Stevie Smith: “Innocent and Smashing”
Stevie is the male sounding name of a not particularly male, female poet. Her admirers — of which I am one — refer to her with this level of familiarity and have in mind she who was born Florence Margaret Smith on 20 September 1902. Quite early in life, the father deserted the family, and so Stevie, her mother, and her sister moved to a London suburb where Stevie would reside for the remainder of her life.
When Stevie’s mother died in 1919, an Aunt (affectionately called ‘The Lion’) moved in and would there linger until her own death. The Lion was a staunch feminist with no patience for men (particularly Hitler, Stevie would sometimes add).
A few years after the death of her mother, Stevie began a 30-year career as a secretary with a publishing firm. It was during this time that she published a number of books of poetry as well as three novels. Her novels enjoyed modest success in the 1930′s. Her method so paralleled the more popular Virginia Woolf that poet Robert Nichols wrote to Woolf expressing his view that Stevie’s Novel on Yellow Paper was Woolf’s best work to date.
After a time, Stevie’s popularity waned, but it revived in the 1960′s. At this time, her fiercely honest nature as a poet won her admirers. Despite the battles with publishers it would create, Stevie never tired in accompanying some of her poems with sketches or doodles; “that hallmark of frivolity” to poet Philip Larkin.
No consensus appears to have existed during Stevie’s life as to her contribution to the world of poetry. I have read that Dylan Thomas, for example, once described it as “tasteless” for Stevie to be invited to read poetry at the same event where he had been invited. Another contemporary of Stevie’s was the young Sylvia Plath; a self-described “desperate Smith addict.”
In 1953, Stevie failed in a suicide attempt, and was retired from her work. In 1968, the Lion — a mother to Stevie when her own had died and then mothered by her as roles reversed — died at the age of 96. One year later Stevie followed.
Stevie was agnostic and, at times, antagonistic toward the Christian expression, but of the things I admire about her one is the dialogue she insists on maintaining with God throughout her life. Consider the following: Egocentric, God Speaks, Was He Married?, and The Airy Christ. Of Stevie, Thomas Merton once wrote: “A couple of words about Stevie Smith. I love her. I am crazy about her. She is innocent and smashing like a Blake, only new, and a lot of pathos [exists] under the deadpan sad funny stuff; a lot of true religion.”
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