Friday, May 27, 2016

`It Is Merely a Peculiar Honesty'

“Miss Smith wanted happiness to exist where it possibly could.”

She sounds rather prim, this Miss Smith, doesn’t she? Not exactly a cheer leader or life of the party. “Where it possibly could?” What could this mean? Can’t happiness not merely exist but blossom across creation? Aren’t we obligated to be happy? Isn’t unhappiness a sort of treason against life? Here is “Happiness” from Stevie Smith’s second collection, Tenderly to One (1938):

“Happiness is silent, or speaks equivocally for friends,
Grief is explicit and her song never ends,
Happiness is like England, and will not state a case,
Grief, like Guilt, rushes in and talks apace.”

Things are different today. Happiness is desperately loquacious, as is aggrievement. No, Miss Smith was right after all, and would have concurred with Dr. Johnson: “Terrestrial happiness is of short continuance. The brightness of the flame is wasting its fuel; the fragrant flower is passing away in its own odours.” The observation at the top is from one of Smith’s most sympathetic critics, D.J. Enright, writing in “Did Nobody Teach You?: On Stevie Smith” (Man Is an Onion: Reviews and Essays, 1972). Enright takes his title from “Valuable” (The Frog Prince and Other Poems, 1955):    

“Why do you not put some value on yourselves,
Learn to say, No?
Did nobody teach you?
Nobody teaches anybody to say No nowadays,
People should teach people to say No.”

Some will read “Valuable” as a cold moralist’s sermon, or a self-esteem salesman’s pitch, but Smith won’t be pinned down like a butterfly in a museum drawer. She doesn’t write manifestoes. Critics, at a loss, invariably liken her to other poets, most often Blake, Dickinson and Mother Goose, but Smith is that rarest of writers, a home-grown original, a poetic mutation. No one could set out to write the way she does in her poems and novels. New Directions recently published All the Poems of Stevie Smith (ed. Will May), including more than one-hundred previously unpublished and uncollected poems. One hopes young readers discover Smith, who died in 1971. Twentieth-century poetry in English largely belongs to the English (Auden, Smith, Sisson, Larkin, Hill), and American poets (and readers) have much to learn.

That “death” (often “Death”) should appear so often in her poems is no surprise. With Beckett she is the great comedian of Death (or “death”). But the frequency of “happy” and its variations comes as news. Here, from the unpublished poems, is “I thank thee, Lord”:

“I thank thee O Lord for my beautiful bed
Have mercy on those who have none
And may all the children still happier lie
When they to thy kingdom come.”

Smith is half in love with death, easeful or otherwise. It represents sanctuary, rest from the strife of life, a beautiful bed, yet her poems are seldom morbid in a vulgar way. This untitled poem is on the next page:

“He preferred to be a hearthrug sage
To risk the cold opinion of the world,
Somewhere within him there had been
A lack of courage, a nerve failed.
He was not happy: but then he was not miserable,
He had money. Sometimes he wrote.
You might say his character was cast upon him,
And with it that luck’s lot.”

In “Mabel,” again, death the friend:

“In her loneliness Mabel
Found the hiss of the unlit gas
And in a little time, dying

All the Poems is a great celebration of a great poet who eludes our strident pigeonholing. Enright gets her right: “She can be grim—but she won’t stand for any nonsense about abandoning hope. That would be ignoble. In what looks like steps in a campaign against received `enlightened’ opinion, she shows something of the terrifying honesty which Eliot ascribed to Blake.” Here is Eliot on Blake:

“It is merely a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant.”

[Go here for a fine review by Hermione Lee of All the Poems.]

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