The Dangers of Eccentricity: Stevie Smith's Doodles and Poetry

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Even readers of Stevie Smith's poetry who appreciate its comic brilliance tend to shy away from the question of how to interpret the "eccentric" doodles that accompany her funny poems. This feminist essay uses (and interrogates) interarts theory to answer this question through analysis of Smith's texts of "violent consumption."

Worrying and writing about images in literary texts is a time-honored occupation for scholars. In 1135, complaining to Abbot William of St. Thierry about the "ridiculous monstrosities" adorning the cloister capitals around which his reading brethren paced, St. Bernard wrote: "Indeed there are so many things, and everywhere such an extraordinary variety of hybrid forms, that it is more diverting to read in the marble than in the texts before you, 'ut magis legere libeat in marmoribus quam in codicibus,' and to spend the whole day gazing at such singularities in preference to meditating on God's laws" (qtd. in Davies-Weyer 70). Citing this complaint in his study of medieval art, Michael Camille shows how even marginal images, "images on the edge," threaten to overwhelm or consume the central texts they putatively support, defying the words' claims to legitimacy, destroying their aura of sanctity, challenging nothing less than the forms of God. Though unconcerned about God, modern literary critics have perpetuated this monastic tradition of anxiety about images in their fears that such "singularities" will challenge the authority of literature itself. It is only recently, when postmodern critics redefined literature as text and proclaimed "[c]ontext is all" (Hutcheon 54), that it has become possible to regard images with equanimity, to accept Camille's insight that "as signs in the site of reading, such 'deformed forms' could 'teach' as much as any narrative or saint's life in stone" (64-65).

More than eight centuries after St. Bernard bemoaned the temptations of marble images, Stevie Smith (1902-71) occasioned similar kinds of anxieties by publishing cartoon-like drawings in each of her original volumes of poetry. Most widely recognized today as the author of the poem "Not Waving But Drowning," Smith earned public attention during her own lifetime for her "eccentric" habits of arriving at poetry readings in schoolgirl frocks, singing her poems in an off-key voice, and retreating to the unfashionable suburb of Palmers Green and the unliterary company of her aging aunt. In the 1960s, when Smith's popularity was on the rise, the ambivalence to her work of more mainstream poets can be seen in Philip Larkin's New Statesman review of her Selected Poems.

I am not aware that Stevie Smith's poems have ever received serious critical assessment, though recently I have seen signs that this may not be far off. They are certainly presented with that hallmark of frivolity, drawings, and if my friends had been asked to place Miss Smith they would no doubt have put her somewhere in the uneasy marches between humorous and children's. (75, emphasis in original)

Smith's own self-deprecating characterization of her drawings as "higher doodling, or perhaps just doodling without the higher" (qtd. in Barbera 222) does not challenge Larkin's evaluation. Nor would it have challenged that of Seamus Heaney, who concluded his 1976 review of her Collected Poems, by stating: "I suppose in the end the adjective has to be 'eccentric'" (213). In "Why Stevie Smith Matters," however, Mark Storey complains about this "eccentric" label because it assumes that "Eccentrics are not dangerous, and [that] their value fades with their passing" (176). Still, it has taken many years for this same "eccentric" label to assume a positive value and to be regarded as a sign of Smith's power to contest mainstream voices, beliefs, and institutions in highly original ways. Now there exists more than a decade's worth of poststructuralist and feminist criticism by scholars like Martin Pumphrey, Sheryl Stevenson, Romana Huk, and Laura Severin that analyzes Smith's exclusion from "serious critical assessment" and encourages a more complex understanding of her "eccentricity. …