How Far Can You Press a Poet?

Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Rare Birds, Creative Exhaustion, Throwaway Jottings, Obsessive Morbidity, Figure Skating, Faux-Naïf Virtuosos, Flippant Eulogies, Office Cats, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Emily Dickinson, The Theory of the Objective Correlative, Frank O’Hara, Gertrude Stein

How Far Can You Press a Poet?

David Orr
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How far can you press a poet?

To the last limit and he’ll not show it

And one step further and he’s dead

And his death is upon your head.

Which brings us to Stevie Smith, the cartoon-drawing, school-girl dress-wearing, near doggerel-spouting British poet who died in 1971 at age sixty-nine. It’s probably fair to say that of all poets generally considered to be “serious,” Stevie Smith ranks among the silliest, both personally and poetically. As to the former, this was largely a matter of presentation—in addition to her eccentric wardrobe, Smith was known for warbling her poems during readings in a manner that Seamus Heaney once characterized as a cross between “an embarrassed party-piece by a child… and a deliberate faux-naif rendition by a virtuoso.” As for the poetry itself, well, Stevie Smith is a willfully ridiculous writer—or, as some have preferred, “eccentric” (Heaney), “completely original” (Philip Larkin), and “a rare bird” (Clive James)—which means, more or less, that nobody has a clue as to how to describe her. You could talk about the peculiar rhythm of lines like, “All the waters of the river Deben/ Go over my head to the last wave even.” You could mention the clowning, idiosyncratic rhyming (“Under wrong trees/ Walked the zombies”), which makes many of her poems sound like badly translated ballads. You might pause over the patently ludicrous asides (“May we inquire the name of the Person from Porlock?/ Why, Porson, didn’t you know?”) with which she interrupts poems that examine creative exhaustion and the longing for death. You could dwell on her bizarre habit of including throwaway jottings, not to mention amateurish cartoons, beside her most accomplished pieces. You could discuss her obsessive morbidity (“I cannot help but like Oblivion better”), her piercing humor (“This Englishwoman is so refined/ She has no bosom and no behind”), or her fearful tenderness (“I can call up old ghosts, and they will come,/ But my art limps,—I cannot send them home”). You could do all of this and more. But something would still be missing.

In fact, the best description of a Stevie Smith poem is not a description of a Stevie Smith poem at all, but rather an account of one of her public readings by the art historian Norman Bryson that appears in Frances Spalding’s enjoyable Stevie Smith: A Biography. Here’s what Bryson witnessed:

The performance was unnerving because it was so excessive… The meaning of the words was set aside in the performance. And the motives for this were entirely unrevealed: this seemed almost the main point. It was as though what was being dramatized was a state of being so pent up, so much without outlet, that emotions couldn’t have, any longer, appropriate objects… Nothing in the world could focus them or make them cohere, or earn them or deserve them.

This is almost (but not quite) a description of pure song, and it is almost (but not quite) a description of pure silliness. What Bryson’s account captures is the way in which Smith’s poetry seems both ferociously concentrated and utterly arbitrary—as if the poet were a figure skater who, over the course of her seemingly purposeless meanderings around the rink, somehow managed to cut into the ice the figure of a hanged man. To read through Smith’s Collected Poems is to be amused, amazed, confused, and disconcerted; most of all, though, it is to wonder how something so alarming could seem so natural.

But how, exactly, does she create this unique effect? What does it look like on the page? It’s often the case that a poet’s best known poem is neither typical nor particularly good, but not where Smith is concerned. The perennial Stevie Smith anthology piece is “Not Waving but Drowning”:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out then you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Is this sad? Funny? Both? Neither? The nominal subject—a plea for help mistaken for a salutation—practically embodies the dominant theme of twentieth-century lyric poetry; that is, the agony of the insulated, isolated self, which keeps straining and failing to metamorphose into language. But Smith pushes things to the border of parody—the “dead one” is somehow “still moaning” (and moaning an unpoetic “Oh, no no no” at that), his life is flippantly eulogized by the phrase “he always loved larking” (larking?), and the simultaneously fussy and tub-thumping rhyme on “They said” in the second stanza puts a weirdly comic spin on the spectacle of a man’s heart giving way. One reaches for the word tragic-comic, but it doesn’t seem adequate; as in many Smith poems, we seem to be getting too much information, and not enough.

