There are only two major topics for poetry- sex and death, and few poets ( except for John Donne) can deal with both. Stevie Smith chose death as her topic -an obsession that began when she was seven. It was her major preoccupation, and though you could accuse her of being a one trick pony, she does death ( apologetic, genteel English death) better than anyone I know.
An absent father, a childhood illness and a childhood ruled exclusively by women made her both tentative and demanding.
Everyone knows one line of Stevie Smith – “not waving but drowning” – it’s become a tired cliche used by people who like to give the impression they have a cultural hinterland- when they don’t. It’s fame does no favours to the poem itself- which is good. Let’s look at it.
It’s not difficult. The meaning is obvious- it’s a poem about masks, about people who live lives of quiet desperation behind a cheerful front. It applies to everyone at some period or other…doesn’t it… The sea is an obvious metaphor for life- turbulent, dangerous, unpredictable. And there is one man quietly drowning- not two people or more- just one head bobbing just above the waves, one arm waving.
Look at the language as well as the imagery.It’s transparently simple “ poor chap” “larking”- the language of thirties semis and the BBC Light Programme. And what about the line “ his heart gave way” – that resonates real despair. Stevie Smith is surely writing about herself when she says:
“I was much too far out all my life, and not waving, but drowning”
“ The Person from Porlock” won’t make you laugh- but you’ll smile in a knowing and annoying way. We all know the story. Coleridge, toked up to the eyeballs with laudanum, was writing “ Kubla Khan” like a man possessed. He could see it all- a glowing, vibrant poem reaching out into the distance.
Then someone knocked at the door. It’s the Person from Porelock. We have no idea why he’s there- he could be delivering three lamb chops or selling double glazing ( unlikely). The thing is- he interrupts Coleridge’s flow. Once the lamb chops have been delivered and the double glazing agreed, Samuel T realises that it’s all gone- all of it- the glowing vision has gone out of his head like steam from a kettle. Which is why “ Kubla Khan” has a cracking start and no proper ending at all.
Stevie Smith turns this hoary old vignette into an absurdist masterpiece. To start with, the language is pseudo-Coleridgean – that cod-simple, folksy schtick that Sam T did so well. And then she gives the Person a local habitation and a name, a family tree, even a cat.
But even here despair lurks.
“I am hungry to be interrupted” she says. She’s alone and bored in a swirling sea that she can’t begin to comprehend and she longs for a Person from Porlock, or the Air-Sea Rescue boys to pull her out of it.
Don’t look for broad-brush, epic poetry from Stevie Smith, but if genteel despair is your thing, then she’s the gal.
Sit down at the table, Stevie, and sip this nice passionfruit and hemlock cocktail.
You can read some of Stevie Smith’s poems here: