Frances Spalding on Stevie Smith
(with Anne Harvey reading from the poems)
Cheltenham Festival of Literature
Review: Don Barnard: 18 October 2002
Death was her friend from the age of eight. An entertaining and illuminating experience.
For the centenary of Stevie Smith’s birth, Frances Spalding reduced her 340-page biography and the 400-odd poems to an hour’s talk and 15 poems (read by the actor and anthologist Anne Harvey).
Spalding describes Stevie as a poet of laughter and alienation, celebrating loneliness, isolation and unanswered signals. The comical is always present, but does not mask the desperation. Stevie always felt that her father’s departure from home owed at least something to her arrival:
I sat upright in my baby carriage
And wished mama hadn’t made such a foolish marriage
I tried to hide it, but it showed in my eyes unfortunately
And a fortnight later papa ran away to sea.
(Papa Love Baby)
She developed into a loner and an observer at school and was to suffer further isolation through illness and from the death of her mother. Apart from the aunt with whom she lived for some 40 years, she had few relationships of any intimacy throughout her life, nor, as an unbeliever, could she rely upon God. Death, however, was to remain a friend from the age of eight, when she first contemplated suicide, and she wrote early of being tender only to one/ /His name, his name is Death.
When asked which poem she felt most contained the essence of Stevie Smith, Spalding first mentioned the iconic Not waving but drowning, but then several others, all of which expressed the same isolation.
Of these, O Pug ! is most touching in its reference to:
those great eyes of yours
O Pug, obstinate old nervous breakdown,
In the midst of so much love
And such comfort,
Still to feel unsafe and be afraid,
How one’s heart goes out to you.
It is easy to imagine Stevie reciting this, her great dark eyes shining with humour and self-knowledge. The wise child (or the calculatingly naive adult) appears throughout her work. This persona offers a telling viewpoint for her gentle but devastating empathy with the subjects of her poems.
Spalding’s programme avoided the more whimsical and less impressive verse and she showed Stevie Smith to be a poet who, if limited in themes and in the voices she used to express them, was able to deal with her subjects with compassion and humour.
This was a reading, not a performance. Spalding’s objective tone was matched by Anne Harvey’s style, which made the poems speak clearly in an idiosyncratic voice. The event reinforced our sympathy with a poet who dealt with loneliness and rejection and made them bearable for herself and others. If the tone is naÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¯ve, it is also effective and the sad, wise adult often emerges from the child. Spalding picked the good poems, but had enough to choose from.