Review Fridays: Best Poems of Stevie Smith

The details:

Title: Best Poems of Stevie Smith
Author: Stevie Smith
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 160
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

There’s something deceptively simple about Stevie Smith’s poetry. I couldn’t quite figure out what, but I felt like I was missing something as I read a collection of her poetry. Some I really loved, some I admired straight away, but I was always left with the sense that one poem was much like the next. That is not necessarily a bad thing. There are some poets that, given a collection of what is considered their best poetry, you can see the growth throughout the years and subject matter. But Smith is largely consistent. When her poetry is good, funny, relatable, intriguing, or any myriad of adjectives that could be used to describe it, her work is extremely so:

Oh I am a cat that likes to
Gallop about doing good

She is whimsical, like in the poem above about a cat that likes to gallop about doing good. Sometimes, Smith made me smile, but other poems were so Deeply Morbid (quote below) I had an uneasy feeling. I read that, when she would do readings of her poetry, she would sing them. Without knowing that in advance, there was a lyrical nature to her poems that made me read them like songs:

Joan her name was and at lunchtime
Solitary solitary
She would go and watch the pictures
In the National Gallery
All alone all alone
This time with no friend beside her
She would go and watch the pictures
All alone.

The pacing, word repetition, and punctuation (or lack thereof) is excellent. She had a talent for word choice and for mining her own feelings for subject matter. As a brief autobiographical note, Smith struggled with depression for much of her life and had to quit her job as a secretary in London after suffering a nervous breakdown.

Her most famous poem is probably Not Waving but Drowning:

I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

At a glance, those words are distressing, but Smith manages to make them feel more like a life jacket than a death sentence. A reader might immediately sense that she understands and sympathizes, but her poetry is written in a quirky way that sometimes made me smile through that jolt of sorrow, such as in O Pug!:

Yes, yes, I know,
When your mistress is with you,
When your master
Takes you upon his lap,
Just then, for a moment,
Almost you are not frightened.

But at heart you are frightened, you always have been.

The poems are interspersed with Smith’s drawings, which were just as unusual yet interesting as the poetry itself. I enjoyed Smith’s poetry. It has its own unique style, and I appreciated how she stayed true to it throughout the collection. She never tries to be something she’s not; I never got the feeling that she was imitating another poet or trying to be very literary for the sake of impressing others. Overall, highly recommended.

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