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                                       Stevie Smith Centenary at Palmers Green 2002

 

Celebrating Stevie Smith

I love Stevie’s Collected Poems, which I bought about twelve years ago, and have never tired of exploring them. Sylvia Plath, in ‘The Bell Jar’ talks of ‘writing poems people would remember when they were unhappy or sick or couldn’t sleep’. Well, I wouldn’t want to even think about Sylvia’s clever but terrifying poems in those circumstances but I would like to remember Stevie’s, because, although she does, like Sylvia,  write a lot about death, cruelty, pain and loneliness, she confronts the terrors of life with subversive humour and courage.

So when I heard of the Festival to celebrate the centenary of her birth,  I took the train from Barry to Palmers Green on September 14th 2002 to go to one of the events

 

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Cover Illustration by Tonya Robinson


Stevie and the Lion

Stevie lived almost all her life with her Aunt Madge, who looked after the family after Stevie’s father ran away to sea. Stevie’s mother died young but her aunt continued to warm Stevie’s bedtime milk for her until well into adulthood; Stevie called her the lion of Hull, and wrote that ‘ aunt thinks of me as a child of about ten years old. In the poem ‘To Carry the Child’ Stevie asks what can the child do ‘ trapped in an adult carapace, / but peer out of his prison room/ with the eyes of an anarchist.’ In ‘Novel on Yellow Paper’ she writes of the anarchy of dreaming sleep, a phrase out of De Quincey, and as she says of this experience, ‘if it is to be rich and curious like I said, you must have an anchorage, someone that is fine and honest and strong, as De Quincey had his sister, and I have the Lion of Hull.’

The Festival Fringe

I walked out of the station and encountered Peter and Doreen Brown standing on a traffic island near the Safeway supermarket with a harmonium. Peter explained that he was the Fringe, all festivals needed a Fringe of course, and he would be playing a tune composed by his grand daughter, Florence, to Stevie’s poem ‘Avondale’.

 At half past two the crowd of people stopped singing to Mr Brown’s harmonium and were led into the station foyer, and the reading began. People walked through us to catch their train and a cleaner wandered through with a bucket and mop.

 


Haystacks and needles

We listened to the poem ‘Freddy’, how Stevie didn’t care for his ‘meelyoo’ the ‘ha ha well-off suburban scene... but there never was a boy like Freddy /for a haystacks ivory tower of bliss’ and then we filed down the road to the book shop, where the audience stood on the pavement crowded with Saturday Shoppers. It was explained to us that the book shop had only the most tenuous connection with Stevie, as it was a Singer Sewing shop in her day. However she or her aunt may have bought haberdashery there. More poems and excerpts from the novels, the readers struggling, with the aid of a small yellow plastic megaphone, to be heard above the traffic noise.

The readers of the poems : Katherine Gallagher, David Bevan and Rehana Durrani,  photographed in St John's Church

God the Eater

We walked to the church and sat in the pews. Katherine Gallagher explained that though all the family had been churchgoers Stevie’s relationship with Christianity had been ambiguous. Then she read ‘God the Eater’. It begins: There is a god in whom I do not believe .... And ends When I am dead I hope that he will eat/ Everything that I have been and not been? /And crunch upon it and feed upon it and grow fat / Eating my life all up as it is his.
I felt an urge to say amen, but kept quiet of course.

 

 
 
 
 
 The church of St John Palmers Green

Lapsing into belief

Stevie wrote other poems in which she speaks with or through God and his angels. The poem‘ God Speaks’ begins ‘ I made man with too many faults’ and declares that one of man’s faults is that he misunderstands God abominably when he says that God had a son and gave him for man’s salvation. Under the poem there’s a drawing of God with bushy eyebrows, a pained expression, at being misunderstood I suppose, a trident and crown. He does not look like anyone else’s idea of God. In spite of her scepticism, and sometimes disgust and anger, with Christianity, Stevie retained her interest in God and in the Church of England, and said there was always a danger that she might ‘lapse into belief’.

