Sunday, December 06, 2015

`It Will Be Too Much for Us'

Stevie Smith was commissioned by the Guardian to write a poem on “a subject suitable for Whitsun,” and on May 16, 1964, the newspaper published her long and perhaps only controversial poem, “How do you see?” Longtime readers of Smith’s work could hardly have been surprised by her mingling of doubt and faith, mockery and reverence. But not all Guardian readers are readers of poetry, even half a century ago, and the poem created a short-lived ruckus we can hardly imagine occurring today. The following Saturday’s letters-to-the-editor page was dedicated entirely to reader reactions, most expressing anger and hurt. Smith received an unprecedented flood of personal letters, some abusive, some commendatory, a few offering to convert her to un-Smithian orthodoxy. I wish I could say the poem was successful, but like most poets Smith grows flabby and dull when she turns didactic. Also, her gift was suited to short lyrics. “How do you see?” goes on far too long. The ending, however, is quite good and nearly stands alone as a poem: 

“I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty
Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,
For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear
Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.
I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,
To be good without enchantment, without the help
Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,
Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,
And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody
It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.”

Smith died in 1971, and the poem was posthumously collected in Scorpion and Other Poems (1972). Philip Larkin reviewed the volume in the Observer (collected in Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statement and Book Reviews, 2001). He singles out this concluding stanza as “one of her firmest endings,” and it impressed me while rereading it as pertinent to life early in the twenty-first century, though perhaps not as Smith intended. Every day I hear people with ironclad ideas about how you and I ought to live our lives.

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