fairy tales and folklore, doodle, and create frequently bizarre characters with quirky voices,still we can discern that her poems are always about love – and death. Her blend of levity,loneliness, and sometimes acerbity, is disarming, and her ability to broach a wide range of subject matter and hold up the poetic in the seemingly trivial is remarkable.There is a risk of relying too heavily on often-misappropriated biographicalcontextualisation when addressing the relationship of women writers (particularly of the“confessional” era) to traditional forms of poetic discourse, and as Romana Huk warns,this trap is especially tempting in the case of Stevie Smith.
At the same time, Stevie said,‘My whole life is in these poems…everything I have lived through, and done, and seen,and read and imagined and thought and argued.’
Of course her ‘life’ is transmuted into acharacter or Voice, for ‘In a poem you can turn the emotions and feelings onto someoneelse, onto different characters. You can invent stories’,
but it would be a mistake to ignoreentirely the woman that lies behind these voices. In the course of this essay I will explorehow in adopting the pose of the
Stevie uses the many voices in her poems toresist the notion of any essential self, and how the very act of elusion draws thereader/listener into her life and work. Stevie uses voices to disarm the reader, both to fendthem off and, if the reader is willing to listen, to invite them in. Her public persona is partof the strategy, and as such I will look into Stevie’s reputation and the problems of interpretation, focusing on the performance aspect of her work and her drawings. I willexamine her methods and strategies, paying particular attention to the use of the Child’s voice, allusions to nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. I will consider the notion of “Englishness” and the ways in which this term is used as a metonym for “eccentricity”,and how Stevie’s novels engage with the ethos of a national identity; and I will exploreStevie’s love and depiction of death. My aim is not to conclude with a dirge, for peoplewho look only for the
in her poems do her work a disservice; to the attuned earher strange, courageous, and happy approach to death proves this. Rather, as RichardChurch puts it, Stevie’s purpose is to ‘explore the cavities of pain and to find a way out of their horror and darkness.’
Her achievement is in bringing lightness to the darkestdepths.
1. What is she writing? Perhaps it will be good
In the foreword to
, Hugh Whitemore remarks that when the idea for a play based on‘the life and work of Stevie Smith’ fell into his mind ‘fully formed and ready to go’, herealised that, just three years after her death, ‘she had virtually disappeared.’
This isclearly hyperbole, but it points to a trend in Stevie Smith criticism of a certain feeling thatone needs to go off in search of a lost poet and rescue her. Even when she was alive shewas treated with a suspicion that she did not quite belong, but as she put it brilliantly toPeter Orr, ‘I’m alive today, therefore I’m as much part of our time as everybody else. Thetimes will just have to enlarge themselves to make room for me, won’t they, and for
Romana Huk, ‘Eccentric Concentrism: Traditional Poetic Forms and Refracted Discourse in StevieSmith’s Poetry’ p.240
Stevie in an interview with Jonathan Williams, in
Richard Church, quoted in Spalding