Saturday, May 7, 2011

New Selected Poems by Stevie Smith (Florence Margaret Smith)

Edition: New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith
The New Selected Poems (1988) of Stevie Smith were collected over a decade after her death in 1971. Interest in Smith's work was high in the 1980s; two different biographies of her were published, one in 1986 and the other in 1988.

Death: Death figures in Smith's poetry as a frequently a kind of solace because of its certainty. Unlike God, Death when called will come, as the speaker asserts in "Come, Death." The speaker says, "I'd ask God to have pity on me, / But I turn to the one I know, and say: / Come, Death, and carry me away." In the short second stanza which forms the second half of this poem, the speaker finds Death to be sweet because of his sure subjection to the speaker's will: "Ah me, sweet Death, you are the only god / Who comes as a servant when he is called, you kno, / Listen then to this sound I make, it is sharp, / Come death. Do not be slow." The sense of Death as "sweet" rather than fearful makes it a companion charged with affect in other poems. "Tender Only to One" is a kind of love poem to death, in which the poet expresses her tenderness for only one, revealing at the end, "His name, his name is Death." "Company" is about how when other human company--friends, lovers, for instance--desert an old man, and he hears voices telling him, "Rely on yourself," Death comes as true company, who will surely not desert him at the end.   

Academia, Literature: Smith explicitly distances her poetry from the literary canon and academic institutions; when she makes allusions, they are often irreverent and speak back to canonical poets ("Thoughts Upon the Person of Porlock," for example, humorously welcomes Coleridge's "Person of Porlock" and neutralizes the poet's indignance, even suggesting that he had already been stuck in the writing of Kubla Khan before the person's entrance). Poems like "Souvenir de Monsieur Poop," written in the voice of a self-important academic, scathingly critique the institutionalization of the literary canon and academic hierarchies: "I am the self-appointed guardian of English literature," he proclaims, following with a litany of blind "beliefs" without justification. He is devoted, of course, to Shakespeare and Milton, and Housman in modern times. He degrades youth and dogmatically upholds old age and "established classics" as the measure of wisdom. "To School" critiques the kinds of poetry encouraged in institutions of learning, asserting that the "Muse" has flown away from these schools, knowing better.

God/Christianity: As mentioned above in the commentary on how death figures in Smith's poetry, God (and more specifically, Christianity) repeatedly fails to give comfort or satisfying answers. Much of Smith's poetry speaks back defiantly against this lack of comfort and satisfaction, even while aware of this defiance's egocentricity. In "Egocentric" the speaker asks, "What care I if good God be / If he be not good to me," lines which are repeated again at the end of the poem as if creating a kind of egocentric mirror. The egocentric speaker's question, however, is one Smith takes seriously; the speaker is trapped and forced into her egocentrism because of the lack of sufficient explanation from God. This yearning for satisfying answers is repeated in many of Smith's other poems, perhaps most poignantly in "Oh Christianity, Christianity" and How do you see?," a longer poem which contains lines from "Oh Christianity, Christianity" in it. "Oh Christianity, Christianity, / Why do you not answer our difficulties?" the speaker simply asks. She follows with a series of equally simply-stated and earnest questions about how Christ could take on our sins, if he felt guilty, how he is a "perfect man" if man is by definition sinful, and how the Trinity is supposed to be unchanging when clearly Christ altered things. These are big questions, and the speaker asks them here not at all defiantly, and just the same as in "Egocentrism," receives no answers. In "How do you see?" the speakers doubts and questions transform themselves from yearning and desire into a more radical statement that Christianity is a just a "fairy story" and can't be real. But, because it has been so often the reason for doing "good," the speaker realizes that there is a real urgency to make sure our children learn to be good without Christianity, since they might soon all realize that it is just a "fairy story": "I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children / To be good without enchantment, without the help / Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true...we shall kill everybody, / It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody."

