The unveiling of the Blue Plaque
The Poet Laureate unveils a blue plaque at Stevie's house
On 16 September 2005, a crowd gathered outside 1 Avondale Road, Palmers Green, North London, to watch the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, unveil a blue plaque from English Heritage on the house in Palmers Green where Stevie Smith had lived for almost all her life. This replaced the plaque previously put there by Enfield Borough Council.
The event was organised by Joanna Cameron from Palmers Green bookshop, the poet Katherine Gallagher and English Heritage. First there was wine and crisps at the bookshop and then we made our way to 1 Avondale Road. Outside the house Joanna introduced the event and then an officer from English Heritage explained the blue plaque scheme.
Joanna Cameron, Katherine Gallagher and Andrew Motion
Katherine read Stevie's poem, 'A House of Mercy', a tribute to the house and its inhabitants, and then introduced Andrew Motion.
The poet laureate said he was very happy to be here. Stevie Smith was a poet whom he particularly liked, he was not just doing his job, it really was a privilege to unveil a plaque for Stevie.
He had been thinking about another poet who wrote about the suburbs, John Betjeman, and he felt that he and Stevie had a slightly curious place in literature: they both had large popular followings but a much smaller academic following. He wondered why that was? Smith's work was charming and yet highly complicated. He thought that it was difficult to know how serious she was, how naive, how falsely naive, how artful. How touched was she? How broken? Her artfully freewheeling prose broke all the rules. How much structure was there in it? How much lack of structure?
Andrew Motion went on to wonder what kind of readership she aspired to. What were the drawings for? Were they to make the poems more attractive to children? How expert or inexpert are the drawings? Some of them show evidence of being carefully worked and others appear to be just doodles. Her talent was interesting and unstable.
He told us that Philip Larkin, who liked her poems, said that her work was original and moving, and he agreed with this. Andrew Motion felt also that she was a highly ingenious writer, she seemed to have a natural, throwaway style, but this was extremely artificial. She was frivolous, skittish and silly but also serious as well as original and moving. Andrew Motion made a connection between the silliness and the seriousness, he said that Stevie makes silliness serious, and seriousness silly.
He went on to say that in her poems Stevie approached death, religion and sin using various voices. She used rhyme to great effect in these multiplicity of voices and she was open to all experiences. Philip Larkin had said that her poetry 'had the authority of sadness' but Andrew Motion added that her work also had the authority of high spirits.
He then read two of her poems:' Tenuous and Precarious' which he said he first read as a teenager and found very funny, although the serious creeps in, and 'The Galloping Cat'. He then retreated behind the hedge to pull the string and release the cloth that covered the blue plaque.
The dark cloth is pulled off the plaque
After this a man climbed a ladder to remove the wood which had held the cloth, and Andrew Motion went into the house and eventually appeared at the upstairs window next to the plaque. Various people had failed to open the window fully before the Poet Laureate arrived to struggle vigorously with the recalcitrant sash in his efforts to appear next to Stevie's Smith's plaque for the benefit of the press photographers standing in the road. 'A Stevie moment' I heard someone say as the rain began to fall.
After this it was back to the bookshop or the Railway Cafe for more wine and talk of Stevie and the day's event.
What would Stevie Smith have thought of the day's proceedings, how would she have felt if she had known that the Poet Laureate would come to her house to unveil one of the plaques which in the words of English Heritage, 'celebrate great figures of the past and the buildings that they inhabited?' Would she have appreciated becoming ' a great figure of the past', or would she have found the idea absurd? I certainly appreciated Andrew Motion's address and his reading of her poems. He captured Smith's artful contradictions and ambiguities very well and I enjoyed sharing the pleasure and respect that he obviously feels for her work.
It was a seriously celebratory day, but also a day to relish Stevie's contradictory and anarchic spirit. I would like to thank the poet Katherine Gallagher, Joanna Cameron of Palmers Green bookshop, Andrew Motion and English Heritage for making it such a memorable occasion.
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If you aren't familiar with Stevie Smith’s poems give yourself a treat and buy 'The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith' which was published in hardback by Faber and Faber in 2015, edited and with an introduction by Will May. As a second best, previous editions of Smith's collected poems are available second hand and as a very third best ‘Selected Poems’ is also available in paperback.
If you want to quote from my work for essays or course work you are welcome to do so as long as you attribute the work to Anne Bryan and this web site. Stevie Smith's work may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of the Stevie Smith Estate who may be contacted at Faber and Faber
Follow the links to find out more about Stevie Smith:
Stevie Smith Biography - a short account of Stevie's life and work.
Stevie Smith's Suburb - Palmers Green, North London and how it features in Stevie's work
Stevie Smith’s Connections - an exploration of Stevie’s connections to her contemporary writers, with a quick look at Stevie's possible influence on today's poets.
Childe Rolandine - this poem is considered together with Robert Browning’s famous poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.'
'The Jungle Husband' - this dark poem about a jungle which is green on top is explored.
The Frog Prince - a dive into a deceptively simple poem with hidden depths.
Smiths suburban cats NEW an introduction to three of Smith's suburban cat poems: 'Tidzal', 'The Singing Cat' and 'My Cat Major'.
Stevie's religious poems are explored in the light of the religious ideas of the time and the relevance of her poems today is considered
Stevie Smith Festival at Palmer’s Green - an account of a memorable poetry reading in the streets of Palmers Green to celebrate the centenary of Stevie Smith’s birth, with thoughts on the poems which were read.
Stevie and music - musical adaptations of Stevie's work
Stevie's Blue plaque: an account of the unveiling of a blue plaque at Stevie Smith's house in Palmers Green, London, on 16th September 2005 by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.
Remembering Stevie at Torquay - where her ashes were scattered
Stevie Smith links to other sites which feature her work.
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