Prose from Poetry Magazine

Your Thorns Are the Best Part of You

Marianne Moore’s Observations and Stevie Smith’s All the Poems

Observations, by Marianne Moore.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.00.

Linda Leavell, whose biography of Marianne Moore was published three years ago, introduces this reissue of the poet’s 1924 debut, Observations:

There is no such thing as a definitive edition of Moore’s poems, 
for she revised her work throughout her life, continually 
asserting her authority in an ongoing dialogue with her 
reader.... Published on her eightieth birthday, The Complete Poems presents her final intentions but not necessarily her most compelling ones. Moore was not the same poet at eighty that she had been at thirty-seven, when Observations was published, nor was her readership the same. Twenty-first-century readers deserve to know the innovative poems that so excited H.D., Eliot, Williams, Pound, and Stevens and that were an “eye-opener in more ways than one” to the young Elizabeth Bishop. And they deserve to discover the emotional urgency of this socially engaged poet, whose views about multicultural tolerance, biodiversity, heroic open-mindedness, democracy, and individual liberty we are only now beginning to appreciate.

In Moore’s verse, snippets of borrowed speech or writing are recognized as such — they wear, quite without shame, their quotation marks — but her first impulse wasn’t to attribute, to include notes directing her readers to the original sources; this happened only at the prompting of Scofield Thayer, editor of The Dial. Moore’s “Note on the Notes” in the Complete Poems acknowledges contrary responses: “some readers suggest that quotation-marks are disruptive of pleasant progress; others, that notes to what should be complete are a pedantry or evidence of an insufficiently realized task.” Since she has “not yet been able to outgrow this hybrid method of composition, acknowledgements seem only honest.” So we have the poet apologizing to some people for including the voices of other people in her verse, in a possibly distracting way — alliteratively pleading: “Perhaps those who are annoyed by provisos, detainments, and postscripts could be persuaded to take probity on faith and disregard the notes.”

As Leavell comes to argue the contemporary relevance of Observations, another voice emerges. This isn’t the scholar analyzing and explaining the work, or the biographer documenting the life. It’s the salesperson talking, and uneasily, because aware always of their script, yet unwilling to entirely commit to its banalities. Academics are leaned on to speak this way, by publishers, funding bodies. Sometimes the voice, unhappily internalized, rises up from within, becomes fused with our real ambitions (I have been there, I understand and sympathize). But the strain shows, as “emotional urgency” comes together, earnestly, with “socially engaged” — we couldn’t have our poets any other way! — and the next clause hesitates as to whether Moore simply has opinions (“views about    ...    
heroic open-mindedness?”) or whether she has, let us say, the right opinions. Do we read poets for their “views”; and if we are “beginning to appreciate” Moore’s, is this because they agree with ours? 
I don’t mean to harp on about one sentence in a dedicated scholar’s introduction — written, no doubt, to time and word limits, as well as responsive to the current publishing (ugh) climate, but I do think the question must be asked, and that in such matters we should express ourselves precisely. For example, racists also have “views about 
multicultural tolerance,” strong ones, which they periodically communicate to me with an unvariegated stridency surely appalling to Moore, typically out of fast-moving cars.

I’m not saying that Moore wasn’t forward-looking and sensitive, or that these qualities haven’t been neglected, or passed over because camouflaged by the knottiness of her musical meanings, the lovely and tedious divagations which result from her refusal to ever not nuance. But I am saying that I wouldn’t go to Moore to have my “views” confirmed — that’s not what she’s for — and when she is prissy, or illiberal (she worried to Bishop that an unnamed acquaintance was “in the clutches of a sodomite”!) her verse remains intimate with me. In fact, the tendentious cavilling of her poems around the prospect of intimacy, their concern to assert views that can be shared, and a perpetual spiky awareness of their own off-putting behaviors — this is why I read her. Moore writes about self-protective animals, their often beautiful armor, and her poems don their polished plate, and occasionally take it off, with marvelous ceremony. “Black Earth,” 
excluded from the Complete Poems and happily included here, appears to self-describe with unusual openness:

Openly, yes,
with the naturalness
     of the hippopotamus or the alligator
     when it climbs out on the bank to experience the

sun, I do these
things which I do, which please
     no one but myself. Now I breathe and now I am sub-
     merged; the blemishes stand up and shout when the object

in view was a
renaissance; shall I say
     the contrary?