Perhaps because God is so absent to Smith, she takes the opportunity to envision what He might be like, given his intransigent absence. "God the Eater" posits a gluttonous God feeding on human feeling, an idea which finds repetition in "Childe Rolandine" where an artist forced to work as a secretary-typist, suddenly decides to speak out the truth on how "There is a Spirit feeds on our tears, I give him mine, / Mighty human feelings are his food / Passion and grief and joy his flesh and blood, / That he may live and grow fat we daily die / This cropping One is our immortality." "God and Man" presents another possibility of God as a kind of fickle, flakey lover to man. The poem is written in the voice of God, exaggeratedly drawling, "Man my darling, my love and my pain," while also stipulating harshly, "Do not come till I call, though thou weariest first."

Animals and people: Domesticated animals (as pets, or in captured in zoos) often serve as occasions for critiquing human treatment of animals. "Parrot" is about an "old sick green parrot / High in a dingy cage"; the speaker wishes that his death might come soon to put him out of its misery. "The Zoo" reveals, through irony, the lack of human awareness of what he does when putting away a lion in a cage. A voice of authority tells a little boy that the lion "does not like you, little boy, / It's no use making up to him," wisely asserting that "God gave him lovely teeth and claws so that he might eat little boys." The poet chimes in, commenting on the irony of how despite such professions of understanding the nature of lions, humans cause the condition wherein "[h]is claws are blunt, his teeth fall out, / No victim's flesh consoles his snout, / And that is why his eyes are red / Considering his talents are misused."

"Nature and Free Animals" provides an explanation (and interesting defense?) for why people warp the nature of their animals. The poem starts with a didactic voice criticizing human domestication of dogs: "You have taught them the sicknesses of your mind / And the sicknesses of your body / You have taught them to be servile / To hang servilely upon your countenance." Later, we find that this is the voice of God, and not of the poet. The human's response is a reproach to God, suggesting that this is kind of the same thing which He does to humans, and if we are in His image, it is natural for us to do the same to animals.

Gender Relations: Relations between men and women in Smith's poetry are hardly ever satisfactory; selfish cads seem preponderant in her poetry, and so are victimized women who often participate in the process bringing about their victimization. "In Felice" is a good example of Smith's portrayal of these two types in heterosexual relations. The speaker is a woman who no matter how much she is ignored or cheated on by "Sir Rat," imagines he loves her. She delusionally repeats, "my heart is singing," even in cases where it is clear that her heart should not be singing: "No Madam, he left no message, ah how his silence speaks / He loves me too much for words, my heart is singing." "Valuable" juxtaposes the situations of girls in society and panthers kept in cages. Unlike the panthers, however, whose eyes say, "I am too valuable to be kept in a cage," girls themselves say "yes" to often to their own debasement and subordination, and need to learn how to say no. The speaker laments that "Nobody teaches anybody they are valuable nowadays." The speaker imagines the common retort from girls, that "I shall be alone / If I say 'I am valuable' and other people do not say it of me / I shall be alone, there is no comfort there." The speaker points out the difference between comfortable versus valuable, and how the latter is more important. Furthermore, "if everybody says it in the end / It will be comforting." Smith seems to think Christianity responsible for some of the cruelty against women which she observes around her; this idea is directly suggested in "How Cruel is the Story of Eve" in which the poet ascribes to the story "reponsibility / in history / for misery. The poet contrasts the story's unreality, its "legend" status, with the very real, "historical" harm which it perpetuates, imagining how the story "colours / All human thought."  

"A House of Mercy" is one of Smith's autobiographical poems, on the house which she lived in with her mom and aunt and sister, in which she remained for much of her life. Smith has very positive associations of strength with their all female house, "For all its faults, / If they are faults, of sternness and reserve, / It is a Being of warmth I think; at heart / A house of mercy."

