September 20, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReading

Stevie Smith

For the past several days, I’ve been lugging around Stevie Smith’s All the Poems, which came out earlier this year from New Directions. Edited by Will May, it runs 806 pages and weighs three pounds. The cover shows a girl in the almost-grip of a tiger. It’s Smith’s own drawing; the book is full of her curious sketches. My daughter took one look at the cover and said, “That tiger’s gonna bite that girl.”

I doubt it. In Smith’s world, it’s the poet who does the biting. Her rhymed couplets take on the overly genteel (“This Englishwoman is so refined / She has no bosom and no behind”) and the overly suburban (“Tell them it’s smart to be dead and won’t hurt / And they’ll gobble up drug as they gobble up dirt”). In an otherwise favorable 1962 review, Philip Larkin complained that Smith wrote too much about cats. But she also wrote about (and identified with) scorpions:

O Lord God please come
And require the soul of thy Scorpion

Scorpion so wishes to be gone.

Was she a writer of light verse, of doggerel? It depends on what the terms mean to you. Smith’s death-wish poems—“Scorpion,” “God the Drinker,” “Tender Only to One”—are weighted beyond belief. (Belief also takes a heavy hit in “Our Bog Is Dood.”) Still, as May writes in his introduction to All the Poems, “She takes poetry seriously enough to risk not being taken seriously.” Here’s “Appetite,” in full:

Let me know
Let me know
Let me go
Let me go
Let me have him
Let me have him
How I love him
How I love him.

It’s too weird to be light verse, right? But what is it, then? And what’s it doing in a collection that also features such tightly constructed marvels as “Tenuous and Precarious” and “Not Waving but Drowning”?

Or consider “Bog-Face”:

Dear little Bog-Face,
Why are you so cold?
And why do you lie with your eyes shut?—
You are not very old.

I am a Child of this World,
And a Child of Grace,
And Mother, I shall be glad when it is over,
I am Bog-Face.

Or the last stanza of “God the Eater”:

When I am dead I hope that he will eat
Everything I have been and have not been
And crunch and feed upon it and grow fat
Eating my life all up as it is his.

Or spend some time with these brilliant oddities: “I Remember,” “Do Take Muriel Out,” “Love Me!,” “I Was so Full . . . ,” “Away, Melancholy.”

Larkin wrote that Smith’s poems have two virtues: “they are completely original, and now and again they are moving. These qualities alone set them above 95 per cent of present-day output.”

Ogden Nash wrote: “Who and what is Stevie Smith? / Is she woman? Is she myth?”

Smith was real enough; she was born on September 20, 1902, in the city of Hull. You should celebrate her birthday. And because fall is on its way, here’s Smith’s “Autumn”:

He told his life story to Mrs Courtly
Who was a widow. ‘Let us get married shortly,’
He said. ‘I am no longer passionate,
But we can have some conversation before it is too late.’