The poet evokes in creatures and landscapes qualities she would like to possess. In this she is rather like the critic in the business of transforming her, Marianne Moore, into an ideal citizen. Yet as the third stanza reveals, there is always a turn; the recognition of a difficulty; a complication, which reveals the power of assertion as proceeding from an injury (those “blemishes stand up and shout”). Is Moore tolerant, open-minded? Sometimes. There are things one shouldn’t be tolerant of (she is not afraid, as we are, of the position of judgment; is in no danger of   becoming tolerant of intolerance), and openness of mind is periodic — you couldn’t live that way all the time, the fontanel must close if we are to survive. (The motives of publishing and publicity are not always good, in turning social injustices, and our injustices to nature, into buzzwords to be included if a book is to be picked up and sold.) And maybe the opening of the mind is not its own achievement, but a gift from outside us, unpredictable and to be anticipated, if never presumed.

Moore knows this, and it relates to her alternation between aphorism and incomprehensibility. Between self and other she discerns — can’t help but recognize, and crabbily adorn — countless 
barriers. Some of these wink in and out of existence, are playful, like those of a pinball machine, or the antic obstacles the player leaps and slides between in a platform video game; others, of long standing, thaw ominously, like Arctic sea ice decimated by black carbon. 
So I can’t see her as a cultural spokeswoman, not because Moore doesn’t worry where, and how, we worry, but since her poems simply 
don’t communicate that way. (Does our insistence on the politics which can be extracted from them manifest a remaining anxiety about the readability of her verse?) In her poems, someone speaks, would assert, and other voices protrude — rarely solely to confirm what has been said, or bully the reader. If there is a simple message, it never quite reaches us, but is, like Zeno’s arrow, paralyzed at every point of its arc through the air.

If Moore’s borrowings allow for the characterization of her as a modern collage artist, a devil-may-care dialogic experimenter, Elizabeth Bishop had quite a different view. Helping Moore with her translations of La Fontaine, she comes to a sadly astonished awareness of her mentor’s difference from other people, linked to her inability to hear or write verse in conventional ways. It seems that Moore “was possessed of a unique, involuntary sense of rhythm, therefore of meter”; what else would one expect, given that “she looked like no one else” and “talked like no one else,” and that “her poems showed a mind not much like anyone else’s”? The younger poet wonders of the older whether her deep-down oddity is helpless or chosen — it could be that her poetry emerged at a modernist threshold, that she was set free to experiment? — and is finally led to “realize more than I ever had the rarity of true originality, and also the sort of alienation it might involve.” When Bishop helps her out with simple rhymes, or turns her drafts iambic, Moore is astonished by what, to others, would be quite obvious emendations, or normalizations. It’s like those quotations in her verse — someone else arrives to lend a hand, to say what the poet is herself unable to, where she is prevented by abiding and mysterious impediments. Because a lack is remedied by it, a pedestrian encounter takes on the aspect of grace: “Marianne would exclaim, ‘Elizabeth, thank you, you have saved my life!’”

There are in Observations slight poems Moore was right to exclude from the Complete Poems, with its mighty epigraph: “Omissions are not accidents.” These are short lyrics, stingy rather than pointed — 
there’s a run of several at the start of the book. But we might consider “Reticence and Volubility” a rejoinder to the sales-voice looking to package Marianne Moore for the twenty-first century:

“When I am dead,”
The wizard said,
   “I’ll look upon the narrow way
    And this Dante,
        And know that he was right
        And he’ll delight
            In my remorse,
            Of course.”
“When I am dead,”
The student said,
   “I shall have grown so tolerant,
    I’ll find I can’t
        Laugh at your sorry plight
        Or take delight
            In your chagrin,

This was first published in the May 1915 issue of Poetry, as “The Wizard in Words.” Tolerance doesn’t mean to this poem what it means to us. (Nor does the concept of offensiveness, when it appears in conjunction, in “Injudicious Gardening”: “The sense of privacy /
 In what you did — deflects from your estate / Offending eyes, and will not tolerate / Effrontery.”) Matthew 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Moore is concerned, like the apostle, and Dante, with ethics, though a coherent theology is replaced here by misunderstanding encounters. The wizard and the poet discover a stance toward each other, but the student, “grown so tolerant” — a word placed under ironic scrutiny — can’t respond to the wizard either with laughter or approval at the moral “remorse” she understands, instead, as “chagrin.” I can’t pretend to understand the poem wholly, but I recognize Moore’s interest in failed relationships, and the limitations of retrospective judgement — the “delights” of moralizing. We wish to draw connections between ourselves and others, but to do so simplistically is a form of arrogance. Moore returns over and over again to this problem, and sometimes her poems don’t work because they do no more than utter a stalemate. All the poetry, for instance, of “To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity” is in the title. Which can’t be said of “Roses Only”:

You would, minus thorns,
look like a what-is-this, a mere
peculiarity. They are not proof against a worm, the elements, or mildew
   but what about the predatory hand? What is brilliance without co-ordination? Guarding the
         infinitesimal pieces of your mind, compelling audience to
   the remark that it is better to be forgotten than to be remembered 
too violently,
your thorns are the best part of you.