Which, for Smith, often seems to be the point: as she writes in “The Donkey,” “No hedged track lay before this donkey longer/ But the sweet prairies of anarchy.” Smith encourages this sense of incongruity by changing registers within and across poems with calamitous speed; her voice often seems to be arriving belatedly and inappropriately at images her mind’s eye has already passed over. Consider, for example, “Do Take Muriel Out,” which, like many Smith poems, begins in a childlike sing-song (“Do take Muriel out/ She is looking so glum”), but then ends in an altogether different key:

Do take Muriel out
Although your name is Death
She will not complain
When you dance her over the blasted heath.

This poem would be unusual enough on its own; it’s even more peculiar when you notice that the final, apocalyptic stanza is followed a few pages later by an unrepentantly trivial homage to Smith’s office cat. In each Smith collection, the pattern seems to be this lack of pattern. No sooner has the poet rhymed “pinkie” and “thinky” in one poem than she serenely announces in another:

Would that the hours of time as a word unsaid
Turning had turned again to the hourless night,
Would that the seas lay heavy upon the dead,
The lightless dead in the grave of a world new drowned.

No “pinkies” here, thanks (though there’s probably some Swinburne). The weightiness of Smith’s “serious” lines only intensifies the absurdity of her “silly” poems; the result is that the poetry on the whole can seem half-cocked. That, at any rate, is what Seamus Heaney seemed to argue in a review of Smith’s Collected Poems that appeared about five years after her death. Heaney suggested that Smith’s tendency to wander (or “wobble,” as he put it) between the profound and the nonsensical revealed a fundamental flaw in Smith’s poetry: her “literary resources are not adequate to [her] somber recognitions.” Though he admired certain poems, Heaney ultimately found in Smith’s poems “a retreat from resonance, as if the spirit of A.A. Milne successfully vied with the spirit of Emily Dickinson.”

So arise, Tigger, and get thee gone. In phrasing his concerns in this way, Heaney seems to have had in mind an old theory of literary emotion best expressed by T. S. Eliot in his essay on Hamlet. This is the idea that in a good poem, emotions match up with their contexts in more or less the way that certain elements, when combined, always form the same compounds. As Eliot tells us,

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion… The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion…

If a poet wants to express, say, a “somber recognition,” she should develop an “objective correlative” for somberness and build it into the poem; otherwise, we don’t know whether we’re supposed to be sad, or annoyed, or just confused. Like Heaney, Eliot is suggesting that poems can be divided into what we’re meant to feel and what the poet means to say, and furthermore, that those two things should correspond in some way that makes reasonable sense. According to this theory, Smith’s quirks can be explained as deficiencies—not only does her work rarely stand still long enough to be much of a correlative for anything, but as noted above, her poems are always accompanied by her cartoons. And while nobody knows exactly what a “somber recognition” looks like, the odds are good that it doesn’t resemble a scribble of a tap-dancing cat. Does this mean that Heaney is right? Is Smith’s poetry ultimately unsatisfying because it “wobbles”? Because it’s silly?

Before drawing any conclusions, it’s helpful to remember that Eliot used his objective correlative theory to claim that Hamlet was “most certainly an artistic failure.” Perhaps hoping for a comparable failure, our better poets have tended to ignore Eliot’s advice and create effects not through correspondence but through a compelling lack of correspondence. Consider John Ashbery’s “Pleasure Boats”:

Wash it again
and yet again.
The equation drifts.
Wallowing in penguins,
she was wallowing in penguins.
With fiendish cleverness,
the foreground was closing in.
The four-leaf clover loses.

Whatever this poem may do or not do, it certainly isn’t playing by the rules Eliot described. More assertively avant-garde poets go even further—in Christian Bök’s book Eunoia, to pick one of many examples, the poet allows himself only one vowel per chapter, leading to lines like, “He engenders newness wherever we need fresh terms.” To seem properly objective, an objective correlative would probably need to buy more vowels than that. If the poetry world has room for things like Eunoia, you’d think it would have no trouble whatsoever with Stevie Smith. And indeed, when an author’s customary critical label begins to peel, it’s always tempting to argue for the opposite description—to insist, for example, that a writer previously thought of as anti-Romantic was “really” a Romantic all along. In Smith’s case, the temptation is to say that her frivolousness is “really” sophistication, that she’s a calculated lounger along the lines of Frank O’Hara or a studied rebel like Allen Ginsberg—at heart, an avant-garde poet.

