Stevie Smith is best known for her poem “Not Waving but Drowning”. The metaphor in the title serves as a guide to much of her poetry:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
It is a theme that recurs in her poetry. For instance, in “The Reason” she states:
My life is vile
I hate it so
I’ll wait a while
And then I’ll go.
It would be easy here to accuse Smith of simple nihilism; however, that is not sufficient. Her poetry, though often gloomy, is also an investigation of the human condition: “Is it wise to hug misery… No, it is not wise.” And through that investigation Smith can show real empathy with real people. In “Bag-Snatching in Dublin”, portraying the murder of an Irish sex worker, Sisley, Smith starts with the delicacy of Sisley who, “Walked so nicely/ With footsteps so discreet” and then “A bruiser in a fix/ Murdered her for 6/6” — six shillings and six pence, and a clear reference to the devil.
But there is a problem with this simple, though effective, sleight of hand. Yes, it beautifully brings the number of the devil to mind but it also, in anti-climactic rhythm, undercuts the initial sympathy for Sisley, as murder becomes matter of fact. This not to say that Smith herself sees life as unemotional and practical. The reason “life is vile” is because Smith cannot reconcile herself to god, cannot decide whether he is “good, impotent or kind”. Smith battles with her feelings about god throughout her life. As she writes in “Egocentric”:
What care I if good God be
If he be not good to me?
Smith references Romantic poet William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, as well as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Another poet it would be tempting to compare Smith to is Ogden Nash, which brings us nicely to her illustrations. To call them simple belies the poignancy of her line drawings, which she uses to enhance the meanings of some of her poems. Thus the lines, “All things pass/ Love and mankind is grass” ironically undermine a drawing of domestic bliss.
My favourite illustration is for “Alfred the Great”. The poem is not about the English king but an ordinary bloke who raises a family on a pittance. In four short lines Smith brings alienation, exploitation and commodity fetishism to mind along with a reference to Dante. Undoubtedly this is where she’s at her best — compacting meaning for the reader to unpack. She is at her worst when discussing nationalism. Imploring the “English dogs” to hush, because they’ve never had it so good. Congratulating the British starling on ousting the foreign usurper of the bird bath and in “Soupir d’Angleterre” — Sigh of the English — she says of the Welsh, “We never want to hear from them again/… And never at all/ In Welsh.”
There is much left to discuss here. Smith’s attitude to being abandoned by her father, and her recognition that childhood scars last; her conflicted response to war, which she decries, but also glorifies British victory. But how can you not be amused by someone who writes not to a skylark but to a dead vole?
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