The reader, the critic, seeking to turn Moore into someone entirely like themselves, will come up against those thorns. Her personality is indelible, and refuses “to be remembered too violently.” I delight less in the content of her opinions than the scrollwork of their framing; a defensiveness admitting of ebullience, and heartfelt pleasure, as she quests for the large, the liveable statement, through fields of digression.

Observations contains several of Moore’s large and small masterpieces, unweatherable poems which everybody should read. “To a Snail” is here; two versions of “Poetry” — more on this later — as well as “Critics and Connoisseurs,” “When I Buy Pictures,” “A Grave,” “Snakes, Mongooses, Snake-Charmers, and the Like,” “Silence,” and “Marriage.” Those familiar with the Complete Poems will notice changes — typically she cuts the flab, and swaps in clarifying punctuation; the later versions are the better ones. This is also true when she relineates: “The Fish” is printed here in a six-line stanza, rather than, as eventually transpired, a five; Moore must have realized there was no need for an intervening line containing only one word. Observations mentions “chaff” a few times, and separating the wheat from it is precisely what she editorially accomplished. Leavell observes that these changes represent not only a response to free verse, an including of its strategies, but also an assertion of Moore’s authority. The changes she makes are part of the difficult conversation this rather bizarre and, as Bishop has it, alienated person 
is trying to have, throughout her career, with her growing audience. If she moves to accommodate the reader, she also insists on her own predilections — the technical preferences of the poet about the tiniest quirks of sound and meaning. Moore’s self-editing extends what’s going on in the poems themselves, whose processes of assembly, whether consciously stilted or magically all-at-once and deft, are part of the spectacle.

Leavell describes Moore as a poet of “precision,” and it’s curious to note that in the original version of “Bowls,” a key line reads: “I learn that we are precisians”; Moore’s revision was to “precisionists.” For her, finding the right word is a moral duty, and “Picking and Choosing,” about literature and literary criticism, is improved when she picks and chooses what she wishes to keep in it. Trimming the verbiage, she has her poem speak with the clarity it praises in others. Yet the original does score a couple of points over its superior successor:

Literature is a phase of life: if
      one is afraid of it, the situation is irremediable; if
one approaches it familiarly,
      what one says of it is worthless. Words are constructive
when they are true; the opaque allusion — the simulated flight

upward — accomplishes nothing. Why cloud the fact
       that Shaw is selfconscious in the field of sentiment but is otherwise re-
warding? that James is all that has been
       said of him, if feeling is profound?
— From Observations
Literature is a phase of life. If one is afraid of it,
the situation is irremediable; if one approaches it familiarly,
what one says of it is worthless.
The opaque allusion, the simulated flight upward,
accomplishes nothing. Why cloud the fact
that Shaw is self-conscious in the field of sentiment
but is otherwise rewarding; that James
is all that has been said of him.
— From Complete Poems

In the later version, Moore is unafraid to speak (relatively) clearly; she removes what “accomplishes nothing,” and has learned how not to cloud the facts. The line break has us dwell a moment on the name of  Henry James — the shift to free verse has made possible a different 
inflection, capturing rather than displacing of the authority Moore describes and would emulate. Previously, the dead matter about words being “constructive / when they are true” arrived to rhyme with “if”; it’s no great loss. Yet the connection between “if” and “life” is more clearly felt in Observations. And it is a pity to lose the shift in the first two lines from a colon to a semicolon — Moore’s attentiveness 
to how these gently unlike forms of punctuation, and the repetition, alternatively color that hinging word. Rereading these poems, I was struck by her feeling for the semicolon as the grammar of tact. Moore takes this, I think, from her studies in prose style: “You were the jewelry of sense; / Of sense, not license”; ‘“I should like to be alone”; / to which the visitor replies, / “I should like to be alone; / why not be alone together?”’; “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint.”

“An Octopus,” that masterful ecopoem, a gigantically reader-resisting bio-mass of collateral quotation — evocative of Mount Rainier and its glacier — contains in Observations a full page of extra description. I quote some, not all:

Inimical to “bristling, puny, swearing men
equipped with saws and axes,”
this treacherous glass mountain
admires gentians, ladyslippers, harebells, mountain dryads,
and “Calypso, the goat flower — 
that greenish orchid fond of snow” — 
anomalously nourished upon shelving glacial ledges
where climbers have not gone or have gone timidly,
“the one resting his nerves while the other advanced,”
on this volcano with the bluejay, her principal companion.

