Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Birthday: "I don't think Auden liked my poetry very much, he's very Anglican."


Florence Margaret Smith (1902-1971)
Poet, novelist

“Peggy”, her family called her, but after a friend saw her in a park and remarked she looked- with her bobbed hair- like a then-famous jockey, “Stevie” she became, and Stevie she stayed.

Smith was the anti-Romantic poet: no affairs, no scandalous travels. She was born in Yorkshire to a quarrelsome couple. Her dad went to see in her infancy and her life’s acquaintance with him came in the form of postcards scrawled on shore leave: “Off to Valparaiso, Love, Daddy”.

At three she and her sister moved with their mother to London’s Palmers Green suburb, and there she lived for the next sixty-five years.

Stevie Smith never married. At sixteen her mother died; she and her sister were taken in by their feminist aunt, whom Smith nicknamed “The Lion.” Her sister grew up and moved on. Stevie grew up and stayed put, living with her aunt until 1969.

She spent thirty years as secretary to a magazine publisher. In 1936, she published the first of three novels; a year later came her first collection of poetry. She won critical applause for a unique voice: what Poetry Archive calls

a combination of "caprice and doom" which remained characteristic of both her poems and the quirky line drawings that often accompanied them. The jaunty tone of the title is also pure Smith whose work thrives on co-existing contradictions: jokey and serious; colloquial and formal; sophisticated and child-like. Nursery-rhyme motifs, puns and seemingly light-hearted verse structures are used to explore unsettling depths...the word "playful" seems apt, but if so it's the playfulness of a cat; charming and elegant but concealing very sharp claws.

After World War II, Smith became a popular figure on the BBC. She had a sense of performance art that accentuated the curious, unique and unquiet voice of her work, “playing up her eccentricity and ceremonially half-singing some of her poems in a quavering voice. She also made a number of broadcasts and recordings, her skilful and extensive use of personae lending itself particularly well to reading aloud.”

(It is hard to imagine, in these spavined times, that one people bought phonograph records of poets reading their work. A series clips from her BBC readings is here: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/stevie-smith)

Late in life she collected honors; during her life, despite its pedestrian externals, she was friends with many of the leading writers of the day (“(many of them wrecked by her tendency to put them into her fiction,” Hermione Lee noted in The New York Review of Books last June), particularly George Orwell. Though her unsettled childhood left her with lifelong preoccupations over death, anxiety and separation, Smith had a comic, even antic, side, and a fine ear for how people talked and wrote. A phrase she picked out of a parish newsletter’s description of a church picnic, in all its forced gaiety, she made into a commonplace figure of speech, titling her first collection of poems, “And A Good Time Was Had By All.”

New Directions published Smith’s collected works this year, prompting an overdue reappraisal. As Lee explains, Smith is a hard ‘un to pigeonhole:

More than with most poets, when people write and talk about Stevie Smith, they try to nail her down with comparisons. She is a female William Blake, an Emily Dickinson of the English suburbs, a mixture of Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and the Brothers Grimm. Her reading style, which became legendary, with her cropped hair, baleful expression, little-girl dresses, and singsong lugubrious chanting voice, was described (by Jonathan Miller) as a cross between Mary Poppins and Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III. Seamus Heaney called it a combination of Gretel and the witch. He also compared her to “two Lears,” “the old King come to knowledge and gentleness through suffering, and the old comic poet Edward veering off into nonsense.”

She is often described as dotty, batty, silly, odd, childish, droll, or “fausse-naïve” (Philip Larkin’s term). Her English quirkiness and eccentricity are played up, as in Stevie, the play of 1977 by Hugh Whitemore (made into a film by Robert Enders in 1978), with Glenda Jackson as Stevie. Some readers throw up their hands in bafflement, as she told them they would, at the start of her 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper: “This is a foot-off-the-ground novel…and if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation.”

Other readers are indulgent and curious, but reluctant to think of her as a professional poet, more as an amateur folk artist, a hit-or-miss ingenue (or enfant terrible). Fellow poets who have taken her seriously do so for different reasons. Heaney hears the accents of “a disenchanted gentility.” Amy Clampitt sees in her “the desolation of the ordinary.” D.J. Enright says she is “somewhat Greek”: austere, severe, and “bracing.”4 In the introduction to his edition of All the Poems, an invaluable and complete collection of her poems and drawings, Will May adds to the adjectival pursuit. He calls her trenchant, dogmatic, indignant, plaintive, stoic, eerie, shrewd, self-conscious, tricky, and uncompromising.

All these adjectives point to a poet who is hard to categorize and not really like anyone else at all. They also, often, suggest a writer who has been marginalized as an oddity. Now, forty-five years after her death, bound inside this large annotated collection, she can be celebrated as a major English poet of the twentieth century. She is a writer of astonishing skill, range, comedy, and depth of feeling; she is inimitable, strange, and utterly original. With her poetry collected as a whole, it becomes more apparent too that though she is a funny writer—funny-ha-ha and funny-peculiar—her work is melancholy and despairing, full of pain, terror, and grief: “Not waving but drowning.”

She left her novels, and twelve collections of verse when she died in 1972, three years after her aunt. Among her last honors was the Queen’s Medal for Poetry:

According to Stevie Smith’s version of this encounter, the queen remarked that she had been told that Smith lived in a house with nine rooms all on her own. Smith “thought this remark odd, considering how many rooms the Queen lived in, but replied that it was better for one person to live in nine rooms quite happily than for nine people to live in nine rooms and not get on.”

Not Waving, But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

To An American Publisher

You say I must write another book? But I’ve just written this one.
You liked it so much that’s the reason? Read it again then.

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