Stevie Smith first came into critical radar under the aegis of biographical study, which tends to submerge her unique work into the portrait of an English eccentric. Smith herself called being prized for eccentricity "a sad fate" (qtd. in Barbera and McBrien 243). The eccentricity of her poetry--its disparate sources, silly rhythms, and strange rhymes--might bear study. I would argue that it can be fruitfully studied as a pose: by posing as an insignificant doodler, Smith covers up what turn out to be traditional romantic assertions of poetic authority. Rather than abjuring claims to poetic vision, her poetry pretends not to aspire to authority even as it quietly seizes it. The fierce allusiveness of her poetry ultimately reveals the traditional nature of her stance: Smith quotes, misquotes, and throws over precursor texts in ways that might seem trivial but finally suggest serious points about other, mostly male, aspirants to the tradition. By manipulating the tradition in a seemingly chaotic way, Smith makes room for her own work.
Smith's work has gone through several phases of critical appreciation: the biographical, the theoretical, and the political. Fairly recent treatments, like Stanford Sternlicht's and Catherine Civello's, still end up listing her concerns and their relationship to her life and her interesting personality in ways that the two intelligent biographies of Smith by Frances Spalding and by Jack Barbera and William McBrien do not. A sophisticated way of dealing with Smith's literary heterogeneity has been to examine her with regard to the dialogical theories of Mikhail Bakhtin. For Bakhtin, linguistic play defines moments within discourse when words "enjoy a play period of complete freedom and establish unusual relationships" (423). Martin Pumphrey's investigation of Smith's "play" argues that her elision of the boundary between seriousness and play questions cultural narratives and languages (87). Both Sheryl Stevenson and Romana Huk in several essays have examined Smith in a Bakhtinian light, too. And at first glance, Smith does seem like a perfect demonstration of Bakhtin's ideas. Dialogic theory does provide a way of interpreting the weird heterogeneity of her subjects and forms--the dirges set next to doggerel set next to long, vaguely Victorian discourses about religion--and Huk skillfully sorts out a host of sources including Browning, Tennyson, and the brothers Grimm.
The problem with the Bakhtinian approach, however, is that Smith's deployment of texts overwhelms it. Dialogic readings of Smith's work come perilously close to making mere inventories. They tend to enumerate the poets whose "echoes" Smith suggests and do little more. Smith listed some of these herself in a blurb for an American edition of her work: "Lear, Poe, the gothic romantics and Hymns Ancient and Modern" (qtd. in Barbera and McBrien 244). Smith's poetry presents such a bewildering array of quotations, references, and suggestions of formal verse that a perceptive critic like Sheryl Stevenson can spend much of her time locating these sources in all their variety and not much time saying what happens to them. Though the explanations of the effects of these echoes are often illuminating, Stevenson merely concludes that Smith's dense allusiveness heightens "our sense of the powers and limits of human speech" (43).
The most interesting development in Smith criticism has been the belated recognition of the point of Smith's naughtiness. Stevie Smith is only now beginning to be read as the subversive she is. Huk, for example, maintains that Smith's dialogism is "a radical renegotiation of language and poetic subjectivity" ("Misplacing" 511) and in a nice phrase, calls her mixed references "damning juxtapositions of 'cultural goods.'" Huk argues that her play with discourses critiques both "real" subjectivity and the inherited discourses used to construct that subjectivity ("Eccentric" 241-43). Laura …