Stevie Smith

1902–1971
Stevie Smith

Calling Stevie Smith's Not Waving but Drowning "the best collection of new poems to appear in 1957," Poetry contributor David Wright observed that "as one of the most original women poets now writing [Stevie Smith] seems to have missed most of the public accolades bestowed by critics and anthologists. One reason may be that not only does she belong to no 'school'—whether real or invented as they usually are—but her work is so completely different from anyone else's that it is all but impossible to discuss her poems in relation to those of her contemporaries." "Without identifying itself with any particular school of modern poetics," Linda Rahm Hallett similarly noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "[Smith's] voice is nevertheless very much that of what she once called the 'age of unrest' through which she lived." Combining a deceptively simple form and mannered language with serious themes, Smith was able "both to compass the pity and terror of her themes and to respond to them with rueful courage and humour," a Times Literary Supplement reviewer remarked.

Smith's "seemingly light verse," stated Hallett, contains a "sometimes disconcerting mixture of wit and seriousness ..., making her at once one of the most consistent and most elusive of poets." "We say that her poetry is childlike, everyone is charmed, delighted," Jerome McGann explained in Poetry. "She goes self-consciously to Blake, to nursery rhymes, to naive ballad forms, and offers us afterwards imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Smith's writings, however, frequently demonstrated a fascination with death and also explored "the mysterious, rather sinister reality which lurks behind appealing or innocent appearances," Hallett described. As a result, Wright commented, "the apparent geniality of many of her poems is in fact more frightening than the solemn keening and sentimental despair of other poets, for it is based on a clear-sighted acceptance, by a mind neither obtuse nor unimaginative, but sharp and serious, innocent but far from naive, and because feminine having a bias towards life and survival, of the facts as they are and the world as it is."

Contributing to the deceptive quality of the poet's work was her language, which the Times Literary Supplement reviewer termed "Smith's most distinctive achievement." The critic elaborated: "The cliches, the excesses, the crabbed formalities of this speech are given weight by the chillingly amusing or disquieting elements; by the sense of a refined, ironic unhappiness underlying the poems; and by the variety of topics embraced by the poet's three or four basic and serious themes." Although the writer found some of Smith's work "indulgent, even trivial ... it ought at last to be recognized that Miss Smith's is a purposeful and substantial talent. From below the surface oddness, her personal voice comes out to us as something questing, discomfiting, compassionate." Smith's "highly individualistic poetic style [was] vulnerable to shifts in critical taste and to the charges of eccentricity, a charge which Smith risked, and in a sense even flirted with, throughout her career," Hallett concluded. "However, the integrity with which she adhered to her own style earned Stevie Smith a considerable amount of respect, and, more than ten years after her death, her reputation with both readers and fellow poets is deservedly high."

Career

Newnes Publishing Co., London, England, secretary, 1923-53; writer and broadcaster. Gave poetry readings for British Broadcasting Corp. radio and television; read and sang poems set to music (based on plainsong and folk music) at festivals in London, Edinburgh, Stratford on Avon, and elsewhere in England. Member of literature panel of Arts Council.

Bibliography

POETRY; SELF-ILLUSTRATED

  • A Good Time Was Had by All, J. Cape, 1937.
  • Tender Only to One, J. Cape, 1938.
  • Mother, What is Man?, J. Cape, 1942.
  • Harold's Leap, Chapman & Hall, 1950.
  • Not Waving but Drowning, Deutsch, 1957.
  • Selected Poems (also see below), Longmans, Green, 1962, New Directions, 1964.
  • The Frog Prince and Other Poems (also see below), Longmans, Green, 1966.
  • (With Edwin Brock and Geoffrey Hill) Penguin Modern Poets 8, Penguin, 1966.
  • The Best Beast, Knopf, 1969.
  • Two in One (includes Selected Poems and The Frog Prince and Other Poems), Longman, 1971.
  • Scorpion and Other Poems, Longman, 1972.
  • Collected Poems, A. Lane, 1975, Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith, New Directions (New York, NY), 1988.

Contributor of poetry to numerous anthologies, including Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Verse, 2nd edition, 1965, and Poetry 1900 to 1965, 1967.

OTHER

  • Novel on Yellow Paper; or, Work It out for Yourself, J. Cape, 1936, Morrow, 1937, New Directions (New York, NY), 1994.
  • Over the Frontier (novel), J. Cape, 1938.
  • The Holiday (novel), Chapman & Hall, 1949.
  • Some Are More Human than Others (drawings and captions), Gaberbocchus, 1958.
  • (Editor) T. S. Eliot: A Symposium for His 70th Birthday, Hart-Davis, 1958.
  • (Editor) The Poet's Garden, Viking, 1970 (published in England as The Batsford Book of Children's Verse, Batsford, 1970).
  • Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, edited by Jack Barbera and William McBrien, Virago, 1981, Farrar, Straus, 1982.
  • A Very Pleasant Evening with Stevie Smith: Selected Short Prose, New Directions (New York, NY), 1995.

Contributor of poems and reviews to Observer, Times Literary Supplement, Listener, New Yorker, Nation, and other periodicals.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Barbera, Jack, and William McBrien, Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith, Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Bedient, Calvin, Eight Contemporary Poets, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 139-58.
  • Civello, Catherine A., Patterns of Ambivalence: The Fiction and Poetry of Stevie Smith, Camden House, 1997.
  • Dick, Kay, Ivy and Stevie, Duckworth, 1971.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 8, 1980, Volume 25, 1983, Volume 44, 1987.
  • Orr, Peter, editor, The Poet Speaks, Routledge, 1966, pp. 225-31.
  • Severin, Laura, Stevie Smith's Resistant Antics, University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
  • Huk, Romana, Stevie Smith: Between the Lines, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

PERIODICALS

  • Critical Quarterly, 28, No. 3, 1986, pp. 41-55.
  • Grand Street, 1, Autumn 1981.
  • London Times, November 19, 1981.
  • New Leader, September 18, 1989, p. 16.
  • Poetry, August, 1958, March, 1965, December, 1970.
  • Spectator, August 30, 1969.
  • Times (London), November 19, 1981.
  • Times Literary Supplement, January 19, 1967; July 14, 1972, p. 820.

OBITUARIES: PERIODICALS

  • Antiquarian Bookman, June 24, 1971.
  • Books and Bookmen, June, 1971.

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Articles About STEVIE SMITH

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION England

LIFE SPAN 1902–1971

Stevie Smith

Biography

Calling Stevie Smith's Not Waving but Drowning "the best collection of new poems to appear in 1957," Poetry contributor David Wright observed that "as one of the most original women poets now writing [Stevie Smith] seems to have missed most of the public accolades bestowed by critics and anthologists. One reason may be that not only does she belong to no 'school'—whether real or invented as they usually are—but her work is so . . .

Report a problem with this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.