Stevie Smith (1902-1971) In Her Time

 

Dr Will May, University of Southampton

18 January 2016

 

Stevie Smith lived for almost all her life in the same house in Palmers Green, London. She began to publish in 1936, when she was 34. Her last book, Scorpion, appeared posthumously in 1972. She was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969.

Where do we place Stevie Smith? A blue plaque faithfully records her whereabouts in Palmers' Green, where she lived for 65 years, but hers is a poetic voice that delights in being out of time and is always looking elsewhere. The myth of her suburban life, captured carefully in the play 'Stevie' by Hugh Whitemore, suggests real life happens off-stage. Poems like 'Croft' fold her tidily away in a secluded attic. Yet she insisted to interviewers that the times would have to enlarge themselves to make room for her. What might her work tell us about the times she lived in?

Poems like 'Do Take Muriel Out' call up figures whose time has long gone, and have outstayed their welcome. The poem asks us to take her out, but the obligation sounds more like a threat by the final line, which summons the ghost of Macbeth to drag her across the blasted heath. Elsewhere, 'I Remember' disorientates us with its asynchronicity: a lyric recollection of a wedding night in London is interrupted by a German bombing raid.  Yet even before the bombs arrive, the timing is off: a septuagenarian is lying with a young bride dying of TB She will be taken from the world too soon, and their moment of consummation seems as unlikely a collision as the English bombers overhead, who have chosen the same moment to set out for Europe.

These confusions, misunderstandings, and mis-timings are typical of her work. She is a one of our finest poets of archaism, and her lines are haunted by the words of Tennyson and Keats. Rather than dust down language, she more often coats it in another layer of cobwebs. So what to make of a poet whose work charts Indian independence, the H-bomb, the death of George V, yet is so often dismissed as an eccentric?

Her first novel chooses the brittle present tense, unvarying whether its protagonist, Pompey Casmilus, is taking in Nazi Germany or a beach holiday in Kent. The trajectory and publication history of Smith's three novels asks us to be on our guard about what happens when: she composed The Holiday (1949) during the war, but was obliged to update its descriptions to 'post-war' when it struggled to find a publisher. If this suggests a winking sense of historical fidelity, she was also clear-sighted about the havoc war played with time and our experience of the everyday. Tellingly, the longest gestation period for any of her works was for a poem about a futuristic war. She returns herself to the ninth year of Trojan War in the poem 'I had a dream...' where she inhabits the body of Helen of Troy. The 'ominous eternal moment' she describes suggests an acute sense of the wormholes war can drill through history.

Her tendency to make the contemporary into legend - whether it's retelling the story of The Moors Murderers in 'Angel Boley', or chancing upon two newspaper articles in 'Valuable'  - has often blinded us to the many allusions Smith's work makes to the world around her. Perhaps, as she might have said, her time has come.

Will May, 2016

The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith, edited and with an introduction by Will May, was published by Faber in 2015.