Tuesday, November 25, 2014

`Something That Feels As If It Had Just Flown Together'

“She strove industriously to make it look as if she didn’t quite know what she was doing. She knew exactly.” 

A confoundingly difficult strategy, rarely accomplished with grace, and most often seen in comic artists. Think of Sterne, Laurel and Hardy, and Beckett – delicate choreography teetering on the thrashing of a seizure. It’s remarkable how often readers and critics never “get” Stevie Smith. Clive James does in his review of a Smith biography collected in The Dreaming Swimmer: Non-Fiction 1987-1992 (Jonathan Cape, 1992). He rightly judges the first of Smith’s three novels, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), a “masterpiece,” says her poems “made almost everybody else’s sound overwrought,” and says of her perpetually uncertain status in the literary tradition: “She fitted in by not fitting in at all.” Here is Smith’s “Voice from the Tomb (2)”: 

“I trod a foreign path, dears,
The silence was extreme
And so it came about, dears,
That I fell into a dream, 

That I fell into a dream, my dear,
And feelings beyond cause,
And tears without a reason
And so was lost.” 

One hears hymns, Blake and Dickinson. Smith appends a note to the poem: “To the tune `From Greenland’s icy mountains’ Hymns Ancient and Modern.’” [The hymn was written by Reginald Heber (1783-1826), who much admired the hymnist/poets John Newton and William Cowper – the latter much admired by Smith.] James dispenses with the notion that Smith was a sort of idiot savant. Nor does he buy into her “little-girl act.” He says: “What she really knew about was books.” Barbara Pym admitted she tried imitating Novel on Yellow Paper while at Oxford, and called it “a fantasy, written with all the humour and pathos of her poems.” Smith’s work is a lifelong wrestling match with death, suggesting both love and mortal antagonism. “Her poems, if they were pills to purge melancholy, did not work for her. The best of them, however, work like charms for everyone else.” I find her best poems mood-elevators, like Mozart or Paul Desmond. Her less accomplished poems, which read like self-parody, are best left alone – as was the poet herself, on occasion. James recognizes this: 

“Her selfishness was a trial. She would heist the salmon out of the sandwiches and leave the bread to be eaten by others. Even in her work, she can be so fey that the skin crawls. But when she is in form she can deconstruct literature in the only way that counts—by constructing something that feels as if it had just flown together, except you can’t take it apart.”

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