The first quotation is from Clifton Johnson’s What to See in America, the others from government pamphlets Moore consulted in her research. (Notes on the lines that follow mention a “comment 
overheard at the circus,” and Anthony Trollope.) Mount Rainier’s complexity is twinned with its value — this is why the poet must be unobvious in her approach — and she won’t just have the reader take her word for it, but confects a masala of appreciative utterance. The “treacherous glass mountain” is said, itself, to possess the power of admiring; this is an extension of Moore’s own spreading admiration for multiple phenomena, including the orchid. This “anomalously nourished” flower (I love that haughtily appreciative, that scientifically cherishing adverb, it is Moore through and through) is feminized, 
and forms a partnership with the blue jay positioned as male. Rather like the climbers taking it in turns to ascend the mountain, one 
subject hands on the baton to the next — the glacier gives way to the snow-fed goat flower, which is in turn replaced by the bird.

Moore writes inclusively: she pastes in what others say, how different plants and animals behave. This means she’s unavoidably in the business of turning all this otherness into herself, or wishing to become closer to it. But these edits reveal the dangers. It was hard to know when to stop, and the question of what or who to mention next, to move the poem on, is one Moore struggled to solve. Leavell includes both the 1924 and the 1925 versions of “Poetry”; a third, radically shortened, appears in the Complete Poems. The 1925 poem is only transitional — a genuinely intriguing misstep:

I too, dislike it:
there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
The bat, upside down; the elephant pushing,
a tireless wolf under a tree,
the base-ball fan, the statistician — 
“business documents and schoolbooks” — 
these phenomena are pleasing,
but when they have been fashioned
into that which is unknowable,
we are not entertained.
It may be said of all of us
that we do not admire what we cannot understand;
enigmas are not poetry.

The listed items are not sensuously imagined, and contribute only the theme of endurance (the elephant “pushing,” the “tireless wolf”). The movement from “I too, dislike it” — is this actually shocking, or only humorous, for the poet to say this about poetry? — to the social hedging of what “may be said of all of us” is, unbelievably for Moore, a smidge cowardly. Yet — to return to Leavell’s introduction — if “twenty-first-century readers deserve to know the innovative poems” of Observations as they originally appeared, Moore does suggest here, contrarily, that in these poems data is “fashioned / into that which is unknowable.”

What we “know” is not a secure possession in “The Labors of Hercules.” Here Moore immortalizes the words of, according to the note, “The Reverend J.W. Darr” — in arguing

that it is one thing to change one’s mind,
another to eradicate it — that one keeps on knowing
“that the Negro is not brutal.
that the Jew is not greedy,
that the Oriental is not immoral,
that the German is not a Hun.”

Here are the social “views” we are glad to acclaim; but the careful reader will require no such assurance that Moore is on the side of the angels. It’s good to have the first line and a half, cut by Moore in the Complete Poems, given its acidulous querying of the cliché, to change one’s mind: “eradicate” suggests racial cleansing. Moore is alert both to what we can know, and should keep on knowing, and what we can’t. Her revisions remind me of Wittgenstein: “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” For “unknowable” appears in neither of the other versions of “Poetry.” The first, longer, messier, quotes Yeats on poets as “literalists of the imagination,” and is famous for going one better and defining poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” But Moore would finally shun all evasive talk, and canonize a majestic snippet. In the Complete Poems, she states what she believes. She no longer provides evidence to support her case, or nervously talks around the subject, for the reader must make up her own mind. About poetry, that is, and about Marianne Moore:

I, too, dislike it.
          Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one 
discovers in
          it, after all, a place for the genuine.

All the Poems, by Stevie Smith.

New Directions. $39.95.

There is a strand of English poetry, written by women, skeptical about the need of men to take themselves seriously. (Gender is fluid, cultural; yet the target exists, and these poems hit it, they’re both funny and clever.) Take Wendy Cope, who in “A Policeman’s Lot” pokes fun at Ted Hughes, who says the “progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system.” To be read to the strains of Gilbert and Sullivan:

No, the imagination of a writer (of a writer)
Is not the sort of  beat a chap would choose (chap would choose)
And they’ve assigned me a prolific blighter (’lific blighter) — 
I’m patrolling the unconscious of   Ted Hughes.

In Jo Shapcott’s “Religion for Boys,” “the little stone figure in the porch” of the temple of Mithras — a goddess in her own right — is amused by the devotees entering where no women are allowed to go:

She chuckles. These boys do such hard graft,
big tests where they’re sat hard against the fire
torturing themselves through seven grades towards

Shapcott’s isn’t “light verse,” but Cope has been tarred with this brush, and then we have Stevie Smith. Her poems (despite an excellent monograph by Will May, the editor of this collection, and notable essays by Christopher Ricks and Philip Larkin, among others) still, perhaps, haven’t been appreciated in all their fine, textured seriousness. This may be because they poke fun at the kinds of seriousness we’ve inherited — and would suggest something better.