 

 

 


Hide and seek

Sometimes it’s difficult to see where Stevie is taking us. She flies off on her new hat, disappears into a frozen lake and reappears as Persephone, the next moment she has metamorphosed into the frog prince hopping towards the heavenly palace.  Stevie  invites us to leave the path and play hide and seek. If we play her game and follow her through this bizarre forest then, like children who play hide and seek in a wood, we may see more of its hidden nature than those who are led down designated footpaths with explanatory handouts.

Not playing the game

Stevie, though good at wearing masks and playing games, resolutely refused to ‘play the game’ of being a serious poet, and she never became part of the establishment. In her poem ‘Girls’ she explains ‘Girls, though I am a woman/I always try to appear human/, Unlike Miss So and So... Miss So and So is a games teacher who cries a lot of ‘balsy nonsense’ about not selling the pass and letting down the side; the poem ends defiantly: Girls! I will let down the side if I get a chance/And I will sell the pass for a couple of pence. Stevie has been accused of talking 'balsy nonsense' herself. She explained that her Muse did not speak, but howls and mutters, which sounds absurd, but  I respect her for listening attentively to the weird howling and muttering, for translating these disturbing noises into her poetry, and for having the courage to be herself, even when that self is, like all our selves, often contradictory and ridiculous.

Stevie's Nature

Her poems about nature can be fierce. In ‘Alone in the Woods’ she writes ‘...I felt the bitter hostility of the sky and the trees ... Nature is sick at man .../ Sick at his gaudy mind/ That drives his body/ Ever more quickly/ More and more/ In the wrong direction. She can be tender, but strange; that afternoon they also read us ‘Fafnir the Dragon’ who was a happy simple creature who cooled his tongue in the quiet waters of a forest pool until the knights saw him and must kill him ‘for their own merit.’ She is often fierce about inhumanity to animals, as in ‘The Zoo’ which begins ‘The lion sits within his cage,/ Weeping tears of ruby rage, ... and near the end describes how‘ His claws are blunt? His teeth fall out? No victim's flesh consoles his snout’... A poem full of rage and cruelty. As a contrast I think ‘The Best Beast of the Fat-Stock Show, Earls Court’ is very moving. Occasionally Smith can appear to be sentimental, in ‘The Singing Cat’ for instance, that’s in many anthologies of favourite poems, but as with all her poems, it's not easy to know whether the semtiment is meant to be taken seriously. She wrote many poems on water, rivers, lakes, sea: we heard the most famous, Not Waving but Drowning of course.  David Bevan told me he thinks poetry and nature go together well, both are somewhat anarchic. He works for the London Borough of Haringey, and looks after the Railway Fields Nature Reserve in Haringay, a place within the borough. Katherine was the poet in residence to Railway Fields from July - October, 2002 and organised poetry events within the residency. I am intrigued as co-incidentally I am also involved as a volunteer in a  Local Nature Reserve at home in Barry.

Schooling little poets

We are led on to the school, not the actual building where Stevie was taught, but its more modern replacement. In the quiet street the people flowed out into the road, and heard ‘To School’. ‘Let all the little poets be gathered together in classes/And let prizes be given to them by the Prize Asses ...’ I think this poem is her reaction to the idea that writing courses can teach chickens to be swimmingly poetical ducks, but I must confess to enjoying the classes I go to. Once Stevie went to a party and apologised for talking too much, explaining that ‘her vents had been blocked’. If I didn’t go to classes my vents would be blocked, the imaginative vents that mostly have to stay closed when a person is submerged in the suburbs, for as everyone knows it’s quite OK to talk about a fortnight in Tuscany but it doesn’t always do to own up to the strange journeys the imagination takes us on.

The Jungle Husband

A selection of Stevie’s thoughts on love and marriage were read that afternoon. We heard the poem ‘The Jungle Husband, Dear Evelyn I often think of you/ Out with the guns in the jungle stew/Yesterday I hittapotamus ...Tomorrow I am going alone a long way/Into the jungle ...so no more now, from your loving husband Wilfred.’ To me this poem illustrates the distance that can exist between two affectionately married people. ‘Major Macroo’ paints a darker picture, an example of ‘ selfish cruel men/ Hurting what they most love what most loves them.’

