Tag Archives: Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith, Selected Poems (edited by James MacGibbon 1975, Penguin 1978)

My first boss, who had met Stevie Smith in his youth and been enchanted by her, once delighted his staff, all three of us, with an expressive recitation of the final of pages of her Novel on Yellow Paper, beginning something like, ‘I will now tell the story of the death of the lion Aunt.’ On another occasion he treated us to her best known poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning‘, and her lines about death being the only god who comes when he is called. I’ve been a kind of fan by proxy ever since.

But I don’t seem to have actually read much of her poetry. At least just now this book felt like a fresh encounter rather than a revisiting. I had a mental image of Stevie Smith as English-eccentric with a quirky take on the world, witty, whimsical and self-deprecatingly wise. This impression had been helped along by two poems we published in the School Magazine when I was editor, ‘My Tortoise’, which verges on baby talk, and sublimely silly ‘The Galloping Cat‘. But though there are a number of whimsical poems about animals toward the end of the book, the dominant tone is much, much darker than I expected. Death and a longing for death are pervasive; there’s quite a bit that’s moralistic, snobbish and outright misanthropic; and she wrestles resolutely with her Anglican heritage. Even the cat that ‘likes to / gallop about doing good’ seems unsettlingly satirical. Yet I enjoyed the book a lot, and had to restrain myself from reading much of it aloud.

It’s hard to say quite what it is that I find so enjoyable. These lines from ‘A Soldier Dear to Us’ help:

But you taught me a secret you did not perhaps mean to impart,
That one must speak lightly, and use fair names like the ladies
They used to call
The Eumenides.

Stevie Smith seems to have been an excellent student of that old soldier. She certainly speaks lightly of serious things, in satirical squibs, in a verse essay on Christianity that ends with a warning of religiously rationalised mass murder, in a denunciation of cruelty to animals, in cryptic narratives of love denied or lost or twisted out of shape, in many lyrics that echo the ‘Come, Death’ sentiment, and so on. Casting about for words to describe her characteristic tone I come up with ‘chirpy’. It’s more complex and interesting than merely cheerful, suggesting something like courage and humility in adversity, not denying anything but refusing to be overwhelmed or melodramatic.

‘The Lads of the Village’ is a poem that struck a chord with me strongly enough that I memorised it, which turned out to be a rewarding process (see earlier post about memorising verse). Here it is:

The lads of the village, we read in the lay,
By medalled commanders are muddled away,
But the picture that the poet makes is not very gay.

Poet, let the red blood flow that makes the pattern better,
And let the tears flow, too, and grief stand that is their begetter,
And let man have his self-forged chain and hug every fetter.

For without the juxtaposition of muddles, medals and clay,
Would the song be so very much more gay,
Would it not be a frivolous dance upon a summer day?

Oh sing no more: Away with the folly of commanders.
This will not make a better song upon the field of Flanders,
Or upon any field of experience where pain makes patterns the poet slanders.

If I had read that aloud to the Art Student I expect she would roll her eyes, but let me try to explain how it gets to me, and some of what I found as I did my learning by heart.

The first two lines promise us a poem in strict meter, like one of the lays they refer to, and then in the third line the rhythm breaks up to become much more conversational, while the rhyme scheme stays intact. The metric shape is increasingly disrupted, so that the rest of the poem is of playful struggle between natural speech – perhaps chatty, perhaps angrily ranting – and songlike formality. It’s almost as if the poem’s sense has been shoe-horned into its shape: the unexpected ‘slanders’ at the end of the long final almost McGonagallesque line could be a desperate ploy to end the poem with a full rhyme. The alliteration in the second line and elsewhere has a similar effect – at first blush it feels as if ‘muddled’ is there purely because it echoes ‘medalled’. I think this apparent arbitrariness is what creates the feeling of lightness.

And yet, and yet, just how arbitrary is it really? When you come to think about it, ‘muddled’ is satirically precise, and ‘slanders’ arrives with tremendous denunciatory force, like a stone hurled from a sling. And the sling isn’t such a bad simile: in this poem tiny Stevie-David takes on the Goliath tradition of poetry that celebrates war and delivers a killer blow. Blood flows, grief stands, generals are foolish, the lads go into clay, and the poet exploits the whole cruel mess for aesthetic purposes. ‘Slander’ justifies its status as the last word, and the disruption of the form enacts in a way the repudiation of the kind of song that is deemed suitable for memorial ceremonies at Flanders.

There are other felicities that I didn’t notice till I did the memorising: the repetition of ‘upon … field’ in the final stanza, the reappearance of the ‘ay’ rhyme in the middle of the third last line, the patterning of the p words ‘poet’, ‘picture’, ‘pattern’ and ‘pain’, and more. But that’s all I’m writing here.

