Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Stevie Smith (1902-71) was one of the most distinctive and individual poets of the twentieth century. Born in Hull in England as Florence Smith, she was given the nickname ‘Stevie’ after a famous jockey of the time, because she was so small. Her poetry is anything but minor, and in her work we often find the quirky and comical rubbing up against the tragic and wistful. Here are ten of Stevie Smith’s greatest poems – all are included in Stevie Smith: A Selection: edited by Hermione Lee (Faber Poetry).
1. ‘I Remember’.
Like many of Stevie Smith’s poems, this one is a little unusual, and all the better for it. The speaker is an old man remembering his wedding night during the Blitz, when he married ‘a girl with t.b.’ There aren’t many twentieth-century poets who can get away with the breathless romanticism of an ‘Oh’ in their poetry, but Stevie Smith manages it beautifully and poignantly here, in her final line.
Smith is not afraid to take on the literary greats and subtly critique or poke fun at them, and in this poem, she tackles Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, the writing of which was famously interrupted (supposedly) by the arrival at the poet’s house of a ‘person from Porlock’ (possibly Coleridge’s opium dealer).
Many of the classic Stevie Smith poems on this list are very short, but this one’s a bit longer. With her characteristic wit, Smith suggests that Coleridge simply used the arrival of this person as an excuse, and that he was ‘already stuck’ with ‘Kubla Khan’. Many literary scholars are inclined to agree …
It is hard to find analogues, precursors, or ‘concursors’ (to borrow the critic Nicholas Royle’s word) for Stevie Smith. Yet this poem, with its straightforward language, its use of quatrains, and its question-and-answer structure involving two speakers, might put us in mind of William Blake more than any of Smith’s contemporaries. Who ‘Bog-Face’ is, though, remains a mystery …
4. ‘The Jungle Husband’.
Now we get a verse epistle: a poem written as a letter from one person to another, in this case a man named Wilfred writing to his wife, Evelyn, from the jungle. Worth reading for the third line, ‘Yesterday I hittapotamus’, alone.
5. ‘Pad, Pad’.
One of our favourite poems by Stevie Smith, ‘Pad, Pad’ is spoken by someone whose lover sat down and told her he didn’t love her any more. The animal suggestion of ‘padding’ rather than walking, as well as the ‘tigerish crouch’ of the departed lover, are trademark Stevie Smith touches, and make this sad, wistful poem all the more affecting.
6. ‘Was It Not Curious?’.
This poem has its origins in the story involving St Augustine in which, upon seeing English children in a slave market, Augustine asked who they were. Upon being told they were ‘Angli’ (i.e. Angles, or English), Augustine retorted: ‘Non Angli sed angeli’ (‘Not Angles but angels’). When Pope Gregory I heard about this, he sent Augustine to England to convert the English to Christianity.
Smith’s poem muses upon the oddness of Augustine’s utterance: if he truly believed the English were angels, why did he think it all right that they were being sold as slaves?
7. ‘The Galloping Cat’.
Somehow, every Stevie Smith poem is a cat poem. Her work is a curious mixture of energy, humour, quirkiness, naivety (false naivety, as Philip Larkin recognised), wisdom, simplicity, and profundity.
‘The Galloping Cat’ is a prime example: in this poem, the cat describes its energetic movements as it slips on a banana skin, confronts a foe that isn’t there, and ends up being stroked bald. The link provided above includes a good analysis of the poem.
This poem is about love ‘in part’, the love that is ‘nearly right’ and yet ‘not quite’. Smith likens such love to the devil, and advises the reader to ‘shun compromise’ – essentially, do not settle for anything but the best.
Although the language of the poem is straightforward, its title suggests that Smith is making a deeper political point. The poem is ‘set’ to the tune of the medieval ‘Coventry Carol’ to invoke religion and even marriage. Why should people, especially women, be expected to settle for a love that is ‘not quite’ right, and settle down with someone merely because social convention expects it?
9. ‘Was He Married?’.
Another poem which addresses Christianity, ‘Was He Married?’ is about Jesus Christ, and uses the structure of the Christian catechism – a question-and-answer system – to explore whether the ‘superior’ Christ who was ‘King of Heaven’ could really know what it’s like to be a plain old flawed mortal human being.
10. ‘Not Waving but Drowning’.
This is the best-known poem by Stevie Smith, and in 1995, it was voted Britain’s fourth favourite poem in a poll. First published in 1957, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ fuses the comic and the tragic, moving between childlike simplicity and darker, more cynical touches as it describes a man out at sea who appears to be waving but … well, the title makes it plain.
You can read our analysis of this classic poem here.
The best way to appreciate Stevie Smith’s poetry is by reading it alongside her own wonderful illustrations. So we recommend getting Stevie Smith: A Selection: edited by Hermione Lee (Faber Poetry) so you can have the full Stevie Smith experience!
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.