I read Stevie Smith’s 1936 debut, Novel on Yellow Paper, years and years and fucking years ago, and I enjoyed it tremendously and very soon after bought Stevie Smith’s Selected Poems, which are edited by James MacGibbon and were first published by Penguin in 1978.
I bought this book before I started engaging with poetry with any seriousness and my occasional attempts at cracking into Smith’s Selected Poems always met with frustration slash disappointment.
I read and was unimpressed by the first few poems so many times that I committed myself to not reading this until I was better suited to understanding poetry’s subtleties. Now, as a thirty-year-old, emigrant, published poet who exercises regularly and only passes out drunk like once a fortnight or so, I decided I was ready. What I found – knowing what I like and being confident in my ability to read poetry – was not really my kinda thing at all.
For a variety of reasons, including:
- A lot of these poems tell fictional narratives. I can’t go for that.
- A lot of these poems are about wrestling with religion, but in such an old school middle England way that what’s questioned is a true belief in C of E doctrine versus agnosticism. Lol. Thank you, next.
- Most of the poems rhyme. Ewwwwwww. Sickening.
- There is, also, a huge array of fictional voices. I’ll explore this more later.
- Lots of the poems are very short and there are sometimes as many as three or four on a single page. That’s a presentational issue, but it obvs makes a difference as to how one engages with the text.
- There are lots of references to Shakespeare and the Classics and fairy tales and fairy tale adjacent mythologies, rather than real life things.
I’m gonna turn off those bullet points, they’re annoying me.
Though Smith’s poetry does sometimes reference the first and second World Wars, other than a single piece, ‘A Solider Dear To Us’, there is a certain abstraction, or deliberate distancing. There is a poem about poets not writing about the war which is a self-fulfilling example:
‘A Soldier Dear To Us’, though, is a memorialising piece about a 12-year-old girl meeting young soldiers in the local manor house that had been requisitioned as a military hospital in World War One. Many of the soldiers the child befriends are returned to the trenches and dead before the war is over, while others live longer, but unhealthy, unhappy, lives. The men who “survive: are unable to escape the physical and physiological repercussions of their time in Flanders, or wherever. It’s a good poem.
The thing is, though, because there are so many different voices and examples of clear fictionalising, it’s difficult to know if this is “real”. Is this me being too much of a millennial poet?
I want to take poetry at face value, I want poems written by poets who are poet and voice: of course poetry can be used to “tell stories”, but – as a reader – I want to be certain that if a voice isn’t explicitly someone else’s then it’s the poet’s, right? This is a subjective opinion based on my own work and my own reading.
Anyway, my other big problem with this selection is the lack of dates (of composition or previous publication) attached to anything.
Which poems were from the same collection?
What personal events occurred in Smith’s life adjacent to the writing of certain poems? MacGibbon has performed his role poorly: the presentation of this selection is lacking in any useful biographical detail or context.
There are lots of poems here voicing sexual attraction towards women, which would have been first published in an era when homosexuality was still criminalised. Smith wasn’t an “outsider poet”, she was an acclaimed and public success. Am I presuming an aggressive homophobia that wouldn’t have been there in reality, or am I reading with my liberal eye a false sexuality?
For me, these poems implied the voice of Smith and thus homo- or bi-sexuality, but if Smith was publicly lauded for publishing these structurally simple poems in the far-more-repressed decades before the 1960s, was that because readers or publishers or whatever were presumed to read these poems as spoken by a big butch cishet male voice instead? Smith may have been a queer literary pioneer of sorts, or her whole outlook slash readership was so repressed my reading was neither intended or expected. I repeat, am I presuming an aggressive homophobia that wouldn’t have been there in reality, or am I reading with my liberal eye a false sexuality?
To wrap up, there’s lots here about mortality and death and some pieces about the banality of office work, but there’s just too much lame, pre-war-esque musing on Jesus and whatever. This poetry, these poems, are old-fashioned. In their imagery, in their themes, in their structures and in their worldview.
No, they’re not terrible, but they’re definitely dated.
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