Authors: Stevie Smith

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet and novelist

Author Works

Poetry:

A Good Time Was Had by All, 1937

Tender Only to One, 1938

Mother, What Is Man?, 1942

Harold’s Leap, 1950

Not Waving but Drowning, 1957

Selected Poems, 1962

The Frog Prince, and Other Poems, 1966

The Best Beast, 1969

Two in One: Selected Poems and The Frog Prince, and Other Poems, 1971

Scorpion, and Other Poems, 1972

The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, 1975

Selected Poems, 1978

Cats, Friends, and Lovers: For Women’s Chorus, 1987 (music by Stephen Paulus)

New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith, 1988

Stevie’s Tunes: An Anthology of Nine Songs for Mezzo-soprano and Piano, 1988 (music by Peter Dickinson)

Two Stevie Smith Songs: For Voice and Piano, 1990 (music by Geoffrey Bush)

Long Fiction:

Novel on Yellow Paper: Or, Work It Out for Yourself, 1936

Over the Frontier, 1938

The Holiday, 1949

Nonfiction:

Some Are More Human than Others: Sketch-Book by Stevie Smith, 1958, 1990

Miscellaneous:

Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, 1981

Stevie Smith: A Selection, 1985

A Very Pleasant Evening with Stevie Smith: Selected Short Prose, 1995

Biography

Stevie Smith is a complicated, often controversial, poet who dazzles readers with her variety of styles, moods, voices, and literary references. She is considered simple and naïve by some critics, yet others find her one of the most intellectual and sophisticated of modern poets. Her work was first popular in the 1930’s, then made a resurgence in the 1960’s. Since then many readers have been fascinated by Smith’s unique blend of humor and despair.{$I[AN]9810001604}{$I[A]Smith, Stevie}{$S[A]Smith, Florence Margaret;Smith, Stevie}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Smith, Stevie}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Smith, Stevie}{$I[tim]1902;Smith, Stevie}

Smith was born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull. After her father abandoned the family, her mother was financially unable to support herself and her two daughters. Her mother’s sister, Aunt Maggie, moved in with them, offering financial and emotional support. She located a house at 1 Avondale Road in Palmer’s Green, a suburb north of London, and sent for her sister and the two children, Molly and Florence Margaret. This was to be Smith’s home throughout her life.

Smith liked the neighborhood around Palmer’s Green, but childhood illnesses forced the family to send her, at age five, to a children’s rest home. She stayed there for three years, coming home only briefly for holidays. The rigidity of life there caused her to consider suicide when she was eight. This thought, however, freed her; she realized that accepting death gave her ultimate control over her life. After her mother’s death in 1919, she again had to accept death. This idea of an understanding with death would become a key theme in her writing.

Smith initially did well in school, but later she rebelled under the harsh disciplinary regulations at London Collegiate. After secretarial training, she worked for the publishing firm C. Arthur Pearson as secretary to Sir Neville Pearson; she remained there until 1953. Since her job was not taxing, Smith had spare time and she used it to read voraciously. She began to keep notebooks recording her ideas and thoughts. During the 1920’s she began to write poetry.

Smith attempted to have her poems published in the early 1930’s but was unable to do so. In 1935, however, David Garnett of the New Statesman accepted several poems. The same year, Ian Parsons of Chatto and Windus encouraged her to write a novel. She quickly responded. Although his company ultimately refused to publish it, Jonathan Cape did. The book, Novel on Yellow Paper, had a generally enthusiastic reception: Smith was compared with such diverse writers as Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), James Joyce (1882-1941), Marcel Proust (1871-1922), and Dorothy Parker (1893-1967). The book was strongly autobiographical, however, and many of her friends were angered by their portraits.

The success of her novel led to publication of her first poetry collection, A Good Time Was Had by All. Smith was now sought by magazines for poems and reviews. She enjoyed the literary scene but always returned to her Aunt Maggie at 1 Avondale for solace. The personal impression Smith made on others seems as varied as the response to her poetry. Although some found her witty and assured, others saw her as lonely and childlike. Her poetry reflects the fact that, although she had many friends and an active social life, she felt a sense of isolation and separation from others.

In 1938 she published Over the Frontier, the sequel to Novel on Yellow Paper, and another poetry collection, Tender Only to One. The collection sold poorly and Jonathan Cape was not anxious to publish further volumes. Only when she threatened to go to another publisher did they put out Mother, What Is Man?, a collection that explores mother-child relationships, isolation, and loneliness. Smith continued writing, but it was more difficult for her to get published after the war.

In the summer of 1953 Smith began to withdraw from social activities, and on July 1 she attempted suicide. Treated for depression and forced to retire, she began concentrating on her writing again. She wrote more reviews and had poetry published in magazines. Then, in 1957, Not Waving but Drowning, perhaps her best-known book, was published. It had taken several years to arrange publication because Smith insisted that her sketches illustrate the poems, an arrangement which many publishers rejected. The next year, she published a book of her sketches; it was not a success.

In the late 1950’s she started giving poetry readings. In the 1960’s her career took an upswing as new collections of her works were issued. James Laughlin of New Directions Press introduced her to the United States audience. Unfortunately, in 1962, her aunt’s ill health confined her to the upstairs of their house. Smith became her full-time caretaker, with only brief escapes, until her aunt died in 1967. Smith won the Cholomondeloy Prize for Poetry in 1966 and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. After months of hospitalization, she died on March 7, 1971.

BibliographyBarbera, Jack, and William McBrien. Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Barbera and McBrien’s literary biography is well researched and very readable.Bedient, Calvin. “Stevie Smith.” In Eight Contemporary Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Bedient’s study is useful for its discussion of individual poems.Civello, Catherine A. Patterns of Ambivalence: The Fiction and Poetry of Stevie Smith. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1997. An analysis of Smith’s work using feminist theory.Huk, Romana. Stevie Smith: Between the Lines. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. An assessment of the works of Smith and a study of their cultural significance.Pumphrey, Martin. “Play, Fantasy, and Strange Laughter: Stevie Smith’s Uncomfortable Poetry.” Critical Quarterly 28 (Autumn, 1986): 85-96. Pumphrey uses some of the basic assumptions of play theory to approach Smith’s poems. He discusses her use of fairy-tale elements and describes her as an “anticonfessional” poet.Rankin, Arthur. The Poetry of Stevie Smith, “Little Girl Lost.” Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1985. Clearly analyzes Smith’s poetic styles, themes, and attitudes.Severin, Laura. Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. Severin’s extensive study challenges the notions of Smith as an apolitical and eccentric poet, instead portraying her as a well-connected literary insider who used many genres to resist domestic ideology in Britain.Spalding, Frances. Stevie Smith: A Biography. Updated ed. New York: Sutton House, 2002. A classic biography of Smith that challenges the notion that the writer was a recluse.Sternlicht, Sanford. Stevie Smith. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Sternlicht’s book is a good introduction to Smith’s work. It includes chapters on her novels and nonfiction as well as chronological descriptions of Smith’s development. The book contains a chronology of Smith’s life and a selected bibliography.Sternlicht, Sanford, ed. In Search of Stevie Smith. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991. A collection of biographical and critical essays on the life and works of Smith. Includes bibliographical references and index.Williams, Jonathan. “Much Further Out than You Thought.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 2 (Spring/Summer, 1974): 105-127. This article is a meditation by a personal friend of Smith, most interesting for its quotations from a 1963 interview.
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