War: Romana Huk's recent study of Stevie Smith links her work to the two world wars which she lived through, reading against the grain of the assumption that because she spent most of her life in the suburbs, and styled herself as a bit of an eccentric, that her work doesn't really engage with the big questions of what poetry or literature more broadly had to bring to a post-war, traumatized western world. "The Poets are Silent" wrestles with the very question of the place of poetry after the trauma of war, providing the answer, in four short lines that silence is in fact a kind of poetic response in itself: "There's no new spirit abroad, / As I looked, I saw; / And I say that it is to the poets' merit / To be silent about the war." There is nothing to be said, but saying nothing is in fact saying something, and silence seems the most profound response to the experience of war. 

Smith's poetry expresses alienation before the wars which happened in her lifetime, often figured along gender lines. In "The Little Daughters of America" (subtitled, Pearl Harbor, 1941), the bellicose, virile "Admirals Curse-You and No-More" have nothing to do with "the little daughters of America"; the  poet points out the great gap between domestic images of patriotism and the combative spirit which carries on the operations of war. "I had a dream" similarly comments on the alienation of women from the battlefield, the speaker imagining herself as Helen of Troy, talking to the prophetic but cast-aside Cassandra. Helen becomes a kind of universal female figure, who views the men on the battlefield as possessing a spirit totally alien to her own: "Like the spirit of all armies, on all plains, in all wars, the men / No longer thinking why they were there / Or caring, but going on; like the song the English used to sing / In the first world war: We're here because, we're here because, / We're here because, we're here." Helen and Cassandra's positions in this poem are critical and intelligent before the drone-like mindlessness of the men on the battlefield. 

Misanthropy/Post-Human Point of View: Perhaps related to Smith's suggestion in "The Poets are Silent" that words probably can't bear the burden of the world shaken to its core by the experiences of war, is Smith's frequent reference to a perspective beyond a human one to account for the universe. This often takes the form of a kind of misanthropy, rather disturbing in poems like "The Suburban Classes" in which the speaker suggests a pamphlet, "Free for every Registered Reader's table" which will tell the suburban classes, "Your King and your Country need you Dead." "The Face" describes a common face which the poet encounters in modern England, someone with a "monkey soul" (presumably signifying imitative and unthinking) "that bangs about, that beats a gong," embodying conventions and platitudes, "utter[ing] social lies."  The poet concludes, much in the spirit of "The Suburban Classes," "You well may say that better far / This face had not been born." "The English," again, plays on a similar theme of how so many so-called "intelligent English / Of the Arts, the professions and the Upper Middle Classes, / Are under-cover men," signaling a modern-day loss of something deeper to humanity than such vocational and class designations as "of the Arts, the professions, and the Upper Middle Classes." Pessimistically, the poet notes that what is under the covers is often gone, and hence these men are now mere "corpse carriers" and what's worse, "infective" through their ideologies.

Smith makes the transition from misanthropy towards something potentially more uplifting in imaginings of a post-human perspective in a number of other poems. "The New Age" is probably the most explicitly post-human, decrying "how these crying people spoil the beautiful / geological scene." "Unpopular, lonely, and loving" problematizes love as a human emotion, the absence of which would mean less misery. "In Protocreation," the poet expresses a strong desire for the world before man's existence ("Oh had it but stopped then / Oh had there not come men") because with man came knowledge of good and evil: "There was no good deed and no crime / No oppression by informed mind / No knowledge and no human kind." These all are in existence because the human mind has created them. Smith turns often to the current animal world for a solacing perspective beyond the human one: in "Away, Melancholy," the speaker notes that nothing else in nature is melancholy, "The ant is busy / He carrieth his meat, / All things hurry / To be eaten or eat," continuing on to think about how "Man, too, hurries, / Eats, couples, buries / He is an animal also." Thus, if animal also, man ought to be able to banish melancholy, a mental construct of his own and not a necessary condition of existence. "Frog Prince" is one of Smith's more playful poems, in which the speaker is the frog prince, telling his non-human perspective of the fairy tale. Basically, the frog prince is happy before his "disenchantment" by the royal princess. He has been doing just fine as a frog: "I have been a frog now / For a hundred years / And in all this time / I have not shed may tears, / I am happy I like the life." The princess promises that with "disenchantment," he can be "heavenly," but as the frog notes, not happy.

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