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.