I say “we”: do I mean men, again? “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock” may have been the model for Cope’s poem, for it confronts the Major Male Poet, specifically Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who famously blamed the incompletion of “Kubla Khan” on an interrupting visitor. Though isn’t Smith more alive than Cope, to the motivations behind the poet’s language of (self-)confrontation? Pomposity is not so much deflated, here, as psychologically 

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock
And ever after called him a curse
Then why did he hurry to let him in? — 
He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.

Smith’s perceptiveness, her generosity (that parenthesis), requires of the reader more than a second glance. The social contact of the “Person from Porlock” was, it turns out, crucial to Coleridge, as both an excuse and an escape; for “he was already stuck” — with his poem? He had writer’s block? — no, he was “stuck / With Kubla Khan,” a personified aspect of himself he’d rather elude.

Smith is especially unsparing of   bullying men, like the eponymous “Major Macroo,” who lords it over the wife he neglects:

Such men as these, such selfish cruel men
Hurting what most they love what most loves them,
Never make a mistake when it comes to choosing a woman
To cherish them and be neglected and not think it inhuman.

Yet once again she doesn’t terminate with blame, but presses beyond, to cultural explanations. Macroo and his wife are perfectly suited — in a bad way. A malfunctory society produced them, the pair of them, even if the power is entirely in his hands. “How Cruel is the Story of Eve,” says Smith, designed to “give blame to women most / And most punishment”; this “is the meaning of a legend that colours / All human thought; it is not found among animals.” (Just one smack, of many, at repressive Christianity.) For Smith, as for D.H. Lawrence — or Hughes — animals, when they aren’t abominably tamed, provide an alternative to a sick culture; it’s good to see this discourse strapped to a feminist argument, instead of boosting a male writer’s self-esteem. But in both of these poems, Smith goes a little further, in asking what we really mean by “human”; and the slant-rhyme linking this word, or its negative, with “woman” (one of Smith’s best) reappears in “Girls!” from Mother, What Is Man?:

Girls! although I am a woman
I always try to appear human

Unlike Miss So-and-So whose greatest pride
Is to remain always in the VI Form and not let down the side

Do not sell the pass dear, don’t let down the side
This is what this woman said and a lot of  balsy stuff beside
(Oh the awful balsy nonsense that this woman cried.)

Balsy, not ballsy. But we shouldn’t reduce this poem to a joke — at least, not before it does this to itself. Smith’s rhymes, and slant-rhymes, are analytic, exhortatory, they sing with corrective spite. In the space between “girl” and “woman” she locates a deep uncertainty, 
and while she is evidently scornful of those, like Macroo, who consider women less than “human,” she is also alert to the need to keep up appearances, how tough it is “to appear,” to oneself and to the world, as a being coherent and complete. How miserably inevitable it is, that valuing oneself (as a woman, a particularly “human” woman) is accomplished at the expense of someone else — who must be judged wanting, if one is to be found, in contrast, acceptable.

“Miss So-and-So” corresponds to Major Macroo in her military language — these are the dying strains of the British Empire, reduced to team-calls in assemblies for sixth-formers — and we see here how Smith doesn’t stop at unworthy men, but also gleefully attacks over-refined, or vicious, or class- or race-conscious women, and (it’s the title of this next poem) their “Parents”:

Oh beautiful brave mother, the wife of the colonel,
How could you allow your young daughter to become aware of the scheming?
If  you had not, it might have stayed a mere dreaming
Of palaces and princes, girlish at worst.
Oh to become sensible about social advance at seventeen is to be lost.

If the first couplet of “Girls!” has the immediacy and punch of a Beyoncé lyric, this is closer to the songs of the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Smith repeats herself — there are things she cares about, which more than get her goat, she demands change — but she’s also capable of many species of poem. Here’s a short one — a comic’s one-liner, really, though it’s a couplet:

This Englishwoman is so refined
She has no bosom and no behind.
— This Englishwoman

May’s helpful note directs us to Edmund Waller’s poem “On a Girdle”: “That which her slender waist confin’d, / Shall now my joyful temples bind,” he writes, and also — “A narrow compass, and yet there / Dwelt all that’s good, and all that’s fair.” In Smith’s poem, “refined” means — the irony is strong — sophisticated, but it also describes the Englishwoman as a creature, like one of the ludicrously 
effete dogs at Crufts, bred by specialists into what they consider a pure and pleasing shape. She is asexual, the victim of a mutilation — it’s as if the toffs, desperate to be rid of the urges which 
associate them with animals (and the lower classes), were the subject of Lamarckian evolution. The energies each generation neglects — 
the life not lived — affect the very stature of the next.

