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Stevie's connections, past and present

Stevie's connections, past and present

Brian Patten, one of the Liverpool poets who came to prominence in the 1960's and who performed with Stevie wrote in response to this web site to say that: 'Amongst the poets of my generation Stevie was always seen as a very special poet, not, as many of the establishment figures of those days saw her, - an oddity'.

A poem by Ogden Nash asks: Who or what is Stevie Smith? Is she woman? Is she myth?  and fancifully has her
'Slipping from her secret nook/ like a goblin or a spook’. This nonsense reinforces Stevie’s often perceived position as an outsider, as an alien even, on the poetic scene. The reputation for oddity continued after her death: the poet and critic Al Alvarez, in a review of Stevie's Collected Poems in 1975, finds her strange and idiosyncratic. He thought the effect of her poems relied on her speaking voice, an effect that vanished in cold print. When she read them they developed, he wrote, a 'shrewd elegance' ... 'shifting without effort from solemn to comic'. In my opinion, the effortless shifting is also evident on the page. Alvarez also accuses her of failing because she often starts solemnly, but is 'unable to keep it up.' It doesn't seem to occur to him that she does not intend to keep up the solemnity, her aim is to subvert it. What Alvarez sees as a failure I see as a strength which allows her to show the absurdity behind many of the things that are treated solemnly.

In an interview with Peter Orr in 1961 she was asked if she considered herself a typical example of a 1961 contemporary poet. She replied: '...I’m alive today, therefore I’m just as much a part of our time as everybody else. The times will just have to enlarge themselves to make room for me, won’t they, and for everybody else.' Stevie wrote to L P Hartley in 1955 that it was necessary to be ‘a la nowadays in poetry... a la Eliot, Spender etc. and soon I fear a la Dylan’. The 'a la mode' poets did not naturally make room for Stevie, Dylan Thomas, for his part, once complained that it was ‘tasteless’ to schedule Stevie to read her poetry at a fund raising event.  

Although many of her friends were writers, she didn’t have many personal connections of note with other poets of the day. She did know Louis McNiece and corresponded with him, and she also corresponded with Osbert Sitwell. She occasionally crossed paths with other poets of the day: at the Edinburgh Festival of 1965 a film crew making a documentary of the festival went into pub and 'recorded the phenomenon of Stevie and Auden singing hymns together' . Stevie noted ‘I don’t think Auden liked my poetry very much, he’s very Anglican’  She was agnostic, although she said there was always the danger that she might 'lapse into belief. ' She wrote in 1968 that she could not accept the doctrine of hell for unbelievers, and that, 'I threw away the sweetness of Christianity and remembered the harsh bones that lay beneath, and I said: It is immoral.'

Stevie’s agnosticism made her unsympathetic to TS Eliot’s religious stance. In 1958 she wrote a review of Murder in the Cathedral, and although Stevie found much to admire she wrote that : 'one thinks that Mr Eliot believes his terror-talk of cat-and -mouse damnation, and that with him it’s not a case of having to have some terror about in order to make things more exciting, as seems sometimes to be the case with his fellow religious terror writers. But it seems curious, condemnable really, that so many writers of these times, which need courage and the power of criticism, and coolness, should find their chief delight in terrifying themselves and their readers with past echoes of cruelty and nonsense.' One might say that Stevie’s poetry is not without its echoes of cruelty and nonsense, and despair and death feature prominently, but there is, to counteract this, something bracing about her poems. They are often dark, but she does not, in my estimation, sink into the ‘delight’ of terror, despair and death for its own sake, she confronts them because they exist and so must be confronted. She is not too proud to use any weapon at her disposal against terror, and humour is a very effective weapon. Humour as a coping strategy is well known to soldiers, medical students and doctors. It is not a strategy much used by ‘serious’ twentieth century poets, it's something that was perfectly understood by the team that made the TV series ‘Mash’.

