Smith’s connections

Smith was often seen as an outsider in the poetic scene; 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 Im 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.' 

Smith 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 always want to make room for Stevie, Dylan Thomas 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 had few personal connections with other poets apart from Louis McNiece and Osbert Sitwell, who she corresponded with. Smith occasionally crossed paths with other poets: 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.'

Smith’s agnosticism made her unsympathetic to TS Eliot’s religious stance. In 1958 Smith wrote a review of ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, writing that  although she found much to admire: 'one thinks that Mr Eliot believes his terror-talk of cat-and -mouse damnation, and that with him its 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.' 

Smith’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.

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 wanted 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 Smiths poems speak with the authority of sadness.’

Sylvia Plath was asked in an interview for the London Magazine Sylvia living poets continued 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. Ive 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.

Smith 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 soulfullness 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.'  

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 '.

Despite these judgements on Smith’s work, many readers find that her poems do move them and that it is enchanting and invigorating to play her games which are often more fun because thy are eccentric and even tasteless. 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, Smith 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.' 

Writers and artists who have come after her have felt her influence. Brian Patten, one of the Liverpool poets who came to prominence in the 1960's and who performed with Stevie Smith 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'. Brian Patten has written a poem  to Stevie called 'Blake's Purest Daughter' which can be found on the poetry archive.

The poet Vicki Feaver,  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 frogs 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.’ In an  interview for Poetry Magazine Feaver does not mention Stevie Smith as a poet who had influenced her but there is a poem called ‘The River God’ which is also the title of one of Smith’s poems. Feaver writes of a domesticated River God wearing 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 Smith’s wicked old River God who enticed a beautiful lady to his bed. 

On 16 September 2005 the poet laureate Andrew Motion unveiled a blue plaque at Stevie Smith’s house.  Stevie Smith he said, was a poet whom he particularly liked,  he was not just doing his job, it really was a privilege to unveil a plaque for Stevie. He said he had been thinking about another poet who wrote about the suburbs, John Betjeman, and he felt that he and Stevie Smith had a slightly curious place in literature: they both had large popular followings but a much smaller academic following. He wondered why that was? Smith's work was charming and yet highly complicated. He thought that it was difficult to know how serious she was, how naive, how falsely naive, how artful. How touched was she? How broken? Her artfully freewheeling prose broke all the rules. How much structure was there in it? How much lack of structure?’

Andrew Motion went on to wonder what kind of readership she aspired to. What were the drawings for? Were they to make the poems more attractive to children? How expert or inexpert are the drawings? Some of them show evidence of being carefully worked and others appear to be just doodles. Her talent was interesting and unstable. He agreed with Larkin that her work was original and moving. Andrew Motion felt also that she was a highly ingenious writer: she seemed to have a natural, throwaway style, but this was extremely artificial. She was frivolous, skittish and silly but also serious as well as original and moving.  Andrew Motion made a connection between the silliness and the seriousness, he said that Stevie Smith makes silliness serious, and seriousness silly.

Motion went on to say that in her poems Smith approached death, religion and sin using various voices. She used rhyme to great effect in these multiplicity of voices and she was open to all experiences. Philip Larkin had said that her poetry 'had the authority of sadness' but Andrew Motion added that her work also had ‘the authority of high spirits.’

Gwyneth Lewis, a previous National Poet of Wales, directed her 'affectionate scrutiny' on Stevie Smith at one of the Poetry Society’s  ‘Under the Influence' series on  29 November 2007. She was first introduced to Stevie Smith’s work 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 Smith's formidable intelligence  At the time Gwyneth Lewis was writing in Welsh, but reading Smith helped her to be able to write in English. Stevie Smith, she felt , was a conduit to a 20th century confidence in the poet's own voice. 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 Smith was not isolated in the tradition of English poetry that included Betjeman and Houseman. Smith, Lewis noted, was one of the first performance poets, and she played a recording of Stevie Smith reading  ‘The Galloping Cat’.Stevie Smith, Gwyneth Lewis felt, wrote poetry which contains the terror of the precariousness of the human attachment.

Alan Bennett, in his play ‘The History Boys’ refers to one of Stevie's poems. Alison Croggan, 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, WH Auden and Wilfred Owen (with glances aside to Stevie Smith and TS Eliot) and culminates with Philip Larkin.' 

Howard Hodgkin, the artist,  in an interview with Christina Patterson in the Independent Newspaper of Friday, 16 January 2009 was asked 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.’ Patterson writes: ‘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 of Howard Hodgkin is more apparent than real. Smith, it seems to me, is about as naive as Machiavelli.

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 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 serious. 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…' 

Noreen Masud has a blog on Stevie Smith and the art of the aphorism at https://parrotsatethemall.wordpress.com. This a rich resource for anyone interested in Stevie Smith. Noreen Masud – an AHRC-funded DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford is is researching the ways in which the poet and novelist Stevie Smith is ‘aphoristic’. She teaches Victorian and Modern Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford and posts about her research, academic life, and anything she is currently reading. Her blog explores a great deal of Smith’s work.

International Connections

Smith's poems have been translated into French: Smith, S. (2003) Pomes bilingue franais-anglais. Selection, introduction et note de Anne Mounic. Paris: LHarmattan.


Link here to Smith’s Lifemusic , the poems  Cats RolandineFrog PrinceJungle HusbandSuburb Fafnir Smith’s relationship with God my Blog or the Darwin Homepage


a.bryan77@icloud.com © Anne Bryan 2018