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Stevie Smith's 'Thoughts on the Person from Porlock'

stevie smith

On a personal level, affectionate teasing can express love, of course. In some families, benign mockery is a prized, vital form of intimacy. Comedy of the self, comedy of the other person, a characteristic joke, may demonstrate the bonds of deep familiarity as no mere hug could do. (I was moved to hear a friend's account of her father, near death, waking from sleep to see his grown children around the bed. He said to them something like, “I guess you're wondering why I called this meeting.”)

On the level of art, too, kidding can express loyalty and love. That principle animates the great parodies: Ezra Pound’s of William Butler Yeats's “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” Kenneth Koch’s of William Carlos Williams's “This Is Just To Say,” Henry Reed’s of T.S. Eliot's “Four Quartets,” all pay tribute with laughter.

In a poem more complicated than sheer parody (though at moments including parody) Stevie Smith (1902-1971) engagingly declines to altogether believe Samuel Taylor Coleridge's note to his poem “Kubla Khan.” Coleridge's note, famously, claims (in the third person) that the author dreamt the poem entirely, and after waking up immediately began writing what he had dreamt. Then, Coleridge says:

At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

Most readers, however plausible or implausible they find Coleridge's account, will not use it as a way to reflect comically, but penetratingly, on their own failings and self-deceptions. Smith, brilliantly, sustains her cool, skeptical laughter while turning it on herself—and, I think, on her reader as well. That is, we may be ridiculous for solemnly believing (or solemnly disbelieving, or something in between) Coleridge's account of why his poem is a fragment, while we fail to laugh at it. But maybe we are also ridiculous for smiling at Smith's expressed longing for a Person from Porlock, while we fail to appreciate her genuine, heartfelt misery: misery of feeling the immense human desire for accomplishment, engulfed by our limitations. Under its charm, her poem grieves for the fleeting human capacity: for poetry, for recalling dreams and ideas, for work, for focus itself.

In a way, Stevie Smith redeems Coleridge's story and celebrates it by understanding what he says as a parable about the transitory, elusive nature of our best moments.

Smith's mockery is also a tribute, and her laughter is also a lament.

[Editor's Note: Please head to Facebook for a discussion of Stevie Smith's "Thoughts on the Person from Porlock," moderated by Robert Pinsky.]

Originally Published: September 4th, 2013

Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poet-critics. Often called the last of the “civic” or public poets, Pinsky’s criticism and verse reflect his concern for a contemporary poetic diction that nonetheless speaks of a wider experience. Elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, his tenure was marked...