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 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? Stevie's work is 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 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 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 Stevie's artful contradictions and ambiguities very well and I enjoyed sharing the pleasure and respect that he obviously feels for Stevie's 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 (now sadly closed), Andrew Motion and English Heritage for making it such a memorable occasion.
Any comments, queries, send me an e mail
Stevie Smith homepage Stevie Smith Biography - a short account of Stevie's life and work.
Stevie Smith Festival at Palmer’s Green
Childe Rolandine - Browning's 'Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came' as a source for Stevie's 'Childe Rolandine'. The Jungle Husband - the jungle is 'green on top' but dark inside The Frog Prince - a dive into a deceptively simple poem with hidden depths Stevie's religious poems - Stevie questions God Stevie and her contemporary poets - Stevie in the poetry scene of her day Stevie and music - musical adaptations of Stevie's work A Turn Outside - A Radio Play by Stevie, adapted and set to music by Simon Rowland-Jones Stevie links - links to other sites on Stevie Smith An Evening with Stevie Smith - a reading of Stevie Smith's poetry in Cardiff Blue Plaque the Poet Laureate unveils a blue plaque at Stevie's house Remembering Stevie at Torquay - where her ashes were scattered Back to Strange Attractor homepage