Sunday, February 19, 2012

`Some Kind of Mildly Discommoded Bird'

I have a weakness for writers who are irreducibly themselves, anomalies without precedent, sports of nature without spawn. They are unselfconsciously eccentric (is anything so tiresome as willful eccentricity?). Their numbers are few and most are not of the first rank. They write with take-it-or-leave-it insouciance and we read them with gratitude, blithely unmindful of fashion and critical orthodoxy. Among them are Charles Lamb, Max Beerbohm and Aldo Buzzi. In their company is a poet unlike any other writer I have consistently admired for most of my reading life. Here, from a poem, is how she renders suicide:

“Have a suitable drug under string and label
Free for every Registered Reader’s table.
For the rest of the gang who are not patriotic
I’ve another appeal they’ll discover hypnotic:
Tell them it’s smart to be dead and won't hurt
And they’ll gobble up drug as they gobble up dirt.”

In the first of her three novels, the narrator reads Ph├Ędre and says:

“Racine is very serene, very severe, very austere and simple…And this tragedy is also very bracing…very strong and very inevitable and impersonal.”

And this, said by our author during an interview in 1963:

“Nobody knows who one is, but oneself feels who and what one is not.”

We can confidently assume that such words and thoughts had never in human history been previously formulated, and there are hundreds more like them. All are odd and unlikely yet right. None is uttered for the sake of attention-seeking outlandishness. This poet worked her little plot according to her notion of husbandry, and some of us still reap the harvest more than four decades after her death. Her friend the American poet Jonathan Williams said of Stevie Smith:

“She always suggested some kind of mildly discommoded bird—perhaps a jackdaw with a touch of Weltanschauungangst or Zeitmerz.”

[Go here to see a photograph of Smith taken by Williams in 1966. Williams also writes about the great film Stevie, starring Glenda Jackson as the poet.]

No comments: