The first poem by Stevie Smith I remember reading, “Up and Down,” appeared in her first collection, A Good Time Was Had By All, published in 1937. Around the time of Smith’s death in 1971, I found it harmlessly tucked away in some anthology of 20th-century English verse. Anthologies have a way of domesticating poems, turning them into defanged creatures in a literary zoo. But Smith’s poem, with its nursery rhymes and rhythms, sabotaged the editor’s would-be embalming:
“Up and down the street they go
Tapping tapping to and fro
What they see I do not know
“Up and down the streets they hurry
Push and rush and jerk and worry
Full of ineffectual flurry
Up and down the street they run
From morning to the set of sun
I shall be glad when they have done
I shall be glad when there’s an end
Of all the noise that doth offend
My soul. Still Night, don cloak, descend.”
That pair of spondees in the middle of the final line fall like clods of earth on a coffin lid. Smith’s art is subversive – not of politics or morals but of literary expectations. A diminutive woman, she knowingly donned a girlish costume (in life, in work) that was eccentric in an acceptably British manner. How liberating that must have been, setting her free to be a seriously silly poet. Consider “Pretty,” a poem from the sixties:
“Why is the word pretty so underrated?
In November the leaf is pretty when it falls
The stream grows deep in the woods after rain
And in the pretty pool the pike stalks
“He stalks his prey, and this is pretty too,
The prey escapes with an underwater flash
But not for long, the great fish has him now
The pike is a fish who always has his prey
“And this is pretty. The water rat is pretty
His paws are not webbed, he cannot shut his nostrils
As the otter can and the beaver, he is torn between
The land and water. Not `torn,’ he does not mind.
“The owl hunts in the evening and it is pretty
The lake water below him rustles with ice
There is frost coming from the ground, in the air mist
All this is pretty, it could not be prettier.
“Yes, it could always be prettier, the eye abashes
It is becoming an eye that cannot see enough,
Out of the wood the eye climbs. This is prettier
A field in the evening, tilting up.
“The field tilts to the sky. Though it is late
The sky is lighter than the hill field
All this looks easy but really it is extraordinary
Well, it is extraordinary to be so pretty.
“And it is careless, and that is always pretty
This field, this owl, this pike, this pool are careless,
As Nature is always careless and indifferent
Who sees, who steps, means nothing, and this is pretty.
“So a person can come along like a thief – pretty! –
Stealing a look, pinching the sound and feel,
Lick the icicle broken from the bank
And still say nothing at all, only cry pretty.
“Cry pretty, pretty, pretty and you’ll be able
Very soon not even to cry pretty
And so be delivered entirely from humanity
This is prettiest of all, it is very pretty.”
After many readings, I still find it breathtaking. That a poem about death (as most of hers poems are, the best ones) achieves its chilling effects by endlessly and comically repeating an insipid adjective is remarkable. “All this looks easy but really it is extraordinary,” indeed. Also, see Robert Enders’ Stevie, with Glenda Jackson as Smith, the best movie ever about a writer. After all, writing is notoriously uncinematic subject (writer, keyboard).