A Chain on the Great Feelings
February 11, 2014 | by Diane Mehta
The deceptively breezy poems of Stevie Smith.
Stevie Smith’s playful, carnivalesque poems, tiny on the page but emotionally trenchant, are getting a new life—her Best Poems were reissued in December.
It’s high time. Smith’s work has been nearly forgotten, her books having fallen out of print. She is not, on the surface, tenderly lyrical or feminist enough to court contemporary readers. Born in England in 1902, she enjoyed some popularity in the sixties for oddball performances of her poems, which she often sang, or read with spooky dramatic flair, but she might just have been too original, or too variegated, for any one school of poetry to champion her work. Perhaps she has also been dismissed because she comes off as cold and hard, a person of uncertain likeability: her so-called comic verse roils with death wishes and sneering attacks on other poets. (“Let all the little poets be gathered together in classes / And let prizes be given to them by the Prize Asses,” she says in “To School!”) She has been put in with Blake, Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson. Fine company, but Smith is far more varied, unfettered, and disenchanted than all that. Her lines have scope. They contain a high-low mix of childlike diction, plain speech, formal rhymes, and heroic couplets, with a register that ricochets between folk tunes, hymnals, liturgy, nursery rhymes, and lyrical verse. She deliberately set many poems to the tunes of hymns, and sang them as such. Given all the wit and intellect that animate her poetry, why has she been forgotten?
A profoundly independent and, by all accounts, slightly peculiar woman, Smith—born Florence Margaret, and only later Stevie—lived in the same house in North London from the time she was three until her death, taking care of an aunt she treasured, without the need to insert a proper man or children into her life. She worked as a secretary in the women’s magazine business for her entire career, which perhaps is why, in her poems and in her letters, she tilts to seeing women as acutely silly. She avoided serious relationships, settling instead into easily reciprocated, caring friendships and a familial bond with her aunt.
You could think of Smith as an eighteenth-century poet with twentieth-century disenchantment. A brooding woman who pulls herself together by working in tight forms, Smith has a style that people call idiosyncratic, but I think it’s merely historical. Like her British male contemporaries W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Smith pulled in the verse techniques of an earlier century and used them to ironic advantage. These poets synthesized literary traditions instead of flinging them away wholesale—they were all eighteenth century poets of a sort.
Just like Pope and Dryden before them, they had rationalist sensibilities and ironic sophistication, and were skeptical of the social order. They borrowed rhythms from traditional meters and forms. And they were known for their wit. But in poetry, wit is in part the product of technical skill: all these poets knew how to manipulate syntax for maximum impact, a technique that dates not to the eighteenth century but to the religious poets of a century earlier, who applied and experimented with meter to express uncertainty and longing. John Donne, for example, slows down the pace in his Holy Sonnets as he struggles with faith, and speeds up to express it.
It’s when Smith is at her most pithy and sardonic that her eighteenth-century influences are in high relief. Her poems are moral satires in the style of Pope, and at her best (“Suburban Classes”), she is as stylish a coupleteer as he was:
Tell them it’s smart to be dead and won’t hurt
And they’ll gobble up drug as they gobble up dirt.
Smith’s poems fall into two camps: domestic satires and death poems. The satires, often in formal verse, are the most accomplished. “Forgot!” has an adroit tension between the form and the emotional curve that runs through it:
There is a fearful solitude
Within the careless multitude,
And in the open country too,
He mused, and then it seemed to him
The solitude lay all within;
He longed for some interior din:
Some echo from the worldly rout,
To indicate a common lot,
Some charge that he might be about,
But oh he felt that he was quite forgot.
It’s one of Smith’s most masterful poems. “Cheer was a duty,” Smith said in her radio play, A Turn Outside, and she pinned the blame on her stiff girls’ school, which kept “a chain on the great feelings we had.” Her jolly lines and buttoned-up rhymes shelter an insidious loneliness: “The solitude lay all within” is genuinely felt, neither silly nor ironic. The structure gives shape to the suffering by providing an orderly space in which to fall apart.
Smith was a sketch artist, too, and her Thurber-esque doodles often ran alongside the poems in her collections, emphasizing a kind of discomfort. Smith fought to keep these in her books—she saw them as profoundly illustrative, not mere embellishment.
They’re included in Best Poems, which is arranged chronologically, from the publication of Smith’s first book, A Good Time Was Had By All (1937), to her last, Scorpion and Other Poems (1972), published a year after her death. The book would benefit from an introduction, and it would be helpful to have dates on the poems, especially for those readers who are new to Smith.
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Smith was a sharp-witted woman who put her impatience or dismissiveness with nearly everything around her into her poems. Disenchanted with religion (though she liked the ceremony of it), she took a hatchet to the Christian church. She stuck to tight rhymes, as if continuing an English tradition, but she was witheringly mocking.
