7 December, 2015Issue 29.4Poetry

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Pull Yourself Together

Noreen Masud

Cover of Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith





The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith
Edited by Will May
Faber and Faber, 2015
ISBN 978-0571311309


The gas fire
Seemed quite a friend
Such a funny little humming noise it made
And it had a name, too, carved on it you know,
‘The Persian’. The Persian!
Ha ha ha; ha ha.

Now Agnes, pull yourself together.
You and your friends.

“There is nothing worse”, laments the protagonist of Stevie Smith’s second novel, Over the Frontier, “than the not perhaps quite funny enough.” Perhaps this is why, before Will May’s new edition was published by Faber last month, the collected poetry of Stevie Smith (1902-1971) had been out of print for twenty years. Smith has avoided wide critical regard, not because she is too funny for the academy, but because she refuses to be quite funny enough. And she knows it. ‘The Persian’ reads like a parody of her loyal (but uncertain) fans. It recounts a strenuous attempt to muster humour where it is not successfully elicited. Smith outlines the flat, affectless laughter of her speaker in five banal syllables: “Ha ha ha; ha ha.” This mirth is unexplained, so stark and unembellished that it fails to convince. Agnes’ laughter simply takes up space, extending itself, and the stanza, into anticlimactic excess.

“Pull yourself together” rebukes this sprawling, unladylike, bodily laughter. It demands both moral discipline (calm down, be more demure) as well as spatial discipline on the page. Rein in these pointless monosyllables, it commands; they take up a whole line of the poem, and for no good reason. This is the voice of a frugal, practically-minded matriarch, like the aunt with whom Smith lived since she was three. Formidable Aunt Maggie—appearing in Smith’s novels as the “darling Auntie Lion”—kept house while her niece worked as a secretary. Smith spent her days scribbling poems and novels on yellow office paper, under her employer’s blind eye, and came home to hot meals cooked by her aunt. So the Lion Aunt made poetry possible for Smith, even if she pronounced one of Smith’s early poetic efforts “unnecessary”. In the best tradition of aunts, therefore, Agnes’ interlocutor is at once severe and affectionate. “You and your friends.”

In preparing his new edition of Smith’s poems, Will May is faced with a critical tradition which often plays the Lion Aunt: indulgently disdainful, identifying and culling the “unnecessary”. In truth, excess is Smith’s speciality. Poems are generated, transparently, by jokes; lines overflow past the bounds of their metre; sketches swarm messily around the margins. So, in 1962, Philip Larkin conceded that Smith’s work was “completely original”, but “fausse-naïve, the ‘feminine’ doodler or jotter who puts down everything as it strikes her”. The sense is of a unique but tiresome talent, not always quite funny enough, taking up too much space by airing her dirty laundry.

Smith’s attentive executor, James MacGibbon, used Larkin’s language of childish excess to explain his excisions from the 1978 Selected Poems. He described his selection as omitting the “repetitive and unoriginal… the occasional trivia”. Since Smith will not ‘pull herself together’ into a more modest compass, her critics and editors often decide to do the job for her. MacGibbon’s Selected Poems, unfortunately, was forced to pull Smith together very thoroughly and literally. Its 2002 reprint edition squeezes poems together on the page, omits her illustrations, and crams texts into the book in tiny type.

Given this cramped publication history, Will May’s new edition of the poems and drawings allows long-overdue release. By including never-before-published texts, May accommodates and values poems which other critics might have designated ‘trivia’. Indeed, his detailed and respectful account of the poems’ manuscript and publication history positions Smith as a writer to be taken (and studied) seriously. He follows the versions of the texts published latest in Smith’s own lifetime, recording variations in the notes at the back. Most striking, to me, is the update this entails to ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’. In its 1962 version, the speaker describes her wait for a merciful interruption by Coleridge’s famous intruder:

I think, He will come this evening,
I think it is rather late.

When May follows the text published in Penguin Modern Poets 8 in 1966, the lines become:

I think, He will come tomorrow
I think it is rather late.

The change is significant. Smith’s earlier version traced an almost imperceptible transition from hope to resignation. In May’s edition, the disjunction is smoothed into a more coherent, if less suggestive, act of self-soothing. Crucially, May preserves the supplanted version in his endnotes, together with a verse subsequently deleted from the poem’s first publication in 1959. Smith’s text is allowed to remain alive, evolving, internally contradictory.

