In the 1960s, Stevie Smith had a resurgence in popularity. The counterculture had a penchant for taking up older eccentrics—Dr. Bronner, for instance—and when the youth came calling, Smith was ready. After years of relative obscurity, the poet could finally take her place in the limelight. And did she ever.
Smith is a poet worthy of consideration, as Diane Mehta makes clear in these pages. But I’m talking less now about her tricky work than her performance. As the Poetry Archive summarizes it: “In the 1960s Smith built a popular reputation as a performer of her own work, playing up her eccentricity and ceremonially half-singing some of her poems in a quavering voice. She also made a number of broadcasts and recordings, her skillful and extensive use of personae lending itself particularly well to reading aloud.” Wrote the Financial Times of a 1969 performance at Festival Hall: “The small faun-shifted figure who darted on to the platform to open the second half was Stevie Smith, and she is a star.” Performance poetry—led by the New York School and later taken up by writers like Michael Horovitz and Beckett—had become popular in the UK, and this was clearly Smith’s medium. Writes Laura Severin in her essay “Becoming and Unbecoming: Stevie Smith as Performer,”
Smith’s performances were noteworthy, and somewhat puzzling, for a number of reasons, one being that she sometimes sang her songs in an off-key voice to either well-known tunes or her own musical imitations of hymns and music hall songs. The other often noted feature of her performances is that she frequently appeared onstage as a child—in pinafores with white stockings, at least once in a blue gingham frock. Because of her age, her childlike costumes were viewed as unseemly, although strangely compelling.
On the strength of her popularity, Smith would make a record and do a recording for the BBC.
I remember a professor describing Smith’s performances with British understatement as “really quite bizarre.” And indeed, the impression one comes away with again and again is that of a cross between Baby Jane and an aunt in Arsenic and Old Lace, and maybe the Andy Warhol collaborator Taylor Mead when he used to perform at the Bowery Poetry Club on Friday afternoons.
But Smith was nothing if not canny. She chose to play the professional eccentric and control the reception of her work. If she sacrificed a certain gravitas to do it—well, she was certainly in good company.
For all the goggle-eyed descriptions of Smith’s child-drag and sing-song keening, there’s not much video to remember her by. Audio, yes. And absent the costumes and singing, she never sounds particularly theatrical: serious and authoritative and really, well, quite like a poet who didn’t need to rely on antics to get young people’s attention.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.