The Chosen Ones

Stevie always lived in a female household; she never married and the ‘unrespected papa’ who sent brief postcards, Off to Valparaiso, love Daddy, seldom appeared in Palmer’s Green, but she knew a lot about life and was sometimes critical of those who considered her 'innocent'. She observed with interest the relationship of her girlfriends to their husbands, and in her last novel, ‘The Holiday’, the heroine explains how she has trouble with the friends who are living with their chosen ones. ’I have trouble for two reasons, because sometimes I like the chosen one too much, but mostly and the most trouble , because I do not like him enough, and think it is so wonderful of the women to be so unselfish and so kind.’ I thought about one husband that Stevie may have liked too much, George Orwell. They were certainly close friends, and there were rumours that they were also lovers. Stevie turned against Orwell eventually, she complained that he lied to her and later wrote, perhaps with the bitterness of an ex lover, that he had ‘a sick man’s lust for extreme cruelty’ and that he would be a 'disappointed ghost’ if 1984 came and nothing much had changed.

 

Above -  Rehana Durrani, David Bevan and Katherine Gallagher outside 1 Avondale Road
Left - The front door of 1 Avondale Road. The blue plaque was put up by Enfield Council

The Scattering

On we went to 1 Avondale Road where Stevie had lived with her aunt, and listened to 'A House of Mercy. It was a house of female habitation...' and then ‘Come Death’ a poem written shortly before she died from a tumour of the brain. Here’s the end Ah me, sweet death, you are the only god /Who comes as a servant when he is called, you know /Listen to the sound I make, it is sharp /Come death. Do not be slow. Stevie was fascinated by death. She developed tuberculous peritonitis when she was five years old and spent several years going in and out of a sanatorium. When she was eight she decided she wanted to die, and thought if she kept crying and refusing to eat she would die, but after a while she found she did not, and the thought came that death could always be summoned another day. This thought mostly kept at bay the thoughts of suicide that came to her in her fits of melancholy. In the poem Why do I...’ Stevie explains why she thought of death as a friend: It is because he is a scatterer /He scatters the human frame/The nerviness and the great pain ... Stevie died in 1971, only three years after the death of the ‘the lion of Hull’ who died in 1968 aged ninety six.

Sardonic Stones

The reading ended with the poem ‘Suburb’ which starts ‘How nice it is to slink the streets at night ... Each paving stone sardonic/Grins to its fellow citizen masonic: / ’Thank God they’re gone,’ and continues ‘Suburbs are not so bad I think/ When their inhabitants can not be seen/ Even Palmers Green’ . When her literary friends suggested that she should leave this dull suburb Stevie always rejected the idea.  Maybe just as she was sustained by aunt who thought that writing poems was ‘unnecessary’, the quiet neighbourhood was also something she needed. She kept a low profile in the community, as shown by a letter from a Southgate bookseller in June 1949, "We shall certainly respect your wish not to publicise your book locally ... It is so true ‘a prophet is not without honour save in his own country’. I was amused to find that even the dead Stevie fails to conform to what’s expected, and is being honoured in her own suburb.
 

Stevie’s Carnival

I thought the afternoon had been a fitting tribute to her, the progression through the suburb with a harmonium on a handcart, the reading of poems in the station foyer and in bustle of the shopping street, the visit to the Church, the singing on the pavement to the accompaniment of the harmonium, it all had a suggestion of a carnival, mingling the sacred and profane, the sublime with the ridiculous: ‘Mother, among the dustbins and the manure/ I feel the measure of my humanity, an allure/As of the presence of God. I am sure’.
 

Goodbye Palmers Green

I walked back to the station on the paving stones refreshed by the shower of Stevie’s words, and took the train back to my own suburb, I wished I had been able to come to many of the other events arranged by the organisers of the Festival, the poet Katherine Gallagher and Joanna Cameron.  However I did enjoy the walk, and I'm grateful to the sponsors of the festival and everyone who made it possible.

 
I am particularly grateful to Katherine Gallagher, Peter Brown and Joanna Cameron for looking over and correcting the facts in the original article on which this web page is based.   
Anne Bryan    
The green poetry badge was given to me when I bought some books in the well stocked Palmers Green Bookshop (which sadly closed on 24 December 2006)

 

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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