Stevie Smith: Girl, Interrupted

Article excerpt

Among the edgy, innovative, and fashionable young poets drawing crowds at popular 1960s poetry festivals was a unique attraction: Stevie Smith, over sixty years old, atonally singing her poetry while wearing clothing suggestive of a schoolgirl's uniform, complete with white stockings. Occasionally, between poems, she chattered in a form of baby talk (Sternlicht, "Introduction" 11). Her sartorial and linguistic imitation of youth suggests a current of obsessive remembering, a single-minded thirst for an imagined youth that is at once dissonant and enthralling. Although she may have startled her audiences with such displays, both her wardrobe and her chatter were entirely consistent with her poetry, for in her verse she displays the same unsettling nostalgia. Those familiar with the basic story of Smith's childhood--a saga of illness, abandonment, confinement, and death--might wonder why she invariably returns to the child-like. But the very fact of repeated injury led Smith to imagine incessantly what she did not have. Enacting a poetic spin on Freud's recently born "talking cure" in order to address a number of mental illnesses she carried with her, including obsessive neurosis and severe bouts of depression, Smith repeatedly writes through her childhood, especially in the early works A Good Time Was Had by All (1937) and Tender Only to One (1938). A pioneer in her own history, Smith adapts and sometimes abandons traditional forms in order to explore new territory. Infused with the sorrow of loss, she employs the sing-song rhythms of nursery rhymes and the haphazard violence of fairy tales to tackle the difficulties of an unwelcome adulthood. Using elusive and varied poetic voices, her poetry obsesses about an idyllic childhood even as it mourns the absence of it.

Although Smith hesitated in interviews to characterize her childhood as traumatic, she did acknowledge that her early years were punctuated with harsh interruptions and painful losses. Florence Margaret Smith was born in Hull on September 20, 1902. Called Peggy by her family, she did not acquire her preferred nickname Stevie until the 1920s. (1) Smith was a fragile child, born so ill that she had to be baptized at home rather than risk the voyage to the church where her older sister, Molly, had been christened (Spalding 3). Smith's parents, Ethel Spear Smith and Charles Ward Smith, may have been in love once, but those feelings apparently had faded by the time Stevie was born, perhaps due to Charles's incessant longing to be elsewhere. As a young man, he had planned to go to sea with the Navy, but when his brother drowned pursuing the same career, his family forbade it (Spalding 6). (2) He later wanted to join the British forces in the Boer War; by that time, however, Ethel was pregnant with Molly (Sternlicht, Stevie 2). He subsequently went into business with his father, a shipping agent. He managed to travel quite a bit, thereby satisfying one of his goals, but he mishandled the financial aspects of the business so badly that he found himself deeply in debt by the time Stevie was a toddler (Spalding 7). In 1906, Charles Ward Smith ran off to sea to work on the commercial White Star Line, leaving behind his sickly wife and two daughters (Barbera and McBrien 9). Stevie's anger at this abandonment could hardly be disguised when, decades later, she spoke of this event: "I didn't like him very much... This was just after I'd been born, and poor Daddy took one look at me and rushed away to sea" (qtd. in Dick 38-39). Together with Ethel's unmarried sister, Margaret Annie Spear, the women of the Smith family moved to 1 Avondale Road, Palmers Green, London. Anxious for a sense of permanence and stability, Stevie Smith would remain in that home until her death, some seventy years later.

Surely it is not coincidental that around the time of her father's departure, Stevie Smith began suffering from episodes that can only be described as fits. As biographer Frances Spalding describes it, she "had the habit of suddenly turning cold and stiff" (15). …