With little patience for women’s problems, Smith saw fit to criticize marriage, despite having no experience of it. (“Was it the salt you were looking for dear? / Said Dulcie, exchanging a glance with the Brigadier,” Smith writes witheringly in “Drugs Made Pauline Vague.”) Responding to a “gloomy” letter about what was going on in the world, from the writer Naomi Mitchison in 1937, Smith wrote, rather condescendingly, “I think at the present moment you are in a state of mind that hungers for the disasters it fears. If there are these forces of evil, you see, you are siding with them, in allowing your thoughts to panic.” She goes on to say this “world-worrying” is hubris and that if the worst happens, you will have the strength to meet it if you have achieved peace in your mind. Callously, she lumps Naomi in with the women who send letters to the magazine, who are “all so hungry & worrying.” They are “Hungry for a nostrum, a Saviour, a Leader, anything but to face up to themselves & a suspension of belief,” she explains, adding, “They are unhappy too you know.” Then she thanks Naomi for the party invite.
The institution of marriage certainly didn’t suit Smith personally, but she didn’t think its conventions suited women, period. “How Cruel Is the Story of Eve” sees Smith approaching something resembling feminism:
Put up to barter
The tender feelings
Buy her a husband to rule her
Fool her to marry a master
She must or rue it
The Lord said it.
Smith also has a distaste for the pressures of child-rearing: “To carry the child into adult life / Is to be handicapped,” she says in “To Carry the Child,” and then promptly turns on the parents:
The child, too, despises the clever grown-up,
The man-of-the-world, the frozen,
For the child has the tears alive on his cheek
And the man has none of them.
The problem is the lack of genuine feeling in adults, “trapped,” as we are, “in a grown-up carapace.” Children (“the poor child, what can he do”) are people she respects. While Smith exempted herself from the inequities of marriage and the labor of raising children, she didn’t see the problem with disdaining the married life from a comfortable distance.
Any longing that might have gone to a man Smith instead projects onto death. “I’m nuts on death really,” she wrote to the Irish playwright Denis Johnston in 1937. Her obsession with death and suicide (she tried in 1953) was less a totally encompassing, Plath-like despair than it was a yearning to explore death—not unlike the way it so preoccupied the eighteenth-century Graveyard School of poets. “Merry death” she calls her baroque obsession, which courses gorgeously through her jaunty lines. True, Smith was in a dreary nine-to-five and lived a suburban life. (“My life is vile / I hate it so / I’ll wait awhile / And then I’ll go,” begins “The Reason.”)
Sure, she may seem fed up, but she’s not, really. She’s just giving expression to basic human longing in the only way she knows how. If you’re a thinking, feeling poet, you’re going to wonder what the meaning of life is, and it might depress you a little. And if, like Smith, you start off with a religious feeling and then discard it, even if you keep the spiritual dialogue up—which she did, as a practicing Anglican—you’re going to run into some sort of spiritual chasm. (It was the same for Eliot and Auden, though they chose salvation while Smith, disillusioned, was deeply ambivalent about the existence of the afterlife.) On top of that, if you give up romantic intimacy and become an old maid, well, your longing will need to deposit itself somewhere over the course of a lifetime. So Smith longs for death. “Tender Only to One,” a kind of love letter, says it straight:
Tender only to one,
Last petal’s latest breath
Cries out aloud
From the icy shroud
His name, his name is Death.
Centuries ago, “loving” death by way of exploration and religious feeling was much more in style. In a 1957 letter to Anna Kallin, a colleague at the BBC Radio, Smith explained that she was including a lecture, “The Necessity of Not Believing,” in which she showed how she was religious when young, then wasn’t at all, and then became “conscientiously anti-religious” because it was immoral to believe. Her description of the lecture is a sound description of Smith herself: “It is not at all whimsical, as some asses seem to think I am, but serious, yet not aggressive, & fairly cheerful though with melancholy patches.”
Smith was not so naïve as to think that death was an easy out for life’s difficulties. In a 1956 essay, “Too Tired for Words,” she says, “One wants that idea of Death, you know, as something large and unknowable, something that allows a person to stretch himself out. Especially one wants it if one is tired,” she says. The gist of the essay, published in the journal Medical World in 1956, three years after Smith’s suicide attempt, is to tell physicians to mollify their beside manner: “Treat your tired patients gently, and do not scold them, for guilt runs with tiredness and a sort of farewell mood too, a desire to go, at all costs to go.”
But when your time is up, it wouldn’t be so bad to have it end the way Smith puts it in “Up and Down”:
I shall be glad when there’s an end
Of all the noise that doth offend
My soul. Still Night, don cloak, descend.
Diane Mehta is a writer in Brooklyn. Follow her @DianeMehta.