More than with most poets, when people write and talk about Stevie Smith (1902–1971), they try to nail her down with comparisons. She is a female William Blake, an Emily Dickinson of the English suburbs, a mixture of Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and the Brothers Grimm. Her reading style, which became legendary, with her cropped hair, baleful expression, little-girl dresses, and singsong lugubrious chanting voice, was described (by Jonathan Miller) as a cross between Mary Poppins and Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III. Seamus Heaney called it a combination of Gretel and the witch. He also compared her to “two Lears,” “the old King come to knowledge and gentleness through suffering, and the old comic poet Edward veering off into nonsense.”1
She is often described as dotty, batty, silly, odd, childish, droll, or “fausse-naïve” (Philip Larkin’s term).2 Her English quirkiness and eccentricity are played up, as in Stevie, the play of 1977 by Hugh Whitemore (made into a film by Robert Enders in 1978), with Glenda Jackson as Stevie. Some readers throw up their hands in bafflement, as she told them they would, at the start of her 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper: “This is a foot-off-the-ground novel…and if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation.”3
Other readers are indulgent and curious, but reluctant to think of her as a professional poet, more as an amateur folk artist, a hit-or-miss ingenue (or enfant terrible). Fellow poets who have taken her seriously do so for different reasons. Heaney hears the accents of “a disenchanted gentility.” Amy Clampitt sees in her “the desolation of the ordinary.” D.J. Enright says she is “somewhat Greek”: austere, severe, and “bracing.”4 In the introduction to his edition of All the Poems, an invaluable and complete collection of her poems and drawings, Will May adds to the adjectival pursuit. He calls her trenchant, dogmatic, indignant, plaintive, stoic, eerie, shrewd, self-conscious, tricky, and uncompromising.
All these adjectives point to a poet who is hard to categorize and not really like anyone else at all. They also, often, suggest a writer who has been marginalized as an oddity. Now, forty-five years after her death, bound inside this large annotated collection, she can be celebrated as a major English poet of the twentieth century. She is a writer of astonishing skill, range, comedy, and depth of feeling; she is inimitable, strange, and utterly original. With her poetry collected as a whole, it becomes more apparent too that though she is a funny writer—funny-ha-ha and funny-peculiar—her work is melancholy and despairing, full of pain, terror, and grief: “Not waving but drowning.”
As Will May makes clear both in this edition and in the book he published six years ago, Stevie Smith and Authorship,5 it has…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.