As this poem suggests, Smith’s true target is — again, this is one of her titles — “The English”:

Many of the English, 
The intelligent English,
Of the Arts, the Professions and the Upper Middle Classes,
Are under-cover men,
But what is under the cover 
(That was original)
Died; now they are corpse-carriers.

Her verse comes with pen-sketches attached: whimsical, piercing depictions of the characters in the poems, or the speakers of them, vibrating with irregular life. “This Englishwoman” appears wearing a hat with flowers on it, her pointed face the shape of the base of an iron (she’s smiling, smugly, the tiny lines of her eyebrows are cruel), protecting herself not from the rain, but the sun, with an umbrella. I’m reminded once more of D.H. Lawrence:

Man fixes some wonderful erection of his own between himself and the wild chaos, and gradually goes bleached and stifled 
under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun.

Smith, too, is more than — a dead word — unconventional; she is an avowed “enemy of convention,” and would let in the sun that her Englishwoman shirks. Like Lawrence, she is a writer who would turn on its head the great English project of disapproval — really turn it against itself: “There is far too much of the suburban classes / 
Spiritually not geographically speaking. They’re asses.” She would disapprove of the disapprovers; the snobs, the sexists, the repressed.

Some explanation may be necessary here. Humans are status-conscious, and this is a fact of multiple cultures, and subcultures — Smith is particularly savvy about the tribalism of the literary world, “picking inferiorly with grafted eyes,” in which “So-and-so must be the driven out one, this the pet”; the familiar tale of “Miss Snooks, Poetess,” who never wrote a poem “that was not really awfully nice / And fitted to a woman,” and so “made no enemies / And gave no sad surprises / But went on being awfully nice / And took a lot of prizes.” Yet to be English is to enter into a special relationship with disapproval, an ineffaceable class-consciousness that persists today (it’s not the same as the division between rich and poor), however ironized (a common excuse) or deferred, or disguised, the compulsion to affront may be. Sometimes this urge to degrade is redirected towards the minorities of the moment — it isn’t a good time, in England, to be Eastern European. But the accents of disapproval are the same, they are recognizable. The English, compelled to revisit and renew, in so many details of their private lives, the distinction between working-class and middle-class lifestyles (those who’ve crossed this border, even a generation back, are petrified of being deported) have found ways of continuing this conversation into the twenty-first century, even while turning it into a joke, or changing the terms. The problem is that, as Smith tells us in “The English,” these people are infectious. Once you start to disapprove of them, to become intolerant of their intolerance, you’re at risk of playing their game. So Lawrence tries to counter the murderous force of class disapproval, taking as the guarantor of his convictions the permanent scandal of our sexuality, which he deploys as a deeper, a more convincing authority, than the snobbishness of the repressive bore. In doing so, he risks becoming a bore himself, a perfervid sermonizer. What Smith does is less obvious and easy to miss. She counter-accuses, but also places the voice of accusation itself under scrutiny.

On first approaching a publisher with her poems, Smith was told to “go away and write a novel.” Despite the more announced vitality, the love-addled bursting oomph, of its reader-buttonholing protagonist Pompey Casmilus, Novel on Yellow Paper does resemble Marianne Moore in its humorous digressive capturing of multiple voices. But Smith quotes, often, as critique. Not to summon viewpoints to her aid, but to shred them irreversibly. Here are some “nice little quotations for your scrap book. Or if you have no scrap book you can shoot them at your friends at your high-class parties”:

Should I Marry a Foreigner?    ...    You do not say, dear, if he is a man of colour. Even if it is only a faint tea rose — don’t. I know what it will mean to you to give him up but funny things happen with colour, it often slips over, and sometimes darkens from year to year and it is so difficult to match up. White always looks well at weddings and will wash and wear and if you like to write to me again, enclosing stamped addressed envelope, I will give you the name of a special soap I always use it myself do not stretch or wring but hang to dry in a cool oven.

Advice from an agony aunt — but the no-color of the newspaper-voice has started to run, has become crazily creative in its paranoia about race, decorum, wedding-wear, the housewife’s proper domesticities. (“Colours are what drive me most strongly,” says Smith; also that there “is no very strong division between what is poetry and what is prose”: like Moore, she’s intrigued by prose, has an ear for its borrowable forms, and clearly relishes, in this passage, the sonic bounce from “envelope” to “soap.”)

