Not waving, but drowning

David Orr considers the work and life of poet Stevie Smith in the latest Believer. Here’s an excerpt:

Smith entered secretarial school around the age of eighteen and spent much of her life in a clerical job that was dull at best, crushing at worst (“Dark was the day for Childe Rolandine the artist/ When she went to work as a secretary-typist”:). It should come as no surprise that one of Smith’s most passionate admirers was the equally beleaguered, if differently situated, Sylvia Plath.

But where does this leave the question of Smith’s technique? Is there a method to her melancholy? The best answer is no, not exactly, not unless we’re willing to say that the lack of technique is itself a technique–which is both tautological and uncharitable to Smith, given that her great accomplishment in poems like “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock” is to change our perception of what constitutes a poetic accomplishment in the first place. In his appreciative, if slightly puzzled, review of Smith’s work, Larkin concludes that her “successes are not full-scale, four-square poems that can be anthologized and anatomized, but occasional phrases or refrains that one finds hanging about one’s mind.” Larkin was clearly on to something, but his critique inadvertently undercuts itself by substituting one form of anthologizing for another–instead of poems, now we’re to single out “occasional phrases.” Better, maybe, to single nothing out, to say instead that Smith is not so much a poet of poems as a poet of sensibility. And as such, she needs to be read whole.

All poets write poems with varying degrees of polish, and for most poets, the unfinished poems are exactly that: not finished. In Smith’s work, though, poems aren’t a series of objects, they’re movements in an atmosphere–and to ask why Smith can’t be more serious is like asking why the wind can’t be squarer. As Larkin intuited, she can’t be selected into perfection because she doesn’t appear in pieces. That observation is true of poetry in general, of course, but it isn’t true of all poets to the same degree. In particular, it isn’t true of poets like Heaney or Eliot, whose bodies of work are acts of self-conscious authority, and whose poems bear the master’s seal on each enjambment. Smith, on the other hand, demands total devotion rather than sampling; she will either have the reader who will listen to her in all her falling-down absurdity, or she’ll scorn readers altogether and vanish across the grey sands. This desperate posture forces her poetry to the very edge of speech, where a poem could just as easily have been a cartoon, or a snatch of song, or a flick of the wrist, and what emerges from the chill of this leveling aesthetic transcends conventional notions of ambition.

(Via Tingle Alley.)

My knowledge of poetry is as scattershot as my enjoyment of it, but Smith’s dark, funny, plain-spoken poems got under my skin in college, and some of them have stayed with me. My favorites are “Tenuous and Precarious” (an unusual reflection on patriarchy and language) and her well-known “Not Waving, But Drowning.”


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.