Stevie Smith was not as original as many writers in her generation (1902-1971) thought she was. An Englishwoman, she was open about her influences, which included the traditional canon and obscure lyrics and melodies from the British Isles. That she wasn’t especially original makes All the Poems no less piercing to read, in large part because she was so good at exploring emotional neediness. She fell in love with men and women, and her wounds are impossible to conceal. It is hard to imagine that Smith would have it any other way than to take a starchy kind of pleasure in shaping the limits of fulfillment.
“Dear Female Heart” serves as both title and first line in a short, brittle piece that’s clever and emotionally wrenching while sticking to conventional rhyme :
Dear Female Heart I am sorry for you,
You must suffice, that is all that you can do.
But if you like, in common with the rest of the human race,
You may also look most absurd with a miserable face.
This is from her second book, Tender Only to One, published in 1938, that jittery time between world wars, and like many of her poems, it is illustrated with a one of her line drawings that shifts between satiric cartoon and mundane, accurate sketch. The lines show a young woman with short hair in need of combing, looking off to the side, away from the mirror in her hand, a distantly sad expression on her face. The woman will suffice. It will do, with its miserable glare, as poem and Smith do, as we all sometimes must. I read this poem and sometimes think Mick Jagger might have thought of it when he composed and belted out his classic, “Satisfaction.”
In “unpopular, lonely and loving” Smith creates in four lines an Eleanor who “need not trouble” to love because if she were not so loving “She would not be so miserable.” We need these direct statements to remind ourselves that we are not alone, even when we are convinced otherwise, and Smith’s great gift is to sit on our shoulder like a feisty bird that’s traveled a long distance, has been half starved on the way, and hopes your map will be a different from hers.
Smith confronted the collective political suffering of her people, and while she was often unlucky in romantic love, she was publicly admired. She was fearless about saying she was afraid, and that helped her make fear tolerable, as it surely must have for her audience. In “The Poets Are Silent,” from Mother, What is Man?, which was published in 1942, she and Sartre share a leaden moment in the face of carnage, though she doesn’t name him or any other writer working at that terrible time:
There’s no new spirit abroad,
As I looked, I saw;
And I saw that it is to the poets’ merit
To be silent about the war.
We are, after all, talking about a poet who had read war poetry by all the greats and some of the unknowns of World War I. Her education also exposed her to earlier war poems by English and French writers, including some who died when they were younger than her. If there is silence, it is not always a failure of morality. It is sometimes an understanding that, to do justice to the subject is an often paralyzing mix of inspirational vision and pain.
“England, you had better go,” she declares in “Voices against England in the Night,” another poem in the volume. We Americans have obviously known terror on our own soil, but we have not faced what devastated England in the past hundred years, and we aren’t likely to. We read Stevie Smith to help us grasp this, and to understand that our century, though very different, will be no less challenging, with its roots in mistakes not of our making :
Basil and Tommy and Joey Porteous who came to our house
Were too brave even to ask themselves if there was any hope.
She could be speaking of any thoughtful soldier, weapon in hand, and by the end of this long poem called “A Soldier Dear to Us,” she’s in childhood, recalling young men her family knew. Not all of them made it home from the war, and she, like many little girls, had to ponder large questions before she was prepared to. That premature exposure haunts all her work and is another reason her poems are so magnetic. I mean that almost literally, the way a magnet clings to matter, the way a poem clings to one’s interior as if it was meant to be nowhere else.
For all of her acclaim, and bravery with big issues, Smith was painfully, delightfully willing to display, in “ Miss Snooks, Poetess” and other pieces, herself being, like the rest of us, a little small:
Miss Snooks was really awfully nice
And never wrote a poem
That was not really awfully nice
And fitted to a woman,
She therefore made no enemies
And gave no sad surprises
But went on being awfully nice
And took a lot of prizes.
The New Formalism aside, rhyme is destined to get a bum rap. Here we see the demands of rhyme, the tight tidiness it insists on, providing perfect structure for bitter truth that would have a duller edge if the sounds of its words were less sharp.
Smith is at her best when she revisits the countless ways an aching, lonely heart can connect in spite of itself. “I Forgive You” is another declaration that sounds old fashioned but also manages to feel timeless:
I forgive you, Maria,
I can never forget,
I forgive you, Maria,
Kindly remember that.
“Kindly” is so late nineteenth/ early twentieth Century. So polite it bites.
Smith’s bite is a mouthful, and she almost always knows what to do with what she’s bitten off.