The problem, though, is that Smith doesn’t really fit into any of the avant-garde traditions (an oxymoron, but a fair one) any better than she does into Heaney’s more conventional formulations. She’s too earnest about God (“O Lord God please come/ And require the soul of thy Scorpion”), too pleased to be English (“Time and the moment is not yet England’s daunt”), and far too committed to the traditional subjects and themes of lyric poetry (hardly a page of her Collected goes by without making a point about love, death, or justice). Most of all, though, she’s just too ridiculous. That may sound odd, considering that the heirs of Gertrude Stein have long made outrageous wordplay a central part of their practice. But “practice” here is the key word: For contemporary experimental writers, the ridiculous is generally part of a method, a system intended to “make new” or to “subvert” or to “reexamine”; it is a ridiculousness that is underwritten by theories, argued over in journals, and justified with footnotes. It’s a ridiculousness that isn’t silly.

For Stevie Smith, however, ridiculousness means:

In the loft,
Sits Croft;
He is soft.

Or if that seems too willful to be truly silly, how about:

Oh my darling Goosey-Gander
Why do you always wish to wander
Evermore, evermore?

What makes Smith distinctive—as opposed to coy, or clever, or conventionally unconventional—is that her silliness is silliness. It exposes her; it makes her seem vulnerable. And that’s exactly why it seems to work.

In this sense, Smith’s poetry complicates an old question about technique: To what extent can we separate being something (like an artist) from doing something (like writing sonnets)? Most people would agree that great art transcends technique—which is related to saying that you can learn to write pretty good iambic pentameter, but you can’t learn to be Elizabeth Bishop. But no one would say that technique is irrelevant to great art. For one thing, accepting a writer’s distinctive style requires an act of faith from readers, and we usually like to know that someone can shoot a bow and arrow before we put blindfolds over our eyes and apples on our heads. Yet with her absurd titles like “Hippy-Mo,” her public singing, and her doodles, Smith not only declines to demonstrate recognizable mastery, she refuses to give us any justification for her failure to do so. (Stein, by contrast, had the literary-political savvy to proclaim her genius to anyone within earshot.) The same quality that makes Smith’s poems convincing—their naturalness—can make them seem slight, as if Smith’s technical achievement consists of little more than, well, being Stevie Smith. Can she be great if she’s just being herself?


With this question in mind, it’s useful to take a closer look at how one of Smith’s characteristic “wobbles” affects one of her better poems, “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock.” The Person from Porlock is the anonymous figure who supposedly interrupted Coleridge as he was writing “Kubla Khan,” and whose visit (according to Coleridge) caused the poet to lose the fragments of his vision “like the images on the surface of a stream,” leaving him unable to finish the poem. The anecdote is often taken as a metaphor for the eternal incompleteness of art, the fleeting nature of inspiration, the tragedy of… you get the idea. Smith is skeptical of all this:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock
And ever after called him a curse,
Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.
It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
And the truth is I think he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.

The wit is sharp, but the tone is slightly unstable, even for Smith—the oddest thing is the repetition of “wrong,” which appears again as the first section’s closing couplet, “It was not right, it was wrong/ (But often we all do wrong.” What’s so wrong about making an excuse? Smith doesn’t answer that question for us immediately, instead “wobbling” into what seems to be patent nonsense:

May we inquire the name of the Person from Porlock?
Why, Porson, didn’t you know?
He lived at the bottom of Porlock Hill
So had a long way to go,
He wasn’t much in the social sense
Though his grandmother was a Warlock,
One of the Rutlandshire onces I fancy
And nothing to do with Porlock,
And he lived at the bottom of the hill as I said
And had a cat named Flo,
And had a cat named Flo.

Smith once described this section as a parody of academic inquiry, but if so, it’s an amazingly unconvincing one. Since Smith proves in other poems to be a deft satirist (read one way, “Not Waving but Drowning” is a wicked rewriting of Eliot’s “Prufrock”), it probably makes more sense to interpret her remark as an attempt to justify in more conventional terms what she knew might strike many readers as a flight of pure foolishness. But foolishness, like love, is a many-splendored thing—and here it’s curiously strained and repetitive. The third stanza (if you could call it that) seems to be winding down, as Smith repeats herself (“as I said”), and then repeats herself again (“And had…/ And had…”)—the effect is like a slowing nervous twitch. Is there some reason for this, or is the poem just badly written?

Smith gives us a hint about the answer to that question in the next section:

I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend…
I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.