“I cannot play this game of quotations one minute longer. I get bored. But I am far too quickly bored. Reader, are you? Do you know how I think of you? I’ll tell you.” That’s Pompey, breaking off to speak to the reader in a voice that is deliciously vivid. Smith’s poems have this quality too, and this is why it’s hard to separate them from the institution she has become; the singing “disenchanted gentility” (Heaney) of her reading voice; the film, Stevie, about her life; and even those significant sketches she sticks next to the verse. But what I’d stress is how carefully written, how intelligently stylish, how deep-diving the words on the page can be; for I do think this is the best way to appreciate Smith, as a poet’s poet, whose printed voice can be both intimately hers and wryly denatured in its ventriloquisms. Yes, some of her poems are jokes. Others are consciously archaic, or exercises; the longer ones can be dull, in which the blurting looseness allows for the evaporation of the reader’s interest. She is interested in how far her voice, and that of others, can carry — how cogent our utterances really are; her verse is undecided on this subject, and so she risks superficiality. But she also writes works of undeniable art. Poems to read, and reread.

We might compare, for example, the woman-on-woman violence of “Girls!,” “Parents,” and “This Englishwoman” with “Everything is Swimming,” from The Frog Prince and Other Poems:

Everything is swimming in a wonderful wisdom
She said everything was swimming in a wonderful wisdom
Silly ass
What a silly woman
Perhaps she is drunk
No I think it is mescalin
Silly woman
What a silly woman
Yes perhaps it is mescalin
It must be something
Her father, they say    ...    
And that funny man William    ...    
Silly ass
What a silly woman

Elle continua de rire comme une hyène.

The quotation is from a short story by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, whose title in the 1900 translation, Weird Women, is “At a Dinner of Atheists.” This group “composed exclusively of men” indulges — as the author says every all-male group does — in “abuse” of the opposite sex, being “disgusted with females — as they cynically called women.” (More disapproval of disapproval!) The story is told of Major Ydow and his wife Rosalba, who sleeps with the narrator, Mesnilgrand (he mentions “those beautiful arms I had so often 
bitten”; Smith is much taken with biting, it appears a few times in her verse) and becomes pregnant. The child — Ydow’s certain it is his — dies. One day Mesnilgrand must hide when the Major arrives and abuses Rosalba. She says she has never loved him, that the child was not his, but Mesnilgrand’s; she is portrayed as “insolent, ironical, laughing with the hysterical laughter of hate, at the most acute paroxysms of his wrath.” Ydow responds by smashing the vase in which he has, absurdly, embalmed his son’s heart; he attempts to rape her with his sabre-pommel covered in hot wax — with the idea of “sealing his wife” as she had sealed her letters to lovers. Mesnilgrand finally acts. He leaps out, kills Ydow, calls for a surgeon in case “the beautiful mutilated body” is still alive, and visits a church graveyard to bury the heart of the child that might have been his.

This ghastly tale may, d’Aurevilly suggests, have shattered the 
cynicism of its audience — we return to the hideous metaphor of “sealing”: “A silence, more expressive than any words, sealed the mouths of all.” I summarize the story to reveal the importance of Smith’s allusion. It positions her poem as a critique of the misogyny which, beginning with remarks at a party (as hostile in atmosphere as the dinner of atheists), is nevertheless continuous with real violence against women. If other Smith poems accuse other women, 
intolerant of their intolerance, here, that disapproving voice is itself revealed as eventually tyrannous. A woman’s effusiveness is mocked by the partygoers, attributed to alcohol, drugs, or a man — the doings of her father, or “that funny man William” — while the ellipses catch perfectly the tone of the behind-the-hand-whispered, snide aside. The French, in its italics, suggests a superior perspective, and confirms Smith’s target as the gossipers, not the woman herself. Whose laughter continues — but how impervious is it, to humiliation?

The verse shifts, without clarifying quotation marks, from what the woman says — briefly, her voice is that of the poem — to the framing of her remark by an incredulous auditor: “Everything is swimming in a wonderful wisdom / She said everything was swimming in a wonderful wisdom / Silly ass.” With that switch from “is” to “was,” Smith’s apparently immediate, incautious style contrives with intelligence a collision of different voices; a testing, as in Moore, of the power of assertion. I’d never thought about the absence from one of her most famous poems, “Not Waving but Drowning,” of what Joyce referred to as “perverted commas” — until I read, in this edition, May’s note:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

According to May’s note, the version published in December 1956, in the essay “Too Tired for Words,” places

lines 3–4, 9, 11–12 in speech marks, and reduces second stanza to three lines with breaks after “dead” and “way”; the first two lines of this revised stanza are also in speech marks. A typed draft shows an illustration of a man being pulled from the 
water in place of the deliberately disjunctive female figure in published versions.

