The new generation was apparently taking her up with the same enthusiasm their parents and grandparents had felt. The poems the third generation heard and read were doubtless better than the early ones, but their sensibility was largely the same: thoughtfully wry and wholly literate.
MacGibbon’s preface provides minimal information about the poet’s life. Perhaps British diffidence accounts for the omissions, or perhaps MacGibbon assumed that everybody knew the unexciting circumstances of Smith’s relatively short life. Born in Hull, Yorkshire, in 1903, she went to an excellent girls’ school but not to the university; instead; she took a job as secretary in a magazine publishing company (Newnes, Pearson) and began writing books. Her first submission of a poetry manuscript led to her being asked for a novel, which she produced and printed in 1936, the first of three novels. Then the collections of poems began to appear. For most of her adult life, she lived in an unfashionable North London quarter (Palmers Green) in an even less fashionable house which she shared with her aunt. In addition to managing that household, working as a secretary and, briefly, as a book reviewer for the Observer, she produced her novels and a half-dozen collections of poems. (MacGibbon’s rigid consistency in his chronological ordering of the poems confuses this issue.) Her latter-day reputation as conversationalist suggests that she was at least the equal of Samuel Johnson, a personality with whom she would certainly have had much in common. The Augustans, generally, would have liked her...
(The entire section is 2691 words.)