Philip Larkin was interested in her work but wasn't sure if he should take her seriously. In an article: Frivolous and Vulnerable, written in 1962, he told how he found her collection of poems Not Waving but Drowning in a bookshop, and was sufficiently impressed to buy copies for his friends for Christmas. He goes on to say that this caused surprise, his friends ‘were I think, bothered to know whether I seriously expected them to admire it. The more I insisted that I did, the more suspicious they became. An unfortunate episode.’  Larkin  disapproved of the fact that her poems were accompanied by drawings (the hallmark of frivolity ), and that she had published a book about Cats ( casts a shadow over the most illustrious name) He also wrote : ‘It is typical of Miss Smith to see something poetic move where we do not, takes a pot shot at it and forces us to admit that there was something there, even though we have never seen anything like it before.’ Larkin did say that her poems had two virtues:‘ they are completely original, and now and again they are moving’ and ‘ Miss Smith’s poems speak with the authority of sadness.

While Larkin saw her frivolous and sad and didn't really know what to make of her, other poets respected and admired her. Andrew Motion,  when he unveiled a plaque on her house in Palmers Green, said that she was a poet he admired, and said that her poems not only had the authority of sadness which Larkin noted, but also had the 'authority of high spirits.'   A full account of Andrew Motion's talk can be read on http://www.strange-attractor.co.uk/blueplaque.htm

 Sylvia Plath  was 'a Smith addict'. In an article in the London Magazine Sylvia was asked what living poets continue to influence her and she had replied  'The poets that I delight in are possessed by their rhythms as by the rhythms of their own breathing. Their finest poems seem born all-of-a piece, not put together by hand: certain poems in Robert Lowell’s life studies, for instance, Theodore Roethke’s greenhouse poems: some of Elisabeth Bishop and a great deal of Stevie Smith.’ Sylvia wrote to Stevie in November 1962, ‘I better say straight out that I am addict of your poetry, a desperate Smith addict’ Plath told Stevie that she was hoping to come to London with her babies, and asked in advance if Stevie would come to tea when she had settled in ‘ to cheer me on a bit. I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.’ Stevie wrote hoping that Sylvia’s move went well so that they could meet, although she confesses to reading hardly any contemporary poetry, and by inference, that she did not know Plath’s work. Sylvia committed suicide in February 1963 and they never met.

Stevie has been claimed as a feminist writer but she does not fit easily into this category. Her review of one of Simone de Beauvoir’s books was blunt: Miss de Beauvoir has written an enormous book about women and it is soon clear that she does not like them and does not like being a woman.’ Stevie also wrote on the differences between male and female poets. She said that the differences are best seen when the poets are bad: 'Bad women poets are better characters, they seldom... get drunk ... go to prison ... shoot the pianist. Their faults are soul fullness and banality. They like to commune (who does not) with the deity, nature, and themselves, but their words do not quite carry the traffic ... some bad men poets can persuade people ... that tricks and shocks are a substitute for talent ... good poets of either sex are above these quarrels.' Admitting to female inadequacies and proclaiming that for the best poets gender is almost irrelevant is not the usual feminist stance.

Seamus Heaney, in an essay entitled A Memorable Voice, talks of her 'variety and inventiveness, much humour and understanding, and a constant poignancy... Death, waste, loneliness, cruelty, the maimed, the stupid, the trusting - her concerns were central ones, her compassion genuine and her vision almost tragic' but then declares that : 'I suppose in the end the adjective has to be eccentric ... And finally the voice, the style, the literary resources are not adequate to the sombre recognitions '.

However Heaney, like Larkin and Dylan Thomas, writes in a different mode, and I believe that their judgements and those of other critics could be coloured by their view of what is the right way to write poetry and what poetry should be. In spite of their judgements, or lack of them, on Stevie's work, many readers find that Stevie’s poems do move them profoundly, and that it is enchanting and invigorating to play her games. Stevie's refusal to ‘play the game’ according to the rules of other poets seems irrelevant, as is the question of whether she is an ‘important’ poet.

In her essay on the Muse, written in 1960, Stevie writes, 'All poetry has to do is to make a strong communication. All the poet has to do is listen. The poet is not an important fellow. There will also be another poet.' These words suggest to me that poetry is not a network like a spiders web that connects famous and important poets, but is something more like a fungus, whose main body is underground and invisible. It appears above ground in the shape of poets, which grow like mushrooms from the hidden network of its body.

What then of Stevie’s relationship to the writers and artists who have come after her?

