“She always suggested some kind of mildly discommoded bird—perhaps a jackdaw with a touch of Weltanschauungangst or Zeitmerz.”
The campy aping of German pedantry is the giveaway: This must be Jonathan Williams. Whatever modest poetic gift he possessed went not into his poetry, most of which is trifling, but into his throwaway prose which, consumed in small doses, is restorative. The line above is lifted from “Much Further Out than You Thought,” his remembrance of Stevie Smith (1902-1971) collected in The Magpie’s Bagpipe: Selected Essays (North Point Press, 1982). Williams knew Smith, interviewed and photographed her, and generally talked her up to American readers. He takes his title from Smith’s best-known poem, and his essay’s opening is an archly silly romp that gets the job done:
“I remember once picking up a copy of a faded blue book of poems from the thirties in Bertram Rota’s bookshop in Vigo Street, London. I asked Arthur Uphill, who was tending the store: so who’s Stevie Smith? `Who’s Stevie Smith?’ he exclaimed, as though I had failed to recognize Queen Victoria, Dame Edith Sitwell, Gertrude Stein, Mae West, and Bette Davis all walking down Savile Row together. `Well, really! Well, really, indeed!’”
Williams acquired all of Smith’s books -- novels and poems – read them, visited the poet in Palmers Green and even came to know her famous aunt, “The Lion of Hull.” He confesses: “The occasion of her death made me ashamed that I had not managed to make a public assessment of her work while she was still able to read it with proper chuckles and chidings.” Which serves as a reminder to all of us in this digitally over-connected age: If a living writer has given you pleasure or at least something to think about, take the time to express your gratitude.
Williams is not smitten with Smith’s drawings. They are “the aspect of Stevie’s work that moves me the least.” Smith was no Beerbohm. For a newcomer to her work, the drawings may trivialize the poems, emphasizing their occasional whimsicality and eccentricity. After years of familiarity, they have, for me, turned into wallpaper, and seldom distract from the poems. Williams is amusing on the subject, poking a Marxist scold who deserves a good thumping: “I don’t even yearn to possess a drawing by Stevie in the way that would make John Berger suspicious of my capitalistic, bibliophilic lust. The `Look Ma(tisse), No Hands’ approach to art rarely pays dividends in the hands of the amateur.”
Williams is likewise unimpressed with Smith’s three novels, which is unfortunate. Her first, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), is one of those books I quietly harangue likely candidates to read. Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949) are rewarding but optional. About Smith’s poetry, her glory, Williams is right on the money: “The only interesting thing about Stevie Smith’s technique is her cheeky, audacious lack of any. Granted, this legerdemain in legerdemotic style is very calculated and she comes out original instead of silly or stupid.” Tough, effortlessly misunderstood words. He says, “Often Stevie Smith walked a tightrope in a poem where the eye could see no wire at all—and got away with it,” which reminds me of Dr. Johnson’s assessment of Dryden:
“Next to argument, his delight was in wild and daring sallies of sentiment, in the irregular and excentrick violence of wit. He delighted to tread upon the brink of meaning, where light and darkness begin to mingle; to approach the precipice of absurdity, and hover over the abyss of unideal vacancy. This inclination sometimes produced nonsense.”