She seemed an unlikely candidate to be a writer, and few people in the London suburb where she lived—and which she satirized in her writing—knew her as one. She worked as a secretary and lived with her aunt. She was frail, and dressed in a child-like manner all her life; page-boy hairstyle, outfits that underlined her small-boned body.
But Stevie Smith was a small-scale artistic variety show, like a one-woman touring vaudeville company. Born Florence Margaret, she acquired her masculine nickname after young boys derisively compared her equestrian skills to those of a famous jockey. She wrote novels, short stories, plays and quirky poems with a mordant air, and she illustrated them with idiosyncratic drawings that recall James Thurber. She was both a widely-popular poet, a concept for which we have no latter-day equivalent, and a highly original stylist; her poems seem not to care when they run off the road of verse into a ditch of prose; in “Eng.” she begins as if writing an op-ed, or an article for a women’s magazine: What has happened to the young men of Eng.?/Why are they so lovey-dovey so sad and so domesticated.” Those lines cannot be made to scan in any meter known to man.
Sylvia Plath described herself as “an addict” of Smith’s poetry, and invited Smith to visit to “cheer me on a bit.” They never met as Plath committed suicide shortly after she sent the invitation. The poems that Plath admired so much were, like Smith herself, childlike, inexpert, but full of the recognition that children were not innocent embryos that were transmuted into different forms as they matured. They were sometimes malicious beings, and they had to be on their guard against a world full of hostile creatures: Little boy do not stop/Come away/From the puppy shop/For the Hound of Ulster lies tethered there, her poem “The Hound of Ulster” goes. “How Much is That Doggy in the Window?” it is not.
Smith’s childhood was perhaps the source of the pain that, in adulthood, she cauterized with her writing. Her father had abandoned the family when she was three after his business failed; he ran away to sea and communicated with her only sporadically and telegraphically thereafter; “Off to Valparaiso–Love Daddy” read one of his post cards. Perhaps Stevie’s unsentimental style was conceived by the chilly and clipped written voice that was all she knew of him. Her mother died when she was sixteen.
The transformative event of her childhood was her hospitalization for tuberculosis peritonitis at the age of five; she was sent away to a sanatorium intermittently for the next three years. Distressed at her separation from her mother, Stevie began to suffer from depression, a condition that would afflict her for the rest of her life. She traced her preoccupation with death—most famously expressed in her poem Not Waving but Drowning—to this period. Raised by her mother and a feminist aunt, Stevie developed an independent streak and never married.
Smith looked upon death as an ultimate consolation, not a short cut. As a result, she not only endured, she prevailed, enjoying her greatest popularity after she retired at the age of 51.
She contemplated suicide, but ultimately decided that her life wasn’t all that bad, and so died peacefully at age 68, of a brain tumor. Unlike Plath and Anne Sexton, the most famous suicides among 20th century women poets, Smith looked upon death as an ultimate consolation, not a short cut. As a result, she not only endured, she prevailed, enjoying her greatest popularity after she retired at the age of 51. Seven years after her death, Stevie, a play based on her life written by Hugh Whitemore, was staged and later turned into a film starring Glenda Jackson.
Smith is overlooked now by academia because the bulk of her poems are comic, even though they often deal with dark themes. The mordant tone of Not Waving but Drowning, in which the friends of a drowned man mistake his signal of distress for a sign that he is “larking,” offers an insight into a mind that, like an oyster irritated by a grain of sand, produced a pearl-like beauty.
Stevie could have slipped beneath the waves, but she righted herself and swam ashore.