Vicki Feaver, the poet,  when asked in Poetry News Spring 2001 what eight poems she couldn’t do without included Stevie's  'Frog Prince'. She went on to explain that:  I began by loving Stevie Smith. Then I tried to write a PhD thesis on her and hated her. Now I love her again, precisely because she is so elusive, so resistant to academic criticism. The Frog Prince would remind me of the possibilities of entering an existing story and employing a mask. The frog’s comically angstful monologue is the vehicle not just for a playful revision of the familiar story but for a profound meditation on the contradictory nature of desire. Vicki Feaver  has written two collections of poems and is a professor of Poetry. In an  interview Feaver does not mention Stevie as a poet who had influenced her but there is a poem called The River God, which is also the title of one of Stevie’s poems. Part of Vicki Feaver’s poem can be read on the interview. She writes of a domesticated River God. In his slippers he has almost been made safe, pathetic even. Yet there’s also, in the suggestion in his wet footprints that must be hurriedly mopped up by his wife because they might become springs that could flood the house, or a river that might drown her, an echo of Stevie’s River God who enticed a beautiful lady to his bed.

Gwyneth Lewis, recent National Poet of Wales, directed her 'affectionate scrutiny' on Stevie Smith to  in one of the Poetry Society's 'Under the Influence' series on  29 November 2007. She was first introduced to Stevie Smith by the poet Derek Walcott, which rather surprised her as Walcott was no feminist. The poem he introduced her to was Tenuous and Precarious, which illustrates Stevie's formidable intelligence  At the time Gwyneth Lewis was writing in Welsh, but reading Stevie helped her to be able to write in English. Stevie, she felt , was a conduit to a 20th century confidence in the poet's own voice. Stevie took her intelligence to parties and the workplace, she was not a domestic woman. Gwyneth Lewis spoke with admiration of the poem,  To Carry the Child in which Stevie faces the conflict between the child and adult, of the parts of the self pulling in different directions. Lewis felt that Stevie was not isolated in the tradition of English poetry that included Betjeman and Houseman. Stevie, she noted, was one of the first performance poets, and played a recording of Stevie reading  The Galloping Cat. Stevie, Gwyneth Lewis felt, wrote poetry which contains the terror of the precariousness of the human attachment.

Brian Patten has written a poem  to Stevie called 'Blake's Purest Daughter' which can be found on the poetry archive.

Alan Bennett, in his famous play The History Boys refers to one of Stevie's poems. Alison Croggan notes in a review at http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com/2007/04/review-history-boys.html writes that 'Bennett traces a very particular poetic heritage. It begins with Shakespeare, jumps to Thomas Hardy, AE Houseman, Rudyard Kipling, W H Auden and Wilfred Owen (with glances aside to Stevie Smith and TS Eliot) and culminates with Philip Larkin.'

Howard Hodgkin, the well known artist,  in an
interview with Christina Patterson in the Independent Newspaper of Friday, 16 January 2009 Patterson asks Hodgkin if he is a poetry lover. ' "Oh yes," he said. Patterson asked who he returned to most. "You'll be horrified," he says. "Stevie Smith."  Patterson replied. 'I am not horrified. I tell him that it makes perfect sense. That the poet who wrote that a character in one of her poems was "not waving, but drowning" achieved a level of perceived simplicity, naivety even, which was powerful and moving, but which often worked in quite complex ways and that, like all good art, was more powerful and moving the more you engaged with it. And that that was not unlike the work of an artist called Howard Hodgkin. Was it?" Hodgkin looks as though he is torn between laughter and tears. "Well, what else is there to say?" he says. "Well," I say, "pointing at the tape recorder, could he please have a go? " I think," he says obediently, "the naivety of Stevie Smith is one of the things I have in common with her and in the past I found I had to be rather defensive about that." Well, yes, between naivety and apparent naivety there's an entire ocean, an ocean in which you could wave or drown. And, in the battle between waving and drowning, the critics have seized on the titles of Hodgkin's paintings – titles, incidentally, reminiscent of Stevie Smith or another apparently naive poet, e e cummings – as ammunition.'
As Christina Patterson suggests, the naivety of Stevie Smith, and I suspect of Howard Hodgkin, is a very complicated construct. The poet Andrew Motion refers to the complexity of Stevie's naivety at
http://www.strange-attractor.co.uk/blueplaque.htm