“I am finished, finished,” Smith has Coleridge cry as the poem begins, and now we understand that his cry is hers—the agony involved in finishing a masterpiece has become the agony of simply living life. Like Emily Dickinson, Smith is forever taking long walks in the moonlight with Death, who as she puts it here, “comes like a benison.” Generally these references are too stylized to take entirely seriously (as Clive James memorably observed, Smith had “an ostentatiously suicidal Weltschmerz that for most of her long adult life made it seem unlikely she would get through another day without trying to end it all under a bus”). But here the pressure seems genuine. Not because Smith seems to be more “serious” or “adequate,” but because her repetitions (“a cat named Flo”) and hiccups (“as I said”) seem increasingly inadequate as the poem progresses—less like flights of fancy than worried muttering.

These mutters become clearly audible as, in her conclusion, Smith turns away from Death and toward the subject that has underwritten the poem from the beginning:

These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing,
I wish I was more cheerful, it is more pleasant,
Also it is a duty, we should smile as well as submitting
To the purpose of One Above who is experimenting
With various mixtures of human character which goes best,
All is interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us.
There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do
Then you will be practically unconscious without positively
having to go.

Philip Larkin said that Smith’s poetry “speaks with the authority of sadness,” but what it more frequently speaks with is the license of despair. And Smith’s despair isn’t the wild despair of grief or defeat, but the hushed despair of drudgery and isolation, of a quicksilver mind ground down again and again in repetitions that stack up like unfinished chores: “We all do wrong… There I go again… As I said… and had a cat named Flo… Bring my thoughts to an end… Bring my thoughts to an end…” Smith matches her plate-juggling absurdity—her “wobble”—against this pressure, and absurdity loses out in the mechanical flatness of the final line, “Then you will be practically unconscious without absolutely having to go.” Recall Bryson’s description of Smith’s public reading: “It was as though what was being dramatized was a state of being so pent up, so much without outlet, that emotions couldn’t have, any longer, appropriate objects.” This is a fair sketch of idiosyncrasy run amuck, but it’s also a compelling portrait of mental and spiritual extremity. Though biographical details generally tell us much less about writers than we suppose, it’s worth noting that 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.

This is why poets determined to show us their “mastery” struggle to match this writer in the extreme terrain she favors. Consider these stanzas from Robert Lowell, a poet much praised for both his ambition and his ability to translate intense emotion:

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town.…
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
‘Love, O careless Love…. I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat.…
I myself am Hell,
nobody’s here—

Now set Lowell’s lines, with their careful, Miltonic echoes (“I myself am Hell”) and self-conscious poetic flourishes (“my ill-spirit”), against Smith’s “Dirge”:

From a friend’s friend I taste friendship,
From a friend’s friend love,
My spirit in confusion,
Long years I strove,
But now I know that never
Nearer shall I move,
Than a friend’s friend to friendship,
To love than a friend’s love.

Into the dark night
Resignedly I go,
I am not so afraid of the dark night
As the friends I do not know,
I do not fear the night above,
As I fear the friends below.

Lowell’s lines are more complex, more erudite, and more obviously ambitious. They are also profoundly less effective. “There’s more enterprise/ In walking naked,” Yeats tells us, and Smith has stripped herself of nearly all defenses, including her identity as a poet, if not as a writer of poetry. Left bare is the essence of the lyric.

Smith pays a price for this exposure, of course; the same arbitrariness that gives her poems their anarchic intensity also denies her the comforts of “adequate” language. An art of pure chance creates a temporary shelter, not a home, and Smith is a writer whose understanding of loneliness is greater even than that of Wallace Stevens. Her isolation could only have been exacerbated by the critical underestimation her poetry has often received; an underestimation of which Smith herself was well aware. Her late poem “The Poet Hin” addresses the issue with equal portions of self-mockery and self-defense:

I am much condescended to, said the poet Hin,
By my inferiors. And, said the poet Hin,
On my tombstone I will have inscribed:
‘He was much condescended to by his inferiors.’
Then, said the poet Hin,
I shall be properly remembered.

Having made light of her ambitions for herself (“You know the correct use of shall and will./ That, Hin, is something we may think about.”), Smith quietly asserts her ambitions for her poems:

Yet not light always is the pain
That roots in levity. Or without fruit wholly
As from this levity’s
Flowering pang of melancholy
May grow what is weighty,
May come beauty.

Levity is light, of course, but it’s also cold and scattered, changeable and cutting. Considering the time that Stevie Smith spent cultivating this unforgiving territory in solitude, the least that serious poets and serious readers can do is give thanks for the great harvest with which she returned.

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