Sunday, June 26, 2011

Stevie Smith (1902 -1971)

Looking at the fine poems Tom Clark has posted of Stevie Smith's work on his blog, Beyond The Pale, I had additional thoughts which then I realized were too cumbersome for even several comment boxes, so, although I am not as head-over-heels with Stevie, I do think she may just be the best of female English poets of the last century. (Although Denise Levertov once said to me: "At heart, I'm English".) Not that I wish to create thoughts of hierarchy, and there are 20th century American women poets who for me are "better" - broader in scope, in innovation. However, what Stevie did was to meld English "insouciance" with sardonicisms worthy of Bukowski, Dorothy Parker, Philip Larkin. Glenda Jackson, who portrayed her on the London stage and later in the film, "Stevie" did the best job of portraying a poet in film I can remember seeing. Smith's work is almost polar opposite to, say, the later work of American transatlantic poet H.D., and her greatest poem "Winter Love".

Smith's most famous poem is the brilliant "Not Waving But Drowning". She could be quite nasty, and this shines through, for example, in the 4 line anti-American poem "The Little Daughters of America" which condescending and snide tone was typical of the English sensibility from 1939 to Pearl Harbor. And even to this day. But her genius in her use of Englsh tone and diction makes the 4 liner into something amusing and yet not.

Admirals Curse-You and No-More
Set their compasses and sailed for war.

I am sorry that all the little daughters of America
Should be involved in a thing like this; upon my word.

She could be equally nasty to her own countrywomen. "This Englishwoman" is a 2 liner:

This Englishwoman is so refined
She has no bosom and no behind.

Like Patchen, she accompanies most of her poems with whimsical but hard-edged drawings, often as wry as the poems themselves.

She can, on the one hand, be capable of compassion, and when she turns her use of diction to this end, the result is moving in the most rational and most extraordinarily quintessential English way. Here for example, is the close, her "Envoi" as she calls it, of "A Soldier Dear to Us":

Tommy and Joey Porteous were killed in France. Now fifty years later
Basil has died of the shots he got in the shell crater
The shrapnel has worked its way round at last to his merry heart,
I write this
For a memorial of the soldier dear to us he was.

Bitterness and psychic pain were modes she understood, note the poem "I Forgive You" and its revelations of resentment and pride, and condemnations of same encoded in the tone. In the drawing of the poem, Stevie has the woman lying on her sofa/bed in a state, and the man, frowning/unsmiling, sits on a small chair and says to her:

I forgive you, Maria,
Things can never be the same,
But I forgive you, Maria,
Though I think you were to blame.
I can never forget
But I forgive you, Maria,
Kindly remember that.

Then there is this, "The Broken Heart":

He told me he loved me,
He gave me red roses,
Twelve crimson roses
As red as my blood.

The roses he gave me,
The roses are withered,
Twelve crimson roses
As red as my blood.

The roses are withered,
But here on my breast, far
Redder than they is
The red of my heart's blood.

He told me he loved me,
He gave me red roses,
Twelve crimson roses
As red as my blood.

She withdrew considerably in her life, living with her aunt and their cats (of whom she wrote lovingly in her trademark quirky manner). Here, in "My Cats" she seems to morph into a witch:

I like to toss him up and down
A heavy cat weighs half a Crown
With a hey do diddle my cat Brown.

I like to pinch him on the sly
When nobody is passing by
With a hey do diddle my cat Fry.

I like to ruffle up his pride
And watch him skip and turn aside
With a hey do diddle my cat Hyde.

Hey Brown and Fry and Hyde my cats
That sit on tombstone for your mats.

She and her "lion Aunt" lived in a semi-detached house at the end of a row of houses, in what was then a NE London straight-laced suburb. Born in Hull (Yorkshire), her father left to pursue a career at sea, and her mother died when Stevie and her older sister were quite young. Her aunt raised her, moving the family to Avondale Road, Palmers Green. "A House Of Mercy" Stevie calls it. Here are three stanzas from the poem:

It was a house of female habitation,
Two ladies fair inhabited the house,
And they were brave. For although fear knocked loud
Upon the door, and said he must come in,
They did not let him in.

There were also two feeble babes, two girls,
That Mrs. S. had by her husband had,
He soon left and went away to sea,
Nor sent them money, nor came home again
Except to borrow back
His Naval Officer's Wife's Allowance from Mrs S.
Who gave it to him at once, she thought she should.

Now I am old and I tend my mother's sister
The noble aunt who so long tended us.
Faithful and True her name is. Tranquil.
Also Sardonic. And I tend the house.

She chose not to meet up (at least not in time) with Sylvia Plath, one of her great fans, who had written to her in Nov. 1962; just a few months later Plath was gone. No one really cared for Plath that winter in London; she was just thought of as the ditsy American wife of the poet Larkin called "The Hulk". The poem "Mabel" is undoubtedly about Plath, written shortly after her suicide:

In her loneliness Mabel
Found the hiss of the umlit gas
And in a little time, dying

Stevie lost all of her Jewish friends after the publication, pre-world war 2, of "Novel On Yellow Paper" due to the careless and perhaps not even conscious anti-semitism which was then and now so ingrained in the English sensibility (brilliantly delineated by Philip Roth in his "Christendom" chapter of his novel "The Counterlife"). She insisted she never meant anything by it.

In "Voice From The Tomb #4" she wrote, echoing Dickinson at the beginning, with a touch of Sir Thomas Wyatt at the close:

I died for lack of company
Did my dear friends not know?
Oh why would they not speak to me
Yet said they loved me so?

She claimed she wanted interruption from her solitude in her discursive longish poem "Thoughts about the Person from Porlock" offering aesthetic distance from her loneliness in her bemused thoughts of Coleridge. Other exceptional narratives include "The Frog Prince" which inverts the fairy-tale/myth, and "Angel Boley" which deals with child murder, based on a 1966 case. The pathos of failed love is a recurrent theme, as in "Pad,pad":

I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.

What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.

As Frances Spaulding points out in her excellent "critical biography" titled simply "Stevie Smith" (Faber and Faber, 1988), she was drawn out of isolation in the 1960's, more often than not by Michael Horovitz, to read at his various events and gatherings of a Bohemian nature often bringing poetry and jazz into closer communion. As Spaulding also notes, she was able to "imbue her work with, Seamus Heaney argues, 'a sense of pity for what is infringed and unfulfilled.' The tragic note sounded in her work is, however, made buoyant by a humour that keeps despair at bay; breezy commonsense, shrewdness and stoicism combat melancholy. Nevertheless her stark moral sense denied her comforting illusions and drove her to confront stupidity and cruelty, loneliness and loss." The poems "invite laughter" but they "are not frivolous" - are "dechirant" as the critic for "The Listener" (17 October 1957) remarked, and it is not surprising that "no amount of sociability could veil her isolation."

And at the end of her life, in what we would call hospice, suffering from a brain tumor:

I feel ill. What can the matter be?
I'd ask God to have pity on me
But I turn to the one I know, and say:
Come, Death, and carry me away.

Ah me, sweet Death, you are the only god
Who comes as a servant when he is called, you know,
Listen then to this sound I make, it is sharp,
Come Death. Do not be slow.