“He told his life story to Mrs. Courtly
Who was a widow. `Let us get married shortly,’
He said. `I am no longer passionate,
But we can have some conversation before it is too late.’”
Close reading, making too much of things, is discouraged, but think of naming a woman “Courtly,” a quality once thought masculine. Of course, it rhymes, but the man earns no name. He’s too busy talking to need one, and the last line might be lifted from Beckett. Larkin quietly scolds Smith's “quaintness, frivolity, fantasy, call it what you will,” but loudly trumpets her as “a writer of individuality and integrity, who had perfected a way of writing that could deal with any subject, and a tone of voice that could not be copied.” Weigh the tone of “The Donkey,” beginning with the final stanza:
“But the sweet prairies of anarchy
And the thought that keeps my heart up
That at least, in Death’s odder anarchy,
Our pattern will be broken all up.
Though precious we are momentarily, donkey,
I aspire to be broken up.”
In another’s hands, this might turn morbid or impossibly self-regarding, like the most benighted of suicides. But Smith is no Anne Sexton, humorless and forever whining. Who else could come up with “the sweet prairies of anarchy?” Echoes of Blake and Dickinson and fairy tales, yes, yes, but no one before ever wrote like Smith, and to crib her style would prove poetically fatal. Diane Mehta writes shrewdly in her Paris Review retrospective:
“You could think of Smith as an eighteenth-century poet with twentieth-century disenchantment. A brooding woman who pulls herself together by working in tight forms, Smith has a style that people call idiosyncratic, but I think it’s merely historical. Like [Auden and MacNeice], Smith pulled in the verse techniques of an earlier century and used them to ironic advantage. These poets synthesized literary traditions instead of flinging them away wholesale—they were all eighteenth-century poets of a sort.”
One is tempted to knock on readers’ doors, Watchtower (or "Not Waving but Drowning") in hand, and proselytize for Smith. Her poems are funny, serious and true, the gifts of a sharp, charmingly eccentric mind. Smith is a poetic school of one, indomitably solitary, poison to some. Read her novels, too, especially the first: Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949).