Poetry News

Stevie Smith Profiled at the Paris Review

By Harriet Staff


At the Paris Review blog, Diane Mehta delivers an engaging portrait of Stevie Smith. Mehta writes that Smith's poetry is undergoing something of renaissance, what with her Best Poems having been reissued in December. About this second wind, Mehta writes:

It’s high time. Smith’s work has been nearly forgotten, her books having fallen out of print. She is not, on the surface, tenderly lyrical or feminist enough to court contemporary readers. Born in England in 1902, she enjoyed some popularity in the sixties for oddball performances of her poems, which she often sang, or read with spooky dramatic flair, but she might just have been too original, or too variegated, for any one school of poetry to champion her work. Perhaps she has also been dismissed because she comes off as cold and hard, a person of uncertain likeability: her so-called comic verse roils with death wishes and sneering attacks on other poets. (“Let all the little poets be gathered together in classes / And let prizes be given to them by the Prize Asses,” she says in “To School!”) She has been put in with Blake, Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson. Fine company, but Smith is far more varied, unfettered, and disenchanted than all that. Her lines have scope. They contain a high-low mix of childlike diction, plain speech, formal rhymes, and heroic couplets, with a register that ricochets between folk tunes, hymnals, liturgy, nursery rhymes, and lyrical verse. She deliberately set many poems to the tunes of hymns, and sang them as such. Given all the wit and intellect that animate her poetry, why has she been forgotten?

That's a good question! Mehta offers many reasons why there is great value in reading Smith, and views Smith as a synthesizing poet who was able to draw on the energies and techniques of past centuries to, yes, make it new! More:

You could think of Smith as an eighteenth-century poet with twentieth-century disenchantment. A brooding woman who pulls herself together by working in tight forms, Smith has a style that people call idiosyncratic, but I think it’s merely historical. Like her British male contemporaries W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Smith pulled in the verse techniques of an earlier century and used them to ironic advantage. These poets synthesized literary traditions instead of flinging them away wholesale—they were all eighteenth century poets of a sort.

Just like Pope and Dryden before them, they had rationalist sensibilities and ironic sophistication, and were skeptical of the social order. They borrowed rhythms from traditional meters and forms. And they were known for their wit. But in poetry, wit is in part the product of technical skill: all these poets knew how to manipulate syntax for maximum impact, a technique that dates not to the eighteenth century but to the religious poets of a century earlier, who applied and experimented with meter to express uncertainty and longing. John Donne, for example, slows down the pace in his Holy Sonnets as he struggles with faith, and speeds up to express it.

It’s when Smith is at her most pithy and sardonic that her eighteenth-century influences are in high relief. Her poems are moral satires in the style of Pope, and at her best (“Suburban Classes”), she is as stylish a coupleteer as he was:

Tell them it’s smart to be dead and won’t hurt
And they’ll gobble up drug as they gobble up dirt.

Mehta continues on, looking at Smith's poetry in relation to religion, marriage, and child rearing—none of which Smith was terrible fond of—and death, which Smith did have a certain affection for. Read for yourself at the Paris Review blog!

Originally Published: February 12th, 2014