 Simon Rowland Jones,  viola player and composer , has always been interested in Stevie Smith's writing. When he was a child an aunt used to quote her poems.  He is a  friend of Hermione Lee, who was the editor of a selection of Stevie Smiths poems and prose ('Stevie Smith: A Selection', Faber and Faber, 1983). Simon Rowland Jones composed a setting for seven of Stevie’s poems:  The River Debden, Frog Prince, Not Waving but Drowning, Harold’s Leap, River Humber, She Said …, and The River God.  He and Hermione Lee performed  this 'River God Sequence' in the late 80’s at various venues, including the Cheltenham Festival. More recently, Simon Rowland Jones was given a copy of 'Me Again' and was fascinated by ‘A Turn Outside’. He liked the idea of working on a more substantial setting of Stevie’s work and adapted this play for Dame Josephine Barstow and it was first performed at the First North Norfolk Music Festival which was held in the Church at South Creake in 2005. The work had its London premiere at the Wigmore Hall  in October 2007. For more details see  www.strange-attractor.co.uk/stevturn.htm

Hayley Long, novelist, has written a novel for teenagers, Lottie Biggs is (not) Mad in which three of Stevie's poems feature. In Hayley's novel humour is used to get across a serious point and , as in Stevie's poetry, a naive viewpoint is used to convey the absurdity, pain and difficulty of life. Lottie is a great character and  tells  the story of how she becomes mentally disturbed but comes through it with the support of doctors, her family and friends in a way which is amusing and witty and also a moving plea not to insult those who become mentally ill.  At the end of the book Lottie's English teacher reads 'Not Waving but Drowning' and Lottie realises that 'both me and Stevie Smith know what it's like to feel yourself suddenly out of your depth...It was like she'd written that poem especially for me...' Although I am a lot older than the target audience I thought Lottie Biggs is (not) Mad was a wonderful read. Buy it now on amazon.co.uk.

International Links

Stevie's poems have been translated into French: Smith, S. (2003) Poèmes bilingue français-anglais. Sélection, introduction et note de Anne Mounic. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Maria Spotuma  is part of a literature and translation project on Stevie Smith in Argentina. Miguel Montezanti, the director of the project and an excellent literary translator has translated many of her poems already. Maria and another colleague are at the time working on her multilingual poems in Spanish translation.

Personal interest

I first bought Stevie's Collected Poems about 15 years ago, and  the  feeling I had that she was speaking to me has never faded. For me, as for Brian Patten, Stevie is a special poet. Though my life has been very different from Stevie's; I qualified as a doctor and have worked for many years as a general Practitioner, and I am married with children and grandchildren,  I still recognise in Stevie's poems the absurdity, the hopeless  desires, the pathos, the despair, the courage the comedy that underlies the officially smooth suburban scene.  She is odd, I believe, only to those who look only at the surface of life. Judging by the number and variety of people who access this site, I would guess that Stevie also speaks to many others in very many situations.  I have found that my appreciation of her has deepened over time, and as I look more closely at her poems in order to write about her for this web site my respect for her has increased. I think though, that to appreciate her poetry one has to be willing to cast aside a lot of preconceptions and be willing to follow her through the contradictions,  masks, games and teasing language through which she reveals herself.

Tell me about your interest

How far is Stevie's influence is felt by contemporary writers or other artists?  If you have any ideas on work that I could review or quote on this website (with acknowledgements of course), please send me an  e mail.

Sources
Apart from the web site quotations which are acknowledged in the text the quotations  come from: Stevie Smith, a Critical Biography, by Frances Spalding, published by Faber in 1988 and republished in 2002, Stevie, a Biography of Stevie Smith by Jack Barbera and William McBrien, published by William Heinmann Ltd in 1985 and now out of print, Me Again, Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, published by Virago Press in 1981 and also out of print and In Search of Stevie Smith edited by Stanford Sternlicht and published in 1991 by Syracuse University Press, New York.

 Anne Bryan

Any comments, criticism, feedback?  Send an  E mail  
If you want to quote from this essay for course work or assignments you are welcome to do so as long as you attribute the work to Anne Bryan and this web site.

  If you aren't familiar with Stevie’s poems give yourself a treat and buy Stevie Smith’s ‘Collected Poems’ available in American bookshops or from the American amazon web site. Sadly the Collected poems are not available in the UK. If you are determined to go for second best, buy the ‘Selected Poems’, available from UK book sellers. There are not only fewer poems rather more crowded together than in the Collected Poems, but some of the poems I like best, including The Best Beast, are not included

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
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