Smith writes about world-weariness, melancholia, and depression better than anybody, with cauterizing humor, and an awareness of how feeling is always, happily and horribly, prior to thought. This is a wonderful example of a masterpiece receiving the editorial attention it deserves — our experience of the poem is enriched by May’s intervention. Smith is indeed “deliberately disjunctive,” in multiple senses. 
“Moaning” isn’t obviously a speech-verb, so, even if the colon is there as a pointer, “I was much further out than you thought” is laid harshly 
bare. It isn’t speech cooled and hardened and situated within a larger utterance — it touches the reader directly. We then have what “they” say — again, the speech isn’t framed as speech, until revealed as the opinion of the misunderstanding “meelyoo” — Smith’s lovely mocking spelling, elsewhere — represented by that cold pronoun. The dead man has passed beyond understanding, and must speak from beyond the grave to explain himself to those with no ear for his torment. In “A Dream of Comparison,” Eve, who wishes only for a “cessation of consciousness,” argues with Mary:

Mary laughed: ‘I love Life,
I would fight to the death for it,
That’s a feeling you say? I will find
A reason for it.’

They walked by the estuary,
Eve and the Virgin Mary,
And they talked until nightfall,
But the difference between them was radical.

Ricks observes a superbly disjunctive final rhyme. (I think of  Moore’s “I May, I Might, I Must”: “If you will tell me why the fen / appears impassable, I then / will tell you why I think that I / can get across it if I try.”) Smith is preoccupied with the incommunicativeness between, as Wittgenstein has it, the world of the happy and the world of the unhappy; and the endlessly, perversely creative ways in which we fail to understand each other, in a war zone of cross talk, as our differences 
become radical. Yet she also asserts the possibility of connection, and is fascinated in particular by the complexities of friendship.

Two “war poems,” the first, again, famous; Smith referred to it as a mere steal from Still the Joy of It, by Littleton Powys, although her verse adds a lot — this isn’t a found poem:

It was my bridal night I remember,
An old man of seventy-three
I lay with my young bride in my arms,
A girl with t.b.
It was wartime, and overhead
The Germans were making a particularly heavy raid on Hampstead.
What rendered the confusion worse, perversely
Our bombers had chosen that moment to set out for Germany.
Harry, do they ever collide?
I do not think it has ever happened,
Oh my bride, my bride.
— From I Remember
Basil never spoke of the trenches, but I
Saw them always, saw the mud, heard the guns, saw the duckboards,
Saw the men and the horses slipping in the great mud, saw
The rain falling and never stop, saw the gaunt
Trees and the rusty frame
Of the abandoned gun carriages. Because it was the same
As the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”
I was reading at school.
— From A Soldier Dear to Us

In the second poem, a child understands more of  the sweet-mannered 
veteran than he knows. In the first, will the old man and his young bride truly coincide, or merely “collide,” as those bombers don’t, in the air? The speech is given, once again, without quotation marks, as if the poem spoke for each, and both; in “A Soldier Dear to Us,” there is no need to speak of what is known by other means. In “Dear Karl,” written to a German boyfriend, Smith sends him Walt Whitman’s poems, and seeks to preempt the “indignation” with which we ward off the emotional claims of others — “‘How dilettante,’ I hear you observe, ‘I hate these selections / Arbitrarily made to meet a need that is not mine and a taste / Utterly antagonistic.’” Summoning Yeats as well as the American poet, she insists on spreading the cloths of 
heaven under her lover’s feet:

For I, I myself, I have no Leaves of Grass
But only Walt Whitman in a sixpenny book,
Taste’s, blend’s, essence’s, multum-in-parvo’s Walt Whitman.
And now sending it to you I say:
Fare out, Karl, on an afternoon’s excursion, on a sixpenny 
unexplored uncharted road.

But Smith does have a joyous expansiveness, her riskily unprotected prolongations of self toward other, to give. What is caustic and comically summative in her verse is countered by this sweetness. I read “How do you see?” where her long argufying lines quiz, are sardonic and potent:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,
That has grown kinder now, as in the political world
The colonial system grows kinder before it vanishes, are you vanishing?
Is it not time for you to vanish?

 — and it seems to me she is that impossibility, not to be predicted (or taken lightly, or taken for granted): an English Whitman.

Originally Published: October 3rd, 2016

Vidyan Ravinthiran is the author of Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic (Bucknell University Press, 2015) and Grun-tu-molani (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). He teaches at the University of Birmingham and is an editor at Prac Crit.

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