While earlier editions played fast and loose with Smith’s drawings—MacGibbon considers her sketches “strictly supplementary”, in his preface to the 1975 Collected Poems—May imports them from Smith’s original publications with their size and texture intact. The result preserves a suggestive, often unpredictable dynamic between text and illustration. ‘Bag-Snatching in Dublin’—which is printed without illustration in the 1975 Collected Poems—here regains its lumpen, skull-faced female giant. She stands squarely on the first line of this tiny poem, shunting the title to one side. Though the verse itself describes how pretty Sisley was “murdered…for 6/6”, no one would dare trouble the monstrous Sisley who towers over this text in thick pen-and-ink.

It is worth noting that this arrangement of ‘Bag-Snatching in Dublin’ leaves a full third of the page blank. Like Smith herself, May is not afraid to provide a pause, an empty space, where we expect content. In a hitherto unpublished poem, ‘Professor Snooks Does His Worst with a Grecian Fragment: ‘Cassandra’‘, Smith stakes out territory for a portion of unfilled space:

CHORUS: I am certain he will come again
And lighten our remarks with a religious strain
Or else he’ll say
…(here a line is missing and the chorus finishes)
Ah ah ah ah ah.

The poem’s climactic moment hangs empty, marked only by a note indicating a missing line. Unfazed, the chorus plunges ahead: “Ah ah ah ah ah”. Emptiness is followed by noise, a literal reversal of the “ha ha ha; ha ha” in ‘The Persian’, as hope descends into the marking of time. One can understand why this text was omitted from previous editions. How can a poem which centres on a gaping hole be neatened or pulled together?

Above all, May’s achievement is to give Stevie Smith the space she needs. Both literally (on the page) and metaphorically (in the regard he demonstrates for her work), Smith is allowed room to stretch out. May’s edition is therefore more than an invaluable scholarly resource: it is an act of unprecedented empathy. His rich introduction attends to Smith without dominating her or pulling her together. Balancing academic rigour and accessibility, it dwells on her contradictions, her ambiguous allusions and her disorientating drawings, detailing them without imposing a single interpretative framework. May allows Smith to be messy and socially transgressive: a poet who, in his incisive phrase, is “never quite at home”.

What this new edition encourages us to do, in fact, is to slow down and listen to Smith: to allow her the patience and good faith which difficult, ambitious poetry demands. Cued by his generous spacing on the page, we give Smith mental space in turn. We then begin to understand the extent to which her poetry is, in fact, dependent upon a sense of abundant physical and social space. Only then are we able to read the highlight of this new collection, the previously-unpublished ‘She got up and went away’, as an account of putting tentative feelers into the unthinkably vast and empty:

She got up and went away
Should she not have? Not have what?
Got up and gone away.

Yes, I think she should have
Because it was getting darker.
Getting what? Darker. Well,
There was still some
Day left when she went away, well,
Enough to see the way…

This poem details not a pulling together but an expanding outwards. A simply-worded line is tugged at and interrogated, until question by question it opens. And what it opens into is not explanation but further, eerie incomprehensibility, minimally described. “She” goes away but we do not know where; “it” gets darker, but we do not know why. Smith’s poem clarifies with each question, but into a space without boundaries, without geographic or seasonal demarcation. ‘She got up and went away’ is threatening not only because it occupies space without doing anything with it – nothing is explained or achieved; the text cycles through sterile repetitions – but, ironically, because Smith’s clear-cut but meaningless divisions of territory into “here” and “there” endanger our basic understanding of what space is and what it can enable.

May’s introduction is clear-eyed about the limitations of his project. “There are more poems and drawings by Stevie Smith than can be contained in one book,” he explains. For instance, ‘Satan Speaks’—a response to Milton in rather un-Smithian blank verse, first published posthumously in Me Again: The Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (1981)—does not find its way into this new edition. All things considered, however, May is no Lion Aunt. He does not demand that Smith pull herself together, or reduce her substance into a manageable form. Instead of containing, this collection accommodates. It grants space to the lost, the unpublished, the devalued. And, in the same gesture, it holds back from the attempt to contain Stevie Smith: she overflows the boundaries even of this new edition.

Noreen Masud is writing a DPhil thesis on Stevie Smith and the aphorism at Linacre College, Oxford.