Memorising poetry with Dan Beachy-Quick

The Poetry Off the Shelf podcast for 13 December is a lovely interview with US poet Dan Beachy-Quick about memorising poetry, ‘Inscribe the poem on yourself’. I listened to it when I had just finished my first stab at memorising Stevie Smith’s ‘The Lads of the Village’ (of which more in a later post), and a lot of what was said on the podcast rang very true for me. Here are a couple of hastily transcribed highlights:

Something about the act of memorisation puts the poem inside me in such a way that I feel like when I do need to know what exactly it is in the poem that draws me so much it will be there as a kind of constant resource that I can call upon whenever I want to or when I need to.

And this on memorising poems using traditional forms:

When you go through the work of memorising a poem the metre of it or the rhyme of it or the formal pattern that it’s in ceases to just be a technology of the poem and you begin to see the real necessity that might underlie the choice of writing in a sonnet or the power of taking as a genuine concern the need to find a perfect rhyme or a slant rhyme, because those things too, metre and rhyme, are so absolutely bodily and part of the meaning. One feels a rhythm. Rhyme is felt as much as heard. It’s almost as if the ear is learning to feel when it hears a great rhyme. So I think in a way memorising such poems helps one learn to read and take seriously traditional poetic values that in a postmodernist framework might be easily dismissed.

If you have 12 minutes and 19 seconds to spare, you could do better with that small slab of time than listen to the whole thing.

Incidentally, as I was fiddling around trying to get you that link, I found that the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day has featured a swathe of Australians, including most recently Michael Sharkey reading his ‘Eating Sin‘.

In which I go on a bit about buying two books

I happened to be in Glebe this morning, and as I had earned a little bit of money last weekend I allowed myself to yield to the allure of the bookshops.

First, the secondhand poetry shelves of Sappho’s beckoned. There were a number of tempting morsels – enough to make me think that a Sydney poetry lover had recently died or radically downsized. There was a book of Philip Martin’s, inscribed in a shaky hand  that suggested he had already embarked on the disease that was eventually to kill him; Adamson’s Waving to Hart Crane signed ‘affectionately Bob’. But the one I bought was a selection of Stevie Smith’s poems. When I worked at Currency Press, our Editor in Chief Phillip Parsons impressed me hugely by reciting the last page of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, and I became a fan on the spot (of Phillip, yes, but also of Stevie Smith). I recently saw a copy of her slected poems on a friend’s bookshelf – I took it down, and behold it was inscribed on the inside cover as a birthday present to a different close friend – a birthday present from me. The birthday girl later denied all knowledge of having given the book away, so I was left with a nagging sense that one or other of my dear friends was a book thief, a liar or an ingrate. Somehow when I saw this book in Sappho’s today – same selection, different cover – it seemed that buying it would make everything all right again. So I bought it.

Oh I am a cat that likes to
Gallop about doing good.

And then next door to Gleebooks. I’d listened to Poetica’s excellent two part broadcast on France Webb recently, heard Geoff Page deliver a  lukewarm account of him on the Book Show (Maybe you need more than one poetry reviewer, Ramona! But I don’t need to say much, as commenter named Junius has given you the rounds of the kitchen on this one.) and been prompted to open up my 1969 Collected Poems. This is one of my favourite books – I mean the actual battered, slightly foxed object on my shelf, which I love because I spent quite a bit of intensive time with it in my mid 20s. I was planning on writing an MA thesis on Webb’s poetry. It didn’t happen, but I did a bit of work that left its traces in the margins of my copy (as well as in a little exercise book in which I pasted photocopies of poems by Webb that had been published but not collected). His explorer poems sent me off to read the published journals of Leichhardt, Sturt, Grey and Edward John Eyre. My book has notes on when and where poems were first published, textual variations and any annotations, and occasionally there’s a commentary from me. For example, in ‘Leichhardt in Theatre’, just before the explorer’s party is attacked by the people whose land they have invaded, the poem goes:

————————————Gilbert, the naturalist,
is planting some precious flowers that he has found,
Cradles them in his hands like diamonds

There’s a pencilled note in the margin:

This indicates he had probably not read the Journal – Gilbert was learning to plat (sic)

Presumably it was Leichhardt who misspelled ‘plait’. I imagine these notes would annoy anyone else, but they fill me with an affection for my younger self.

But back to the visit to Gleebooks. On the display table in the poetry section was the new Collected Poems, published by UWA Publishing and edited by Toby Davidson. I flipped it open and had to buy it. Not only does it include the poems I had found in my postgraduate days, plus more. It also promises to correct errors Webb had noted in the 1969 edition (his notes evidently came to light in the 1980s). Am I doomed to read with both books open – one for the poetry and the other for young Jonathan’s occasional comment?

I thought you’d like to know.