“A Transfixion of Seeing”: On the poetry of Stevie Smith

Monday, Jun 20, 2016

“A Transfixion of Seeing”: Stevie Smith’s All the Poems (edited by Will Meyer; New Directions, 2016)

Mortality distracts my meditations these days, and on a sweltering pair of days such as Sunday, the 19th, and Monday, the 20th, one can hardly summon the strength to concentrate even on the best of poets. Fortunately, All of the Poems of Stevie Smith is close at hand, and heavy enough in its gracious gathering to give a sense of accomplishment to the day’s reading.
In the first glide through this volume, I was surprised at how many very fine poems I was unfamiliar with, and then I realized how long it’s been since I sat down at all with a stand alone volume of Stevie Smith’s poetry. She does seem to resemble Robert Frost in one particular way: people don’t read single volumes of Frost unless they are literary scholars. His famous poems are read and written about over and over, but only scholars appreciate the dialogue between those poems and the other ones that appeared in their original collections. Some of Frost’s best work gets neglected, as a result. The same seems to be true of Smith. How else to account for how little known many of the following poems are (page numbers in All the Poems follow the titles):

“In My Dreams” (page 139)
“My Soul” (138)
“The River Humber” (145)
“Little Boy Sick” (174)
“The Recluse” (253)
“Le Singe Qui Swing” (287)
“Childe Rolandine” (380-281)
“Can It Be?” (416)
“The Past” (410)
“The Choosers” (434)
“The Singing Cat” (420)
“A Soldier Dear to Us” (605-607)

When you start looking between these pages, you’ll soon find adjacent poems that raise and examine issues with an acerbic coyness worthy of Emily Dickinson. “Why are the Clergy…” on page 385 pops up right away when one finishes re-reading “Childe Rolandine.” Adjusting to that sublime cantankerousness will no doubt help you feel less jolted by “But Murderous,” which starts in one direction, but doubles back on itself with an almost humiliating reproach; to jump, then, to “King Hamlet’s Ghost” on page 412 will not push you forward, however, but make you return and re-read “But Murderous” in the voice of Gertrude or Ophelia. If you do push forward, you’ll quickly savor “At School,” and what do you know, eh? You’re at the next poem in the above list: “Can It Be?”, and perhaps you’re asking yourself how it would change the poem to be entitled “The Lily Tank”? If you imagine keeping everything the same but the title, the whole thing shifts, in thematic aim as well as tone.

In reading Smith at age (almost) 70, I realize how much my young students in Rowland Heights missed out on when I taught them back in 1982-1984 as an artist-in-residence for the California Arts Council. They were properly enamoured of Shel Silverstein, who deserves more attention, but they would have benefitted from being introduced to Stevie Smith with poems such as “The Donkey” (616) and “Cock-A-Doo” (617).

It appears from the notes at the rear of the book that Smith “prepared an alternative version without the final stanza for inclusion in a children’s anthology,” and that only confirms what I noticed as I read through this book. Smith has an eerie ability to write a poem that can challenge and embed itself in an adult mind and at the same time lure a child or a young person into its realm. Not every one of the dozen poems in my list above has that capacity, but the two poems listed at the end of the last paragraph most certainly do. If you don’t introduce a nephew or niece to “the sweet prairies of anarchy,” then you have fallen short in one small task that can give merit to a life worth undertaking.

Smith will probably end up being regarded as a “minor poet.” No matter, she would probably say, for she seems to have known better than most advocates of verse how endless is the supply of volunteers to serve the muse. She hastened to write only when necessary, and to that haste she brought great skill and dexterity. One only has to study how the anapestic beat and use of the caesura ratify the clarity of theme in the first two poems in my list. Start there, and linger. Few poets can give you more the longer you do so.